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Welcome to Washington DC

Washington DC

Chosen by George Washington for its tactical location between the South and the North, and for its accessibility to the sea via the Potomac River, the capital of the United States is situated in a district specifically created to avoid the establishment of the capital city in any one state. Washington, DC (District of Columbia) with its low-profile skyline, is a city of green parks and open spaces, grand buildings, historic landmarks, marbled monuments and impressive museums, with character-filled neighbourhoods that support a thriving cultural scene with scores of top-notch restaurants, shops and night time entertainment.

This thriving cosmopolitan city is an international hub of power and diplomacy, commanding the political centre stage for one of the most powerful nations in the world, and representing all the democratic ideals that the country takes pride in. Washington, DC was one of the targets of the terrorist attack on the USA on 11 September 2001, when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, the heart of national and international security. Since then security has remained high around Washington's key monuments and police checks at top city attractions have lent a sober air to this pleasant city.

After politics, tourism is the capital's main industry. The city plays host to millions of people annually who come to explore famous sights such as the domed US Capitol, the stately White House, 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, and include 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 interesting neighbourhoods, each with its own character and culture. The most famous of these is historic Georgetown, with elegant colonial houses, boutiques, fancy restaurants, and a lively nightlife. One of the most colourful neighbourhoods is the bohemian district of Adams-Morgan with an assortment of funky shops and ethnic stores, while the arty suburb of Dupont Circle is an affluent business and residential area, with excellent restaurants, art galleries and shops that makes up the centre of DC's gay community.

Information & Facts


While the city of Washington DC's weather is highly seasonal with extreme variations between summer and winter; it has been known to be unpredictable too. Summers tend to be very hot and humid, the conditions exacerbated in the heart of the city with its concrete and steel. Fall and spring are the best seasons, when chilly but bright, perfect days are the norm. Sudden rain or snowfalls are possible though. In winter the city is subject to heavy snowfalls, averaging 17 inches (43cm) a year, and sudden arctic blasts or frozen rainstorms.

Eating Out

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 has all kinds of food.

Fresh seafood, crab, oysters and rock fish are among the most popular on restaurant menus, with special emphasis on dishes focuses around or being created with locally-caught crabs, such as crabcakes, blue crabs, crab legs, crab soup and even Crab Chips, a brand of potato chip 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 round the Midtown, downtown and Penn Quarter areas with the very upmarket eateries close to Capitol Hill and frequented by a largely business crowd. Dupont Circle and the West End are also great areas for restaurants of all nationalities. A tip of 15% is expected in restaurants and it is customary to make reservations before dining out.

Getting Around

Getting around Washington DC is relatively easy as most attractions are within walking distance of each other. 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 during the week, and metrorail stations stay open until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. 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. Both buses and trains charge a standard fare. Bus, train or combined one-day passes are also 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 any other major city in the US; instead of meters they operate on a zone system with flat rates displayed, although several surcharges apply, including ordering one by phone.

Kids Attractions

Washington DC offers many unforgettable attractions for kids on holiday. Children will love seeing rockets and airplanes at the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institute, and learning to pass secret messages at the Spy Museum.

On nice days, the National Zoo is a great kids' activity in Washington DC, offering the only opportunity to see Giant Pandas in the US. The city's many parks and gardens are great for running off excess energy and enjoying the beautiful weather in spring and autumn, and children will love the cotton-candy pink Cherry Blossom trees in the Tidal Basin each April.

English is the most common language but Spanish is often spoken in south-western states.

The US Dollar (USD) is the unit of currency and is divided into 100 cents. Only major banks exchange foreign currency. ATMs are widespread and credit cards and travellers cheques are widely accepted. Travellers cheques should be taken in US Dollars to avoid hassles. Banking hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 3pm.


Most people tend to associate the Capital City with politics, the White House and Capitol Hill, but in fact the nightlife in Washington DC will leave any hardcore party animal hard-pressed to find somewhere they don't like.

Atlas District is DC's newest and trendiest bar and club scene while other popular areas include Adams-Morgan; Dupont Circle along Connecticut Avenue, the Penn Quarter and Georgetown. Here is where most of the city's hippest nightlife can be found, with just about everything from dance clubs, jazz bars, rock bars, pubs and gay clubs in Dupont Circle.

Arlington Row is a more laid-back area that attracts a crowd 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 appearing. If you can't decide what you want, the Boomerang Bus stops at half a dozen venues, giving tourists a chance to sample the best of Washington DC 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 local and international performances 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 also 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!

The nation's oldest neighbourhood, Georgetown boasts up-scale designer boutiques and The Shops at Georgetown Park, which is home to designer labels like Ann Taylor, Polo and Ralph Lauren. The Georgetown Flea Market is good for antiques, jewellery, books, rugs, toys and linens. The Dupont Circle neighbourhood has a GLBT bookshop, Lambda Books, as well as designer boutiques such as Betsy Fisher and vintage shops like Secondi. There is also the FreshFarm Market to enjoy here.

Adams Morgan, previously dilapidated, now boasts a tredny reputation and a number of eclectic independent shops and boutiques. Penn Quarter is a great place to find antiques, art, home decor and collectibles.

On Pennsylvania, the White House Visitor Center and Political America sell authentic and reproduction campaign buttons, signed photos, letters and other American memorabilia. Weschler's Auction House on E Street holds public auctions each Tuesday. 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 higher than first expected.


The bustling and exciting city of Washington DC boasts a number of must-see attractions. Visitors will love the iconic statues, buildings and museums that have become synonymous with Washington DC and have made regular appearances in TV shows and movies.

Visit National Mall, the place where Martin Luther King Jr made his legendary 'I Have a Dream' speech, marvel at the Washington Monument, have your picture taken outside the White House, and see the Capitol Building. The Lincoln Memorial is a must for history buffs, as is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. 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.

Visitors should purchase the Washington DC Power Pass, or VisiTicket, which entitles the bearer to admission to many of the top Washington DC attractions and is available in one, two, three or five-day durations. The cost of the pass starts at $27 per day. However many of the best things to see in Washingto 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.

Officially named the J Edgar Hoover FBI Building after its notorious long-time director, the ugly concrete structure is headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Public tours have been suspended indefinitely, but were once the most popular attraction in Washington, DC. Guided tours took visitors through the Material Analysis Unit and crime laboratories where fingerprinting, DNA and ballistics testing takes place; past displays of thousands of confiscated weapons, and illegal items seized during narcotics operations; exhibits on crime fighting techniques and counterintelligence operations; as well as other presentations on terrorism, agent training, some famous cases, and photographs of the FBI's 'Ten Most Wanted List'. Those in search of espionage history, however, should go to the nearby International Spy Museum.

On April 14th, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching a performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC. His killer, an actor named John Wilkes Booth who sympathised with the Confederates in the ongoing Civil War, then jumped to the stage and shouted " Sic simper tyrannis" (Thus to all tyrants) before fleeing the theatre. The US Government bought the theatre and prohibited it from use as an amusement venue. It was used for various storage and clerical purposes until it was restored and reopened for performances in 1968. Today, Ford's Theatre is both an active performance venue and historical site, and the Ford's Theatre Museum contains 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.

Washington's newest 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 the KGB, as well as some of the nation's top experts in intelligence. It aims to educate the public about espionage and its vital role and impact on historic and current events. Interactive exhibits cover the history of spying, famous spies, spying during the World Wars with an exhibit on unheeded intelligence that warned of the Pearl Harbour attack, sophisticated espionage techniques of the Cold War, and the latest spy trends and challenges of 21st century espionage. There is also a section dealing with high-tech gadgets such as bugs, tiny cameras and ingenious disguise techniques, with interactive stations exploring surveillance, disguises, code breaking, threat analysis and more. Operation Spy is an interactive experience in which visitors get to be a spy; hands-on activities include safe-cracking and conducting polygraph tests, experiences which are combined with special effects and live action. The museum complex includes a restaurant, spy-theme cafe and shop.

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 over 200 new works in various disciplines. The centre was first conceived by Eleanor Roosevelt as a way to employ actors during World War II, and opened in 1971 with the premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Mass. 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.

The grandiose Lincoln Memorial is a tribute to the 16th US president who preserved the Union during the Civil War and ended slavery. It also serves as a Civil War memorial, symbolising the ideas of Freedom and American Democracy. The use of classical architecture, modelled on a Greek temple, is to remind people of the ancient Greeks who were the first modern culture to have a democratic government. In the centre of the memorial, surrounded by 36 white columns representing the 36 states in Lincoln's Union, is a huge marble statue of Abraham Lincoln who, seated, stares out over the Reflecting Pool 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, and above each is a painted symbolic mural. 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 'I Have a Dream' speech. A bookshop and museum, detailing a photographic history of famous events that occurred on the steps, are nearby.

Mount Vernon is the colonial estate of George Washington. Though located in Virginia, the estate is an easy drive from Washington DC and one of its most popular attractions. The plantation has been restored to look just as it did during Washington's era. Consisting of 500 acres situated on the Potomac River, the gardens, mansion, and other buildings are open to the public, and costumed employees demonstrate life in the 18th century. In 2007, Mount Vernon was given permission to reopen Washington's distillery, which now produces its own whiskey, available only at the Mount Vernon Gift Shop. The estate offers tours of the mansion and grounds, sightseeing cruises on the Potomac River, and special tours showing scenes from the movie National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.

While looking at papers may sound dull compared to Washington DC's exciting museums, the National Archives is one of the most popular attractions, 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.

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, graphics and sculptures from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, and 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 that houses most of the permanent collection. More than 100 galleries display modern and contemporary art with masterpieces by famous artists arranged by nationality, and include 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 several of the museum's permanent collection of sculptures on display.

Extending for over 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 of tourist activity in the city, containing many of Washington DC's most famous attractions. It is 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, the site for many celebrations and festivals throughout the year, and used by scores of joggers, picnickers, food vendors and strollers daily. It is also a popular site for rallies and protests ranging from a few dozen to a few million people. The Tidal Basin, a beautiful lake famous for its spring show of blossoming Japanese cherry trees, lies to the south.

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park, commonly known as the National Zoo, is a great 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 of habitats containing more than 2,000 animals. The star attractions of the zoo are definitely Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, two giant pandas on loan from the Chinese government. Other popular exhibits include the Great Ape House, Elephant Trails, Lion/Tiger Hill, Cheetah Conservation Station, and Seals and Sea Lions Exhibit. The National Zoo was the home of the original Smokey Bear, who was a symbol of forest fire prevention and lived at the zoo from 1950 to 1976.

One of the world's finest research centres, the Smithsonian Institution incorporates 19 excellent museums and galleries and a zoo spread over Washington, DC, New York, Virginia and Panama. Most of the museums are however located in Washington, DC. The centre was the idea of British scientist James Smithson who stipulated in his will that lacking heirs his entire fortune would go the United States 'to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men'. The Institute's original home was in the red brick building known as The Castle that stands on the Mall. The need to accommodate facilities for scientific research as well as housing all the scientific and art collections amassed resulted in the construction of more buildings along the Mall. Today the Castle houses the Smithsonian Information Center, which provides an overview of all the museums and the zoo. The museums contain collections of historical importance on almost every subject. Museums 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. Other museums include the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art, the African Art Museum, the American Indian Museum, the Arts and Industries Building hosting changing exhibitions, the Hirshborn collection of modern art, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Postal Museum. The Smithsonian Museums are a fantastic attraction for families in Washington DC, and a wallet-friendly one as admission is free.

The heart of American government is also Washington DC's most prominent landmark, the US Capitol, sited on the top of Capitol Hill, with its giant white dome visible from all over the city. It is one of the city's top tourist attractions, as well as the most recognised symbol of democracy, and contains the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world. Under the magnificent dome, US governmental policy is shaped and the law of the land is practiced. The interior is richly embellished, with hundreds of statues filling Statuary Hall in honour of important people in the country's history, while paintings and murals decorate the hallways and walls of the Rotunda, depicting 400 years of American history. The enormous circular hall capped by the 180-foot (55m) high dome is the hub of the Capitol, with a symbolic fresco masterpiece at its centre. The Rotunda links the north and south wings, the two halves of the Capitol that contain the Senate and House of Representatives respectively, and flags flying over either wing indicate which part of Congress is in session.

One of the city's best museums, but also the most disturbing, is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that hauntingly commemorates the discrimination and murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The permanent exhibition is divided into three floors, starting with the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Holocaust, and finally the after-effects of the war and liberation of the camps, with a moving film in which Holocaust survivors recount their personal experiences. The Hall of Remembrance is a quiet meditative place with dozens of burning candles lit in memory of the victims. Exhibits vividly convey the scale and nature of the horrors of the Holocaust using films, voice recordings, personal belongings of Jewish victims, photographs and Nazi propaganda. The permanent exhibition's graphic content is extremely disturbing and is not recommended for children under 11 years of age. A different section of the museum contains an exhibit designed for children, called 'Daniel's Story: Remember the Children'.

In recognition of his leadership in the fight for American independence, George Washington earned the title 'Father of the Nation', and was the first president of the United States. The Washington Monument was built in memory of this great leader. As the tallest structure in the city, situated at the western end of the Mall, the gleaming white obelisk offers 360-degree panoramic vistas with some of the most familiar sights in the world in view, including the White House, US Capitol, Smithsonian museums and the Lincoln Memorial. Constructed out of loose granite blocks without the use of cement to hold them together, the monument is the tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world, a 555-foot (169m) marble obelisk that stood uncompleted for 37 years. A change in the colour of stone is visible about halfway up and marks the two building phases. In 1888 a steam elevator transported visitors to the top, a 20-minute ride that was restricted, for safety reasons, to men only. Women could walk up the 897 stairs. Today climbing the steps is prohibited, but a free 70-second elevator conveys visitors to the gallery that provides unparalleled views of Washington, DC and across the Potomac River.

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 Neogothic structure standing 301 feet (91m) tall. The interior of the cathedral 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 was finished in 1972, making it very young compared to most cathedrals of its stature. It is the final resting place of noted figures such as Helen Keller, President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, and Admiral George Dewey.

The White House has been the private residence and administrative headquarters of every President of the United States since 1800. Today an American flag flies over the house whenever the president is in residence. Situated at the edge of the National Mall, the palatial building has undergone numerous alterations over the years, which have included refurnishing and expansion, the addition of the first toilets by Jefferson, and electricity added during Harrison's presidency, as well as personal inclusions by each of its presidential occupants. The White House was adapted to the needs of Franklin D. Roosevelt who suffered polio and a swimming pool was installed; Jacqueline Kennedy developed the famous Rose Garden; Clinton added a jogging track, hot tub and humidor; and the most recent addition is the vegetable garden planted by Barack and Michelle Obama. Tours visit several rooms on the Ground and State Floors, including the Oval Office, the State Dining Room with seating for 140 dinner or luncheon guests, and the Gold and White East Room that is the publicised scene of presidential receptions and other social events. The top two floors are private. The custom that allows free public tours of the president's private home is only stopped during wartime. The visitor centre provides interesting historical information about the residence and its occupants.

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