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It would be an understatement to say that the nation’s capital is a unique place. The centrally located National Mall is an urban planning gem, with excellent open spaces, walking paths, and major monuments in a classic architectural style. Lining the mall is the Smithsonian museum complex, probably the best set of museums in the world in a single location. In reality, the whole mall setup is a museum in and of itself and a major destination for locals and visitors alike. Numerous government offices and first class hospitality venues surround the mall. To the northwest of the mall, but still within the city limits, lies the upscale residential and commercial enclave of Georgetown, home to Georgetown University, George Washington Hospital, and a variety of entertainment and nightlife amenities. But not all of the D.C. central city glitters; to the north and east in particular lies a considerable expanse of socioeconomically mixed neighborhoods and areas of urban decay.
For most prospective residents, the real story of the D.C. area is the array of residential and commercial corridors surrounding the city on all sides. Just south across the Potomac in Virginia lies Fairfax County, a built-up area including the satellite city of Arlington and the larger suburbs of Alexandria, McLean, and the more upscale Fairfax. This is hardly the whole Northern Virginia story – the sprawling D.C. suburbs spread for miles into the one-time countryside, south into Prince William County and especially west into Loudoun County along the Dulles Airport corridor.
The super-suburbs (especially west) include such names Reston, Herndon, Ashburn and extend to Leesburg, all very large and mostly new residential suburbs, some well-planned and some not. Extensive commercial and corporate developments lie along the corridor with new-economy names like AOL, Nextel, Siebel, Oracle, IBM and Accenture mixed with numerous other businesses and government contractors. Employment in the greater DC area is strong in general and particularly strong in this zone. Many do commute to the DC area proper but more often commute to other places in the suburbs
The outlying northern Virginia suburbs in most ways meet the definition of “exurbs,” where people benefit economically from the city and may use its airport, but have little daily connection with it. Areas east of the city are more industrial and generally uninspiring, while the Maryland suburbs along I-270 northwest through Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville, and Gaithersburg have been split off into another metro area.
The dominance of the U.S. Government and its impact on the local economy and culture cannot be overstated. Not surprisingly, the area has a high percentage of well-educated citizens. But a significant number of educationally and economically disadvantaged people are also within its borders. Arts, entertainment and cultural assets in total are among the best. The Cost of Living Index is high but not exorbitant for this type of area. Housing options and costs have escalated in recent years, but there are signs of softening. Growth and sprawl is a major concern, with development and business activity flung farther out into the countryside and even across venerated Civil War historic sites. Public transportation works well as far out as Dulles Airport and northwest into Maryland, but whether it relieves traffic issues further out is yet unclear.
Bottom line - Washington, D.C. and its Virginia suburbs stand alone as a U.S. city and metro area with unique beauty, plenty to see and do, an active and intellectually stimulating lifestyle, and a wide variety of employment and living options. It does have downsides, and they are becoming strong enough even in the suburbs to negatively impact the ranking. The D.C. area isn’t for everyone, but most who live there are glad they do.
Washington lies at the western edge of the mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain, about 50 miles east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and 35 miles west of Chesapeake Bay. The immediate area is flat with rolling hills starting just outside the city to the northwest and southwest. The climate is coastal continental with a subtropical influence. Summers are warm and humid with occasional hot, sticky spells and thunderstorms. Because of the inland location, summer heat and humidity aren’t offset by sea breezes. Winters are cold but not severe. Precipitation is uniformly distributed throughout the year. Potomac floods can result from heavy rains, sometimes augmented by snowmelt and high tides. Normal winter snowfall is 18 inches, but occasional heavy snows of 25 inches or more do occur. First freeze is early November, last is April 1.