Washington DC Overview
- 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.
Wonderfully Washington DC
Curiously, Washington DC (aka ‘The District’) is one of the few big US cities where you won’t find skyscrapers and office blocks towering over the cityscape. This architectural modesty is thanks to the city’s founders who decreed that no building could be taller than the Capitol building, ensuring that the magnificently domed edifice dominates the skyline.
- 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
- Tipping culture
- As elsewhere in the US, tipping is expected pretty much everywhere. Adding 20 per cent to a restaurant bill is not unusual, and bartenders, housekeeping staff, and taxi drivers et al are accustomed to receiving a token for each drink/service/journey.
- Siesta and fiesta
- Washington’s a commuter city during the week, so restaurants fill up early (6pm–7pm) and tend to shut close to 9pm. Things are a little less demure at weekends, when some bars stay open beyond midnight.
- Packing tips
- Washington’s rain is notoriously unpredictable, so umbrellas are a matter of course. Tailor your luggage to cope with hot, humid summer months, and biting winters.
- Recommended reads
- As well as your stash of political thrillers, pick up All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward for a riveting account the Watergate scandal. If you’re in town for a while, you might just have time to get through Gore Vidal’s seven-volume Narratives of Empire saga.
- True, it can’t rival New York as America’s culinary capital, but Washington nevertheless has a thriving fine dining scene. In response to the a vast range of international embassies that have sprung up around its political heart, you’ll find good quality ethnic cuisine of almost any imaginable origin. Neighbouring Baltimore is famous for all things crab-related, and shares its catch with the capital’s kitchens. For a fine sample of that most quintessential US culinary staple – try a smoked chilli hotdog f
- US dollar ($)
- Time zone
- GMT -5 (EST)
- Dialling codes
- United States: +1; Washington DC: 202.
- 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.
Don't go home without...
…marvelling at the scale and design of the Pentagon (now fully restored after 9/11). Even though it packs in almost 18 miles of corridors and could fit the Capitol in several times over, it’s been cunningly designed so that any point in the building is within seven minutes’ walk of any other.