Everything You Need to Know About Washington D.C.

By Kathryn Walsh; Updated September 26, 2017

A beginner's guide to visiting the nation's capital

Everything You Need to Know About Washington D.C.

Don't worry, you won't be quizzed on how a bill becomes a law at any point during your visit to Washington, D.C. Although synonymous with government, there are tons of things to see, do and experience in the city that have nothing to do with politics. Learn what it takes to be a spy, snap a selfie with some cherry blossoms and gorge yourself on half smokes, the famous local sausage. But first, brush up on everything you need to know before you go.

Q: Why is it called Washington D.C.?

A: President George Washington was given the power to choose the location of America's capital city, and it was named in his honor. So Washington was chosen as the name of the city itself, while the larger district in which it was located was named the District of Columbia in reference to Christopher Columbus, who was credited with discovering America.

Q: When is the best time to visit Washington D.C.?

A: Winters can be cold and bleary, and summers tend to be sweltering and humid. Spring and autumn tend to be beautiful in Washington, so plan to visit then. Spring is an especially popular season with tourists because that's when the city's famous cherry blossoms are in bloom. Unfortunately, it's hard to plan ahead if you're hoping to visit during peak cherry blossom season, as they bloom for only a week or two in either March or April. The exact blooming period varies year to year.

Q: Does it snow in Washington D.C.?

A: Yes, but big storms are fairly uncommon. Between 1981 and 2010, the city received an average of 15.4 inches of snowfall per year. In some years, only a few inches of snow fall; in others, the city is blanketed by more than 40 inches. Typically, the bulk of the snowfall happens in December, January and February.

Q: What should I see in Washington D.C.?

A: A trip to Washington is incomplete without a visit to at least one museum and one memorial. The National Gallery of Art, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History are routinely ranked high by visitors. If you're looking for something a bit more modern and quirky, try the Newseum or the International Spy Museum. You can easily see several of the city's most famous memorials in just a few hours. The National World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as well as the Lincoln Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial are all located within walking distance of one another, just west of the National Mall. You can also check out the White House and the United States Capitol in the area.

Q: How can I get around Washington D.C.?

A: Avoid driving in Washington if you can. Traffic is brutal, parking is a hassle and the city has a number of traffic circles that are confusing to navigate if you don't know where you're going. The city's metro system of trains and buses is expansive and fairly easy to figure out, and there's a huge fleet of taxis. If you stay in Downtown, you can walk to many of the city's most popular attractions.

Q: Why is there no J Street in Washington D.C.?

A: This is one of those cases of the truth being far less interesting than the rumors. Urban legend says that Washington's lettered streets don't include a J Street because in the late 1790s the city's designer hated Supreme Court Justice John Jay and wanted to snub him. The reality, however, is that the letters I and J were indistinguishable in their written forms at that time, so it would have been confusing to have both an I Street and a J Street.

Q: Can you go inside the Washington Monument?

A: The Washington Monument has an elevator that takes visitors from the lobby to the observation deck, 500 feet above the ground. However, the monument may be closed for renovations when you visit. Check the National Park Service website for updated information.

Q: How can I visit Washington D.C. on the cheap?

A: Washington is actually the perfect place to visit if you want to get a big-city experience on a shoestring budget. That's because many of the city's best attractions offer free admission, including the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo. You can stay at a budget hotel outside Washington and still get in and out of the city with relative ease if your accommodations are near a Metro stop. And skip sit-down restaurants. Download a food truck app, instead, to find delicious and affordable food near you.

About the Author

Kathryn Walsh