Much more than politics
If politics is an industry, then DC’s surely a company town—but while it’s the seat of democracy in the US, this lively, gorgeous city is notable for much more than the White House and Congress.
Scroll through Instagram’s We the People DC, which is taken over each day by a different one of Washington’s roughly 700,000 residents, and you’ll find the city is also home to artists, scientists, writers, kick-ass local music and theater scenes, and nature that’ll knock your socks off.
People flock here from every country on Earth, drawn by diplomacy, a strong job market, and/or DC’s status as a sanctuary city, filling the nation’s capital with food and cultures from around the globe.
Putting the “retro” in retrocession
Way back in 1790, DC was declared the seat of America’s government. Washington itself was mostly named for the first US president, but Columbia, in reference to explorer Christopher Columbus, was then considered a patriotic shorthand for America. It made sense, then, to dub the new city’s territory, “the District of Columbia.”
The city’s original 100-square mile, square layout—made up of land ceded by Maryland and Virginia—was marked out with 100 chunks of sandstone. Thirty-six of these “boundary stones” can still be found around the city, sometimes surrounded by little iron fences.
In 1846, Virginia took back its port city of Alexandria, which made up a big piece of that original DC diamond. As a result, Washington, DC is now shaped like a ragged kite, divided into four uneven quadrants—SE, SW, NE, and NW—with the US Capitol Building at just about its center.
For colorful maps of DC and a whole bunch of its 131 neighborhoods, check out local design agency Cherry Blossom Creative.
Not that kind of mall
The National Mall was named for elegant, tree-lined parks in England where pall-mall (a version of croquet) was played. Ironically, DC’s early Mall was a bit less posh; it served as home to grazing cows, a slaughterhouse, and for a hot minute there, the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad.
The modern, manicured version that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building, is now full of monuments, memorials, and museums.
Until you can visit in person, there are other ways to explore. Wander the Mall in virtual reality; pore over National Archives Building treasures like the Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, and Bill of Rights; or check out the Giant Panda Cam at the National Zoo to watch the antics of the newest cub, born in August.
Taxation without representation
Two hundred and thirty years after its creation, the District of Columbia still doesn’t have a full voting member in Congress. Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s current representative, can vote in committee and procedural matters but can’t actually vote on the floor. As a result, drivers with cars registered in the District can get license plates printed with the slogan, “Taxation Without Representation.”
Representation, though, may finally be on the horizon. In June 2020, Congress passed Holmes Norton’s H.R. 51 bill; if passed by the Senate as well, DC would become the 51st state in the Union. The State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth would be named for abolitionist and former DC resident Frederick Douglass, and given full local self-government and voting rights in Congress.
Building the President’s House
Starting in 1792, the labor force that built the President’s House (as the White House was first known) included stonecrafters recruited from Edinburgh-based trade organizations called Masonic Lodges. These Scottish Freemasons trained enslaved African people, local white laborers, and European immigrants how to quarry and cut Aquia Creek sandstone in Virginia, ferry it down the Potomac River, and hoist it over a timber frame.
The original mansion, designed by Irish architect James Hoban, was finished in 1800, burned by British troops in 1814, and then rebuilt over two years, but it wasn’t officially named the White House until 1901.
Teddy Roosevelt ordered the building of the West Wing, William Howard Taft added the Oval Office, and in 1948, Harry S. Truman had that original timber frame reconstructed in steel, then upcycled as wood paneling for several rooms in the house.
Jackie Kennedy later oversaw an extensive interior renovation of the White House, which she shared with America in, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” a TV special shown in 1962 on all three major networks. For a more modern gander at the White House, you can binge shows like The West Wing, House of Cards, Veep, and Scandal.
The City of Trees
One of DC’s historic nicknames is the “City of Trees,” since it’s home to more than 300 hundred species. Its official tree is the enormous scarlet oak, named for its bright red leaves in the fall.
In springtime, DC’s cherry blossoms bring all the folks to the yard—but you can check their progress any time on the Cherry Bloom Cam. America owes this floral windfall to Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, National Geographic’s first female journalist, who fell in love with cherry trees on an 1885 trip to Japan. Determined to have similar cherry trees planted at home in Washington, Scidmore raised a ton of money and turned to First Lady Helen Taft for help; in response, Japan happily sent more than 3,000 Prunus serrulata specimens (called sakura in Japanese) to the White House, and in 1912 they were planted ‘round the Tidal Basin.
In 1965, Japan sent 3,800 more to amateur horticulturist Lady Bird Johnson, and most of those trees now ring the Washington Monument.
Let your cultural flag fly
DC residents come from all over the Earth, and many of them are diplomats. Following the Great Depression, many of the lavish Beaux Arts homes of Dupont Circle’s former “Millionaire’s Row” became stunning embassies for Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Kyrgyzstan, and more. To peek inside their ornate facades, keep watch for tickets to Cultural Tourism DC’s “Around the World Embassy Tour” (generally held in May).
DC has been a serious theater town since the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when staging local plays became important to the city’s urban revival efforts. You’ve likely heard of the big-ticket Kennedy Center and Ford’s Theater (where Lincoln was shot in 1865), but many small venues such as Woolly Mammoth, Theater J, Anacostia Playhouse, and GALA Hispanic Theatre focus on the work of emerging talent. Check out what’s streaming on DC stages at Theatre Washington.
The nation’s capital is also a great place to hear music (at venues like Echostage, The Anthem, and the 9:30 Club), but it has only one homegrown musical style: Go-Go, a funky mix of horns, bass, call-and-response, and a non-stop Afro-Caribbean beat.
First introduced in the late 1970s by DC’s own Chuck Brown (along with his Soul Searchers), Go-Go beats have been sampled by Jay Z, Salt-N-Pepa, and native son Wale. Pop in those earbuds and check out this awesome NPR Tiny Desk Concert with DC’s legendary Rare Essence.
On the waterfront(s)
With about 40 inches of annual rainfall, DC can certainly be a damp city, but contrary to popular belief, it isn’t a swamp. Inadequate sewer systems and farming erosion settled muck and mire on the city’s south and west borders into the mid-1800s, but the Army Corps of Engineers re-shaped this into the National Mall. The District is actually a coastal floodplain with two major rivers, both studded with glorious spots to explore.
The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail meanders for 20 paved and boardwalked miles through the SW and SE quadrants. In the Navy Yard neighborhood, it stretches beside The Yards DC, where all the bars and restaurants offer takeout to enjoy along the way. Also connected by the Trail are Kingman and Heritage Islands, popular spots for paddling, hiking, and birdwatching; and the 700-acre Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, a wetland wonderland full of ponds, cattails, and water lilies.
Along the Potomac River, just across a walking bridge off George Washington Parkway, pedestrian-only Theodore Roosevelt Island is arguably DC’s most forested national memorial. Its 88 ½ acres are full of winding walkways, riverside rocks, inquisitive deer, and in the center, a 17-foot-tall statue of the former President—glasses, mustache, and all.
Eat your way around the world
All over the city you’ll find an amazing variety of international cuisines—one of the many perks of a global population—including Afghan, Ethiopian, Balkan, Georgian, Uyghur, Taiwanese, and Dominican.
NE’s Union Market is a one-stop shop, with picnic tables and Astroturf out front and everything from veggie dosas to bulgogi bowls to Southern comfort food. Downtown near the Mall, the Penn Quarter neighborhood is home to chef and humanitarian José Andres’ local restaurant empire, which includes Zaytinya (Mediterranean), Oyamel (Mexican), and China Chilcano (Chinese-Peruvian).
No food says DC, though, like the signature “half-smoke,” a half-beef, half-pork smoked sausage cradled in a bun and smothered in chili and cheese. To try locally made half-smokes at home, order ‘em from Landover, Maryland’s MeatCrafters.
Fried chicken wings are another DC favorite, but don’t forget the traditional side of sweet & sour DC Mumbo Sauce, which can be shipped direct from Capital City Co. in containers as large as a gallon.
Raise a glass to freedom
And speaking of gallons...note that DC ranks #2 in wine consumption per capita amongst US states (despite the fact, of course, that DC isn’t yet a state). The city’s full of great wine shops like Wardman Wines and DCanter, as well as wine bars like Maxwell Park, La Jambe, The Pursuit, and the Kennedy Center’s new outdoor Victura Park.
However, local makers (many of which can be visited for tours and tastings) focus on a wide array of other tipples, like rum (Cotton & Reed), gin (New Columbia Distillers), and rye, bourbon, vodka (Republic Restoratives).
For a taste of the District at home, use a local gin or bourbon to fix yourself a Rickey, DC’s official cocktail, traditionally served in a highball glass. And as they sing in ye olde hit musical Hamilton, let’s have another round tonight.