Washington Travel Guide

For some people, Washington means white marble, verdant lawns, and the colourful, ritualistic pageantry of American politics: the Capitol dome gleaming against an azure sky; the mournful, sombre, stately changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery; limousine processions on Inauguration Day.

If the American religion is civic politics, then Washington DC is the nation's holy city. White houses, capital and pentagonal buildings, supreme courts, these monumental Lego shrines are rarefied with real power. A patriotic combination of history and histrionics: BYO wiretap.Yet Washington is no mere political ornament.

Washington is a city where ordinary and extraordinary people live, work and play, a city of beautiful and vibrant neighbourhoods where the federal government and its machinery are merely backdrops to life, not the main-stage drama.

After visitors have explored the wonders of the Smithsonian Institution's 14 museums (always free!), strolled through the halls of power, and played spot-the-senator in famous eateries, Adams-Morgan and Georgetown offer opportunities to meet ordinary folks,delightful districts like Dupont Circle, dive into fabulous world cuisine tour and lovely historic buildings.

Facts at a glance

Area: 170 sq km
Population: 570,000
Country: USA
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -5 (Eastern Time)
Telephone Area Code: 202


US Congress met in a variety of cities, Philadelphia, New York and Princeton among them, before the fledgling republic was ready to commit to a permanent seat of government. Congress chose the Potomac as a natural midpoint that would satisfy both northern and southern states, whose cultural and political differences were apparent well before the Civil War of 1861-1865.

This spot had the added benefit of being across the river from George Washington's home in Mount Vernon.

Maryland and Virginia agreed to cede land to create the District of Columbia (named for Christopher Columbus), and an area 'ten miles square' (26 sq km) was laid out by African American mathematician Benjamin Banneker and surveyor Andrew Ellicott. Folks started referring to it as 'the city of Washington' around 1791 and the name stuck. French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant was hired to design the city and though his elegant plan was widely admired, he quickly ran afoul of local politics. Banneker continued to carry out L'Enfant's plans, after L'Enfant was fired.

1793: Work started on the ornate Capitol, but it was barely complete when British troops torched it in the War of 1812. Though the Capitol was eventually rebuilt, the city entered a slump from which it wouldn't recover for decades. Charles Dickens visited and dismissed DC as 'the City of Magnificent Distances', complaining about 'spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere; streets, milelong, that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public'. A dispirited vote to abandon the capital lost by only nine votes.

Civil War focused attention on Washington, bringing bivouacs, temporary hospitals and armies to its outskirts. President Lincoln responded, 'If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.' when the war's chaos and expense led Washingtonians to wonder whether construction of the elaborate Capitol dome might not be suspended.

The Great Emancipator was assassinated in Ford's Theater (a memorial flag remains draped over the theatre box shrine today) and the role of the US capital changed from state-led administration to centralised leadership, in the war's aftermath.

In the 1870s the infrastructure was overhauled by territorial governor Alexander 'Boss' Shepherd, whose extravagant use of federal funds and penchant for steamrolling anything in his way led to a crackdown by Congress that robbed DC of self-government for another 100 years. For the citizenry, it was a high price to pay for a city beginning to look like a world-class capital like in L'Enfant's original vision.

At the start of the 20th century a beautification plan added most of the landscaping, parks, and monuments for which Washington is now well known. Nevertheless, until recently Washington suffered from its image as a Southern backwater. The Kennedy Center, established as a 'living memorial' to JFK, did much to bring to the place cosmopolitan culture.

Spectacular free art is visible at every turn. The intense and divisive political climate is downright romantic to political activists. DC has evolved into a national pilgrimage centre for many citizens. Yet Washington is notorious too for the many severe problems that trouble its residents. Washington, DC, is no paragon, but it is a microcosm - of the grand ideals and grim realities of the nation. Poverty, crime and racial segregation in the shadow of glorious monuments proclaiming 'equality for all' embarrass those who would hope to hold the nation's capital up as a model.

1990: Washington fall into a disarray from which recovery has been slow. Mayor Marion Barry was videotaped smoking crack and the city was nicknamed the 'Murder Capital' as gang warfare became common on the streets. However, under the more low-key Mayor Williams, elected in 1999, Washington began to pull out of its decline and return to stability, assisted by nationwide boom times.

Terrorists attacked Washington on September 11, 2001, flying a hijacked United Airlines aircraft into the Pentagon, causing significant damage and killing all aboard the plane. A further plane crash-landed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, it too was intended to hit a Washington target. On the same day two hijacked planes destroyed New York's twin towers, killing thousands of people.

Despite security remaining high around Washington's key monuments, it is clear that the city has gone a long way towards repairing both the Pentagon and its damaged psyche, with visitors returning and hotels refilling.

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