Here's what its like to live in Washington D.C.
Everyone knows Washington, D.C., as the political capital of the United States. Government agencies, diplomats, senators, representatives, government workers, lobbyists, consultants, and activists all call the District of Columbia and its surrounding metropolitan area home. Boundless opportunities, international flavor, historic neighborhoods to explore, and a wealth of culture make Washington, D.C., an appealing place to settle down.
A Diverse Metropolis
Of course, those who live in the city know there's so much more to Washington, D.C., than political wheeling and dealing. People who live and work in the capital city enjoy an unparalleled quality of life, from entertainment options to an impressive slate of arts and cultural activities. Over 6 million people live in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and over 20 million visitors come to D.C. each year.
Thanks to the international nature of politics, Washington, D.C., boasts one of the most diverse populations in the nation, which for locals, translates to an unrivaled slate of international festivals and a veritable smorgasbord of dining options. Over 177 foreign embassies are headquartered in the area, as are well-known organizations like the AARP, the National Geographic Society, the American Red Cross, and many more.
Although the District of Columbia proper has distinct borders, the populous and sprawling metropolitan area actually spills into neighboring Virginia and Maryland. Some of these outlying communities are as old as D.C. itself, like charming Alexandria, Virginia, which is full of historic brick row houses, antique shops, eateries, and boutiques. Others are more recently established bedroom communities like Tyson's Corner, full of suburbs, malls, and schools.
The History of the United States, Written in Washington, D.C.
Washington hasn't always been the nation's capital. For a short while, New York City took that honor. The founding fathers reconsidered and decided that the most advantageous capital location would be located halfway between northern and southern states, so neither region would feel slighted or unduly favored. The District of Columbia was officially founded in 1791.
You will still see plenty of colonial-era architecture in Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas like Old Town Alexandria, although some of the most venerated structures are fairly recent additions. The British burned down the Capitol building, the Treasury and the White House during the War of 1812.
During the Civil War, huge numbers of former slaves settled in Washington, leaving their mark on the city for successive generations through a rich cultural heritage, from the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties, to the Civil rights era, to the present day.
The citizens of Washington, D.C., are governed by a mayor and a 13-member council, although ultimate jurisdiction is given to Congress, which may overturn D.C. law. The District has no Senate representation and one non-voting House representative. If you move to Washington, D.C., you will not have Congressional representation, but you can still vote in Presidential elections.
Navigating Washington, D.C.
If you like to walk and have the time, you can get around to a lot of the area's most popular sites on foot, especially those that are situated around the National Mall. Exploring downtown Washington is a treat for the navigationally challenged. The planned city, designed by Charles L'Enfant, is laid out on an orderly grid with large boulevards. The city legislated building restrictions long ago in the interest of maintaining these precious open spaces.
The city has four quadrants, known as Northwest (NW), Northeast (NE), Southeast (SE), and Southwest (SW). Road names include their quadrant abbreviation, making getting around much easier once you understand the system.
Driving in the city is manageable, but it can be congested at times. Washington, D.C., ties with Chicago as the city with the worst traffic congestion in the country. It's said that commuters spend 70 hours per year sitting in traffic. You should also be prepared to pay a good bit for parking at one of the local lots and garages. You can save by carpooling and ride-sharing.
Driving around outside downtown D.C. is another story. Washington's maze of toll roads, interstates, and local routes can be confusing for newbies to decipher, and even locals occasionally get mixed up. If you are making a long-distance move to Washington, D.C., it might be a good idea to invest in a GPS or download an app to help you navigate routes and avoid gridlock and construction.
Public Transit in Washington, D.C.
Many locals (roughly 37 percent) forego the parking headache and traffic gridlock and simply hop on the Washington Metro. This underground train is one of the cleanest, most efficient such systems in the country. The Metro serves the community with 91 stations with 117 miles of track. With a pass and a map in hand, you'll be exploring D.C. in no time by train. There are also two local bus systems: the Metrobus and the D.C. circular.
D.C. residents also enjoy a choice of three different airports, including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which is located across the Potomac and adjacent to downtown. Washington Dulles Airport is the major hub for international and domestic flights, and about 30 miles north in Maryland, the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport offers additional options in the suburbs.
Changing Seasons in Washington, D.C.
Sandwiched between Virginia and Maryland, Washington, D.C., enjoys a humid subtropical climate zone. Summers are hot and humid, making summer thunderstorms quite frequent. Winters are chilly, and it does occasionally snow in the winter season. Every four to six years, the area sees a nor'easter swing through, dumping large amounts of snow or ice on the ground, but it is not a common occurrence.
Hurricanes sometimes swing through the region in the fall season, and the strong winds, rain, and Potomac River flooding can cause significant property damage, particularly in Georgetown.
Neighborhoods and Suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Life on Capitol Hill is what you make of it. Workaholics, diplomats, and others who love the pulse of city life can live in a high-rise overlooking the Washington Monument. Those who love nightlife or are pursuing a degree often settle down in Georgetown. Here's a quick guide to the numerous neighborhoods which make up Washington, D.C., and what makes each distinct:
Finding your perfect D.C. neighborhood is a matter of exploring them all, weighing commute times, considering where you work, study, and spend your time, and deciding whether you're willing to trade space for proximity to the city's many amenities, like public transit, fine dining, arts, entertainment, and historic landmarks. To help you get started, the following list considers key benefits and attributes of the city neighborhoods and regional communities of Washington, D.C.
- Capitol Hill is the epicenter of power in Washington, D.C. Home to the U.S. Capitol building, the Supreme Court, and the U.S. House and Senate, as well as the Library of Congress. Government workers, dignitaries, lobbyists, and staffers prefer to reside right in Capitol Hill in the historic 19th-century rowhouses. The dining scene in Capitol Hill is also second-to-none, and residents love the authenticity of shopping handmade pastas and fresh goods at the Eastern Market.
- Downtown is a favorite tourist hangout thanks to the neighborhood's dense concentration of landmarks and attractions, such as Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery and the National Museum for Women in the Arts. Downtown residents want to live where the world's most powerful leaders have lived and worked, just around the corner from the White House. When you live downtown, you can take a short walk or an even quicker drive to the posh retail and dining outposts at CityCenterDC for dinner at Plume, Decanter, or Zentan, and cocktails at W Hotel's POV rooftop bar.
- Look into Dupont Circle if you crave an eclectic neighborhood that welcomes alternative lifestyles and people from diverse backgrounds. Living here, you'll be steps from Embassy Row, which stretches down Massachusetts Avenue right to the iconic Dupont Circle Fountain. Meet up with friends at the fountain for gallery crawls on First Fridays, farmers markets near the metro station, or to check out the modern art at The Phillips Collection, and you'll never want for entertainment thanks to an endless choice of neighborhood bars, boutiques, and bistros.
- Just north of Dupont Circle, Woodley Park is northwest D.C.'s green oasis, a great escape for commuters and workers who need time outdoors. Settle here, and you'll be close to Rock Creek Park and the Smithsonian National Zoo. All this green space plus easy metro access make this neighborhood a great choice for working families.
- If you like living in a neighborhood with historic character and a vibrant nightlife, you'll love Logan Circle. Townhouses in this area date to the early 1900s and offer excellent views of Logan Park and a statue of General John Logan, a Civil War hero. The circular park makes this an ideal neighborhood for dog owners. Logan Square also earns high marks for walkability. With a short stroll over to 14th Street NW, you'll be enjoying brunch or happy hour in no time, followed by a day of shopping at the chic, upscale boutiques. Stick around for live music concerts late into the night.
- Columbia Heights is the city's Latin American and Hispanic enclave along 11th, 14th, and 16th Streets, located due north of downtown. Energetic and always lively, Columbia Heights is one of the most densely populated areas of the city, and it's chock full of bars, restaurants, and apartments. Despite all that action, there's also plenty of space to unwind in Columbia Heights at stately Meridian Hill Park. Columbia Heights is also conveniently located near Howard University.
- Northwest of downtown Washington, Adams Morgan is also rich in diversity and culture. Locals head to the busy corridor of historic row houses along 18th Street to hang out at bars and clubs, take a yoga class, do some vintage clothing shopping, or catch a play at the DC Arts Center.
- Located to the northeast, Brookland is known as DC's "Little Rome," and as such, it's full of Catholic churches and is home to the Catholic University. Residents love the untouched, homey vibe of the bungalow-lined streets and retro storefronts, as well as its proximity to Capitol Hill via Route 1 or the Metro.
- H Street NE is a nightlife and entertainment destination that stretches 1.5 miles long, anchored by The Atlas Performing Arts Center. Locals and tourists alike also come here for the annual H Street Festival for art exhibits, arts and crafts vendors, and food truck fare. The H Street Farmers Market also runs on Saturdays from mid-April to mid-December.
- If you're looking for a homey yet communal neighborhood to settle down with a family, you'll find it in Petworth. Regular community events bring people together here, from Celebrate Petworth and the Petworth Jazz Project music series in the summer to the Upshur Street Handmade Art and Craft Fair in the winter. Cozy though it is, Petworth's dining scene is not to be missed. The area boasts several of the best restaurants in the country, according to Bon Appetit magazine.
- Shaw, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, is a historic African-American community that is enjoying a renaissance. Jazz greats like Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey once played the stage here at the Lincoln Theatre and the Howard Theatre, points along a corridor that used to be known as "Black Broadway." Thanks to its central location near CityCenterDC, Penn Quarter, and Chinatown, Shaw is booming once again as indie stores, restaurants, coffee shops, and cafes reopen and historic buildings are being restored along the U Street Corridor.
- U Street is alive with music and fun, 24/7. Settle here if you love nightlife, from jazz to DJ sets and live bands. You'll also enjoy ready access to tasty diner fare at iconic spots like Ben's Chili Bowl, a D.C. institution, or delicious meals in "Little Ethiopia."
- Many Washington residents reside in the upper northwest neighborhoods of Glover Park, Tenleytown, and Friendship Heights. These established enclaves are home to the Washington National Cathedral and the Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, the former home of heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.
- You'll find excellent shopping in Friendship Heights, right next to the Maryland border, including major department stores like Neiman Marcus, local boutiques, and favorite chains like J.Crew.
- Glover Park is a favorite hangout for students and locals who like to dine on affordable eats. The neighborhood lies just north of Georgetown, which is why the Georgetown Flea market is still held every Sunday in Glover Park.
- If you work at the State Department or George Washington University, then Foggy Bottom may just be your ideal neighborhood. The area is named for the atmospheric fog which often lingers over the Potomac River and Rock Creek Park. Arts lovers will enjoy easy access to the Kennedy Center, free nightly concerts at The Millennium Stage, as well as an impressive range of dining options by the West End of Georgetown. There are plenty of handy amenities geared toward locals here too, from a Trader Joe's grocery store to a movie theater.
- If you move to Georgetown, you'll be living in the same neighborhood where Julia Child and John F. Kennedy once resided. Today, the neighborhood is a favorite hangout of hipsters, yogis, students, foodies, shoppers, and history buffs. Basically, everyone can find something to do in Georgetown along M Street. This busy, historic neighborhood's architecture inspires awe, while the natural beauty of the tree-lined streets and river views at Georgetown Waterfront Park offer an oasis from the bustle of D.C.
- Settle on the Southwest Waterfront, and you can buy fresh fish anytime at the nation's longest continually running open-air fish market. Residents enjoy panoramic views at The Wharf, a new waterfront development, or live right on the water on a "liveaboard" or houseboat, at Gangplank Marina. As one of D.C.'s oldest neighborhoods, the area boasts some fascinating architecture. On the Southwest Waterfront, you may choose to settle in an 18th-century federal building or a mid-century modern abode.
- Edgy, up-and-coming NOMA is located near Gallaudet University, close to Union Station and Q and R Streets. Restored grocery-store-turned-gourmet-food-hall Union Market is a big draw to the area, as are the breweries, restaurants, and the REI flagship store. Union Market is also home to a striking mural designed by internationally renowned artist, Mr. Brainwash. If you need to commute to Philadelphia, New York, or Boston regularly, NOMA makes a great hub for you, because NOMA is home to the busy area Amtrak station.
- Penn Quarter and Chinatown are entertainment destinations, from the shopping and dining hub at CityCenterDC to the Capital One Arena, home to the Washington Wizards, the Washington Capitals, and the Washington Mystics. The Newseum, the International Spy Museum, Madame Tussauds, and the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, and the historic Ford's Theatre are also located here. If you love the arts, you'll feel at home in Penn Quarter and Chinatown. Check out the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Sixth and I.
- The Capitol Riverfront lies just south of the Capitol along the Anacostia River and near the Washington Navy Yard. If you love kayaking, jogging along the river, and enjoying green space, this is the neighborhood for you. Families come here in the summer to cool down in the splash pad, and sports fans come out to see the Washington Nationals play Major League baseball games at Nationals Park. Visit the Bullpen next door for food truck fare and beers before the game.
- Anacostia is an artsy enclave in southeast Washington, located just across the Anacostia River from the Navy Yard. Locals love the beautiful natural view of the river and easy access to green space at Anacostia Park. It's close to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at Cedar Hill and the Anacostia Community Museum, run by the Smithsonian Institution. The area is easily accessible via the Anacostia stop on the Metro Green Line. The area can get congested at times when the Washington Mystics and the Capital City Go-Go play at the Entertainment Sports Arena.
Educational Experiences in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., is frequently ranked among the most historic cities in the United States. Whether you want to learn about colonial times, the Civil War era, civil rights, cultural history, or modern history in the making, you'll find it all in Washington D.C.
Start your historic tour at the National Mall, an awe-inspiring stretch of open space that stretches from the Washington Monument obelisk to the U.S. Capitol building, flanked by the Lincoln Memorial, where you can stand where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. The Vietnam War Veteran's Memorial and the World War II memorial are also located near the mall. Take a short walk to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to stop by the White House Visitor Center or tour the Capitol Building.
Surrounding the mall, you'll also find the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and some of D.C.'s numerous (and wonderful) Smithsonian Museums. Here is a list of the Smithsonian Museums you can visit once you settle in D.C.:
- The National Museum of Natural History
- The National Air and Space Museum
- The National Zoo
- The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
- The American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery
- The National Museum of the American Indian
- The Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- The National Portrait Gallery
- The Smithsonian Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian art
- The National Postal Museum
Other notable D.C. memorials and institutes you won't want to miss include:
- Jefferson Memorial
- Museum of the Bible
- The International Spy Museum
Virginia Attractions and Neighborhoods
Head over the state line to Virginia, and you'll find lots of memorials dedicated to various branches of the military and more at Arlington. Visit George Washington's Estate at Mount Vernon, spend a day shopping and strolling the streets of historic Old Town Alexandria and take lunch at the historic colonial-era pub, Gadsby's Tavern, which once hosted George Washington and John Adams.
Stop in Arlington to visit The National Museum of the Marine Corps, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial), the U.S. Air Force Memorial, and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. If you're in the mood for a day trip, head to Fredericksburg to tour the historic Civil War battlefield site.
Maryland Attractions and Neighborhoods
On the north side of the city, Chevy Chase and Bethesda offer excellent dining and shopping over the state line. Stop by Silver Spring for a taste of downtown life in the suburbs, where you can catch an indie or classic film at the AFI Silver Theater, a famous restored deco movie palace. Check out Rockville for live music at the Strathmore.
Take an hour's drive to Baltimore to enjoy the maritime vibe on the downtown waterfront and check out the National Aquarium. While you're in Maryland, be sure to indulge in some tasty seafood, especially the local crab cakes made with the state's famous blue crabs. Head to Frederick, Maryland, to check out the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, close to the historic battlefields at Antietam and Monocacy.
Outdoor Activities in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C. offers numerous opportunities to get outdoors, even within city limits. Lots of neighborhoods offer open space to enjoy year-round, like Rock Creek Park and Logan Square. Outdoorsy types like to paddleboard or kayak on the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.
Locals particularly love to walk, jog, and bike at Potomac Park, which stretches north and south of the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin. In the spring, the blossoming cherry trees are a delight to behold. Golfers will also enjoy playing the links at East Potomac Park Golf Course.
Public Education in Washington, D.C.
Families living in Washington, D.C., benefit tremendously from all the educational sites and experiences the city offers. From the National Zoo to the Smithsonian Museum of Air and Space, you can find stimulating activities to educate and inspire every day of the year.
When it comes to public education, the city's schools have not always received the highest marks. Washington, D.C., has 123 public schools. District of Columbia Public Schools are known as some of the worst in the country, given their steadily falling enrollment, high-costs, and poor performance. As a result, many people have been attracted to the public charter schools in the city (52 to date). However, since 2010, the public school system has undergone a rigorous restructure and curriculum change.
Many parents choose the peace of mind of a private school education, but it can be a costly solution. Over 18,000 students are currently enrolled in private schools in the District. This is a significant number when you consider that D.C. has just about 600,000 full-time residents. If you wish to go the public school route, some of the District's best schools are in the more affluent northern neighborhoods, and some of the southeastern charter schools also score well.
Higher education in Washington, D.C., on the other hand, is excellent. From George Washington University and Howard University, to Georgetown and American University, you can take your pick from some exceptional, well-regarded institutions.
Shopping in Washington, D.C.
If you forgot to pack something essential for your move to the area, want some updated decor for your new home, or want to stock the fridge with locally grown produce, the first thing you will want to do is go shopping. D.C. is full of shopping malls, boutiques, outlet centers, and seasonal markets, which are spread throughout the city's many distinct districts.
- Shoppers on a serious deal quest head to Tanger Outlets on the National Harbor in Maryland. Clarksburg Premium Outlets is further afield but offers excellent deals as well.
- Those who like to shop for organic produce will find numerous farmers markets scattered in a variety of D.C. neighborhoods, including Petworth, H Street NE, and Dupont Circle. Most run on Saturdays from mid-April to December.
- For food trucks, organic produce, fresh flowers, handmade crafts, live music, freshly baked goods, and many more goodies, check out Market SW in the summer months, held every other Friday evening and weekly on Saturdays.
- For chain stores and big-box shopping options, check out Friendship Heights in D.C., or head over the state line to Chevy Chase in Maryland or Tyson's Corner Center or the Potomac Mills Mall in Virginia.
- If you want to have a stylish brunch and spend the day shopping local boutiques and gift shops, head to Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, or Georgetown in D.C.
Annual Events in Washington, D.C.
There's always something going on in D.C., but you'll want to mark your calendar for these annual events:
- The Giant National Capital BBQ Battle is the city' premier festival. For 26 years, the festival of food and music has taken over Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues for a barbecue cook-off of massive proportions. Teams come from all over to try to be crowned national champions. Put the competitors to your own taste test, and sample barbecue chicken, beef brisket, pork ribs, and pulled pork. Don't forget to sample tasty traditional sides like mac and cheese, corn on the cob, and potato salad. While you dine, you can enjoy live music from three stages. Kids will love hanging out at the DC Sports Zone and the children's activity area.
- The D.C. JazzFest takes place each June. For the past 15 years, an incredible lineup of Jazz heavyweights and jazz-inspired artists have converged on the capital to offer world-class performances, carrying on the legacy of the jazz legends who rocked "Black Broadway" so many years ago.
- Once you've settled into your new home in Washington, D.C., you can also check out the beloved National Cherry Blossom Festival in March and April. Washington is at its most beautiful in the spring, when the city erupts in a blaze of pink cherry blossoms. As a local, you won't have to fight the tourists for hotels.