The columned White House porticos, flag-ringed Washington Monument, temple-like Lincoln Memorial. With iconic sights that resonate around the world, the U.S. capital is at least somewhat familiar to most people. Named for the first president and founded in 1791, Washington flanks the Potomac River and borders Maryland and Virginia. Sometimes called “Paris on the Potomac” because of Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant’s elegant design, the city features broad avenues and low buildings that allow sunlight to pour in and greenery to flourish. About 20 million visitors a year experience the extraordinary history and culture, as well as top-notch dining, shopping and entertainment. Summer, though steamy, brings grand spectacles like the July 4 fireworks. Early fall means fewer crowds and pleasant temps for exploring the outdoors. Winters get cold, but the many museums warm the body and nourish the mind. In spring, the cherry trees create dazzling pink tableau, celebrated by the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
D.C.’s reputation as a city of ambitious politicos rings at least partly true. Capitol Hill bustles with briefcase-toting legislators and lobbyists negotiating deals while climbing the rungs. But many here work passionately for a cause, whether on the Hill or with a federal agency or nonprofit. International organizations, along with the embassies and a large immigrant population, contribute to the cosmopolitan vibe. While Washingtonians put in long hours on the job, they always find time to catch the buzz-worthy plays and try out the new restaurants. Win or lose, the city’s pro sports teams also attract a fervent following. In the past 20 years, the downtown and many surrounding neighborhoods have revitalized, making historic D.C. hip, so much so that in 2014 Forbes named it America’s coolest city.
It’s no surprise that the biggest draw is the National Mall. Along this green swath lies a veritable treasure trove, from the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, to Smithsonian sites, part of the world’s largest museum and research complex. Nearby, visitors gaze upon the original Declaration of Independence at the National Archives and stop by the three branches of government—the White House, Congress and Supreme Court. For animal lovers, a visit to the National Zoo (giant pandas!) is a must. Entertainment buffs see shows in venues all over town, from the grand Kennedy Center to historic Ford’s Theatre and the former haunts of D.C.-born Duke Ellington. When it’s time to eat, a thriving dining scene, worthy of Bon Appetit’s 2016 Restaurant City of the Year title, offers global flavors and inventive fare by celebrity chefs.
Most visitors begin with the monuments, memorials and museums. (A night visit to the Mall, when the majestic sites are all aglow, makes an especially memorable experience.) But a more complete picture of the city comes into view by venturing into the neighborhoods. In the oldest, Georgetown, commercial corridors brim with shops and restaurants, while leafy side streets feature elegant townhomes. Adams Morgan has long been a nightlife destination, while Dupont Circle offers art galleries, boutiques and restaurants around a graceful fountain. These perennial favorites complement new hot spots like Penn Quarter, 14th Street and Shaw, now drawing top toques and mixologists. A natural counterpoint to the urban bustle, Rock Creek Park runs through the heart of the capital. Across the Potomac River, Alexandria boasts a well-preserved historic district, lively waterfront and nearby, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.