Containing the country’s most famous memorials as well as the city’s famed cherry trees, the National Mall’s western half, including West Potomac Park and the Tidal Basin, stirs the soul. From the spot at the Lincoln Memorial  where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to the somber wall bearing the names of 58,267 service members who died in the Vietnam War, each marker, architectural detail, statue, or hidden garden reflects the hard work and sacrifice of thousands. Built on land reclaimed from the Potomac River, this part of the city is verdant and extremely walkable.
The National Mall and its adjacent buildings form the heart of Washington’s “Federal City” and are the city’s top destination for visitors, a national town green that contains the city’s tallest landmark, the Washington Monument, and the country’s longest stretch of free museums. The mall itself is a well-beaten swath of lawn hemmed with pea-gravel paths and enormous American elms, running from the U.S. Capitol  past the Washington Monument . It is used daily for picnicking and pickup sports as well as planned events like demonstrations and festivals.
A lively urban area that has emerged in the past decade as the city’s prime destination for spectator sports, headliner concerts, hip restaurants, fine-dining clubs, and off-the-Mall museums like Madame Tussauds and the International Spy Museum , Washington’s downtown, bordered roughly by 6th Street, M Street, 21st Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue, contains government and private offices, condominiums, hotels, and nightspots as well as the Verizon Center, home to several professional sports teams.
The country’s most famous residence, the White House , sits on the verge of Foggy Bottom, a business district peculiarly named for its history as a low-lying area once clouded by fog that drifted from the river and the soot of 19th century factories. Today, Foggy Bottom contains the U.S. State Department, George Washington University, the infamous Watergate condominium complex, and the law and lobbying firms of K Street. A number of the city’s most reputable restaurants can be found here as well as the city’s premier performing arts venue, the Kennedy Center .
Much of what defines “official” Washington is found in the streets near the U.S. Capitol . But Capitol Hill is also home to one of the city’s top residential neighborhoods, a lattice of tree-lined alleys and historic row houses, cozy restaurants, and lively watering holes. If two square miles could capture the timbre of life in DC, it is Capitol Hill, from busy Union Station  and Independence and Pennsylvania Avenues to the side streets of an urban village with Federal and Victorian architecture, parks, pubs, and the city’s oldest public market, Eastern Market .
DC’s version of Greenwich Village, Dupont Circle is Washington’s antidote to the button-down. It’s a domain for bohos, gays, hipsters, the young, the homeless, office workers, and everything in between, studded with stylish boutiques, lively restaurants, vintage shops, and the immense park with a traffic circle, named for Civil War hero Adm. Samuel Du Pont. Dupont Circle is DC’s historic gay village, home to the city’s first rainbow shops and host to such events as the Halloween High Heel Drag Race and the city’s Gay Pride Parade. Dupont Circle hops, drawing visitors to its galleries, including the country’s first modern art museum, the Phillips Collection , as well as outdoor dining, bookstores, and coffeehouses.
A terminus for the DC party train, Adams Morgan, at the nexus of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, is an ethnically diverse neighborhood known mainly for its nightlife. Brightly painted buildings hint at this neighborhood’s eclectic roots, forged as the result of school desegregation and later serving as a gateway for Latino immigrants in the 1960s; African, Asian, and Caribbean newcomers in the 1970s; and with widespread gentrification in the 1980s, a magnet for music lovers, dancers, and barflies. East of Adams Morgan lies U Street, a dining and nightlife hotspot with a decidedly chill vibe. A historic hub for African American entertainment and jazz music, this neighborhood crumbled in the wake of riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, but its soul has been revived, with new music clubs and bars to suit every taste.
A neighborhood that thrived as a tobacco port before Washington was founded, Georgetown is DC’s old-school locale for the young, preppy, fashionable, and well-heeled, a top social destination that is home to a stunning array of historic homes, restaurants, boutiques, and pubs. Its hub lies at the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, with shops, bars, and restaurants lining both thoroughfares and bustling day and night. Back streets and green spaces beg for daytime meandering, with stunning architecture and quiet walking spots like the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath and the lush campus of Georgetown University.
Many Washington landmarks lie outside the city center’s tidy boxes. In fact, two of the most recognizable—the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery —are actually in Virginia, in areas once part of the city before Virginia asked for their return in 1846. Scattered across this great map are the colossal (the Pentagon is the world’s largest office building), the spiritual (the Washington National Cathedral  and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception), the somber (the Pentagon’s September 11 Memorial), the inspirational (Frederick Douglass National Historic Site), and the animal (the National Zoo ).
Washington has distinct seasons, with chilly temperatures and chance snowstorms in the winter and sultry, humid summer days. The best time to visit is spring and fall, which tend to be drier with a comfortable temperature range. From late March through May, the city’s landscape explodes with color, led by its famous cherry blossoms, which usually peak around the first week of April but are highly dependent on conditions. Fading cherries give way to native dogwood and redbud as well as azaleas and other garden species. Along with great beauty, however, comes huge crowds: Early March through the end of July is peak tourism season. Fall is ideal for its crisp, exhilarating temperatures, changing autumn hues, and fewer crowds.
Summer, which can begin before Memorial Day, is hot, sticky, and for some, simply unbearable. Washington is very much a southern city in terms of humidity. But if you can bear the heat, you’ll beat the hordes, especially in August when locals go on vacation. Winter is also peaceful, except during the two weeks spanning Christmas and New Year’s Day, which tend to be nearly as popular as the spring.