Europeans first arrived along the Potomac River in the 16th century and the area quickly became prosperous; tobacco brought vast wealth to the gentleman planters, and the abundance of slaves gave them ample time for leisure. After the revolutionary war Congress had to decide on the location of a new 'Federal Town'. The 10 square miles (26 sq km) between Maryland and Virginia, which is now the District of Columbia, was finally selected for its strategic location between North and South.
French architect, Pierre L'Enfant, was chosen to plan the town, and as he pegged out streets 150 feet (46m) wide, and one grand avenue 400 feet (122m) wide and a mile long, the local landowners thought he'd gone mad - he was throwing away valuable land that could be used for farming! It was to take 50 years before Washington, DC (District of Columbia) took on the air and appearance of a capital city.
Today, Washington, DC with its low-profile skyline is a city of green parks and open spaces, grand buildings, historic landmarks, marbled monuments and impressive museums, with character-filled neighbourhoods that support a thriving cultural scene.
This thriving cosmopolitan city is an international hub of power and diplomacy, commanding the political centre stage for the world's most powerful nation, and representing all the democratic ideals that the country takes pride in. Washington, DC was one of the targets of the terrorist attack on the USA on 11 September 2001, when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, the heart of national and international security. Since then security has remained high around Washington's key monuments and police checks at top city attractions have lent a sober air to this pleasant city.
After politics, tourism is the capital's main industry. The city plays host to millions of people annually who come to explore famous sights such as the domed US Capitol, the stately White House, Lincoln Memorial and the soaring Washington Monument. The most well-known sights are located along the National Mall, a green park stretching from the US Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac River, and include several memorials to great US presidents of the past, as well as the outstanding museums of the Smithsonian Institute. Almost all major attractions are free.
Besides political sights, Washington is also a city of interesting neighbourhoods, each with its own character and culture. The most celebrated of these is historic Georgetown, with elegant colonial houses, boutiques, fancy restaurants, and a lively nightlife. One of the most colourful neighbourhoods is the bohemian district of Adams-Morgan with an assortment of funky shops and ethnic stores, while the arty suburb of Dupont Circle is an affluent business and residential area, with excellent restaurants, art galleries and shops that makes up the centre of DC's gay community.
Extending for over two miles (3km) from the US Capitol to the Potomac River, the tree-lined grassy strip known as the National Mall is the central hub of tourist activity in the city, containing many of Washington DC's most famous attractions. It is home to the tapering Washington Monument; the Lincoln, Roosevelt and Jefferson Memorials; the Capitol building; the White House; the museums of the Smithsonian Institution; and the National Gallery of Art. The Mall is at the heart of the city's social life, the site for many celebrations and festivals throughout the year, and used by scores of joggers, picnickers, food vendors and strollers daily. It is also a popular site for rallies and protests ranging from a few dozen to a few million people. The Tidal Basin, a beautiful lake famous for its spring show of blossoming Japanese cherry trees, lies to the south.
The heart of American government is also Washington DC's most prominent landmark, the US Capitol, sited on the top of Capitol Hill, with its giant white dome visible from all over the city. It is one of the city's top tourist attractions, as well as the most recognised symbol of democracy, and contains the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world. Under the magnificent dome, US governmental policy is shaped and the law of the land is practiced. The interior is richly embellished, with hundreds of statues filling Statuary Hall in honour of important people in the country's history, while paintings and murals decorate the hallways and walls of the Rotunda, depicting 400 years of American history. The enormous circular hall capped by the 180-foot (55m) high dome is the hub of the Capitol, with a symbolic fresco masterpiece at its centre. The Rotunda links the north and south wings, the two halves of the Capitol that contain the Senate and House of Representatives respectively, and flags flying over either wing indicate which part of Congress is in session.
The White House has been the private residence and administrative headquarters of every President of the United States since 1800. Today an American flag flies over the house whenever the president is in residence. Situated at the edge of the National Mall, the palatial building has undergone numerous alterations over the years, which have included refurnishing and expansion, the addition of the first toilets by Jefferson, and electricity added during Harrison's presidency, as well as personal inclusions by each of its presidential occupants. The White House was adapted to the needs of Franklin D. Roosevelt who suffered polio and a swimming pool was installed; Jacqueline Kennedy developed the famous Rose Garden; Clinton added a jogging track, hot tub and humidor; and the most recent addition is the vegetable garden planted by Barack and Michelle Obama. Tours visit several rooms on the Ground and State Floors, including the Oval Office, the State Dining Room with seating for 140 dinner or luncheon guests, and the Gold and White East Room that is the publicised scene of presidential receptions and other social events. The top two floors are private. The custom that allows free public tours of the president's private home is only stopped during wartime. The visitor centre provides interesting historical information about the residence and its occupants.
In recognition of his leadership in the fight for American independence, George Washington earned the title 'Father of the Nation', and was the first president of the United States. The Washington Monument was built in memory of this great leader. As the tallest structure in the city, situated at the western end of the Mall, the gleaming white obelisk offers 360-degree panoramic vistas with some of the most familiar sights in the world in view, including the White House, US Capitol, Smithsonian museums and the Lincoln Memorial. Constructed out of loose granite blocks without the use of cement to hold them together, the monument is the tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world, a 555-foot (169m) marble obelisk that stood uncompleted for 37 years. A change in the colour of stone is visible about halfway up and marks the two building phases. In 1888 a steam elevator transported visitors to the top, a 20-minute ride that was restricted, for safety reasons, to men only. Women could walk up the 897 stairs. Today climbing the steps is prohibited, but a free 70-second elevator conveys visitors to the gallery that provides unparalleled views of Washington, DC and across the Potomac River.
The grandiose Lincoln Memorial is a tribute to the 16th US president who preserved the Union during the Civil War and ended slavery. It also serves as a Civil War memorial, symbolising the ideas of Freedom and American Democracy. The use of classical architecture, modelled on a Greek temple, is to remind people of the ancient Greeks who were the first modern culture to have a democratic government. In the centre of the memorial, surrounded by 36 white columns representing the 36 states in Lincoln's Union, is a huge marble statue of Abraham Lincoln who, seated, stares out over the Reflecting Pool towards the Washington Monument and Capitol Hill. Carved in the walls of the memorial chamber around the statue are inscriptions of two of his most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address, and above each is a painted symbolic mural. The memorial is the site of numerous demonstrations committed to justice, most notably the Civil Rights March in 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his classic 'I Have a Dream' speech. A bookshop and museum, detailing a photographic history of famous events that occurred on the steps, are nearby.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Officially named the J Edgar Hoover FBI Building after its notorious long-time director, the ugly concrete structure is headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Public tours have been suspended indefinitely, but were once the most popular attraction in Washington, DC. Guided tours took visitors through the Material Analysis Unit and crime laboratories where fingerprinting, DNA and ballistics testing takes place; past displays of thousands of confiscated weapons, and illegal items seized during narcotics operations; exhibits on crime fighting techniques and counterintelligence operations; as well as other presentations on terrorism, agent training, some famous cases, and photographs of the FBI's 'Ten Most Wanted List'. Those in search of espionage history, however, should go to the nearby International Spy Museum.
International Spy Museum
Washington's newest museum, the International Spy Museum, features the largest collection of publicly displayed international espionage artefacts in the world. It is the result of years of planning and advice by former officials of the CIA, FBI and the KGB, as well as some of the nation's top experts in intelligence. It aims to educate the public about espionage and its vital role and impact on historic and current events. Interactive exhibits cover the history of spying, famous spies, spying during the World Wars with an exhibit on unheeded intelligence that warned of the Pearl Harbour attack, sophisticated espionage techniques of the Cold War, and the latest spy trends and challenges of 21st century espionage. There is also a section dealing with high-tech gadgets such as bugs, tiny cameras and ingenious disguise techniques, with interactive stations exploring surveillance, disguises, code breaking, threat analysis and more. Operation Spy is an interactive experience in which visitors get to be a spy; hands-on activities include safe-cracking and conducting polygraph tests, experiences which are combined with special effects and live action. The museum complex includes a restaurant, spy-theme cafe and shop.
One of the world's finest research centres, the Smithsonian Institution incorporates 19 excellent museums and galleries and a zoo spread over Washington, DC, New York, Virginia and Panama. Most of the museums are however located in Washington, DC. The centre was the idea of British scientist James Smithson who stipulated in his will that lacking heirs his entire fortune would go the United States 'to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men'. The Institute's original home was in the red brick building known as The Castle that stands on the Mall. The need to accommodate facilities for scientific research as well as housing all the scientific and art collections amassed resulted in the construction of more buildings along the Mall. Today the Castle houses the Smithsonian Information Center, which provides an overview of all the museums and the zoo. The museums contain collections of historical importance on almost every subject. Museums include the National Air and Space Museum packed with full-size space and aircraft, including the Wright brothers' plane; the Natural History Museum with the Hope Diamond and the world's largest stuffed blue whale; and the American History Museum displaying the original Kermit the Frog. Other museums include the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art, the African Art Museum, the American Indian Museum, the Arts and Industries Building hosting changing exhibitions, the Hirshborn collection of modern art, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Postal Museum. The Smithsonian Museums are a fantastic attraction for families in Washington DC, and a wallet-friendly one as admission is free.
National Gallery of Art
Two buildings, the West and East Wings, make up the visually stunning National Gallery of Art that is the most popular art museum in North America. Together they house one of the world's leading collections of Western paintings, graphics and sculptures from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, and walking from the West Wing to the East provides a near chronological display of European art. The West Wing, the original building, is a marble architectural work of art with a domed rotunda over a fountain that houses most of the permanent collection. More than 100 galleries display modern and contemporary art with masterpieces by famous artists arranged by nationality, and include what is considered to be the finest Renaissance collection outside of Italy, as well as an outstanding Impressionist collection. The gallery's newer addition is the ultramodern East Wing, composed of two glass-walled triangles, and is devoted to 20th century paintings and sculptures. The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden is a large park outside the museum, which features a huge central fountain with several of the museum's permanent collection of sculptures on display.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
One of the city's best museums, but also the most disturbing, is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that hauntingly commemorates the discrimination and murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The permanent exhibition is divided into three floors, starting with the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Holocaust, and finally the after-effects of the war and liberation of the camps, with a moving film in which Holocaust survivors recount their personal experiences. The Hall of Remembrance is a quiet meditative place with dozens of burning candles lit in memory of the victims. Exhibits vividly convey the scale and nature of the horrors of the Holocaust using films, voice recordings, personal belongings of Jewish victims, photographs and Nazi propaganda. The permanent exhibition's graphic content is extremely disturbing and is not recommended for children under 11 years of age. A different section of the museum contains an exhibit designed for children, called 'Daniel's Story: Remember the Children'.
On April 14th, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching a performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC. His killer, an actor named John Wilkes Booth who sympathised with the Confederates in the ongoing Civil War, then jumped to the stage and shouted " Sic simper tyrannis" (Thus to all tyrants) before fleeing the theatre. The US Government bought the theatre and prohibited it from use as an amusement venue. It was used for various storage and clerical purposes until it was restored and reopened for performances in 1968. Today, Ford's Theatre is both an active performance venue and historical site, and the Ford's Theatre Museum contains artefacts related to the assassination, including the Derringer pistol Booth used. Across from the theatre is the Petersen House, which is where President Lincoln finally died early the next morning.
While looking at papers may sound dull compared to Washington DC's exciting museums, the National Archives is one of the most popular attractions, housing priceless documents from US history, including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and even the 1297 version of the Magna Carta. All these documents are displayed to the public in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, along with other collections of photography and historical memorabilia.
Washington National Cathedral
One of the largest cathedrals in the US, the Washington National Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is a magnificent Neogothic structure standing 301 feet (91m) tall. The interior of the cathedral is just as grand, with the long, narrow sanctuary framed by buttresses, chancels, transepts and beautiful stained glass windows. The most famous of these is the Space Window, which contains a piece of moon rock brought back by Neil Armstrong from the Apollo 11 mission. The cathedral was finished in 1972, making it very young compared to most cathedrals of its stature. It is the final resting place of noted figures such as Helen Keller, President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, and Admiral George Dewey.
One of the most prestigious performing arts centres in the US, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is also its busiest, hosting roughly 2,000 performances each year for an audience totalling nearly two million people in its eight separate performance halls. It is home to the National Symphony Orchestra, and has commissioned over 200 new works in various disciplines. The centre was first conceived by Eleanor Roosevelt as a way to employ actors during World War II, and opened in 1971 with the premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Mass. Each year five artists or groups are awarded the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime contribution to American culture and the performing arts in a gala ceremony televised nationally.
The Smithsonian National Zoological Park, commonly known as the National Zoo, is a great attraction for families on holiday in Washington DC. As part of the Smithsonian Institution, the zoo has no entry fee and offers visitors the chance to explore 163 acres of habitats containing more than 2,000 animals. The star attractions of the zoo are definitely Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, two giant pandas on loan from the Chinese government. Other popular exhibits include the Great Ape House, Elephant Trails, Lion/Tiger Hill, Cheetah Conservation Station, and Seals and Sea Lions Exhibit. The National Zoo was the home of the original Smokey Bear, who was a symbol of forest fire prevention and lived at the zoo from 1950 to 1976.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport
Location: The airport is situated 10 miles (16km) south of Baltimore and 30 miles (50km) north of Washington DC.
Contacts: Tel: +1 410 859 7111.
Time Zone: GMT -5 (GMT -4 from March to November).
Departure tax: None.
Facilities: There are ATMs, bureaux de change and postal services throughout the terminal. Facilities for the disabled are good. Other facilities include restaurants, bars, shops and duty-free, a business service centre and information help desk. Wireless Internet access is also available.
Parking: A short-term car park is in front of the terminal, and long-term parking is available that is connected to the terminal by shuttle buses.
Transfer to the city: The airport train station has trains going to both central Baltimore and Washington DC; the BWI Marshal Station (Tel: 410-672-6169 )is connected to the terminal by free shuttle buses from the airport. Both MARC (Tel: 866-RIDE-MTA) and Amtrak (Tel: 800-872-7245) run trains to Union Station in DC. A light rail service goes from the airport to Baltimore costing US$1.60 (Tel: 410-539-5000). Taxies are available outside of baggage claims and cost about $25 to Baltimore and $63 to Washington DC. Public buses include Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Bus Service which serves the greater Washington area. There are also various bus shuttle services to both cities, some dropping off at the central hotels.
Car rental: A car rental facility is linked to the airport terminals by a free shuttle service, which leaves from the lower level terminal. Car rental companies include Avis, Budget, Hertz, National and others.
Washington-Dulles International Airport
Location: The airport is situated 26 miles (41km) west of Washington, DC.
Contacts: Tel: +1 703 572 2700.
Time Zone: GMT -5 (GMT -4 from March to November).
Departure tax: None.
Facilities: There are ATMs and foreign exchange services available. Facilities for the disabled are good. Other facilities include restaurants, bars, shops and duty-free, business services, cellular phone rental, tourist information and hotel reservations.
Parking: Hourly parking at Washington Dulles International Airport is available in the parking garage adjacent to the terminal and starts at $4 and goes up to $36 per day. Daily parking garages 1 and 2 cost $17 per 24 hours and the garages are connected to the terminal via a shuttle service. A cell phone waiting lot is provided for drivers picking up passengers at the airport.
Transfer to the city: The Washington Flyer Coach Service provides a direct link between the airport and the West Falls Church Metrorail (Tel: 202-637-7000), operating every 30 minutes to downtown, with a fare of $8. The coach service tickets are bought at arrivals door 4 in the main terminal and cost $10. A public bus service is available at the station for transport to areas not serviced by Metrorail. The Washington Flyer taxis are available from the airport and cost $54 dollars to the city centre (Tel: +1(0)703 661 6655). SuperShuttle operates a door-to-door shared van service. Hotel/Motel courtesy transportation can be arranged by using the phone hook-ups attached to the hotel courtesy boards on the Baggage Claim Level.
Car rental: Car rental companies include Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz and National.
Ronald Reagan Washington Airport
Location: Three miles (4.8 km) south of Washington DC
Contacts: Tel: +1 (703) 417-8000.
Time Zone: GMT -5 (GMT -4 from March to November).
Facilities: The airport has ATMs, charging stations for computers and cell phones, foreign exchange offices, a chapel, post office, and a number of shops and restaurants within the terminal. There is also a USO Lounge available for American military personnel. There is complimentary wireless internet access throughout the airport.
Parking: Parking at DCA ranges from hourly lots costing $2 per 30 minutes for the first two hours, to $4 per hour thereafter and $36 per day. Daily lots charge $5 per hour or $20 per day. The economy lot rates start at $ 3 per hour and go up to $12 per day.
Transfer to the city: The airport has a Metrorail station connected to the councourse level of Terminals B and C which offers connecting service to downtown Washington DC. Metrobus provides service to Washington DC on weekend mornings when the Metro isn't operating. There are several shuttle companies that offer door-to-door service within the city.
Car rental: There are several car hire companies with offices at Ronald Reagan Washington Airport, including Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, Dollar, Thrifty and Enterprise.
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