Washington, D.C.: Local Life and Lore

D.C. locals share everything from the city's most interesting places to its very own local lingo.

GETTING AROUND

The first piece of advice I can give a newcomer, having been one myself, is to make sure you leave plenty of extra time to get lost when driving to any new destination. If they say the best way to learn your way around a new place is to get lost, you will undoubtedly have a lot of fine learning experiences thrown in your lap. The street signs in this area are abysmal, especially in the merging mass of parkways taking you to and from Arlington, Va. Once you perfect your route, prepare to be occasionally thwarted by a presidential motorcade, but that’s just part of the glamour of living in our nation’s capital.

GEOGRAPHY AND TRANSPORTATION

The District of Columbia contains and is the city of Washington. Living in the District means living in the actual city of Washington which is divided into four quadrants: NW, NE, SW and SE. These stem from the U.S. Capitol and the designation follows every street address in Washington. However, once you step beyond the city proper, you enter another state, namely Maryland or Virginia. A common boundary of the greater Washington area is defined by the Capital Beltway or Interstate 495, a ring road surrounding the District and its inner suburbs of Maryland and northern Virginia, and geographical lines are drawn by those living “inside” and “outside the Beltway.”

Washington boasts one of the busiest and cleanest underground transit systems; the Metro, with its carpeted trains, is served by lines designated by color, the Red Line, the Orange Line, etc., which radiate from the center of town well into the suburbs.

Commuter traffic brings a huge working population into the District every day from the suburbs. If you commute by car, rush hour is no small thing. Factoring in extra time at rush hour is imperative, but knowing multiple routes to your destination is also helpful if you want to avoid congested areas. To accommodate the increased volumes, a few of the main arteries -- Connecticut Avenue, 16th Street -- shift the direction of their midlane at peak times, while some become entirely one way like Rock Creek Parkway, Canal Road. Highway 66 becomes entirely a HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) during the morning and evening commute. These shifting traffic patterns take some getting used to, to be sure. Even with all these adjustments, rush hour is bad. Period. The Beltway crawls. The interchange south of the city funneling cars onto 95 South, aptly called the Mixing Bowl, is one of the worst areas. And the back-ups double in inclement weather: rain slows traffic, snows stops it altogether.

BEYOND THE TOURIST ATTRACTIONS

Check out Washington City Paper for weekly listings of arts events and nightlife. The city is abuzz with events of all kinds, art openings, embassy receptions and the like. Get on a few mailing lists and you will never be short of interesting things to do. For instance, the Organization of American States’ Art Museum of the Americas has a continuous line-up of film screenings and exhibits, mainly featuring artists from Latin America and the Caribbean.

For something a little out of this world, you can view a 7.18-gram basalt lunar rock from the Sea of Tranquility that is part of the Scientists and Technicians Window in the National Cathedral. The crew of Apollo 11 donated it to the Cathedral. The stained glass installation commemorates America’s exploration of space and man’s first steps on the moon.

LEARN THE LINGO

  • The Hill refers to Capitol Hill, the political nerve center of this capital city.
  • The Mall is not a shopping center. It is actually a national park, officially the National Mall and Memorial Parks. It runs from Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, with the Washington Monument in the middle, and is flanked on both sides by many of the Smithsonian’s national museums.
  • The House Side and The Senate Side are neighborhoods.
  • East Wing and West Wing more often than not refers to the east and west buildings of the National Gallery and not sections of the White House.

SAMPLE THE FARE

If you're on the Hill, stop by Mangialardo & Sons on 1317 Pennsylvania Ave. Line up for a great meatball sub or Italian hero, which you'll have to eat on your lap outside or in your car because there is no seating. But it’s well worth the mess.

Another hidden spot for great eating is the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, located in the National Museum of the American Indian. The cafe serves indigenous cuisines and has food stations showing different regional Native cooking techniques and ingredients of the Americas.

Also, some of the best restaurants, especially for Asian cuisine, are in suburban Virginia and Maryland. Check out Oriental East in Silver Spring at 1312 East-West Highway for the best dim sum in the area. Plan to wait. Put in your name and go grocery shopping at the nearby Giant.

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