Review of D.C. Details

January 1, 2007

When Parisian-born architect Pierre-Charles L'Enfant first viewed the land along the banks of the Potomac River in 1791, he must have been a little disappointed.

When Parisian-born architect Pierre-Charles L'Enfant first viewed the land along the banks of the Potomac River in 1791, he must have been a little disappointed.

Commissioned by President George Washington to design the new nation's federal city, L'Enfant faced a daunting task. Much of the land was uninhabitable swampland ceded from Maryland and Virginia. (Later, the land originating in Virginia was given back to that commonwealth.) There were several hills, but none higher than 420 feet above sea level.

Yet despite the challenge of the topography, L'Enfant envisioned a capital "magnificent enough to grace a great nation." His vision eventually became a reality - though it was not fully realized until long after his death.

Nomenclature, topography

The city is named for George Washington, who selected the land for the site in 1790.

The District of Columbia, named for Christopher Columbus, is 67 square miles divided into four quadrants: Northwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast. The U.S. Capitol marks the point where these four quadrants meet.

It's pretty easy to get around, especially if you're walking. Most of the monuments and museums are located on the Mall, a two-mile stretch of land that extends from the Capitol west to the Washington Monument and farther out to the Lincoln Memorial and the Potomac River. The central green space of our capital, the Mall is the city's favorite place for summer softball games, concerts, political rallies and protests. If you look north from the Washington Monument, you'll see the White House, so you can get your bearings fairly well from those sites.

Throughout the District, numbered streets run north and south, while lettered streets run east to west. There are no J, X, Y or Z streets. Avenues named for U.S. states run diagonally across town. The Washington Convention Center is centrally located on 7th Street just north of K Street, Mount Vernon Square and Chinatown. Head south on 7th to get to the Mall.

Touring, recreation

There's plenty to do in the neighborhood surrounding the convention center, too.

If you're a sports fan, MCI Center, home of the NBA's Washington Wizards, the WNBA's Washington Mystics and the NHL's Washington Capitals, is within walking distance just to the south.

"In fact, the convention center is only two-and-a-half blocks from the sports arena," said a concierge at a luxury hotel located close to the convention center.

"And we have some marvelous restaurants, all within walking distance, as well. Several serve tapas and Mexican cuisine, but you'll also find plenty of Northern Italian, Southern Italian, Caribbean, steak houses, Thai and, of course, Chinese."

There are also a lot of activities in town in both winter and summer. The National Gallery of Art, which houses one of the finest collections in the world, is just down 7th Street. Public ice skating is offered on winter evenings at the Sculpture Garden. Just two blocks to the east on Constitution Avenue, the Smithsonian Jazz Cafe at the National Museum of Natural History offers jazz performances on Friday nights.

If you're in the mood for a laugh, check out the famous Capitol Steps, a troupe that performs political satire Friday and Saturday nights at the Reagan Center.

There are literally thousands of things to do in the District-you can't cover everything in one trip. This guide will help you select some essentials or navigate around a city that truly represents freedom, democracy and the American way of life.