Washington, D.C. Quick: What images come immediately to mind? The Washington Monument towering over the National Mall? The U.S. Capitol (and squabbling members of Congress)? The statue of Abraham Lincoln staring out from his memorial? The White House (and protesters on the Ellipse)?

Now hold those thoughts and make room for these: a morning kayak excursion on the Potomac River, a delicious meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant, a bike ride through Rock Creek Park on a gorgeous fall day, a stroll past handsome embassies along Embassy Row, a tour of the Smithsonian’s compelling National Museum of African American History & Culture, a live jazz performance on a summer night in the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art.

All the above represent just a fraction of the wildly diverse cultural experiences and dynamic city life that D.C. has to offer. Whatever expectations you may have of the capital, you are bound to be surprised by the reality.

That’s what this guide is about. This section, specifically, aims to provide you with a context for understanding Washington, D.C.’s story and personality beyond the headlines, as well as practical information that will be useful to you while planning your trip and upon your arrival.

Washington, D.C., Today

Washington, D.C. is both the capital of the United States and a city unto itself; therein lie its charms, but also a host of complications. Control of the city is the main issue. The District is a free-standing jurisdiction, but because it is a city with a federal rather than a state overseer, it has never been entitled to the same governmental powers as the states. Congress supervises the District’s budget and legislation. Originally, Congress granted the city the authority to elect its own governance, but it rescinded that right when the District overspent its budget in its attempts to improve its services and appearance after the Civil War. The White House then appointed three commissioners, who ran D.C.’s affairs for nearly 100 years.

In 1973 the city regained the right to elect its own mayor and city council, but Congress retains control of the budget and the courts, and can veto municipal legislation. District residents can vote in presidential primaries and elections and can elect a delegate to Congress who introduces legislation and votes in committees, but this delegate cannot vote on the House floor. This unique situation, in which residents of the District pay federal income taxes but don’t have a vote in Congress, is a matter of great local concern. D.C. residents publicly protest the situation by displaying license plates bearing the inscription TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION.

Another wrinkle in this uncommon relationship is the fact that Washington’s economy relies heavily upon the presence of the federal government, which accounts for about 24% of all D.C. jobs (according to a trend report issued by D.C.’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer), making it the city’s single largest employer, and upon the tourism business that Washington, as the capital, attracts. The city struggles toward political independence, although it recognizes the economic benefits of its position as the seat of the nation’s capital.

As you tour the city, you will see that Washington, D.C., is a remarkably vibrant place. For the time being, income remains higher than the national average, residents are better educated than elsewhere, 52.5% of the population is female, more than one-third are between the ages of 18 and 34, and the people are remarkably diverse: 47.7% African American, 44.6% white, 10.9% Hispanic, 4.1% Asian, 14% foreign-born, and 17.4% speaking a language other than English at home. The presence of embassies and the diplomatic community intensifies the international flavor.

Washington, D.C.’s thriving culture includes a restaurant scene showcasing an immense variety of international cuisines, from Ethiopian to Peruvian, as well as soul food and such regional specialties as Chesapeake Bay crabs (served soft-shell, hard-shell, soup, cake, you name it). The city’s dining creds mount as critics from "Bon Appétit" magazine to the "New York Times" give high marks to the capital’s restaurants. Eating out is a way of life here, whether simply for the pleasure of it or for business—the city’s movers and shakers break bread at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.   

Theaters, music venues, assorted historic and cultural attractions, hotels, brand-name stores, and homegrown boutiques abound, and Washingtonians make the most of their bounty. But whatever it is—exhibit, play, concert, or restaurant meal—it had better be good. As well-traveled, well-educated, and, let’s face it, pretty demanding types, capital dwellers have high standards.

It wasn’t always this way. About 20 years ago, Washington wasn’t as attractive. Tourists came to visit federal buildings and the city’s memorials but stayed away from the dingy downtown and other off-the-Mall neighborhoods. The city had the potential for being so much more, and certain people—heroes, in my book—helped inspire action and brought about change themselves: Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who fought (and continues to fight) steadfastly for D.C. statehood and economic revival and equality; former Mayor Anthony Williams, who rescued the District’s budget when his predecessor, the notoriously mismanaging Mayor Marion Barry, brought the city to the brink of financial ruin; and the community-minded developers Abe and Irene Pollin, who used their own funds to finance the $200-million MCI sports center in the heart of town, spurring development all around it. Today, the wildly successful arena (renamed the Verizon Center in 2006 and now known as Capital One Arena) anchors the utterly transformed Penn Quarter neighborhood.

The city’s resident population has continued to grow and now stands at approximately 700,000, a size not seen since 1975. (At its peak, during and immediately following World War II, more than 900,000 people called D.C. home.) The growth spurt is especially significant given that the District’s population reached a relative low point in 1998, when the U.S. Census counted 565,000 D.C. residents. 

“Revitalization” is too mild a word to describe the changes taking place in neighborhoods throughout the District. The city is literally reinventing itself. Look to the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood in southeast D.C., where a grand baseball stadium, Nationals Park, opened in March 2008, followed ever since by new restaurants and bars and hotels and housing; to the Columbia Heights enclave in upper northwest D.C., now a mélange of Latino culture, loft condominiums, and ethnic eateries; to historic Shaw, which has turned overnight from a quiet residential area into a hot new foodie destination; and to the Southwest Waterfront, whose new Wharf complex of watersports and recreational activities, lodging, nightlife venues, shops, and eateries give people plenty of reasons to come here, when they had few before. Add one more reason: Audi Field at Buzzard Point, the gorgeous stadium that debuted in 2018 as home base for D.C. United, the city’s soccer team. And more development is underway, including Capital Crossing, a mixed-use, 7-acre development between Union Station and Capital One Arena that actually adds three new city blocks, by way of its placement atop the I-395 Freeway! Meanwhile, the city’s evergreens—the memorials and monuments, the historic neighborhoods, and the Smithsonian museums—remain unflaggingly popular.

But D.C. continues to have its share of problems, including crime and poverty and lingering inequality. Some issues relate to the city’s gentrification efforts, such as the displacement of residents from homes they can no longer afford in increasingly expensive neighborhoods. Mayor Muriel Bowser has her work cut out for her in a city that, despite its remarkable economic growth, struggles to extend the benefits of that growth to all its citizens, ensuring access to healthcare, good schools, safe neighborhoods, adequate housing, and basic social services.

Diverse in demographics, residents are alike in loving their city, despite the issues it faces. Visitors seem to share this love, as statistics bear out: D.C. welcomes 22 million visitors a year, more than 2 million from abroad.

Little-Known Facts

  • Many people—including Washington, District of Columbia residents themselves—wonder how the city wound up with such an unwieldy name. Here’s how: President Washington referred to the newly created capital as “the Federal City.” City commissioners then chose the names “Washington” to honor the president and “Territory of Columbia” to designate the federal nature of the area. Columbia was the feminine form of Columbus, synonymous in those days with “America” and all she stood for—namely, liberty. The capital was incorporated in 1871, when it officially became known as Washington, District of Columbia.

  • The distance between the base of the Capitol, at one end of the National Mall, and the Lincoln Memorial, at the other, is nearly 2 miles. The circumference of the White House property, from Pennsylvania Avenue to Constitution Avenue and 15th Street to 17th Street, is about 1 1/2 miles.

  • More than 27% of Washington, D.C., is national parkland, which makes the capital one of the “greenest” cities in the country. The biggest chunk is the 2,000-acre Rock Creek Park, the National Park Service’s oldest natural urban park, founded in 1890.

  • Every country that maintains diplomatic relations with the United States has an embassy in the nation’s capital. Currently, the number of embassies exceeds 180, mostly located along Massachusetts Avenue, known as Embassy Row, and other streets in the Dupont Circle neighborhood.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.