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HOW TO LEARN THE STREETS OF WASHINGTON DC LIKE A LOCAL

September 27th, 2010

Washington DC is one of America’s top walking cities and is very easy to get around once you get the hang of the system and how the streets are mapped out.  Here are a few pointers everyone should know before navigating around the City of Presidents:

  • Four Quadrants: The address system in D.C. takes some getting used to. The city is divided into the four quadrants of a compass (NW, NE, SE, SW), with the U.S. Capitol at the center. Because the Capitol doesn’t sit in the exact center of the city (the Washington Monument does), Northwest is the largest quadrant. Northwest DC also has most of the important landmarks, although Northeast and Southwest have their fair share. The boundaries are North Capitol Street, East Capitol Street, South Capitol Street, and the National Mall. That’s where street addresses start.

    The 4 Quadrants of Washington DC

  • There is no J Street.
  • Numbered Streets and Lettered Streets: Within each quadrant, numbered streets run north to south, and lettered streets run east to west (the letter J was omitted to avoid confusion with the letter I). The streets form a fairly simple grid—for instance 900 G Street NW is the intersection of 9th and G streets in the northwest quadrant of the city. Likewise, if you count the letters of the alphabet, skipping J, you can get a good sense of the location of an address on a numbered street. For instance, 1600 16th Street NW is close to Q Street, Q being the 16th letter of the alphabet if you skip the letter J.
  • Avenues on the Diagonal: As if all this weren’t confusing enough, the city was designed by Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French-born American architect and civil engineer who wanted Washington DC organized by a grid system but also wanted to include diagonal avenues that cut through the square city blocks.  He said that these diagonal routes reminded him of the long diagonal streets in Paris that all came together in grand intersections such as the one around the Arc de Triomphe.  Most of these avenues are named after all the nation’s states. You find addresses on avenues the same way you find those on numbered streets, so 1300 New Hampshire Avenue NW is close to N Street, because N is the 13th letter of the alphabet when you skip the letter J.

    L'Enfant's Original Plan of Washington DC (1792)

If all this makes sense then you’re ready to hit the streets walking!  If you get tired or lost, the Metro is very accessible and will take you near most destinations you will be heading.  The worst case scenario if you can’t find a Metro is just flag down a taxi cab to take you directly to where you need to go.

If you’re out sightseeing, you may find Open Top Sightseeing a valuable mode of informational transportation as you will ride all over the cities on top of an open double decker bus that stops at 30 of the most popular tourism areas in Washington DC.  By purchasing a NOW PASS, you will be able to ride Open Top Sightseeing as well as gain access to the International Spy Museum and the Newseum for a discounted price in addition to big savings at restaurants and other attractions throughout the DC metropolitan area.

Many thanks to Fodor’s for some of these Washington DC travel tips.