From New York, you can reach the capital in four hours driving down the I-95 through Pennsylvania, dependent on traffic. Avoid the centre of town if you can, though, as it can get clotted with cars during rush hours. There's a choice of car-hire firms at Dulles airport - try Hertz (www.hertz.com), or if you want a car for a single journey, or a short period of time, Zipcar (www.zipcar.com) allos you to borrow a car from hundreds of spots around the city, from around $5 an hour.
About 40 minutes' drive from the city centre, Dulles International is one of the USA's major transport hubs and hosts a huge variety of national and international flights. Ronald Reagan National Airport is only about 10-15 minutes from Capitol Hill, and mainly operates flights from within the US and Canada.
Washington's Beaux Arts marvel, Union Station is on the main Amtrak line from New York's Penn Station (it's a three-hour trip between the two), which continues south as far as Florida and southwest to New Orleans (www.amtrak.com). The five colour-coded lines of DC's Metrorail (www.wmata.com) service cover 86 stations around the city, extending into the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia.
United States: +1; Washington DC: 202.
As well as your stash of political thrillers, pick up All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward for a riveting account the Watergate scandal. If you're in town for a while, you might just have time to get through Gore Vidal's seven-volume Narratives of Empire saga.
Do go / Don't Go
Notoriously hard to predict but wonderful if you catch it, the blooming of cherry blossom across the city in early April make it an extremely photogenic time to visit - aim for early April. Summer (August in particular) can be unbearably hot and overrun with snap-happy tourists, so aim to visit during spring or autumn to see DC at its best.
True, it can't rival New York as America's culinary capital, but Washington nevertheless has a thriving fine dining scene. In response to the a vast range of international embassies that have sprung up around its political heart, you'll find good quality ethnic cuisine of almost any imaginable origin. Neighbouring Baltimore is famous for all things crab-related, and shares its catch with the capital's kitchens. For a fine sample of that most quintessential US culinary staple - try a smoked chilli hotdog from Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street (www.benschilibowl.com).
Gone are the crackpot zoning rules for DC cabs - once upon a time only the locals knew the secrets of which corner to jump out of the taxi to avoid crossing zone boundaries and racking up the cost. Now, taxis have moved over to the meter system, to widespread relief. Smith tip: take note of compass points in Washington addresses - ignoring seemingly insignificant 'NW', 'NE', 'SW' or 'SE' denotations can mean a costly mistake - time-wise, location-wise, and cash-wise. For a pre-booked car, try the Yellow Cab Company (+1 (202) 544 1212).
As elsewhere in the US, tipping is expected pretty much everywhere. Adding 20 per cent to a restaurant bill is not unusual, and bartenders, housekeeping staff, and taxi drivers et al are accustomed to receiving a token for each drink/service/journey.
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Washington's rain is notoriously unpredictable, so umbrellas are a matter of course. Tailor your luggage to cope with hot, humid summer months, and biting winters.
This is where DC comes into its own: the Smithsonian (www.si.edu) is the largest free museum complex in the world, and includes a collection to suit every interest from art to aerospace. The National Gallery's gorgeous East Wing is blossoming after a stunning renovation (www.nga.gov), and houses works by thousands of celebrated artists. Pack your gladrags for a visit to the Kennedy Center (www.kennedy-center.org), both a major player on the world's cultural stage and a gob-smacking architectural feat. The riverside cultural complex plays host to some of the world's best opera, music and dance.
...the White House, or 'Executive Mansion' as it was first christened, is an instantly recognisable Washington icon, attracting millions of would-be president spotters each year. In these security-conscious days, however, anyone hoping to stride purposefully around the West Wing will go home disappointed - tours can only be booked by special arrangement with embassies or Congress.
Georgetown's been around longer than DC itself, and has had plenty of time to develop a thriving shopping scene (www.georgetowndc.com/fashion), with dozens of enticing boutiques springing up between its humming bars and eateries. Sassanova (www.sassanova.com) on Wisconsin Avenue's the place to go for cute shoes, and Pink November a block or two along the same street is an excellent option for boho-chic garb. Hot on Georgetown's cubans, the U Street Corridor is building up a name for itself among dedicated boutique browsers - Meeps (www.meepsdc.com) has been fulfilling vintage fashion whims for nigh-on 20 years. On Sundays, don't miss the flea market at Capitol Hill's Eastern Market, where you'll find enough knickknacks and objêts d'art to fill Aladdin's cave.
Climb the clock tower of the Old Post Office (www.oldpostoffice.com), now a shopping and dining complex on Pennsylvania Avenue, for sweeping city views, rivalled only by those from the obelisk-esque Washington Monument (www.nps.gov/wamo), which looks straight down the Mall to the Capitol.
Remarkably for the city that puts the 'capital' in 'capitalism', every one of the Smithsonian Institute's 19 museums is as free as sunshine (www.si.edu).
January Politics takes centre stage every four years for the presidential inauguration ceremony. April The capital is carpeted with colour as the cherry blossom comes into bloom. May Memorial Day weekend (aka 'Rolling Thunder') brings motorheads from around the world to the city to tour their two-wheeled wonders around the Mall. 4 July The lawns of the Mall play host to the festivities and fireworks of the Independence Day.