A short history
Washington, D.C. is referred to as "The Capital of the Free World," and "The Most Powerful City in the World." It is the seat of government, the home of the President, and stomping grounds for the powerful.
The District was selected as the permanent site for the American seat of government by an Act of Congress in 1790, and George Washington was given the authority to choose the precise spot for the federal district: a 10-square-mile area on the Potomac on land donated by Maryland and Virginia. By 1793, the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol was laid on Jenkins Hill, which overlooked a secondary hill on which the White House would be built.
In 1800, President Adams moved from Princeton, N.J. to the unfinished city of Washington. The Capitol was unfinished, and there were no proper sidewalks, lights, or sanitation facilities. And in what would be a sign of things to come, the Tidal Basin was flooded, meaning that early presidents had to take rowboats traveling from the White House to Jenkins Hill, which would be renamed Capitol Hill.
The War of 1812 altered the look and feel of the city. In 1814 the British arrived in Chesapeake Bay, made their way to the Capitol, and burned it. President Madison were forced to flee, and the city took nearly eight years to be reconstituted to its prewar population of roughly 15,000.
It wasn't until after the Civil War that sidewalks and sewer systems were laid and streetlights installed. During "Boss" Shepherd's term as the city's mayor, the original plans of Pierre L'Enfant were finally realized. Streets were improved and paved, trees were planted. In 1901 a committee was appointed to improve on the original concept. Its main focus was development of the Mall, but plans were laid for government buildings, bridges, and monuments.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought an influx of wealthy immigrants and the benefits of their talents and economic resources. The Library of Congress and Union Station were built, and the Mall was laid out; its present-day form closely resembles the original. The latter half of the 20th century brought still more politicians and bureaucrats to town as the United States government expanded to be one of the biggest employers in the American economy.
Today's Washington is much more than the "sleepy Southern town" or a stuffy, uptight political center. If you know where to look, D.C. has plenty to interest you -- from nightlife and the arts to museums and fine dining.
As the nation's capital, Washington hosts an international array of visitors, new residents, and, of course, new Maxwell graduates. This infusion of cultures means that today's restaurant -- both in the District and in the suburbs -- is getting better and more diverse. You can find almost any type of food here, from Thai to Ethiopian, tapas to Vietnamese pho.
The city offers so much in the way of history, culture, and scenery that your visit almost certainly will be exhilarating and educational. The city's primary tourist area is in Southwest DC. That includes the Smithsonian Institution, the national monuments, the Tidal Basin, the National Mall, and the grounds and gardens that surround these attractions. Admission for most of these is free.
Washington is divided into four quadrants (NE, NW, SE, SW), which meet at the Capitol at the center of the District's grid.
Lettered streets run from east to west, and numbered streets run north to south.
Both increase sequentially as you get further from the Capitol; the lettered streets run from A through W (there are no J, X, Y, or Z streets), then alphabetically becoming two-word names (Harvard, Irving), then three-syllable names (Fessenden, Whittier).
As the town was designed by Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant, based on Paris, there are a number of diagonal streets that cut across the grid and meet at various traffic circles. Most of these diagonal streets are named for states, and were originally named for their rough location as to where they were in relationship to the United States.
As more states were added, however, some of the placements of the state-named streets became curious (South Dakota Avenue being east of New Jersey Avenue, for example).
Regardless, if you are going to an address in DC, make sure to check the quadrant -- addresses can be identical except for the NW, NE, SW, and SE at the end.
Signage is notoriously awful in the District. Get detailed directions whenever you can, and carry a good map.
As for parking, the DC government gets a disproportionate amount of its revenue from parking, speeding, and red-light camera tickets. Stay away from fire hydrants, read all signs carefully, and make sure to put enough money in the meters.
Beware! Because a curbside spot is empty does not mean you may park there. Many main corridors do not allow parking during rush hours. Some neighborhoods, especially in Georgetown and downtown, now have exactly one meter on the entire block, which takes care of an entire block's worth of parking. Look carefully at the painted boxes on the streets to discern if you are in an area where a common meter serves one side of the street.
The District also has automated speed and red-light enforcement cameras, locations of which are publicly available.
The District has a very nice subway system, known as Metrorail. Trains run every 5-20 minutes during the week, and every 10-30 minutes on weekends.
Metrorail stations are open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday night and close at midnight during the week.
Fares range from $1.35 to $3.90 depending on the time of day and the length of your ride.
Buy a farecard before you get on and don't lose it. Bonus "look-like-a-local" points if you add enough money for your return trip! Extra "look-like-a-local" points if you stand on the escalators on the right side, walk on the left.
Metrobus covers many of the gaps in Metrorail, such as Fairfax, Georgetown and Adams-Morgan. The base fare is $1.25, more for express buses that use interstate highways. Some bus lines run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Metrobus's transfer system, however, is a major selling point. Transfers are free, and are valid for unlimited Metrobus connections -- including round trips -- within a two-hour period. You can also transfer from Metrorail to a bus for 35 cents; but make sure to get a free paper transfer from the dispensers at the start of your rail trip; give that slip and 35 cents to the bus driver. Bus-to-rail transfers were scheduled to start in late 2004, but have been on hold.