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Following the American War of Independence, New York (from 1783 to 1790) and Philadelphia (1790-1800) were successively the capital of the young republic. There was a need for a capital that would not be dependent on the states that together formed the US, but this caused a great deal of arguing. They finally agreed on a location on the Potomac River that was named District of Columbia with Washington being the capital. The city was designed by the French architect Pierre L'Enfant who drew wide avenues from central points in the city, the White House and The Capitol.
Washington DC is not a large city and most attractions are located in or around The Mall, a large park along Constitution Avenue. On the north side of the park lies the symbol of political power, the White House. Ironically, America's first president (Washington, after whom the city was named) is the only one who never lived in the White House.
East of The Mall lies The Capitol, the residence of the American parliament, the Congress, which consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The most distinctive feature of this neoclassical building is the massive cast-iron dome. Right opposite this building, in the center of The Mall, lies the Washington Monument, a 169-meter-tall obelisk that is beautifully reflected in a rectangular pond. Across the pond lies the Lincoln Memorial, built in honor of the sixteenth President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. The building resembles a Greek temple as the designer was inspired by the Temple of Zeus in Athens. The 36 columns symbolize the 36 states that formed part of the US at the time of Lincoln's death. This is where Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech I Have A Dream in 1963. At the adjacent Tidal Basin there are memorials for two other American presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson.
When walking back from the Washington Monument on the north side of The Mall to The Capitol, you pass four museums. First of all the National Museum of American History, where the history of the United States is organized by theme: Community, politics, culture, science and the military. Next you get to the National Museum of National History. This natural history museum holds a huge collection of 125 million objects: Plants, animals, fossils, minerals, rocks, meteorites and cultural artifacts. Obviously only part of it is exhibited. One of its masterpieces is the world's largest diamond, the Hope Diamond, 45.5 carats and once owned by the French King Louis XVI. The National Gallery of Art consists of two buildings: The neoclassical West Building focuses on ancient art, including works by for example Vermeer, Rembrandt, Monet and Van Gogh; the modern, cube-shaped East Building houses the modern art collection including works by for example Picasso, Matisse, Warhol and Lichtenstein. In addition to the statues inside you can also have a look at the sculptures in the Sculpture Garden.
Right opposite the East Building, across from The Mall, lies the National Museum of the American Indian in a remarkable, organically curved building. Next to it you'll find the National Air and Space Museum that houses the world's largest collection of aircrafts and spacecrafts.
Almost all museums in the American capital are free, but this is not the case for the International Spy Museum. It is a fun museum where you can try to decipher coded messages or identify spies. Espionage techniques are organized by period. There is for example a boudoir dedicated to Mata Hari and activities that took place during the Cold War are displayed in a reconstructed air-raid shelter.
The Newseum, a seven-story-high museum dedicated to news and journalism, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue. It addresses the history of journalism but you can also take on the role of reporter yourself.
Across the Potomac lies the Arlington National Cemetery, where over 260,000 American soldiers are buried who died during various wars. Many tourists visit the cemetery to see the graves of well-known Americans, including John F. Kennedy, artists, writers and astronauts.
The nicest part of the Potomac River, the Great Falls of the Potomac River, is located 22 kilometers outside the American capital. This wild stream is ideally suited for challenging canoe or kayak trips. If this too much excitement for you, they have also mapped out beautiful trails around the Falls.
Roosevelt Island, in the Potomac River, is located within the city itself. The island is named after President Theodore Roosevelt and you will therefore also find a statue of him on the island. Walking and biking routes have been mapped out across the swampy island. If you want to get away from Washington's hustle and bustle for a while, you can go to the large Rock Creek Park in the northern part of the city. It is a beautifully landscaped park with sports fields and picnic areas. During summer months, there are regular musical performances in the outdoor theater.
Street parking in Washington DC's center is limited to two hours, except for Saturday nights and Sundays. There are some underground parking garages but they are expensive. In addition, they are usually not located very close to the tourist attractions. If you want to visit the center, we recommend parking your rental car on a parking lot on the outskirts of the city and taking the subway to continue your journey.
Washington Dulles International Airport is located 42 kilometers west of the city. From Washington's center you can reach the airport via the Interstate 66, exit 67. The route is clearly signposted.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport is located over fifty kilometers north of the city and can be reached via the I-195 (Washington-Baltimore Parkway).