The capital of The United States of America, Washington, District of Columbia, (colloquially D.C. or The District) is home to the U.S. federal government. Well, most of it. The land was originally taken from Maryland and Virginia in 1790. The Virginia part was returned in 1846 as what is now Arlington County and the City of Alexandria, which are still part of the same urban area. For people in Flyover Country it is often considered to be a Wretched Hive Of Scum And Villainy, due to its high crime and reported corruption on the local and federal level. A lot of people who live in the metropolitan area agree.
Unlike other U.S. cities, Washington is notable for its complete lack of skyscrapers. This is because of a law on the matter (the DC Building Act 1910) that restricts building heights (which, contrary to popular belief, does not mention the US Capitol or the Washington Monument). Thus, most skyscrapers are usually located on the Virginia side of the Potomac, which separates Washington from Arlington and Alexandria. More on that later.
Why Is It Called The District?
Washington is also not part of any US State. It's a special federal district. As a tragically ironic consequence of this, citizens who live in Washington have less representation in the federal government than other citizens. Up until 1961, residents could not vote for the President of the United States. Representation in the legislature is limited to one delegate in US House of Representatives, who is not allowed to vote. In fact, given that the US Congress has final say over all matters passed by the municipal government, DC's situation is similar to that of colonial America's relationship to Great Britain. Thus, the license plate slogan "Taxation without Representation". The exact technical term is "suzerainty", in that The District is under the direct control of Congress in the same way a king might hold control over a captured territory.
Why does such an ironic situation exist? It was written into the US Constitution. The Founding Fathers feared if the capital district was a part of any state or was considered a state itself, the federal government would treat that state favorably.note Indeed, both that and the reverse did happen - the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 saw Congress literally besieged by 400 angry Continental Army soldiers within Independence Hall and Pennsylvania refusing to intervene with their state militia to rescue them. Of course, after the Constitution was ratified and the federal government became something worth having, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia kept doing "nice things" for the federal government like buying George Washington a proper Executive Residence and building a meeting place for Congress to keep the capital there; to no avail. The framers never thought that Washington would become an actual city with an indigenous population. But they overestimated the size of land needed to host a body of government, and that extra land naturally ended up being filled with people who worked in the District.
Why this has not been corrected: Aside from the fact that getting Congress to agree on anything is hard in general, politics in the District are incredibly monolithic, leaving both of the major political parties of the US having very different preferences for a solution. The Democratic Party, which enjoys over 90% support in DC, naturally favors statehood or something equivalent, which would add 2 Senate seats and one House seat that they would perpetually control. The Republican Party, on the other hand, prefers returning the land of the District to the jurisdiction of Maryland, which gave up the land to form the capital in the first place. This would add a single Democratic-dominated House district to Maryland's allotment, a much smaller advantage to Democrats and thus much more palatable to Republicans.note Also keep in mind that Maryland is one of America’s "bluest"—i.e. most heavily Democratic—states to begin with. A compromise solution has been suggested that D.C. be granted a single seat in the House but no Senators, either by statute (which has passed in the House several times but stalled in the Senate)note The most recent statute would have increased the size of the House by two, allocating one seat to DC and one seat to the state that had just missed out on getting a new seat in the most recent Census. As the state in question 2000-2010 was solid-red Utah, this was palatable to Republicans; it's unclear which state would get the new seat after the 2010 Census, but as most states with growing populations are red, as well, the GOP is still more or less OK with this, although they aren't incredibly happy about it. or by constitutional amendment (proposed by Independent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who supported the goals of the statutory path but felt it would be unconstitutional; this has also gotten nowhere).
Washington D.C. is also one of only 12 cities in the U.S. that has a sports team from all four major league sports: for football, the Redskins (nickname: the Skins), for basketball, the Wizards (formerly the Bullets, before the owners realized the awkwardness in glorifying guns in a city with one of the highest murder rates in the nation), for baseball, the Nationals (nickname: the Nats), and for hockey, the Capitals (nickname: the Caps)
Combined with Baltimore, it makes up the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area. Baltimore is less than an hour's drive from Washington (theoretically — traffic can be brutal) and urban sprawl between the two is pretty much continuous. However, the two cities are culturally distinct, and because of the gap both Baltimore and Washington have separate TV and radio stations covering their areas despite the short distance between the two.
There's also a large cultural disconnect between DC and Virginia, to the point where people, especially Southern transplants and DC natives, actually stick to their own side of the river. Unless, of course, you're talking about Arlington, Alexandria, and much of Fairfax County, who actually have more in common with DC Natives than the rest of their state. Northern Virginia is mostly suburbs of DC and, as such, identify with the rest of the region far more so than the rest of Virginia note In 1980, Joel Garreau wrote in his book The Nine Nations of North America that many Virginians believed that, culturally and politically, anything north of the Rappahannock River was "Yankee" territory. These days, however, with urban sprawl spreading down south past Fredericksburg, the new "border" is probably the North Anna River, about halfway between the Rappahannock and the Virginia state capital at Richmond.
Locals typically refer to the District of Columbia proper, as opposed to the suburbs, as "the District." Locals who are native to D.C. and haven't lived in bigger cities often refer to it as "the city." "Washington" means the metropolitan area. "D.C." can mean either. Ignoring this usage is a good way to expose yourself as a newcomer. DC itself is surrounded by a circumferential freeway called I-495, commonly referred to as "The Beltway". Many feel that reality gets distorted by the road. Also, don't drive on it during rush hour.
DC has an extensive system of trains known as the Metro. Basically, everyone uses the Metro, except Washington Post writers and the politicians on the Metro Board. You can even use it to go far out to suburban shopping destinations (or to the University of Maryland in nearby College Park) and plans are afoot to extend it 25 miles to Dulles Airport. (As of the spring of 2011, construction on the new line is well underway, which is causing additional disruption to traffic on the Beltway and several major roads leading to Dulles.) It does not go to Georgetown, although it does stop nearby at Foggy Bottom (where the State Department is).
The myth is that DC law prohibits the construction of any building taller than the Washington Monument (or Capitol building). This is only partially true. There is a law governing building height: the Height of Buildings Act restricts new building heights to no more than 20 feet (6.1 m) greater than the width of the adjacent street; existing structures are not mentioned. So the way this works out is that no new building will be taller than the Washington Monument, though there are three other buildings taller than the Capitol building (the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Old Post Office, and the National Cathedral respectively).
Washington D.C. has been described as two cities in one. The first part consists of the famous buildings, government offices, museums, office buildings, and select housing areas, mainly populated by predominantly upper class, predominantly liberal (except for conservative industry lobbyists) white people who run the government (or up-and-coming yuppie policy wonks who imagine themselves doing so and mostly leave disappointed when they end up working for said lobbyists). Most go home to Virginia and Maryland at night. The ones who stay gravitate like magnets to the gentrified, Parisian-style neighborhoods in the Northwest quadrant of the city.
The second part is housing for the mainly-black working classes that staff the government service jobs, clean the offices, and serve the food for the first half. The second city of Washington is almost entirely devoid of public services — everyone lucky enough to have a job works downtown — while the first is an unbroken line of office buildings, luxury apartments, shops, and campuses stretching out from downtown DC to the north and west. While the first is relatively safe, parts of the second city remain ghettos with some of the highest crime and murder rates in the nation. While most American cities have this dichotomy to some extent, DC is one of the more extreme examples.
Central Washington, known as the L'Enfant City (the part laid out by said Frenchman in 1790 as a planned metropolis) has seen massive urban renewal to make the areas convenient to the center "look more like America", "as befits the heart of our democracy" — if America had a mean income of $500,000, that is. At one point these efforts were justified by high crime rates (14th street was the red light district, two blocks from The White House, and downtown DC used to be a collection of boarded-up buildings and souvenir shops). But since the 80s and 90s crime epidemic has actually subsided, it's merely been justified as "quality of life" (and not just for senators and their escorts, either).
Indeed, the quality of life in DC is bustling: It's one of the few cities in America where it's actually pleasant to walk around on foot, although you will find little casual shopping or dining; most of the businesses are tourist, entertainment, or office-related (read: bars). These bars are patronized by aforementioned young urban professionals.
Georgetown especially is a haven for these ivy-league types. It's also the setting for numerous movies. Just about every character on film in DC lives in Georgetown.
Washington is infamous for its Long Hot Summers and notorious for its plain-dress, anti-fashion sentiment. Tourists are notorious for their flamboyant yet weather-appropriate Safari attire, such as fishing caps, cargo shorts, and fanny packs. Dress appropriately. Note for tourists: If you don't want to get run over, stand to the right on escalators.
The museums on the Mall are all free. Good luck finding a place to eat, though; the American Indian Museum is popular. The best times to visit D.C. are March, when the Cherry Blossoms bloom and October, after the summer ends but before the (mild but still annoying) winter hits. The Cherry Blossom Festival is the only the locals take it seriously, and much like Mardi Gras, you have to know when and where to actually go — the blossoms never coincide with the actual festival. When they do bloom, millions of people descend on the Mall at once in a blossom-fueled rage. Traffic becomes nightmarish at these times, as tourists flood the city.note Note - This actually happens. And unfortunately for them, it's been getting earlier gradually, probably due to climate change.
Tourist Attractions of Washington
The Capitol Building: not to be confused with The White House (it has a dome for a start!). This is where both branches of Congress meet. The Congress now can't all fit in the offices there, so there are other office buildings, linked to it via a private tunnel network, which includes a private subway system. It is entirely possible to get between the Capitol, its associated office buildings and the three buildings that house the Library of Congress without ever once setting foot outside, which is quite useful in the middle of winter, avoiding repeated security screening, and keeping the business of government largely out of view of tourists.
The White House: The President's pad. The West Wing contains the Oval Office and other offices for presidential staff; other executive offices are at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (formerly the Old Executive Office Building, or OEOB), a giant gingerbread structure across the street. Thanks to The War on Terror, it now takes six months and a phone call to your Member of Congress/Senator to schedule a tour. If the president announces a change in policy, reporters will sometimes declare that "The White House announced..."
The Supreme Court: self-explanatory. Long queue to get in for a brief glance at proceedings.
Pennsylvania Avenue: Washington's main parade street. Well, Pennsylvania Avenue NW is; SE is kinda average. Pennsylvania Ave. NW connects the Capitol and White House; north of it is downtown DC.
The National Mall: Not a shopping center (hard to come by in the District itself), but that long, grassy area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Site of many, many rallies, demonstrations, awareness-marches, etc. Softball fields, where office-based teams play the National Sport. This is Serious Business: House and Senate rivalries are especially intense. Many of the Smithsonian Museums are located alongside the Mall.
National Memorials: Located in a vast stretch of the west Mall, most notably the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. The Washington Monument is more interesting on the outside than in (if you picnic or fly kites, at least), and off the beaten path on a little peninsula is the picturesque Jefferson Memorial. Instead of wait all day to go up to the top, walk a few blocks over to the Clock Tower on Pennsylvania Avenue and get the same view.
The Smithsonian Institution - America's largest Museum Mile. All of it is free and open year-round. For example:
The Smithsonian Castle: America's most famous visitor center. Hidden in the basement is an actual institution of learning populated by the academics lucky enough to do research work in the various museums. There are also two underground museums of Asian and African art most people don't know about.
These are the Freer Gallery of Asian Art (which is connected to the Arthur M Sackler gallery) and the Museum of African Art. The latter includes art donated from the personal collection of Walt Disney.
The Air and Space Museum: touchable piece of the moon, lot of stuff on flight and for Cold War buffs, a Pershing II and RT-21M/SS-20 side-by-side. At approximately seven million visitors a year, it is the most popular museum on the mall (and quite possibly in the world). It has a sister museum, the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy center, in Chantilly, Virginia, near Dulles Airport, which contains items like the Enola Gay, the SR-71 Blackbird and the space shuttle Discovery.
The National Museum of Natural History: basically similar to the one in New York. Has a hall of gemstones (giant ones) and an insect zoo. Contains vast inaccessible archives popularized in the show Bones and the movie National Treasure, full of old artifacts and butterflies on pins.
The National Museum of American History: The Star-Spangled banner and other historical artifacts. Not as interesting as it used to be when it was used for rotating displays of the Smithsonian's vast array of tchotchkes. Now it's highly polished and empty display halls, populated by visiting exhibits paid for with private funds. They still have a naked marble statue of George Washington. Film geeks may also be interested in the museum's Wizard of Oz memorabilia, including an original pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers.
The Hirshhorn, a gallery of modern art along with a very... odd... sculpture garden. The Flying Saucer-shaped building itself was designed by Gordon Bunshaft, and it's called the Hirshhorn as it was initially funded by a guy named Hirshhorn. To locals it is especially well known for hosting terrible science fiction movie screenings in the summer (seriously).
The National Portrait Gallery, which is a gallery of, well, portraiture.
The National Postal Museum, which is a museum dedicated to the postal service (seriously, it exists). This one isn't on the Mall, but rather is located next to Union Station (it's the building across the street when you get off at Union Station Metro, behind the funny glass bike-rental place).
The National Museum of the American Indian. The newest museum on the mall, the NMAI has striking architecture designed to look like canyon walls, and has the best cafeteria out of all the Smithsonian museums. Even Smithsonian employees tend to agree that it has the best food.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum. Exactly What It Says on the Tin. Rotating exhibits on World War 2 and various aspects of Nazi Germany, plus a large permanent exhibit that can best be described as a self-guided, solemn tour through Hell. An optional aspect of said tour is to take a small dossier representing a real victim which allows the bearer to learn about said individual's fate, which rarely has a happy ending. Initially, this was part of the tour, but was made optional after visitors were overwhelmed by the experience.
The Library of Congress: The world's largest library. Required by law to be sent two copies of every book ever published in the US (although they don't keep all of them — some are traded with other libraries or given away). Most are accessible only to researchers,note If you're willing to pay for a researcher to transcribe something, they will. If it's already been transcribed, you can get a copy for a nominal fee. but visitors are allowed to explore the gigantic main building which looks like a 19th-century opera house. If you live in the area, you can go down and apply for a researcher's card; the process is a bit more involved than applying for your local library card, though, as applicants are taken through a computerized quiz which is focused on ascertaining the fields of knowledge of particular interest to you. Unless you're a Member of Congress or a Congressional staff member, you can't actually check out books; you must request them at the various desks in the "reading rooms". There are a number of these rooms, several of which (e.g., in the Jefferson and Adams Buildings) are quite large, and most of which are devoted to specific topic areas (for example, the Madison Building is where you'd go to do research in law or the performing arts). Researchers are allowed to use laptops and portable scanners, but thanks mainly to former national security advisor Sandy Berger sneaking critical documents out of the building for his own uses, must get written permission first at the reading desks.
The US Botanical Garden: A quiet respite from the city, and Washington's oldest museum, a Victorian-era greenhouse. Recently modernized, it now contains an indoor jungle for those seeking a respite from the festering hot air of summer in DC. Also has one of those giant corpse-flowers.
The Newseum: A private museum devoted to news reporting of all stripes. Has a display where the front pages of major daily newspapers from around the world are shown.
The Pentagon: Actually across the river from Washington, in Arlington, Virginia, this is the headquarters of the Department of Defense and the American Armed Forces it oversees. As with the White House, when the Secretary of Defense or the Defense Department announces a policy, it is often said that "The Pentagon Announced" as if the building actually was talking.
Arlington Cemetery: a military cemetery (also in Virginia; it's only about half a mile from The Pentagon and the Lincoln Memorial), but not everyone there actually died in a war. Veterans who served during wartime can be buried there too, along with their families. Burial place of JFK. Before the American Civil War, it was the plantation of Confederate general Robert E. Lee; it became a cemetery because the Union Army controlled Arlington and the Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs thought it would be deliciously ironic if Lee's house became the Union's hospital, and buried its dead in his fields and gardens. (Also, Meigs had a personal problem with Lee, since Meigs was from Georgia but remained loyal to the Union; each regarded the other as a traitor.) The house still stands overlooking the grounds, and is itself a museum. The Iwo Jima Memorial, a giant statue reproducing the iconic photograph of U.S. Marines (and a Navy corpsman) raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi in February of 1945, is not far from here.
Quite famous for its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (properly known as the Tomb of the Unknowns) which currently holds remains of three unknown soldiers: one from each World War and one from Korea. It also held a soldier from the Vietnam War until his remains were positively identified in the 90s and his body was given its own burial. The guards of the Tomb, known as Sentinels, are known for their extremely precise adherence to procedure, especially in the Changing of the Guards ceremony. The mat they walk on during their patrols at the tomb actually has heel prints worn into it because the Sentinels walk the same steps every time. The Changing of the Guard is quite a sight to behold. The Sentinels are known for remaining at the tomb no matter the conditions, and not even hurricanes have forced them from their post.NB Their orders in cases of extreme weather are basically to withdraw to a safer location if they believe they will come to harm otherwise. This is left to the judgement of the sentinel on duty. So far, none of the conditions they’ve faced have been judged sufficiently perilous. Serving as one of the Sentinels is one of the highest honors a member of the US Army can have. Oh, and a word of advice? Show some respect when you're at the tomb. The Sentinels do not take kindly to people disrespecting those buried there.
National Cathedral: America's unofficial giant interdenominational cathedral—nominally run by the Episcopalnote That is, Anglican Church, but open to all—built entirely in Gothic Revival stile. It sits on the highest point in the city. There's another moon rock in the stained glass windows, along with dozens of other nooks and crannies. They recently got rid of the stonecarvers' workshop to make room for a parking garage. It has a Darth Vader gargoyle.
Rock Creek Park: A 1700-acre wilderness park set directly in the city.
National Zoo. Not congress, the other one. A zoo, but this one is run by the Smithsonian, so it's free. Located in Rock Creek Park, so it's basically situated on the side of a ravine. Has a bit of a Panda obsession ever since Nixon went to China and brought back some. Orangutans use overhead walkways to commute between their home and the Ape House. Visitors, be warned: the Metro station calling itself "Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan" is in fact a good 15-20 minute uphill walk from the zoo entrance (and, for that matter, a 10-15 minute walk from Adams Morgan). One way to avoid this is to get off at Cleveland Park and walk downhill (with about the same distance).
The Fourth of July is the biggest one-day event in Washington, which used to feature (ahem) smoke-ins and cookouts on the Mall before they cracked down on tailgating.
Out in the Virginia suburbs of Prince William County, those interested in the American Civil War can visit the Manassas National Battlefield Park, site of the First (1861) and Second (1862) Battles of Bull Run (a creek running through the area; Manassas is the town immediately south of the battlefield, now a major suburb of DC).
The headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service. Americans come here annually to pay their respects.
Sonny Bono Memorial Park.
The Einstein Memorial. You're supposed to sit in his lap.
The World's Largest Chair, recently rebuilt, in Anacostia. Originally erected as a furniture store promotion.
The World's Oldest (Non?)-Working Elevator, located in a fast food shop. Property of Smithsonian.
The Arlington Temple, a Methodist church built on top of a gas station. Otherwise known as the "Church of Exxon", since it was an Exxon dealer for many years. Located in the northern part of Rosslyn, near the Key Bridge.
Mayor of Silver Spring Memorial Park and Statue, commemorating a local homeless man.
The Walter Reed Army Medical Museum. Man made of soap, Lincoln's teeth, and other curiosities.
The Ulysses Grant Memorial. Little known presidential memorial, famous among statuary buffs.
The Maine Avenue Fish Market. America's oldest fish market, since 1790. Busy at night.
Dutch Country Farmers Market in Maryland. Run by the Amish.
The Mormon Temple in Kensington, MD. Easily visible from the Beltway, its bright-white towers and golden spires bring to mind the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz; indeed, a nearby railway bridge had "SURRENDER, DOROTHY" painted on it for many years, until it was removed.
The Awakening. Statue of a gigantic, and very angry man buried in the earth. Lived for many years at the very tip of West Potomac Park; has since been relocated to the National Harbor development in Oxon Hill, MD.
The National Folklife Festival, a vast Bazaar of the Bizarre which always hosts one state and one country (e.g. West Virginia + Bhutan) often featuring Hermit Guru artisans.
The National Museum of Cryptography, located near the massive NSA complex at Fort Meade, MD.
The International Spy Museum. The only museum dedicated to the art of spying in the US. Offers spy-tours of the city as well as regular evening theme events.
The National Aquarium. Little sister to the more famous National Aquarium of Baltimore, its housed in the basement of the Department of Commerce building.
Metrorail - DC's subway system, the second-busiest in the nation and designed as something of an antithesis to the New York City Subway, with huge domed-concrete stations, hexagonal tile floors, computer-controlled cars, and notoriously strict rules about consuming food and beverages. Designed in the late 1960s as a Plan B to redirect unused freeway funds to some form of transport (as DC residents saw that they really didn't want freeways cutting apart their backyards and neighborhoods), it was made with an eye toward luring commuters out of their cars — a plan that, 40 years on, seems to have worked. It's starting to show its age a bit (it went online in 1976) and is nearing capacity, but still preferable to driving (especially if you're aware of how bad DC traffic is). One trait of Metrorail that often surprises people is how clean it's kept, thanks in part to those notoriously strict rules about consuming food and drink.
Travel guides say not to drive into town, but to use the Metro. This is not shilling for the Metro, the Metro really is clean and easy to figure out. And parking is impossible.
Nowadays locals tend to have a love-hate relationship with Metro. On weekdays, if you're a commuter who drives to a Metro stop and parks there, you have to pay a flat parking garage fee, and then it costs money to go in and out of DC. At the wrong times of day (read: rush hour), that could add up to $15 a day just to go to work. And that's not counting whatever is spent on gas. Some companies will reimburse DC-based employees for their Metro expenses.
On weekends and federal holidays, Metro parking is free; however, Metro has closed several sections of the system on alternating weekends for track work. As a result, train times can be widely spread out and it becomes an inconvenience for people who want to go into the District without having to drive.
D.C. has notoriously difficult traffic circles. The explanation is that this in case those redcoats (or later, just the Reds) ever come back, they'll enter a traffic circle and will be unable to figure out how to leave it, thus keeping them from burning the city. Again.
The Capital Beltway, aka Interstate 495. On its southern and eastern sections, it also contains mainline Interstate 95... which was supposed to go directly through DC on its trek from Miami to Maine, but was redirected by freeway revolts (see above). All in all, it's another reason why Invading DC is not advised.
It's also useful for navigation purposes to know that the Beltway has "The Inner Loop" (the side of the Beltway which runs clockwise around DC) and "The Outer Loop" (the side of the Beltway which runs counter-clockwise around DC).
Just like NYC, Philly and Chicago, DC has commuter trains and buses leading out of the city into the far suburbs; unlike those cities, however, they're mainly for the hordes of Executive Branch workers (and, in the summer, tourists) going into and out of town, and so they don't run on weekends except for a few token Metrobus routes. The trains and buses going into Maryland are run by that state's transit authority, and the trains are called "MARC"; MARC also serves Baltimore, and the Penn Line runs all the way to Perryville, MD. There's also talk of extending MARC all the way up to Wilmington, DE, which would connect it to Philadelphia's SEPTAnote South-East Pennsylvania Transit Authority regional rail system, making travel from DC to New York by commuter rail a real (if uncomfortable, albeit more comfortable than the buses, the only alternative comparable in price) possibility (SEPTA connects to New York by meeting New Jersey Transit's Northeast Corridor Line at Trenton). Virginia's system is split between several operators, the biggest being the PRTC/VRE system (which mainly serves Prince William County, a few far-flung locations in Fairfax such as Lorton and Burke, and the 95 corridor down to Fredericksburg).
Finally, there's the airports:
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is the closest to town; just like the Pentagon, it's directly across the river in Arlington, VA. It used to be just "Washington National Airport", but was renamed by Congress in The Nineties (the name change was unpopular in certain circles because of Reagan's breaking of an air traffic controllers' strike in The Eighties). It's also the only airport in the DC area with direct access to Metrorail, though as noted above, this will be changing eventually. This is the airport of choice for Congresspeople entering and leaving town (indeed, it's seen as one of their perks), but also has a limited number of flights available due to noise concerns and the difficult approach to the runway, which requires avoiding skyscrapers in Rosslyn and Crystal City while trying not to crash into the Potomac and avoid heavily restricted airspace nearby. As such, it commands higher ticket prices and isn't quite as busy as the outlying airports. Also, it's strictly a national airport; it can only originate or receive flights that are headed to or from US destinations, meaning international flights will require a transfer.note With a few exceptions—the airport has flights to Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Nassau. Because these cities' airports have U.S. Customs preclearance facilities, they are treated as US destinations. Or you could just go to:
Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), the largest airport in the area and one of the busiest in the country. Infamous for being a long, long haul from downtown (25 miles from the White House, through what has since become a highly-populated edge city), for having an equally long access road reserved especially for it, and for not having any sort of public transportation (though Metrobus has since set up a proper shuttle line that serves it while the Metrorail extension is being built). You will get a ticket on the access road if you're not going to the airport for something; that said, "something" can be going to the Fedex terminal or picking someone up, not just boarding a flight. Otherwise, from the Beltway westward, you're expected to use the Dulles Toll Road and pay the tolls. Dulles was also infamous for its odd "shuttle lounges", crosses between buses and Jetways that, originally, could drive right up to the side of a plane and allow you to board directly. As the airport got busier, though, the lounges became a liability as they were small, cramped and required a slow docking process when arriving at the terminal. A new light-rail system (similar to the ones in use at other large airports) has mostly replaced them, although they continue to be used to connect Concourse D (not served by the rail line) to Concourse A and the main terminal. The most striking architectural feature of Dulles is its Raygun Gothic main terminal building, which was designed by Eero Saarinen (the same guy responsible for the old TWA Flight Center at JFK) and built in 1961.
And finally, there's Baltimore/Washington International-Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), which is actually closer to Baltimore than DC but is still popular with DC residents. It's not as busy as Dulles or as restricted as National, meaning flights are often cheap enough that the drive (even longer than the one to Dulles, especially from Virginia) is Worth It. It's also accessible from MARC and Baltimore's light-rail system; like Dulles, Metrobus also runs a dedicated shuttle to BWI, originating from the Greenbelt Metrorail station. Also, just like LAX, almost everyone calls it by its call sign than its full name. Even the government, sometimes: Amtrak announcements (yes, it stops at BWI) in some cases (e.g. at the Wilmington, DE train station) just call it "BWI Airport."
In D.C., you are what you do for a living. Policy wonks who work on Capitol Hill are divided into "interns" and "Hill Rats" (lifers). They congregate in Georgetown (Washington's old-line, 18th-century neighborhood, featured in The Exorcist) and Capitol Hill (the cheap ones live on Capitol Hill, which is basically a giant college town for Members of Congress and their underlings). Affluent activists congregate in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan, an area "historically known" for crunchy artists and ethnic diversity. The Dupont Circle is DC's version of Greenwich Village. Adams Morgan is ten blocks of nightclubs and restaurants (Afghan, Ethiopian, etc) surrounded by barrios, converted mansions, and brownstone apartment buildings.
Many of the shops and nightclubs in Adams-Morgan are Ethiopian-owned, but most of DC's large Ethiopian community has moved into U Street in the Shaw neighborhood, D.C's historically-black nightlife corridor, named for Capt. Shaw of Glory, which is rapidly being gentrified and taken over by yuppies and college students. Just twenty years ago, it was a high-crime area, and 14th street NW was considered a bright red line which affluent Washingtonians would not cross. North of Shaw is a series of ethnic communities which stretches north to the Maryland border. Walter Reed Army Hospital is located here.
Upper Northwest West of Rock Creek park is the exclusive white province known as Upper Northwest, an area of broad boulevards, embassies, private schools, and the National Cathedral. It is also, perversely, the home of D.C.'s Har D Core Punk scene, which helped break out Alternative Rock in the late 1980s. Further into the Upper northwest, D.C. extends into Maryland in an unbroken corridor of affluence: private schools, research institutions, and centers of learning. Nearby Bethesda, Maryland is a shopping and dining destination. Chevy Chase, which sits on the border of Upper Northwest DC, as well as M Street in Georgetown, is Washington's version of Rodeo Drive.
Anacostia D.C. is an amalgam of people from around the United States and sits on the dividing line between the North and South, which is still very bright for some residents who refuse to cross the Potomac River except to go to a ballgame. The further south and east you go, the more it resembles a Southern town, such as New Orleans. The houses are small and working class, the neighborhoods mostly black.
South and east of Capitol Hill is the Anacostia river, hemmed in by levees and old industrial sidings. This marks the boundary with the hard lands, known to some people as "Simple City"note (because the choice between life and death is very simple there). The Department of Homeland Security has cheerfully decided to build its national HQ in a converted mental hospital in Simple City, just south of Anacostia's surprisingly quaint main drag. This part of town is also the home of D.C.'s other native music, go-go.note no, not that go-go. It is a lo-fi cross between funk and hip-hop that is played with guitar and dozens of percussion instruments.
Suburban Maryland Going north, into Maryland, it often resembles New Jersey, and is populated by staunchly liberal Yankees, such as the college professors, hippies, and multi-cultural immigrant neighborhoods in and around Takoma Park, Silver Spring, and Mount Rainier, Maryland. This is where you can find all the delis, antique stores, and curry shops. Riverdale, Maryland is Little Mexico.
The two Maryland counties that surround DC are Montgomery County to the North and West, and Prince George's County to the South and East. Montgomery County is the richest county in the State, Prince George's county not so much (but not the poorest). An old joke about the importance of Montgomery County was that "The legislature in Annapolis considers its job to pump money out of Montgomery County and into the City of Baltimore."
There is, however, often a stark distinction between Montgomery County and Prince George's County, the two Maryland counties that border the District. Prince George's County outside of Greenbelt (a leafy, affluent suburb like much of neighboring Montgomery County) and College Park (home to the University of Maryland's main campus) resemble Southeast. However, there is much development of the National Waterfront area.
Northeast along the high-speed tracks going towards New York is a marginally unsafe dead zone of tire salons and automobile dealerships. Everything west of the railroad tracks can be considered an extension of Upper Northwest and is just as affluent, with quaint Victorian homes. Metrorail service is also much more extensive on the Maryland side, and most of the suburbs have actual downtowns with a train station, restaurants and shops.
Northern Virginia If DC is a tale of two cities, then the third part is Virginia, across the Potomac River — a haven for infotech workers and military. This is where the heroes in political and spy thrillers live (If you hear the word "Langley", you immediately think of the CIA). Many north of the Potomac consider it the edge of the American South, at least outside Arlington, which is heavily urbanized (and, perhaps, Alexandria and portions of Fairfax County as well?). Many, if not most, modern NoVa-ites tend to consider themselves more "Yankee" than anything else, however - much to the chagrin of their southern neighbors in the rest of the state. The Pentagon and National Airport are there. Northern Virginia is actually larger than DC, but much more spread out. Refugees from major modern wars (Korean, Vietnam, and all the Middle Eastern conflicts) tend to settle there due to military connections as well as immigrants from many other regions (for example, NoVA has large Hispanic populations mostly from Central America, including the largest Bolivian American community in the country). Along with the growing number of young urbanites moving into the region, they help dilute the old southern influence.
The most affluent portion of the region, Northern Virginia has some of the wealthiest and most well educated counties in the country. South and west, the communities of Arlington, Alexandria and Tysons Corner, with no high-rise limits, resemble Los Angeles or the southern city of Atlanta, with crushing traffic on 8-lane roads, towering high security office complexes (populated by government contractors known as "Beltway Bandits"), and vast office parks, connected to DC proper by the Metro system. Wilson Boulevard provides a vaguely-human scaled "main street" to the area. Columbia Pike, a former suburb for enlisted military, is one of many small pockets of ethnic diversity. Old Town Alexandria is a quaint historic district, located just north of George Washington's home (in the world's best commuter incentive, he arranged for the District to be built near his house). Some roads in Alexandria area are still named after ConfederateGenerals. Going west on I-66, or south on I-95 leads to the exurbs of Prince William County. While only the very wealthy own homes in D.C. proper or Arlington/Alexandria, many on the very next rung down on the income ladder own homes in Prince William.
Downtown DC itself is deceptively large — the museum corridor is two miles long — and sits on the border between the threenote (Northwest, Southeast, and Virginia) areas. K Street, in the center of town, is indeed a Wretched Hive of lawyers and industry lobbyists.
The further you go south of the Potomac river, the closer you are to Dixie. D.C. and suburban Maryland are emphatically northern in mentality. As President Kennedy said, Washington is a city of "Southern efficiency and Northern charm".
All of these neighborhoods are entirely invisible to the tourist population, since Metro travels under them, and the Beltway goes around them. Many of them are quite interesting to visit, however. Washingtonians pride themselves on their inferiority complex relative to That Other City, and will sniff haughtily at Chicago's claim of same. D.C. does like being able to beat up on Dallas, Texas, its main football rival, however. That hasn't been going so well lately.
DC in Fiction
Due to DC's small size, many of these works have DC as a base of operations and characters will frequently head into Maryland or Virginia in the course of their duties. This especially applies with military works as the bulk of major military and intelligence facilities, including the aforementioned Pentagon, are outside the District. Few works of fiction are shot on-location in Washington, DC, so California Doubling and Stock Footage tend to be common tropes in such works. In most cities that boring looking office building is just that but in Washington it could house something a bit more sensitive to national security work.
Naturally, a large number of DC-set shows are Government Procedurals:
The West Wing, which actually did a surprising amount of location shooting and has been touted as one of the most realistic depictions of actual West Wing operations in fiction, if a bit idealistic in its actual policy. This is because Dee Dee Myers, former White House Press Secretary under the Clinton administration, served as a consultant on the show. One of the few (non-policy-related) inaccuracies is the spaciousness of the actual West Wing of the White House—and even that was a concession to the realities of getting a film crew in there.
The Postal Service'snote The Postal Service being the sideproject of Death Cab for Cutie lead singer Ben Gibbard and indietronica artist Dntel "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" (the opening track of their first and so far only album Give Up) is apparently about meeting an old friend (now unrecognizable) who now lives in Washington the District.