Washington DC is located near the middle of the eastern coast of the USA. It is 230 miles south of New York City, less than an hour drive to Baltimore and slightly more than two hours to Philadelphia. The city is near the vast Chesepeake Bay about 100 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The surrounding landscape is nearly flat with some gently rolling hills and shallow valleys. Summers can get quite warm with temperatures often exceeding 80 degrees F during June through August. Winters can be quite cold with temperatures intermittently falling below freezing from December through March. They get a modest amount of precipitation evenly distributed throughout the year. Occasional Atlantic storms can bring deluges or can dump large amounts of snow on the area in the winter.
Washington DC is more than a city but not quite a state. It is a "district" created by the Congress of the United States in 1790 as a place to meet and transact their affairs of government. It was originally a ten-mile, square of land straddling the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland. They called it the District of Columbia and named the new capital city, to be constructed within, Washington in honor of our founding father and first president.
A city planned by a French engineer
Washington DC is one of the few cities in the USA that was built according to a plan. In 1790, President Washington hired a French engineer from Lafayette's army named Pierre L'Enfant to design a glorious capital city similar to Paris. The complete name of the city is Washington, District of Columbia. Most people call it Washington DC or just DC.
Today Washington DC is a city of variety and contrast. The central area is beautifully designed with broad avenues lined with magnificent buildings and monuments set in spacious green parks. The surrounding neighborhoods vary from modern commercial districts and upscale residential neighborhoods to ethnic enclaves and working class neighborhoods. The city houses a myriad of workers, diplomats, politicians and immigrants from many lands. It is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the US with numerous ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants featuring a wide variety of exotic cuisines. Suburban communities in nearby Virginia and Maryland house an army of government workers and businesses supporting the operation of our huge federal bureaucracy.
Most of it is free
There is a lot to see in Washington DC and most of it is free. You can tour the US Capitol Building, the White House, the Supreme Court and many federal government agencies like the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (where they print the money) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) (where they shoot a machine gun). You can visit the Washington Memorial, the Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt Memorials. You can see Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam memorial, the Korean War memorial and the Battle of Iwo Jima memorial. You can even spend several days touring the many parts of the Smithsonian Institute, one of the largest and finest collection of museums in the world. None of it will cost anything!
Washington DC offers many historical and educational attractions, a variety of cultural and entertainment activities, plenty of multi-ethnic dining experiences and an array of shopping opportunities. Outside of the city, there are many civil war battlefields within a short drive; and President Washington's home at Mount Vernon is just south of DC. The port city of Baltimore and Anapolis, home of the US Naval Acadamy, are within an hour drive. Even Piladelphia and New York City are within a half-day drive.
Three major airports
DC is served by three major airports. Washington National Airport, now called Reagan International, is just across the Potomac river from the district. It offers many domestic flights to cities throughout the USA. Dulles Airport is located in suburban Virginia 30 miles west of the city. It offers many international flights and a variety of domestic connections. Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) is about 30 miles north of DC near the outskirts of Baltimore. It offers both domestic and international travel options.
The DC Metro, or subway system is quite good. It offers easy access from Washington International Airport and from numerous "Park and Ride" locations around the city to most of the major attractions. On weekdays, the parking situation in the city can be quite difficult. I recommend parking outside of the downtown area and using the Metro. On weekends and holidays when the government beaurocrats desert their offices, downtown parking is readily available.
Navigating the baffling street system
© Mike Leco / USATourist.com
There is a lot to see in Washington DC and most of it is free. You can tour the US Capitol Building, the White House, the Supreme Court and many federal government agencies.
Driving in DC can be frustrating. The beltway system around the city is quite good, but access to and from the central area is not so easy. All major roads often become congested during the busy hours of early morning and late afternoon.
The well-planned street system is an easy to comprehend grid that is often difficult to maneuver. The north-south streets are numbered and the east-west streets are lettered beginning at the Capitol and extending in both direction. You can have two 3rd streets (one to the east of the Capitol and one to the west), and you can have two "D" streets (one to the north of the capitol and one to the south). That is why the city is divided into quadrants. The intersections of 7th street and "C street" can occur in the NE, SE, NW and SW sectors. You must specify the quadrant to find an address. There is a series of broad avenues that radiate out from the Capitol like the spokes of a wheel. They produce some complex angular intersections that can baffle even the most experienced drivers.
Visit our Washington D.C. Attractions for information about the best sights in and around DC!
Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Photo Description: A view of the Capitol Building in Washington DC.