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Washington, DC History

It is hard to believe, but the land on which Washington, DC’s elegant National Mall and its stately buildings stand was once a marshy swamp. George Washington created this special district as a federal power hub to avoid the problem of establishing the capital city in any one state.

Its strategic location, with accessibility to the sea via the Potomac River and between the South and the North, made it an attractive site. Originally designed by the French architect Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, Washington is a city of green parks, wide tree-lined streets and very few skyscrapers, all of which give it a European air.

Washington, DC is very much a purpose-built capital with grand buildings (such as the White House and the US Capitol) and impressive monuments (the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, to name but two). Congress and the second President, John Adams, moved to Washington, DC in 1800, but it was a further six decades before it began to look like a true capital. In the interim period, foreign ambassadors considered it a hardship posting.

Now, this political centre stage and capital of the most powerful nation in the world, is the place to be. Washington, DC is always in the international spotlight. Occasionally this attention is not welcome, for example, the world’s largest concentration of spies lurks around the city.

Washington, DC has also had its share of political scandal, such as the Watergate shame, Mayor Marion Barry’s imprisonment for drug offences, the Monica Lewinsky affair, the painful struggle of the 2000 presidential elections and most recently, indictments in the Bush administration for the CIA leak in 2005.

The most tragic of events in the nation’s capital occurred on 11 September 2001, when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. Since that time, barricades, blocked-off streets, police and security checks have given parts of the city a different facade.

Did you know?
• One of the gargoyles on the Washington National Cathedral is actually Darth Vader. It was sculptured and placed on the west tower following a competition in the 1980s.
• The Washington Monument is two different colours. In 1854, the Washington National Monument Society ran out of money, and when the construction was completed in 1884, the government used stone from a different quarry.
• The District of Columbia (DC) is actually named after the explorer Christopher Columbus.

Featured Hotels

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Hotel Tabard Inn

Located on a tree-lined side street in the Dupont Circle neighbourhood, this is the small hotel that residents recommend to their friends. As it was constructed from three Federal-style row houses, no two rooms are exactly the same, but each is filled with unique antiques and has Wi-Fi access throughout. Some rooms have a shared bathroom. Victorian sitting areas in the lounge are quite cosy and feature live jazz on Sunday night. The hotel's downstairs dining room, a popular lunch spot for both guests and non-guests, features American cuisine. The restaurant's brick-walled garden is one of the most pleasant places to pass an afternoon in Washington, DC. Price includes continental breakfast.

Hotel Helix

If funk is your thing, you'll love this Kimpton boutique hotel where pop art meets Hollywood. The guestrooms are decorated in eye-popping patterns, bright red, green and blue colours, and underscored with rounded mirrors and large pillows. Twelve of the rooms are themed including the cool Zone rooms, fun family Bunk rooms and Italian-inspired Eats rooms. The lighting system changes from blue to gold in the hotel's bar/café, Helix Lounge, and the outdoor patio is popular with locals. Located in the Logan Circle neighbourhood, Hotel Helix is more appealing to young hipsters rather than sedate business people.

The William Lewis House

A home from home, this welcoming bed and breakfast has all the trinkets and touches of grandma's place with patterned rugs, plump sofas and candles and doilies above the fireplace. Actually taking up two Edwardian townhouses, The William Lewis House has 10 individually decorated rooms, scattered with antiques and family heirlooms, plus free Wi-Fi. What's more, the owners host happy hours with wine and hot chocolate. Gay friendly.

Washington Plaza Hotel

Under the watchful eye of architect Morris Lapidus, the Washington Plaza sprung up in 1962, placing a resort-like hotel in the middle of a city. Right next to the Smithsonian museums, the location is superb, while its glorious swimming pool, 340 well turned out rooms and recently renovated fitness suite are all as good as any modern contemporaries.

Normandy Hotel

Located on an elegant street with embassies as neighbours, and within walking distance of bars, restaurants, shops and the Dupont Circle Metro, this small hotel is a real find. Extensively renovated in 2009, the 75 rooms are decorated in black and white highlighted with fabrics in warm colours. The lobby and rooms have complimentary Wi-Fi internet access and although there is no restaurant, afternoon tea and coffee is served to guests and there is a free wine and cheese reception some evenings.

Mandarin Oriental Washington, DC

The award-winning Oriental is one of the most popular hotels in Washington, DC. Touches of Feng Shui have made its huge guest rooms calming - in fact, you may not want to leave them. All have Chinese marble bathrooms, silk bed tapestries, flatscreen TVs, high-speed internet access and smashing views of city monuments or the Potomac Tidal Basin. The hotel also has a state-of-the-art spa plus two restaurants - the Asian-inspired, award-winning Cafe MoZU and the Sou'Wester, serving regional American cuisine. For lighter fare or cocktails try the Empress Lounge.