I go to the mall in DC almost on a weekly basis. Here is where I shall put pictures of the annual cherry tree blooming event. As for the record this year, I spotted my first three cherry trees in bloom on 02 March 2008. Too early for the cherry trees along the tidal pool, however these are protected from the winds and cold so they had the opportunity to show off before others.
As was alluded to in the things to do section, Adams Morgan is an arty, Bohemian neighbourhood in the District. So, it follows that locals would give permission to young talent to paint murals like that in the included photo (on the 1700 block of Columbia Road NW) on what would otherwise be an ordinary brick facade.
Despite some similarities mentioned in previous tips Washington, DC is neither typical European nor American city. It's a federal city. Surely "federal" is not separate from the rest of the states. It is the structure. Sort of like the frame of a house and the states are like the walls/rooms of the house. Each wall and each room must conform to the frame. But D.C. differs from other U.S. cities. Can you see what I mean?
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress direct jurisdiction for Washington, D.C. The city is run by an elected mayor and a city council but their power is limited. The U.S. Congress has the ultimate plenary power over the district. It has the right to review and overrule laws created locally, and has often done so. Being the federal city has some advantages and disadvantages both for DC citizens and visitors.
From my, visitor's point of view there are more advantages. First of all I didn't pay a cent for over ten museums I visited and the Capitol tour I took. I saved at least $200. Well, I spent $5 for donation in one museum (it was my small thanks for US federal tax payers :-). If I had to pay ($10 - $50) for each entrance I would not visit so many great and huge museums. Then I used very convenient and inexpensive and single transportation system in the metropolitan area. It might have not exist in Washington belonging to say Virginia or Maryland. In many state cities there are not compatibile public transportation systems run by 2 or more operators. Well, high, "federal" prices for accommodations and some local restaurants I could easily skip as the state of Virginia (Arlington) was just the one metro stop from downtown DC.
I've got to know that metropolitan area of Washington - Arlington - Alexandria with personal income of $40,056 per capita is ranked 4th among 369 metropolitan areas in the USA, and with 3.1% unemployment rate it's 27th nationwide.
From a visitor's point of view it should mean first of all high prices. But it luckily worked different for me. All museums I visited were free. I saved at least $200 on them. Public transportation was not that expensive as well as my hotels in Arlington. Parking lots in downtown are a bit expensive but twice cheaper than in downtown San Francisco, California. Hmm... as for food it worked worse. I skipped all those expensive restaurants. I relied mostly on fast food restaurants :-( as I didn't have time to look for any economic, local restaurants.
Walking around downtown and Federal District I didn't see any luxary houses and residencies but modest, monotonous federal buildings, offices and Smithsonians museums. But I have seen some luxary residencies in upclass Georgetown and driving to the National Cathedral as well. I suppose that most wealthy people in the area work in DC but live outside, in Arlington, Alexandria, Bethesda and other nearby cities and towns.
I didn't see almost any signs of poverty as well, although in my kiddy years I was fed with a lot of propaganda about unbelievable number of homeless families, street children etc. Well, I have seen three (3!) probably homeless people: two were sleeping on a lawn close to the Navy Memorial (one made a bed from newspapers), one came to the Union Station in the evening. It's a paradox that homeless and poor people are often much better visible in wealthy and free/democratic countries where they are allowed to show off in public space. I remember times where unemployed, poor, homeless and begging people were removed from streets and arrested by police in Poland. Thus I very rarely could see them that time but now I can see them quite often although Poland is at least twice wealthier state.
I've found Washington, DC quite busy and crowded city. But the only locals I could meet and talk to where those who worked for me in tourist business. I got an impression that noone else was in DC except visitors and those folks working for them.
Well, locals surely work most of a day and they usually commute to nearby towns and cities (Arlington, Alexandria, Bethesda, Fairfax City) where they live as house prices and cost of living is propably more affordable there. Then the city has only some 550,000 citizens. Compare it with almost 5 mln in metrepolitan area. But District of Columbia hosts almost 25 million visitors a year.
I was told that the US capitol is inhabited by Black majority and White minority (is that true?) but I simply somewhat saw mostly that minority. Although the visitors come to Washington from all over the world, some looked very exotic to me :-).
Driving across suburbs of DC and metropolitan area of DC and northern Virginia (Arlington, Alexandria, Mount Vernon) I twice followed cars with strange advertisements put on them. At the first time I took this picture through the windshield and I didn't know what the driver wanted to share with me :-). Well, Nat told me that it's about a parade float in Mount Vernon, Virginia. I was a bit surprised to see such kind of advertisement as, I guess, it might be illegal in all 22 US states I already visited. At least I never saw them anywhere else. I saw a few times cars with loudspeakers on a roof advertising a candidate for the US president.
In many countries, cities, states etc. local law limits creativity of professional advertising agencies and don't allow (or order to pay a lot for it) to use cars and/or space adjacent to main highways for advertisings not to divert drivers' attention away from a highway and traffic. Hmm... all those semi-nude beauties advertising new shampoo or underwear put on huge posters by some freeways and highways in Europe are dangerous, indeed. I have never seen them in the Washington metropolitan area. Does it work differently here?
I was suprised to see large completely empty green space, a huge meadow in the heart of the US capital. There are no skyscrapers, no shopping malls, no supermarkets, no metro stations or bus terminals but grass and grass and large pools with water. It's the National Mall.
Additionally this huge space starts just down the Capitol, seat of US Congress and is located close to the White House, seat of US president. Thus it's likely to use it by all those protesters, oponents and organisations which support huge marches, rallies against or pro something. Hmm, can you see anything like this in old European democracies?
"Clever" European rulers would never leave such large empty public (not fenced) space just by their palaces, castles or parliament buildings to avoid possible problems with their "unpolite" lieges.
The National Mall is a stupid waste of the most valuable space or a mistake, one could think, as both political and economical factors worked against leaving this space empty. In fact, DC served first of all the government and the Congress from the beginning and it serves visitors now as well and most people live outside DC (0.55 mln in DC and almost 5 mln in metropolitan area). Thus there was no urgent need to build up the National Mall which has become one of Washington's landmarks since the beginning.
Now, better do not propose to build there anything except maybe next memorial or monument. Well, what about building underground Food World under the National Mall - I mean, say 100 small and medium size restaurants, each representing different American, ethnic, world (?) cousine? Hmm... there is "a food problem" for visitors in this area of DC.
A few Americans (but no European) told me that they liked Washington, DC because it reminded them old European cities. Well, I can't agree. First of all there is no typical old European city. There are 43 countries and countless number of different cultures and cities in Europe. Well, if we squeeze to ancient cities there are some similarities. There are many copies of ancient temples and buildings put up in Washington. There are large parks and broad avenues like in, say, Paris, Wien or London. There are numerous similar in design monuments as well.
But this is NOT Europe! There are no charming, straight or bended, narrow and lively streets full of pedestrians, cafes, local restaurants and small local boutiques. Instead there is fast food on streets and large gift stores and food courts in Smithsonian museums. There are no rows of charming, decorative facades of tenement houses but monumental, boring federal buidings. There are no small squares with small fountains, monuments and tables of numerous cafes put outside. There are no one-way streets, no ban on traffic in downtown. Well, America being a car country would loose its identity with such a ban in the heart of its capital, right? In Europe countless number of VIPs (like politicians) are allowed to drive and park their cars where others are never allowed. It's rather unlikely in the USA, a country of equal rights for all and few exceptions, right?
I have already visited a few tenths American cities in 22 states of western half of the USA and the South. Generally there is no typical American city but there are some common features I found in all of them except... for sure downtown Washington, DC (add Las Vegas, Nevada and maybe New Orleans, Louisiana here). Thus if you, a foreign visitor, visited only DC, Las Vegas or as I was told New York City (I must check it :-), in fact you hadn't seen real American city.
First of all each American city has downtown (called the city sometimes) which has less or more numerous high skyscrapers and patchwork of perpendicular, busy, crowded and noisy streets. There is almost no green space but some underground tunnels or bridges above ground. There are banks, various offices and multi-store parking lots, sometimes downtown shopping malls but few or no residential houses. Well, the downtown is to work and make business not to live in.
Now, look at my pictures of downtown Washington, DC and forget about the above. The downtown reminds rather a large park (the National Mall up to the Lincoln Memorial) surrounded by monumental federal buildings and few broad streets (rather boulevards) which are empty most of the time. Surprisingly there are NO (even one) skyscrapers in DC. They are put up across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia. There is a lot of green space which spreads southwards along the Potomac River (the West Potomac Park). In contrast to other US cities most locals do not use private cars to get to work in downtown as there is suprisingly convenient and unique in the USA public transportation system (metro + metrobus) which covers the whole DC metropolitan area.
Washington, D.C., was known as the "murder capital" of the United States in the early 1990s. Now, forget about it. The crime rate has dropped by over twice since that time.
I felt safe everywhere I was, both at daytime and at night. The downtown is patrolled by various police formations day and night. The Union Station and Georgetown was safe at night. The metrorail I came back to Arlington at night was safe, I do believe, as well. However I was told that the eastern half of the city is not that safe especially at night. Well, I didn't visit it although there is the historic Eastern Market (the largest continually operated public market in the city) and the National Arboretum on New York Avenue in that possibly dangerous part of District of Columbia.
Surely, Washington, DC, being the capital and the seat of the Federal Government and US Congress is high political activity space which must attract various protesters, lobbyists and political creatures :-). But for a foreign visitor it's not easily seen unless there is a large march or rally in the National Mall. There was none when I was in DC just two weeks before the presidential election day.
Surprisingly there were no signs of incoming voting in downtown exept a few young guys wearing T-shirts with names of one candidate and the T-shirts of both candidates sold on street stalls. In non-touristy suburbs I've seen small banners put on the ground in frontyards and displayed in a few local stores (isn't it a bit risky for business? :-). And that's all!
In Europe I used to see thousands or millions huge banners with smiling (always!) faces of the numerous candidates, sometimes humourosly or rudely "improved" by unknown perpetrators. In DC I haven't seen even one! Well there are only two candidates for US president and they don't waste money for showing off their well-known faces on banners or they don't want to risk creative work of numerous jokers who would love to improve their street images. They prefer to spend money for direct (home-to-home and telephone/e-mail) campaign and for showing off in powerful television. Don't ask me now whether Europeans or Americans are dumb? They are different for sure.
Washington, DC is surely not a paradise for bird-watchers. I mean watching real birds - creatures with feathers and wings. But if you are a city animal not familiar with many bird species you may surprisingly find some interesting birds both in downtown DC (the Potomac Park) and in neighbourhoods (close to the National Cathedral). I've seen common pigeons, ducks, sparrows, seagulls and starlings and some uknown to me species as well. The last ones hidden among tree branches gave a concert for me in a park adjacent to the National Cathedral.
The Federal Pigeons patrolling the backside of the National Air and Space Museum were brave or hungry enough to be fed with my federal pretzel, not the best one but eatable for human beings as well, no worries.