- Cityscape A capital idea
- City life Political party town
Proud, historic and unexpectedly alive with greenery, Washington DC is much more than the linchpin of governmental machinery; it’s a cultural hotbed of free museums and monuments.
New York may hog the limelight in the global theatre but don’t forget that it’s Washington DC that sits backstage pulling the strings. Ever since 1760, when a freshly presidential George Washington picked this leafy spot on the banks of the Potomac to be the nerve-centre of his new country, the city’s embodied US society in microcosm – brimming with pride and patriotism, hugely multicultural, and rife with high drama. Tourists horde in their hundreds to catch a glimpse of the astonishing dome of the Capitol building, the – somewhat underwhelming – White House, and the countless monuments and memorials dedicated to great men of yesterday who nurtured the country from troublesome colonial outpost to global superpower.
Do go/Don’t go
Notoriously hard to predict but wonderful if you catch it, the blooming of cherry blossom across the city in early April make it an extremely photogenic time to visit – aim for early April. Summer (August in particular) can be unbearably hot and overrun with snap-happy tourists, so aim to visit during spring or autumn to see DC at its best.
- Planes About 40 minutes’ drive from the city centre | Dulles International is one of the USA’s major transport hubs and hosts a huge variety of national and international flights. Ronald Reagan National Airport is only about 10–15 minutes from Capitol Hill | and mainly operates flights from within the US and Canada.
- Trains Washington’s Beaux Arts marvel, Union Station is on the main Amtrak line from New York’s Penn Station (it’s a three-hour trip between the two), which continues south as far as Florida and southwest to New Orleans (www.amtrak.com). The five colour-coded lines of DC’s Metrorail (www.wmata.com) service cover 86 stations around the city, extending into the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia.
- Automobiles From New York, you can reach the capital in four hours driving down the I-95 through Pennsylvania, dependent on traffic. Avoid the centre of town if you can, though, as it can get clotted with cars during rush hours. There’s a choicew of car-hire firms at Dulles airport – try Avis (www.avis.com) - or if you want a car for a single journey, or a short period of time, Zipcar (www.zipcar.com) allos you to borrow a car from hundreds of spots around the city, from around $5 an hour.
- Taxis Gone are the crackpot zoning rules for DC cabs – once upon a time only the locals knew the secrets of which corner to jump out of the taxi to avoid crossing zone boundaries and racking up the cost. Now, taxis have moved over to the meter system, to widespread relief. Smith tip: take note of compass points in Washington addresses – ignoring seemingly insignificant ‘NW’, ‘NE’, ‘SW’ or ‘SE’ denotations can mean a costly mistake – time-wise, location-wise, and cash-wise. For a pre-booked car, try the Yellow C