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Washington, D.C., , formally the District of Columbia, is the capital of the United States of America. It is a planned city, designed specifically to house the federal government, and is not part of any state. Its history, beautiful architecture, and excellent cultural centers attract millions of visitors each year. Washington, D.C., is bordered by the states of Virginia and Maryland.
Virtually all of D.C.'s tourists flock to the Mall—a two-mile long, beautiful stretch of parkland that comprises many of the city's monuments and museums—but the city itself is a vibrant metropolis that often has little to do with monuments, politics, or white, neoclassical buildings. The Smithsonian is a can't miss, but don't trick yourself—you haven't really been to D.C. until you've seen some of the neighborhoods.
Downtown (The National Mall, East End, West End, Waterfront)The center of it all: The National Mall, D.C.'s main theater district, Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian museums galore, fine dining, Chinatown, the Verizon Center, the Convention Center, the central business district, the White House, West Potomac Park, the Kennedy Center, George Washington University, the beautiful Tidal Basin, and the new Nationals Stadium.
North Central (Dupont Circle, Shaw, Adams Morgan-Columbia Heights)D.C.'s trendiest and most diverse neighborhoods and destination #1 for live music and clubbing, as well as loads of restaurants, Howard University, boutique shopping, beautiful embassies, Little Ethiopia, jazz on U Street, and lots of nice hotels.
West (Georgetown, Upper Northwest)The prestigious, wealthy side of town, home to the historic village of Georgetown with its energetic nightlife & fine dining, the National Zoo, the National Cathedral, Dumbarton Oaks, the bulk of D.C.'s high-end shopping, more of Embassy Row, American University, and plenty of nice dining strips.
East (Capitol Hill, Brookland-Takoma-Petworth, Anacostia)Starting at the Capitol Building and Library of Congress, and fanning out past grandiose Union Station and the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood, to the less often visited neighborhoods by Gallaudet and Catholic Universities, historic black Anacostia, D.C.'s "Little Vatican" around the National Shrine, the huge National Arboretum, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, bohemian nightlife in the Atlas District, and a handful of eccentric neighborhoods to explore.
A city of many names
Washington, D.C., is known to locals as simply D.C. or the District, and it is rare to hear it called anything else. The full title Washington, D.C., and the official name, District of Columbia, are rarely used unless the speaker is trying to clearly distinguish the city from the state.
Washington, D.C., was established in 1790 by the United States Congress, as a federal city exclusively under the control of the national government. The District of Columbia was originally carved out of both Virginia and Maryland. The land ceded by Virginia was returned to that state in 1846; the city's current territory is comprised of only land ceded by Maryland. The city was subsequently named for George Washington, who selected the city's exact location on the Potomac River. Designed by architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant, Washington was built to have wide avenues radiating from traffic circles, providing for maximum open space and landscaping. Laws to regulate building heights provide Washington with a low skyline devoid of skyscrapers present in other cities.
Relatively few residents are native Washingtonians. Most recent census figures report that about 50% of the population has relocated in the past 5 years. Virtually all cultures, languages and religions are present and accepted. Spanish-speaking Washingtonians are overwhelmingly Central American, mostly from El Salvador. Most of D.C.'s African immigrants hail from West African origin, but there are also significant and visible Somali and Ethiopian communities. Most of the city's native born population is comprised of African-Americans, who are in turn a clear majority within the District. In the immediate metro area, a whopping one third of the population is foreign born.
The District of Columbia is under the ultimate control of the U.S. Congress. Since 1973, city residents have been able to elect a Mayor as well as representatives to the D.C. City Council. However, Congress retains the right to overturn laws passed by the city council. The nearly 600,000 citizens residing in Washington, D.C., do not have voting representation in Congress because the District is not a state. As a reminder to visitors that D.C. residents are taxed but are unable to vote for Congress, District license plates feature the slogan "Taxation Without Representation", reflecting the Revolutionary War motto used as a protest against British rule.
D.C. suffers from some very serious cultural divides within its population. For example, the city is a sometimes uncomfortable blend of its semi-transient professional population and those who have chosen the District as their permanent home. But the huge divide is the general rift between the city's poorer east side, which is in large areas nearly 100% African-American, and its wealthier west side (west of Rock Creek), largely white. This divide has caused some tension as a citywide wave of neighborhood rebuilding and improvement is riding in the wake of young professionals, whose tight budgets and distaste for long daily commutes have in recent years driven them to move into poorer D.C. neighborhoods in search of low rent and easy access to city amenities.