Washington Travel Guide


Political centre of the US government and geographic centre of DC itself, the United States Capitol sits atop a hill overlooking the National Mall. The building is accessible by guided tours, which visit the dramatic Rotunda, Statuary Hall and the old Supreme Court chamber. The tour ends downstairs in the Crypt, which has exhibits on the Capitol's history.

Three years after Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton decided that Washington should house the nation's capital in 1790, construction began on the grand Capitol that was to grace the hill east of the Potomac. By the turn of the century, the movers, shakers and lawmakers began to move in. The British nearly burned it to the ground in 1814, which demoralised the Americans almost enough to provoke the abandonment of the whole DC experiment. However, some last-minute resolve saw the Capitol rebuilt from 1817 to 1819. The House and Senate wings were added in 1857, the nine-million-pound iron dome in 1863 and the east face in the 1950s, making the current icon over twice as large as the original building. The Capitol is the epicentre of the city as well as being its most prominent landmark; Washington's major avenues intersect at an imaginary point under the dome. If you want to watch Congress in session, you'll have to get a pass for the visitors' gallery from your Congressional Representative (if you have one) or the Sergeant-at-Arms (if you don't).

The dramatic Capitol Rotunda is decorated with a fresco painted by Italian immigrant Constantino Brumidi. Called The Apotheosis of Washington, it shows George Washington being welcomed into heaven by 13 angels representing the original 13 states (and apparently modelled on 13 local prostitutes). The hallways are decorated with more murals, showing the nation's heroes and their deeds - the most recent is a portrait of the dead Challenger astronauts. Statuary Hall is filled with stone men - theoretically two distinguished citizens from each state, but in principal a few less than that, as the floor wasn't strong enough to bear the weight of so much marble.

Federal Bureau of Investigation
Nobody votes for its agents, but there's no doubt the Federal Bureau of Investigation wields serious power. Officially named the J Edgar Hoover FBI Building (after the notorious director who made the FBI the crime-fighting bureaucracy it is today), the Bureau's headquarters are at 10th and Pennsylvania NW.

Library of Congress
A block east of the Capitol, the Library of Congress has about 100 million items, including 26 million books, 36 million manuscripts and maps, photographs, sheet music and musical instruments. It's the largest library in the world. Books from the library were used to light the 1814 Capitol fire, after which President Jefferson sold his collection to the library to get the numbers back up. The best part of the library is the 1897 Jefferson Building, with its vaulted ceilings and ornate decoration. Two modern annexes are nearby. The library screens free classic films, and occasionally concerts are given using the library's five Stradivarius violins.

Lincoln Memorial
The inspirational Lincoln Memorial embodies the American ideal of freedom, tolerance and charity. It is a powerful symbol and the giant seated Abraham Lincoln statue confers a strange resonating ambience.

The memorial is much more than a monument to the 16th US president. Completed in 1922, it quickly became a symbol of America's commitment to civil rights. From its steps in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr preached, 'I have a dream...' Designed to resemble a Greek temple, the monument's 36 columns represent the 36 states in Lincoln's union. The hands of the 19ft statue read A and L in American Sign Language to honor Lincoln's support for the Gallaudet College for the Deaf.

The Memorial closes the west end of the picture-postcard view down the Mall from the US Capitol and the Washington Monument. It is a temple to the man who saved the nation that he called 'the last best hope on Earth'. This is best expressed through his elegant words that run along the north and south wall of the chamber, including his masterpiece, the famous Gettysburg Address.

Smithsonian Institution
More than 150 years old, the massive, 16-museum Smithsonian is DC's premier attraction. Far more than a complex of museums, the Smithsonian is also a vast research and educational institution that cares for approximately 140 million artworks, scientific specimens, artefacts and other objects.

Its 14 DC museums and the Smithsonian-run National Zoological Park together draw millions of visitors each year, and they also offer year-round calendars of films, lectures, kids' activities and other programs, most free.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Dedicated in 1982, this sombre arrow of black stone has become an American pilgrimage site. A testament to the sacrifice of soldiers during America's least popular war, the memorial's two walls of polished Indian granite meet in a 10ft apex and are inscribed with the names of the 58,209 soldiers killed in the war, arranged chronologically by date of death.

The most moving remembrances are the notes, medals and mementos left by survivors, family and friends since the memorial was completed in 1982. Opponents to the design insisted that a more traditional sculpture be added; a memorial to the women who served in the war was another later addition.

Washington Monument
For a top-notch view of the Potomac Basin, make your way up the 555ft (166m) Washington Monument. This white obelisk rising from the centre of the Mall was begun in 1848, but not completed for 37 years. The project was derailed by antipapists who opposed Pope Pius IX's contributions, then the Civil War interrupted. There's an elevator ride to the top, and you can walk back down a staircase lined with plaques from all the states, plus one from the Cherokee Nation. While the monument itself is accessible, the grounds are currently closed for security enhancements.

White House
Every US president since John Adams has lived in this 132-room mansion at America's most famous address. Its stature has grown through the years: no longer a mere residence, it's now the central icon of the American presidency.

The Presidential Palace – as it was once known – has changed a great deal over history (and with its changing residents). It was not originally white, for example. After the British burnt the building in the War of 1812, it was restored and painted. It was Teddy Roosevelt who later gave official sanction to the executive mansion's popular name.

Presidents have customised the property over time: Grant put in a personal zoo; FDR added a pool; Truman a balcony; Bush Snr a horseshoe-throwing lane; and Clinton a jogging track. Some residents never leave: it's said that Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman both sighted Lincoln's ghost in Abe's old study.

Back before Herbert Hoover's era, presidents used to open the doors at noon each day to shake visitors' hands. Alas, no longer. Daily tours of the White House have been suspended since 9-11 (although Laura Bush conducts a video tour at the White House Visitor Center).

Off the Beaten Track

A quick jaunt across the Potomac from the capital and you'll be in Arlington, home of the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery and the Kennedy gravesites. If major monuments don't grab you, the distinct flavours of Arlington's different neighbourhoods will.

Until relatively recently Bethesda was a quiet Maryland town, but it has grown to become one of the largest, most influential and most affluent suburban communities in the nation. Despite its sophisticated modern trappings, some of Bethesda's most appealing spots remain its old-time attractions, such as the old movie theatre, classic diner and renowned crab shacks. The movie theatre is a real treat: it presents second-run films and family matinees in its huge old movie house outfitted with cafe tables and swivel chairs. You can even order pitchers of beer and nachos in the dark (servers dial it in on lighted computer pads).

The Metrorail makes Bethesda one of the most accessible suburbs for Washington visitors. It's about 10mi (16km) northwest of the city via cosmopolitan Wisconsin Ave.

C&O Canal National Historic Park
The scenic and historic C&O Canal runs from Georgetown, a northwestern neighbourhood of DC, 184mi (296km) to Cumberland, Maryland. Originally envisioned as part of a never-completed western passage joining Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River, the C&O Canal contains 74 lift locks that rise from near sea level to an elevation of 605ft (180m). A dusty towpath alongside the canal was trod by children (paid four cents a day by some accounts) leading mules, who in turn pulled barges through the canal. The advent of the railroads rendered the canal obsolete.

Today the canal corridor along the Potomac is preserved as a national park and is a major recreational resource for hikers, cyclists, boaters, backpackers and horse riders. Georgetown isn't easily accessible by public transport, though it's a nice walk west along Pennsylvania Ave from the Foggy Bottom station when the weather is decent.

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