With its marbled monuments and high-profile politicos, Washington, D.C., has long been saddled with a reputation as a stuffy government-driven town. A “city of southern efficiency and northern charm,” as John F. Kennedy once described it, Washington is often seen by outsiders as slow and inefficient. But these days, our nation’s capital is awash with a new energy, transforming itself into an exciting, faster-paced East Coast vacation destination. Although government is still the sun around which this city orbits, the District also offers a host of renowned museums and interesting neighborhoods. And with a recent explosion of restaurants, cafes, boutique shops and clubs, D.C. is transitioning into a thriving cultural hub. As the D.C. Tourism Board is emphasizing through its “DC Cool” campaign, this isn’t the Washington you remember from your middle school field trip — it’s much hipper than that.
You can choose a traditional D.C. adventure, filled with tours of classic attractions like the White House and the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. And there’s no better way to experience iconic D.C. than with a stroll around the Tidal Basin. (Plan to visit in late March or early April —just in time for the National Cherry Blossom Festival — and you’ll be rewarded with a canopy of beautiful pink blooms.) But if you’ve already seen the national landmarks, get a feel for the city’s more youthful ambiance, highlighted by its urban neighborhoods, marquee art galleries and vibrant farmers’ markets. Follow foodies to Eastern Market, where Capitol Hill residents shuffle through stands for the freshest produce and trendiest clothing (before working their way through a mile-high stack of pancakes). Afterward, peruse the high-end stores peppering Georgetown or rub shoulders with savvy Washingtonians at the many bars and music joints crowding the U Street Corridor. While you’ll only need a few days to see the city as you know it from your history book, it could take months to experience the Washington that today’s locals know and love.
How to Save Money in Washington D.C.
- Visit the Smithsonians Admission to this magnificent host of museums — and the National Zoo — is free, making it a very economical option for visiting families and solo travelers. The Smithsonian Castle, the institution’s national headquarters, serves as an excellent starting point for gathering additional information about each Smithsonian outpost.
- Check out the U.S. Capitol Get in touch with your congressman and schedule a free tour of the U.S. Capitol Building. While you’re at it, saunter over to the Library of Congress’ three iconic buildings, which are also free to enter Monday through Saturday.
- Skip the street vendors These kiosks provide overpriced (and mediocre) drinks and treats. Bring your own water bottle and snacks while touring the National Mall’s monuments and museums.
Culture & Customs
The District has long attracted lobbyists, petitioners, history buffs and power players, but these days it’s growing a diverse population thanks to its resurging neighborhoods and unfolding restaurant, shopping and nightlife scenes. The city also beckons to people from all parts of the country and places around the world due to its high-power jobs and universities.
During your time in the nation’s capital — regardless of whether you’re a D.C. transplant or tourist — there are certain unspoken customs to follow. For example, if you don’t want to stick out as a visitor while using the metro, remember that the right side of the escalator is for standing; leaving the left side open for those who want to hurry up or down.
D.C. also has deep roots in black history and the civil rights movement. Since the Revolutionary War, the city has always had a large black population as freed slaves from the Upper South would move here to find work. This has since influenced much of Washingtonian culture, as people like Frederick Douglass and Duke Ellington both called D.C. home. Ellington was a major player in shaping the city’s music scene, playing jazz in venues along the U Street Corridor.
While you’re in town, you may notice license plates with the slogan “Taxation Without Representation.” A source of contention with D.C. residents is that despite paying federal taxes, they have no voting representation in Congress. Residents have a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives but no representation in the Senate. There have been efforts to give D.C. more representation but they have been unsuccessful.
To get the inside scoop of local happenings, check out DC Cool for local coverage of current and upcoming events taking place across the city.