A bit of historical background: after the revolution, there was debate as to where the new capital should be. New York and Philadelphia were used, but there were two problems with that:

  1. Both of those cities were in the north, that is, north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
  2. Both of those cities were (of course) in a state. The concern was that whatever state the city was in would have inordinant influence over the government. For example (it was feared), the state would demand special perquisites, or it would raise taxes on government buildings in the city.
As a result, it was decided that a new, impartial place must be found for a capital. In addition, the city should be in the middle of the country (that is, in the middle of the thirteen colonies that made up the country at the time). The actual decision to make a federal district was a fairly complicated compromise made by the various writers of the constitution (specifically Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton). George Washington selected the site for the city, a 100 square mile patch of swamp at the joining of the Potomac River and Anacostia River. The city was named after George Washington, and the district was named Columbia, in honor of Christopher Columbus.

Pierre L'Enfant was brought in to design the city. He made it in a grid shaped pattern, with broad diagonal avenues. The capitol building serves as the center, and divides the city into four (uneven) quadrants (NW, NE, SW, and SE). The North-South running streets are numbered (starting with 1, on each side of the capitol). The East-West streets are in alphabetical order, first using the letters A-Z (excluding J), and then using two, three, and four syllable words -- so when you get about six miles away from the capitol, you run into Albemarle St, Brandywine St, Chesapeake St, etc. The system gets more muddled the further you go from downtown, but it works fairly well. The avenues run diagonally, and are named after states. The most important avenue is Pennsylvania Avenue, which connects the White House with the Capitol.

While DC was originally a 100 mile square, bordering between Maryland and Virginia, Virginia took back what was originally its piece during the Civil War, and somehow never returned it, leaving Washington with just 70-odd square miles.

In recent years, the city has been troubled by both incompetent government and congressional animosity (each of which has reinforced the other). DC residents were only allowed to vote for president by the 23rd ammendment in 1961. They still have no voting senators or representatives, one reason why their license plate motto has been changed to "No taxation without representation".

Famous places to go in DC:

Can anyone think of any more...?