As the capital city of the United States, the District of Columbia is home to US politicians, foreign diplomats, and students looking to change the world. Of course, the city's residents also include nurses, grocery store cashiers, and cooks, so don't think you need a political agenda to move here.
If you're looking to join the list of Washington, D.C. residents, here are some things you should know.
1. The city is divided into quadrants.
D.C. is easy to navigate as long as you remember that it's divided into quadrants: Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest. The quadrants converge at Lincoln Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
If a friend tells you to meet them at 370 K Street, make sure you find out whether they mean K Street Northeast, K Street Southeast, K Street Southwest, or K Street Northwest. So yeah, you do need to include the cardinal direction when you're talking about a street.
2. It's easy to walk and bike around the city.
If you like getting around on foot, you're in luck. It's hard to get lost in D.C. due to a street grid system that's easy to follow. The streets running north to south are numbered, and the streets running east to west are lettered. The central point for both the lettered and numbered streets is the US Capitol. Along with these lettered and numbered streets, there are diagonal streets named after states.
If you don't want to walk, it's easy to bike around the city. If you don't have your own bike, you can rent one from Capital Bikeshare.
3. There is public transportation, but the majority of residents rely on personal cars.
Although the city has public transit, the majority of Washingtonians own cars. But that doesn't mean you need a car in the city.
The Metro (D.C.'s subway system) runs throughout the city and into surrounding towns, and it's generally reliable. To reach areas not covered by the Metro, you can hop on a Metrobus. However, you may have to wait a while to catch a bus since some don't run frequently.
If you need to get somewhere fast and don't have a personal car, you can always catch a ride via Uber or Lyft.
4. Lots of people commute into D.C. from outlying areas.
While Washington, D.C. is its own city, the D.C. area consists of other towns and cities in Maryland and Virginia, so the area is sometimes referred to as the DMV. Thousands of people work in D.C. but commute in from outlying towns like Chevy Chase, Rockville, Bethesda, Alexandria, and Arlington.
So many people commute into the city for work that the city's population rises by more than 70% each workday.
5. Traffic in the D.C. metro area is horrible.
Due to a combination of commuters, poor traffic design, and rapid development, the traffic in the D.C. area is horrible. One study found that drivers in the Northern Virginia area near D.C. sit in traffic for 102 hours a year. If you can, avoid 66, 95, 395, and 495 (AKA "the Beltway").
If you'll be traveling on these roads often, try carpooling, since HOV lanes can drastically speed up your commute.
6. Green space is easy to find.
While you may not think of D.C. as a spot for outdoor recreation, there are opportunities in the city to hike, kayak, and simply enjoy the outdoors. Rock Creek Park is a 1,754-acre national park located within city limits. It's a great place to escape the city sidewalks and go for a hike or trail run. Some other top places to enjoy nature are Glover Archbold Park and the National Arboretum.
If you want to enjoy the water, head to the Georgetown Waterfront for gorgeous views of the Potomac River or rent a kayak or paddleboard and spend a few hours on the water.
7. Get ready to see lots of tourists and activists.
Since it's the nation's capital, get ready to see lots of tourists visiting the city's monuments and museums. The National Mall is usually crowded with school groups touring the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, political buffs checking out the Capitol, and international tourists looking at the White House. While the area is usually filled with people, be prepared for extra-large crowds around Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and during the cherry blossom bloom in the spring.
The District also draws in crowds of activists and protestors, due to the presence of national lawmakers. No matter your political leanings, it's good to be in the know of marches and protests, as they can largely impact both pedestrian and auto traffic.
8. There aren't any skyscrapers.
Unlike most big cities, D.C. isn't filled with skyscrapers. While some people will tell you this is because buildings can't be taller than the Capitol Building, the truth is it has to do with the 1910 Height of Buildings Act. This act states that buildings can't be more than 20 feet taller than the street they face — this generally means that buildings can't be more than 160 feet tall.
Over the years, there have been multiple conversations about changing this act due to concerns about the inability to build affordable housing. After all, you can only fit so many one-bedroom apartments into a five-story building. However, the act still remains.
9. Choose a neighborhood wisely.
Which neighborhood you choose impacts your cost of living, commute, access to the metro, proximity to parks, and more. So before you sign a lease to a new apartment, make sure you consider what neighborhood matches your requirements.
If you're looking to be close to downtown and want restaurants and nightlife right outside your door, consider Capitol Hill, Penn Quarter, and Dupont Circle. If you like having happy hour options close by, but want a less refined feel, check out Adams Morgan and Shaw.
10. The city is culturally and ethnically diverse.
About 14% of the city's residents are immigrants, with the top countries of origin consisting of El Salvador, China, Ethiopia, Mexico, and India. You can find over a hundred ethnic groups represented in the D.C. area, and these groups celebrate their cultures through food and festivals. While rising rents have caused some businesses to move to the suburbs, you can still find excellent pupusas, injera, and dan dan noodles.
The city is also racially diverse but still largely segregated. However, demographics of the various neighborhoods are constantly changing due to ongoing gentrification.
11. You can find stellar free museums.
One of the perks of living in D.C. is the plethora of Smithsonian Museums. Not only are they top-notch, but they're also free! Some of the museums include the National Museum of African History and Culture, National Air and Space Museum, and National Museum of the American Indian.
12. College students live throughout the city.
D.C. is home to a number of colleges and universities, so you'll see college students around the city. Here's where you can find some of the major campuses.
- George Washington University: Foggy Bottom
- Georgetown University: Georgetown
- American University: near Spring Valley
- Howard University: Pleasant Plains
13. Capital vs. Capitol?
You'll likely hear and read these two words a lot, so get them straight before you move to the city. Washington, D.C. is the nation's capital city, and the building that congress meets in is the United States Capitol.
Capitalize on your new move.
Now that you know a little more about Washington, D.C. and all it has to offer, get ready to make the most of your new home. And remember, you don't need to be a political junkie to get comfortable in this city.