WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA (the boundaries of the two are identical) can be unbearably hot and humid in summer, and bitterly cold in winter. It was chosen as the site of the capital of the newly independent United States of America because of a compromise between the northern and southern states and, basically, because George Washington wanted it there – sixteen miles upstream from his Mount Vernon estate. The other side of DC, with a majority black population, is run as a virtual colony of Congress, where residents have only non-voting representation and couldn’t vote in presidential elections until the 23rd amendment was passed in 1961 – the city’s official licence plate reads “Taxation Without Representation”.
The best times to come are during April’s National Cherry Blossom Festival and the more temperate months (May, June & Sept). The nation’s capital puts on quite a display for its guests, and, best of all, admission to all major attractions on the National Mall is always free; the most famous sites include the White House, memorials to four of the greatest presidents and the superb museums of the Smithsonian Institution. Between the Mall and the main spine of Pennsylvania Avenue – the route that connects Capitol Hill to the White House – the Neoclassical buildings of the Federal Triangle are home to agencies forming the hub of the national bureaucracy. In recent years, even the once-blighted area known as Old Downtown (north of the eastern side of the Mall), has had a dramatic uptick in visitors and nightlife around its Penn Quarter, centred around 7th and F streets. West of the White House, Foggy Bottom is another cornerstone of the federal bureaucracy.
Further northwest is the city’s oldest area, Georgetown, where popular bars and restaurants line M Street and Wisconsin Avenue above the Potomac River. Other neighbourhoods to check out – especially for hotels, restaurants and bars – are Dupont Circle at Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire avenues, and the gentrifying community of Adams Morgan, a favoured destination of the weekend party crowd. More gung-ho visitors may also want to follow the Red Line Metro out to the genteel precinct of Upper Northwest, which offers some interesting historical neighbourhoods, along with the National Zoo. Most tourists also walk or take the short Metro ride to Arlington in nearby Virginia to visit the National Cemetery, burial place of John F. Kennedy.
With the US Capitol as the centre of the street grid, the District is divided into four quadrants – northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest. Dozens of broad avenues, named after states, run diagonally across a standard grid of streets, meeting up at monumental traffic circles like Dupont Circle. Almost all the most famous sights are on Capitol Hill or, running two miles west, the broad, green National Mall.
Once the site of the national capital was chosen, Maryland and Virginia ceded sovereignty of a diamond-shaped tract to the federal government (though a half-century later, Virginia demanded its land back). Although George Washington’s baroque, radial plan of the city was laid out in 1791 by Pierre L’Enfant, few buildings were erected, apart from the actual houses of government, until well into the next century. Charles Dickens, visiting in 1842, found “spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere”. After the Civil War, thousands of Southern blacks arrived in search of a sanctuary from racial oppression; to some extent, they found one. By the 1870s African Americans made up more than a third of the population of 150,000, but as poverty and squalor became endemic, official segregation was reintroduced in 1920. After World War II, both the city’s economy and population boomed. Segregation of public facilities was declared illegal in the 1950s, and Martin Luther King, Jr gave a famous 1963 speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When King was killed just five years later, large sections of the city’s ghettos burned, and are only now becoming gentrified, high-rent neighbourhoods. Indeed, the revitalized downtown, with its chic restaurants and cultural and sporting events, has begun to attract visitors once again to an area once considered an urban wasteland.