A Quick Guide to DC

A friend is visiting DC this weekend for a wedding. This is his first time in the city (EVER!), and talking with him over beers (he was BIL’s best man), he said, while, sure, a longer visit would be slated at some point, his immediate concern was getting to see the Mall. So I sent him an e-mail with (perhaps?) a bit too much information:


DC’s going to pretty hot and humid this weekend. I usually carry a small hand towel with me to dab off sweat, I’d suggest you and [girlfriend] do the same. This city has been compared unfavorably to Manila (as in, “I’d rather be in Manila!”)


Washington was originally diamond shaped, with the Potomac roughly dividing the city in two (on the southwest was the land donated by Virginia, the rest from Maryland). In the 1840s, the Virginia half of DC wanted to go back to Virginia, and that happened. So if you find yourself in Arlington County, you’re in what used to be the other half of DC. (If you do find yourself in Virginia, I usually panic and run for the border).

In any case, DC is split into four quadrants: NW, SW, NE, SE. The quadrants aren’t evenly divided (even before you take into consideration the Virginia portion). The city’s center is the Capitol building, which isn’t located at the actual physical center of the city. In any case, what this means is that NW is huge, and SW barely exists. All lettered and numbered streets radiate from the Capitol. Chinatown, and the National Cathedral, are both in NW, where lettered streets increase from south to north, and numbered streets increase from east to west. Avenues named after states run at all kinds of crazy angles. Where the avenues meet, there’s usually a traffic circle. Please note, for whatever reason, there is no J Street, anywhere. No one knows why this is.

There are two bus systems in the city: the first is Metrobus, operated by WMATA, which also operates the Metro. The second is the Circulator, which runs limited routes through the city. There’s a Circulator that runs from Union Station to north of Georgetown, for example (still puts you out a mile from the Cathedral, though). The Metrobus fare is $1.70, but the Circulator’s only a buck. The Metro is pretty good about covering downtown DC, but not so great for other areas: the Cathedral, for example, is not close to a Metro (but only a short cab ride from Woodley Park or Cleveland Park Metro stations on the Red line).

FYI: the Metro doesn’t run 24/7. It stops service at 3am Fridays and Saturdays, and opens on weekends at 7am.

Stuff to Do:

If you’re a fan of the Exorcist, the stairs are located just a bit west of 34th & M Streets NW. For the full effect, walk west on Prospect Street (one north of M Street, in Georgetown), then make a left when you pass a Georgetown University building. Sadly, there’s no Metro in Georgetown, either, but there is a Circulator bus that runs through Chinatown. Otherwise, it’s about a mile walk from Foggy Bottom Metro stop.

Chinatown has a lot of great restaurants, if you’re hungry when you get into town. If you’re taking the Bolt, you’re probably going to be dropped off at the MLK Library, at 9th & G NW. Matchbox (pizza) is located just west of the 7th & H NW intersection. Vapiano (pasta) is on H Street, towards 5th. There’s a bunch of local and national chains and independents in this area (and, honestly, across the city). For orientation purposes, the Chinatown arch is located on the east side of 7th & H. If you just need to kill some time, the National Portrait Gallery is catty-corner to the MLK library, with entrances on G and F Streets.

Also near Chinatown:

Ford’s Theater: 10th Street NW (between E & F).

The FBI Building: E Street, between 10th & 9th).

The National Zoo is located on Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park, but is probably easier to access from the Cleveland Park Metro stop. Take the right hand exit from the Metro station, and walk south (which is how the exit orients you). It’s about half a mile, on the left, guarded by two stone lions. The Zoo is open from dawn until dusk. The animal houses themselves don’t open until 10, but lots of animals are out very early. The other good thing about going early is you get to avoid the tourons.

Adams Morgan (located on 18th Street) is a pretty popular party spot for late nights, but I’d avoid it then. It’s got some great places for a breakfast or brunch, though. I’d recommend the Diner, which is near Belmont Street (about four blocks north of U Street). Sadly, there’s also no great Metro access here (the L2 Metrobus route from Woodley Park is best).

However — there is also Dupont Circle, which has two Metro stations close by (one at Dupont itself, the other at Farragut North, both on the Red line). Dupont is located at the intersection of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut Avenues NW, which you can find by figuring out where P Street and 18th Street intersect. Lots of bars, breakfast places, etc in this area. Brickskeller, which is my favorite DC bar, is located a bit northwest of here, just north of 22nd & P. Meiwah, on New Hampshire Ave (M & 22nd) is fantastic.

On the Red line, the Wheaton Metro stop has the longest continuous elevator in the Western Hemisphere. Woodley Park’s middle escalator, and Dupont’s Q Street exit, are pretty long themselves, though.

The National Mall:

The National Mall is split between SW and NW, and runs from the Lincoln Memorial (on the banks of the Potomac), two miles east to the Capitol Building, which is in fact located on a fairly decent hill (called Capitol Hill, shockingly). If you’re more interested in just seeing everything on the Mall, and not so much visiting all the museums, you can do that in about two hours. There’s no particular Metro station more convenient for Mall access than any other (I would suggest staying away from the Blue/Orange line Smithsonian stop, because that’s the one all the tourons gravitate towards, so it’s usually pretty packed). I do recommend National Archives, because it’s usually underused on weekends.

The National Archives stop (Green and Yellow lines) puts you out facing west, just north of the Mall, and at the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue. If you turn around, you’ll see the Capitol building (and 7th Street) behind you. Make a right turn onto 7th Street, cross PA Ave, and walk south. Cross Constitution Ave, and the next block is Madison Drive. Congratulations: you’re on the Mall.

The Mall can be toured in pretty much any order you want. The Washington Monument (TWM) will be to the east. Directly north is the White House. The museums are all grouped on the eastern side of the Mall, between TWM and the Capitol. On the north side, from TWM to the Capitol, are the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Gallery’s East Gallery.

On the south side, from the TWM to the Capitol, is the US Department of Agriculture (not a museum, obviously, but pretty prominently featured), the Freer Gallery, the Castle, the Arts & Industries Building, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Air & Space, and the National Museum of the American Indian. Just south of the Capitol is the US Botanic Garden and Conservatory. (All of this stuff is free).

Between The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial is the (relatively) new WWII Memorial. South of this is the Tidal Basin. If you’ve ever seen a movie where people in Washington jog around a lake on a paved path (think CONTACT or MURDER AT 1600 off the top of my head), this is probably where that scene was set. The Jefferson Memorial (which is actually sinking), is located on the Tidal Basin, due south. The FDR Memorial is on the west. When you hear about Cherry Blossoms, this is also where they are. I mean, they’re all over the city, but this is where the festival is.

Past the WWII Memorial is the Reflecting Pool. South of the Reflecting Pool is the DC War Memorial, which is a rarity because it isn’t a National monument – it’s for the DC residents who died during the first World War. (This end of the Mall is heavy on war memorials). The Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, are just outside of the Lincoln Memorial.

There’s also a lot of stuff behind the Capitol (which is unfair, since it really doesn’t have a front, but if you figure the front is what faces the Mall, then the rear faces Capitol Hill). Behind the Capitol is the Capitol Hill neighborhood, which houses, among other things, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Also, lots of restaurants, shops, lawyers, etc.

BTW – this being DC? Most museums are free. The Spy Museum charges. The Newseum charges. I don’t know about the Holocaust Museum. Everything on the Mall is free. The Zoo is free. Portrait Gallery is free. Basically, this can be a really cheap city to tour.

Enjoy your visit! Too bad it’s so short!

2 thoughts on “A Quick Guide to DC

  1. Dupont Circle was easily my favorite spot in DC. great for eating, drinking and people-watchin’.

    I hate your zoo, though. It’s all down hill. You spend the day working your way down, and by the end, you’re sweaty and exhausted and it takes like forty days to climb back up that damn hill to the exit.

    The zoo is free, because if you can’t make it out by dusk, they gather you up and feed you to the lions. It’s one of Cheney’s cost saving measures.

  2. Funny story, back when I was in high school, a homeless woman wandered into the Zoo and threw herself into the lion pit. They found her remains the next day. I think this is when they actually put gates at the Zoo’s entrances.

    Alternatively, you could start your Zoo tour from the Rock Creek Park entrance, work your way uphill, then walk downhill at closing.

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