The District provides a lively mix of American history, music, theater, and dining

September 1, 2005

When Pierre L'Enfant first viewed the land along the banks of the Potomac in 1791, he must have been a little disappointed. He faced a daunting design task. Much of the land was uninhabitable swampland ceded from Maryland and Virginia. (Later, the land originating in Virginia was given back to that commonwealth.) There are several hills (other than Capitol Hill), but you'll never get any higher than 420 feet above sea level no matter where you go in the District of Columbia.

When Pierre L'Enfant first viewed the land along the banks of the Potomac in 1791, he must have been a little disappointed. He faced a daunting design task. Much of the land was uninhabitable swampland ceded from Maryland and Virginia. (Later, the land originating in Virginia was given back to that commonwealth.) There are several hills (other than Capitol Hill), but you'll never get any higher than 420 feet above sea level no matter where you go in the District of Columbia.

Yet despite the challenge of the topography, L'Enfant envisioned the land as a pedestal waiting for a monument. His vision eventually became a reality; however, it was not fully realized until long after his death.

Washington, DC, is truly America's first entirely designed city. Our nation's capital is a living monument to freedom and the American way of life. It's also a lively and colorful international city with interesting neighborhoods, art, theater, and music. With its many museums and monuments, it is a national repository for much of our culture.

It's pretty easy to get around, especially if you're walking. Most of the monuments and museums are located on the Mall, a 2-mile stretch of land that extends from the Capitol west to the Washington Monument and farther out to the Lincoln Memorial and the Potomac River. The central green space of our capital, The Mall, is the city's favorite place for summer softball games, concerts, political rallies, and protests. If you look north from the Washington Monument, you'll see the White House, so you can pretty much get your bearings from those sites.

Throughout the District, numbered streets run north and south, while lettered streets run east to west. There are no J, X, Y, or Z streets. Avenues named for U.S. states run diagonally across town. The new Washington Convention Center is centrally located on 7th Street just north of K street, Mount Vernon Square, and Chinatown. Head south on 7th to get to the Mall.

There's plenty to do in the neighborhood surrounding the Convention Center, too. If you're a sports fan, MCI Center, home of the NBA's Washington Wizards and the NHL's Washington Capitals, is within walking distance just to the south.

"In fact, the Convention Center is only two-and-a-half blocks from the sports arena," says the concierge at a luxury hotel located close to the new convention center.

"And we have some marvelous restaurants, all within walking distance, as well. Several serve tapas and Mexican cuisine, but you'll also find plenty of Northern Italian, Southern Italian, Caribbean, steak houses, Thai, and of course, Chinese."

There are also a lot of activities in town in both winter and summer. The National Gallery of Art is just down 7th. There is ice skating on winter evenings at the Sculpture Garden. Just two blocks to the east on Constitution Avenue, the world-renowned Washington Jazz performs at the Natural History Museum on Friday nights-and the performances are free.

If you're in the mood for a laugh, check out the famous Capitol Steps, a troupe that performs political satire Friday and Saturday nights at the Reagan Center.

There are literally thousands of things to do in the District, so don't expect to cover everything in one trip. This guide will help you select some essentials, if you're a first-time visitor. If not, use it as a quick reference to revisit favorite haunts, or to navigate around a city that truly represents freedom, democracy, and the American way of life.