Washington DC Info
Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States
and the seat of its three branches of government, has a collection of free, public museums unparalleled in size and scope throughout the history of mankind, and the lion's share of the nation's most treasured monuments and memorials. The vistas on the National Mall between the Capitol, Washington Monument, White House, and Lincoln Memorial are famous throughout the world as icons of the world's wealthiest and most powerful nation.
Beyond the Mall, D.C. has in the past two decades shed its old reputation as a city both boring and dangerous, with shopping, dining, and nightlife befitting a world-class metropolis. Travelers will find the city new, exciting, and decidedly cosmopolitan and international.
D.C.'s culture is in no small part defined by a divide between black and white, native and transient, east and west. Compared to other cities, relatively few residents are native Washingtonians. Most recent census figures report that about 50% of the population has relocated in the past five years. The transient population is overwhelmingly professional, young, white, affluent, and highly educated—drawn to the city for its government-related work and booming economy. This is in stark contrast to the local African-American population, which has deep roots in the community, and much more socioeconomic diversity—some areas of the city rank among the nation's poorest, most alienated, and underprivileged, plagued with serious problems in the public schools and violent housing projects.
D.C., a.k.a the Chocolate City, is a majority-black city that has long been a national center of African-American culture. It was the first black-majority city in the country, and until the 1920s (when it was surpassed by New York) it was home to the largest black population of any city. U St was known as Black Broadway, with native Washingtonian Duke Ellington performing in the clubs up and down the street. The District was long an attractive destination for African-Americans leaving the South, as it was both nearby and a bastion of tolerance and progressivism in race relations, being the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the first city in the country to integrate its public schools. D.C. is also home to Howard University, one of the nation's most important historically black colleges.
The sometimes uncomfortable blend of the semi-transient professional population and permanent residents is often the source of controversy, especially as D.C. has been experiencing a wave of neighborhood rebuilding and "gentrification"—young professionals with tight budgets and distaste for long daily commutes have, in recent years, been driven to move into poorer neighborhoods in search of low rent and easy access to city amenities. But while there is inevitably some conflict around neighborhood change, these changes have also created D.C.'s most diverse, culturally vibrant, and exciting neighborhoods—just walk up U St or 18th St in Shaw or Adams Morgan, and you'll see that it's not a vain hope that the city's various cultures can come together to create something greater.
D.C., and particularly the metro area beyond the city limits, is impressively international—in the immediate metro area a whopping one third of the population is foreign born. The biggest immigrant group is no doubt from Central America, mostly from El Salvador. Latino culture finds its home in the city in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights—both neighborhoods where you'll find all the various cultures of the city intermingling. D.C. also has a big African immigrant population, with an exceptionally large Ethiopian community (the second largest in the world after Addis Ababa), which has bestowed the city with a love for Ethiopian food, and which finds its urban center in D.C.'s own Little Ethiopia. The international culture extends well beyond the immigrant communities, though, to the big foreign professional population, as well as the brain drain of Americans from all around the country looking for work in the international relations field—D.C. is, simply put, the nation's most international town.
Local politics, and local anger at the relations between the city and the national government, are perhaps the glue that binds all Washingtonians together. The District of Columbia is under the ultimate control of the U.S. Congress. Since 1973, city residents have been able to elect a Mayor as well as representatives to the D.C. City Council. However, Congress retains the right to overturn laws passed by the city. The nearly 600,000 citizens residing in the city do not have voting representation in Congress because the District is not a "state." As a reminder to visitors that D.C. residents are taxed but are unable to vote for Congress, District license plates bear the slogan "Taxation Without Representation"—the same slogan used to denounce British rule before the Revolutionary War.
D.C.'s climate has a bad reputation, the city having supposedly been built on a swamp with the purpose of discouraging a large bureaucracy—after all, if no one wanted to live in D.C., then there wouldn't be too many bureaucrats.
This is all a huge crock. There was no swamp here, and the weather is actually quite lovely throughout the year. The myth of bad weather in the capital comes from the fact that most visit at the height of the summer, when the pleasure of relatively moderate temperatures is completely drowned out by the miserable, impenetrable humidity. On a hot day on the Mall in July, you'll sweat like a dog, the kids will complain incessantly, and you'll want to spend as much time indoors as possible. It's not the best time to visit.
But the rest of the year is lovely. It's hard to beat spring in D.C. The northerly subtropical climate results in cool breezes, moderate temperatures, lush growth, flowers, budding trees, and, of course, the cherry blossoms. The most beautiful time of spring usually falls from April to mid-May. Domestic tourists know this, though, and you can expect the cherry blossom walk around the Tidal Basin to see (pedestrian) traffic jams that put the Beltway to shame. (A truly savvy tourist can escape the crowds but still enjoy the cherry blossoms at the National Arboretum.)
Fall, while not as gorgeous, rivals spring for perfect temperatures. It's also a lovely time for a walk in Rock Creek Park, where the dense forest bursts with multicolored confetti. Winter sees few tourists, but it's actually a great time to visit. While it's less attractive in December, the Gulf Stream ensures that the temperatures remain mild, with very sporadic snow. But the best thing about the season is that the museums are practically empty, and theater season is in full force.
It's worth considering the political climate as well. Before heading to D.C., research which events will coincide with your visit. Major international conferences, political events, or protests can hinder your sightseeing tour in dramatic fashion and also send lodging prices through the roof. The holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year's is a much calmer time to visit, when the U.S. Congress takes its extended vacation. This means fewer official visitors, elected officials, and staff members; the Metro becomes less crowded and there are overall fewer people in the city.