Photograph by SeanPavonePhoto, Getty Images
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Researchers work in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Photograph by SeanPavonePhoto, Getty Images

Everything to Know About Washington, D.C.

Here's how to plan the best possible trip to the nation's capital.

Washington has a classic case of split personality. At the center of the city is the formal “federal section,” including the National Mall and its many museums, memorials, and myriad government buildings. Surrounding the feds is a quilt of evolving neighborhoods with strong ethnic and cultural roots.

When to Go

Washington is overflowing with parks and green spaces that make spring the top season for tourists. The city’s famed Japanese cherry trees always get plenty of company during their springtime bloom. D.C. summers can be brutally hot and humid (although the rumors of the city being built on swamp are overplayed), but the high temps also bring low hotel rates and thin the crowds at popular attractions. Winter can be unpredictable, though a holiday tour of the White House is worth the risk. And autumn in this tree-filled city gives spring some worthy competition.

Celebrate

In 1912, a gift of 3,000 flowering cherry trees was given to the city by Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo. Shortly thereafter, a festival was held to honor the close ties between Japan and the United States. That Cherry Blossom Festival has become an annual tradition and is held in the spring to coincide with the spectacular clouds of pink blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin. Many special events take place over the course of four weeks, including a kite festival, parade, and fireworks.

What to Eat

If a hot dog and a spicy sausage had a child it would be a half-smoke, a D.C. staple found in food carts, at neighborhood restaurants, and at the Washington Nationals ballpark. While Washingtonians generally agree that the humble half-smoke is D.C.’s most iconic food offering, whether it needs to be topped with chili sauce is hotly debated.

Souvenir to Take Home

For more than 30 years The White House Historical Association has annually issued an official White House Christmas Ornament. The current and previous years’ ornaments are sold at gift shops throughout the city. Proceeds from the sale of the collectible ornaments help fund new furnishings and artwork for the White House permanent collection, educate the public on the mansion’s history, and assist in the preservation of its historic rooms.

Sustainable Travel Tip

Washington’s subway system, Metro, covers a significant portion of the city and close-in suburbs, making it easy to travel to most major attractions, as well as to the typically more affordable hotels beyond the District line. Inside D.C., Capital Bikeshare is the city’s bicycle-sharing service, with thousands of bikes available for use across the metropolitan area. The bike-rental rates are very affordable, with both single-trip pricing and 24-hour day passes.

Instagram-Worthy View

Photos of the Washington Monument from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial are classic. For extra oohand ahhfactor, arrive at sunrise, go behind the columns, and move left or right of center. This allows you to capture the sun rising above the Capitol, along with the Washington Monument and its Reflecting Pool image, all framed between the columns.