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Its location handpicked by George Washington for its position between the South and the North, Washington D.C. is the patriotic and political heart of America. With its low-profile skyline, the capital is a city of green parks and open spaces, grand buildings, historic landmarks and marbled museums. Just beyond the celebrated monuments are quirky neighbourhoods supporting a thriving cultural scene with scores of top-notch restaurants, shops and evening entertainment.
Shortly after the capital district was created in 1791, French architect Pierre L'Enfant was commissioned to plan the town out of a wilderness. As he pegged out streets 150ft (45m) wide and one grand avenue 400ft (122m) wide and a mile (1.6km) long, the local landowners thought he'd gone mad as was wasting valuable land that could be used for farming. But his forward thinking paid off as L'Enfant's layout of the city can still be clearly seen and navigated logically.
After politics, tourism is the capital's main industry. It plays host to millions of people annually who come to explore famous sights such as the US Capitol, the stately White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the soaring Washington Monument. The most well-known sights are located along the National Mall, a green park stretching from the US Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac River, which includes several memorials to great US Presidents of the past, as well as the outstanding museums of the Smithsonian Institute. Almost all major attractions are free.
Besides political sights, Washington is also a city of unique neighbourhoods, each with its own character and culture. The most celebrated of these is historic Georgetown, with elegant colonial houses, boutiques, classy restaurants and a lively nightlife. One of the most colourful neighbourhoods is the Bohemian district of Adams-Morgan with an assortment of eclectic stores, while the arty suburb of Dupont Circle is an affluent business and residential area with excellent restaurants, art galleries and shops that make up the centre of D.C.'s gay community.
Extending for more than two miles (3km), from the US Capitol to the Potomac River, the tree-lined grassy strip known as the National Mall is the central hub for tourists in Washington DC. It's home to the tapering Washington Monument; the Lincoln, Roosevelt and Jefferson Memorials; the Capitol Building; the White House; the museums of the Smithsonian Institution; and the National Gallery of Art. The Mall is at the heart of the city's social life, it being a site for many celebrations and festivals, as well as joggers, picnickers, food vendors and strollers. The Tidal Basin, a beautiful lake famous for the blossoming Japanese cherry trees in spring, lies to the south.
Sitting atop Capitol Hill with its giant white dome visible from all over the city, the Capitol Building is probably the most prominent landmark in Washington DC. The heart of the US government, it contains the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. Statues of important historical figures fill its halls while paintings and frescoes decorate the rotunda, depicting 400 years of American history. The enormous circular space capped by the 180-foot (55m) high dome is the hub of the Capitol, with a symbolic fresco masterpiece at its centre.
The residence and headquarters of the President of the United States since 1800, the White House sits at the edge of the National Mall. The palatial building has undergone numerous alterations under each incumbent, like the exercise pool for Roosevelt's polio affliction, Jacqueline Kennedy's famous Rose Garden and the glitzy additions of a hot tub and humidor for Clinton. Tours visit several rooms on the Ground and State Floors, including the Oval Office, the State Dining Room and the East Room, the publicised scene of presidential receptions and other social events. American citizens can book these tours through their Member of Congress and foreigners must book through their embassy in Washington DC.
In recognition of his leadership in the fight for American independence, the Washington Monument was built to commemorate the first president of the United States, George Washington. The tallest structure in the city, the gleaming white obelisk offers 360-degree views of some of the most famous sights in the world, including the White House, the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial. The monument, a 555-foot (169m) marble spire, stood uncompleted for 37 years and a change in the colour of stone halfway up marks the two building phases. Climbing its steps is prohibited but a free elevator conveys visitors to the gallery that provides unparalleled views of Washington DC and across the Potomac River.
The grandiose Lincoln Memorial is a tribute to the 16th US president, who preserved the Union during the Civil War and ended slavery. In the centre of this temple is a huge marble statue of Abraham Lincoln, staring out over the Reflecting Pools towards the Washington Monument and Capitol Hill. Carved in the walls of the memorial chamber around the statue are inscriptions of two of his most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. The memorial is the site of numerous demonstrations committed to justice, most notably the Civil Rights March in 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his classic speech.
The FBI Experience, a self-guided tour, is open to the public and explores the Bureau's past and present. The tour takes visitors through crime laboratories and past displays of thousands of confiscated weapons and illegal items seized during narcotics operations. There are exhibits on crime fighting techniques and counterintelligence operations, as well as terrorism, agent training and famous cases. Due to security reasons, the tours are only available to US citizens and tours must be booked at least four weeks in advance with FBI clearance needed to enter the building. Those in search of espionage history should rather go to the nearby International Spy Museum.
The International Spy Museum features the largest collection of publicly displayed international espionage artefacts in the world. It is the result of years of planning and advice by former officials of the CIA, FBI and KGB. Interactive exhibits cover the history of spying and espionage techniques during the 20th and 21st centuries. There is also a section dealing with high-tech gadgets such as bugs and tiny cameras, with interactive stations exploring disguises, code breaking and threat analysis. There are several interactive exhibits like safe and code-cracking, escape rooms and polygraph tests, experiences which are combined with special effects and live action. The museum complex includes a restaurant, spy-theme cafe and shop.
Nicknamed the nation's attic, the Smithsonian Institution is one of the world's finest research centres, with 17 of its museums and a zoo located in Washington DC. The museums contain collections of historical importance on almost every subject. They include the National Air and Space Museum, packed with full-size space and aircraft, including the Wright brothers' plane; the Natural History Museum, with the Hope Diamond and the world's largest stuffed blue whale; and the American History Museum, displaying the original Kermit the Frog. Others include the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art, the African Art Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Arts and Industries Building, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the National Portrait Gallery. The Smithsonian Museums are a fantastic attraction for families in Washington DC, and a wallet-friendly one as admission is free.
Two buildings, the West and East Wings, make up the visually stunning National Gallery of Art that is the most popular art museum in North America. Together they house one of the world's leading collections of Western paintings, prints, photographs, graphics, and sculptures from the Middle Ages to the 21th century. Walking from the West Wing to the East provides a near chronological display of European art.
The West Wing, the original building, is a marble architectural work of art with a domed rotunda over a fountain, housing most of the permanent collection. The one hundred or so collection galleries display modern and contemporary art with masterpieces by famous artists arranged by nationality, including what is considered to be the finest Renaissance collection outside of Italy, as well as an outstanding Impressionist collection. The gallery's newer addition is the ultramodern East Wing, composed of two glass-walled triangles, and is devoted to 20th-century paintings and sculptures.
The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden is a large park outside the museum, which features a huge central fountain with some of the museum's permanent collection of sculptures on display.
The United States Memorial Museum is a memorial to the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. There are three floors, starting with the occupation of Poland, then the Holocaust and finally the aftereffects of the war and liberation of the camps. While the exhibits convey the scale of the genocide through voice recordings, personal belongings of victims and Nazi propaganda, the Hall of Remembrance remains a quiet place of reflection, filled with dozens of burning candles lit in memory of the victims. The permanent exhibition's graphic content can be disturbing and is not recommended for children under 11 years of age.
On April 14th, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching a performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC. He was shot by an actor named John Wilkes Booth who sympathised with the Confederates in the ongoing Civil War. Today, Ford's Theatre is both an active performance venue and historical site, with the Ford's Theatre Museum containing artefacts related to the assassination, including the Derringer pistol Booth used. Across from the theatre is the Petersen House, which is where President Lincoln finally died early the next morning. Tours are limited to groups of 20 people at a time so should be booked in advance to avoid disappointment.
While looking at historical papers may sound dull compared to some of Washington DC's more light-hearted museums, the National Archives is one of the most popular attractions in the city, housing priceless documents from US history, including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation and even the 1297 version of the Magna Carta. All these documents are displayed to the public in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, along with other collections of photography and historical memorabilia. Apart from the historic documents, the impressive building itself makes a visit to the National Archives worthwhile.
One of the largest cathedrals in the US, the Washington National Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is a magnificent Gothic Revival structure standing 301 feet (91m) tall. The interior is just as grand, with the long, narrow sanctuary framed by buttresses, chancels, transepts and beautiful stained glass windows. The most famous of these is the Space Window, which contains a piece of moon rock brought back by Neil Armstrong from the Apollo 11 mission. The cathedral is the final resting place of noted figures such as Helen Keller, President Woodrow Wilson and Admiral George Dewey.
One of the most prestigious performing arts centres in the US, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is also its busiest, hosting roughly 2,000 performances each year for an audience totalling nearly two million people in its eight separate performance halls. It is home to the National Symphony Orchestra, and has commissioned hundreds of new works in various disciplines, including theatre, dance and jazz and folk music. Each year five artists or groups are awarded the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime contribution to American culture and the performing arts in a gala ceremony televised nationally. There are a number of interesting tour options for those who don't have the time or money to take in a performance.
The Smithsonian National Zoological Park, commonly known as the National Zoo, is a wonderful attraction for families on holiday in Washington DC. As part of the Smithsonian Institution, the zoo has no entry fee and offers visitors the chance to explore 163 acres (66ha) of habitats containing more than 1,800 animals, a fifth of which are endangered. The star attractions of the zoo are definitely the giant pandas while other popular exhibits include the Great Ape House, Elephant Trails, Lion/Tiger Hill, Cheetah Conservation Station and Seals and Sea Lions.
While the city of Washington DC's humid subtropical climate has distinct seasons, with extreme variations between summer and winter, the weather is also known to be unpredictable. Summers (June to August) tend to be very hot and humid with average highs of 88°F (31°C); the conditions exacerbated in the heart of the city by all the concrete and steel. Autumn and spring are the best seasons to visit, when days are chilly but bright and clear; although sudden rain or snowfalls are possible. In winter (December to February) the city is subject to heavy snowfalls, averaging 17 inches (43cm) a year, and sudden arctic blasts or frozen rainstorms, with average low temperatures in winter around 27°F (-3°C).
Washington DC has a humid subtropical climate, and the nation's capital experiences four distinct seasons. Summers are usually hot and humid, while winters are chilly and damp. The hottest months of the year are usually July and August, with average high temperatures of about 80°F to 88°F (26°C to 31°C). Thunderstorms are common in the summer due to the combined heat and humidity. Winters can be very cold, often with snowstorms, and temperatures in December to February average between 28°F and 43°F (-2°C and 6°C). Spring and autumn are the mildest times of year, with high temperatures in April and October averaging comfortably around 68°F (20°C). Spring is usually the best time to travel to Washington DC, when temperatures are mild, humidity is low and the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
The city's many politicians and their expense accounts ensure that Washington DC has some fantastic dining options to suit every budget and taste. From glamorous upmarket restaurants dripping with style, to roadside stalls and eateries, this city offers many kinds of cuisine for many different budgets.
Fresh seafood, crab, oysters and rockfish are among the most popular choices on restaurant menus, with special emphasis on dishes made with locally-caught crabs, such as crab cakes, blue crabs, crab legs, crab soup and even crab chips, potato chips unique to Washington DC. A popular spice is Old Bay, which is locally made and used to season just about everything from peaches to popcorn.
Most restaurants are centred around the Midtown, downtown and Penn Quarter areas with the very upmarket eateries close to Capitol Hill and frequented by businessmen and businesswomen. Dupont Circle and the West End are also great areas for restaurants. A tip of about 15 percent is expected in restaurants and it is customary to make reservations before dining out.
Located in an 18th-century townhouse, the antique setting combined with the food makes 1789 a premiere dining experience. Its menu is contemporary and seasonal, enhanced by the fresh regional ingredients, along with excellent wine pairings. There is also a good-value pre-theatre menu available, as well as an after hours menu. Reservations essential. Open for dinner nightly.
Zaytinya is one of Washington DC's top restaurants, Greek or otherwise. Travellers with adventurous palates can dig into mezze delicacies like goat flatbread, crispy veal sweetbreads and grilled octopus, while vegetarians will find plenty to choose from. There is a reduced-price lunch menu offering sandwiches, salads and shawarmas, and even a brunch menu available until 2.30pm.
For Belgian cuisine at its very best, look no further than Belga Café. This stylish eatery with tasteful décor is a favourite in Washington DC with locals and out-of-towners alike. Sample its delicious four cheese croquettes or the Lotte mit Jenever, bacon-wrapped monkfish fillet with Jenever beurre blanc. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner. Saturday and Sunday brunch and dinner only.
A favourite dining spot for the Clintons when Bill was in office, Bombay Club is known for its gorgeous setting and regional, gourmet Indian cuisine. Dishes range from fiery green chilli chicken and tandoori dishes, to rogan josh, biryanis, dals and lobster malabar. The Sunday champagne brunch is popular. Lunch Monday to Friday, dinner daily. Reservations essential.
If you're in the mood for a steak, there's no better place to go in Washington DC than the aptly-named Capital Grille. The elegant mahogany-panelled dining room creates the perfect backdrop for the restaurant's famous dry-aged steaks and fresh seafood, accompanied by an extensive wine list with thousands of choices.
Carnivores will be in heaven at Fogo de Chao, Washington DC's top Brazilian restaurant. Waitrons deliver skewers of meat while you tuck into the signature churrascarias beef. The name means 'ground fire' and refers to the gaucho method of roasting meat. Unfortunately, vegetarians will have to content themselves with the salad bar and vegetable sides.
Birch and Barley is loved by both locals and tourists for its delicious comfort food, like pan-seared rainbow trout, honey-glazed duck breast and their special bratwurst burger. The brunch menu is equally tasty with offerings that include waffles, French toast and sticky buns, with 555 varieties of beer for drinks. Brunch is served on weekends, dinner daily, but the restaurant is closed on Mondays.
Atlas District is arguably DC's trendiest bar and club scene. Other popular areas include the Adams-Morgan neighbourhood, Dupont Circle along Connecticut Avenue , the Penn Quarter and historic Georgetown. The city's hippest nightlife can be found in these areas, with just about everything on offer, including dance clubs, jazz and rock bars and pubs. The best place to go for gay clubs is Dupont Circle.
Arlington Row is a more laidback area that attracts crowds of all ages, where excellent live music is the order of the day. If a comedy show is what you're after, check out the Warner Theatre to see who's on stage. If you can't decide what you want, the Boomerang Bus stops at half a dozen venues, giving tourists a chance to sample some of the best of Washington DC's nightlife.
Washington DC also has a first-rate performing arts scene, presided over by the renowned Kennedy Center. On any given night there is a wide variety of performances, both local and international, ranging from Shakespeare, opera and ballet to jazz, rock bands, and Broadway shows. Ticketmaster and InstantSeats.com offer tickets to pretty much any event, while TICKETplace at 407 7th Street offers discounted last-minute tickets to anything that isn't sold out.
Shopping in Washington DC almost competes with politics for attention. The USA's capital offers everything from trendy boutiques and shopping malls, to 24-hour bookshops and renowned farmer's markets. Visitors to Washington DC will walk (or fly) away with their bags full!
Some of the best shopping opportunities are in Georgetown, the nation's oldest neighbourhood, home to up-scale designer boutiques, or The Shops at Georgetown Park, containing designer labels like Ann Taylor, Polo, and Ralph Lauren. The Georgetown Flea Market is good for antiques, jewellery, books, rugs, toys, and linens. Dupont Circle, also an attractive historic neighbourhood, has designer boutiques such as Betsy Fisher and vintage shops like Secondi, as well as a good farmer's market. The Adams Morgan area, previously somewhat dilapidated, now contains a number of eclectic independent shops and boutiques. Penn Quarter is also a good shopping neighbourhood, particularly for antiques, art, home décor, and collectibles.
On Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House Visitor Center and Political America sell authentic and reproduction campaign buttons, signed photos, letters, and other American memorabilia, which make wonderful patriotic souvenirs. The National Mall has great gift shops and museum stores, and is the best place to find popular Washington DC souvenirs like miniature replicas of the White House and various monuments. The National Archives Gift Shop also offers reproductions of the Declaration of Independence and other famous documents.
Shoppers should keep in mind that a non-refundable sales tax is charged, but not included on the sticker price of items. Tax is added at the register in Washington DC shops, so prices will be a bit higher than first expected.
Getting around Washington DC is relatively easy as most attractions are within walking distance of one another and the streets are fairly easy to navigate. The city is laid out in a circle around the White House, with 'spokes' radiating out from it. Washington DC has an excellent public transport system that includes buses and the Metrorail subway, which has stations at or near almost every tourist attraction. The system operates until midnight. The efficient Metrorail subway system provides services throughout the city, and to the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, and is used by means of a computerised fare card.
The extensive Metrobus network fills in the gaps, but is more complex to use and is slower due to heavy traffic; bus transfers are free and valid for two hours from boarding. Bus, train, or combined one-day passes are available. Although most visitors to Washington DC arrive by car, it is often easier to use public transport as traffic is heavy, and parking in the city is difficult and expensive. Taxis are a good way of getting around for short distances and they are cheaper than most other major cities in the US.
The bustling and exciting city of Washington DC contains a multitude of must-see attractions, including the iconic statues, buildings and museums that have become synonymous with the capital and have made regular appearances in TV shows and movies.
The National Mall, lined with important landmarks, museums, and monuments, is the best place to start. Iconic attractions along this stately stretch include the Washington Monument, the White House, the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial, all musts for history and politics buffs.
Another world-renowned site in this area is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, a thought provoking and hugely worthwhile exhibition. Culture lovers will enjoy the National Gallery of Art and kids of all ages will love the International Spy Museum. Another popular attraction on any tour of Washington DC is a drive along Embassy Row.
On sunny days, the National Zoo is a great kids activity in Washington DC, with rare giant pandas making a visit particularly memorable. The city's many parks and gardens are also great for running off excess energy and enjoying the beautiful weather in spring and autumn. Children will love the cotton-candy pink Cherry Blossom trees in the Tidal Basin each April.
Visitors intent on lots of sightseeing should purchase the Washington DC Explorer Pass, which entitles the bearer to admission to many of the top Washington DC attractions at reduced rates. However, many of the best things to see in Washington DC, including the Smithsonian Museums, the National Archives and Ford's Theatre are free to the public, making sightseeing in Washington DC a very affordable activity.
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