9 Washington, DC Facts That Will Surprise You

Washington, DC has plenty of landmarks -- but how well do you know its many secrets? We've got a few you might find intriguing. Read More

Welcome to the U.S. capital, where secrets abound. (Source: iStock / krblokhin)

Ah, our beloved nation’s capital – a symbol of democracy, a time capsule of history, and a monument to the many who have served our country over the last 250 years. As much as we think we know about DC, given its prominence in the news, literature, and popular media, there’s actually a lot you probably didn’t know – things that will add another level of intrigue to your next trip to the city. Ready for some astounding Washington, DC facts?

DC Fact 1: Washington was originally designed to be a commercial port.

A depiction of Washington, DC in the 1830s; DC was originally slated to be a big industrial/commercial transport hub. (Source: Wikipedia)
A depiction of Washington, DC in the 1830s; DC was originally slated to be a big industrial/commercial transport hub. (Source: Wikipedia)

Given its proximity to the Potomac – used widely for the transport of goods in the 1700s – it was thought the nascent city would become a key commercial hub. However, the area around Washington was earmarked for another purpose altogether; in 1790, Congress declared that the District of Columbia would be the seat for the federal government. Fun fact: “Columbia” doesn’t come from any nearby location or river, but was actually another name for America at the time, derived from Columbus (as in, Christopher Columbus).

DC Fact 2: Washington, DC has its own island.

Looking out over the trees of Theodore Roosevelt Island (Source: iStock / Tim Brown)
Looking out over the trees of Theodore Roosevelt Island (Source: iStock / Tim Brown)

True story. While most Americans know that DC is halved by the Potomac, they likely don’t know that at one point in the river’s serpentine wanderings it opens to an island – Theodore Roosevelt Island, to be exact. The perfect escape from the frenzy of the city, this island is rife with wooded trails, nature walks, and verdant island scenery. While it’s not large – the entire area is only about 90 acres – it has become a beloved National Park. Bonus: Entry is free to all.

DC Fact 3: Our capital is home to many a flying squirrel.

Holy flying squirrel, Batman! (Source: Shutterstock / Laura Fiorillo)
Holy flying squirrel, Batman! (Source: Shutterstock / Laura Fiorillo)

If you’re like us, you’re used to intrepid squirrels coming up to you in parks and begging for food. They seem to be everywhere. Flying squirrels, however – that’s another story. Suffice it to say we were a bit surprised to see these airborne critters “flying” from tree to tree in the capital. They’re just mesmerizing to watch – and you’ll see quite a few, especially if you head out to nature reserves or parks.

DC Fact 4: The country’s first president – and the man who signed off on the creation of DC – never lived in the White House.

A rendering of the White House in the 1810, shortly after John Adams would have taken up residence (Source: Wikipedia)
A rendering of the White House in 1810, shortly after John Adams would have taken up residence (Source: Wikipedia)

While George Washington was intimately involved in the creation of the nation’s new capital, it took time to build it. While construction proceeded, he remained in New York City. The White House, not ready for its first president until 1800, sadly left then-out-of-office George Washington with no opportunity to experience the magnificent building for himself.

In fact, the second U.S. president, John Adams, was the first president to occupy the White House. Unfortunately, White House tours don’t give you a look inside residences, but you will see photos of presidents past – including Adams himself. (For a look inside George Washington’s residence, head to Mount Vernon.)

DC Fact 5: The United States Capitol building has a crypt below it.

Where George Washington was meant to be buried – before the War of 1812 interrupted things (Source: Shutterstock / Bill Perry)
Where George Washington was meant to be buried – before the War of 1812 interrupted things (Source: Shutterstock / Bill Perry)

It may sound too “National Treasure”-y to be real, but it’s true. After her husband’s death in 1799, Martha Washington was asked by the Capitol’s builders to bury George in the building – the same one for which he laid the cornerstone in 1793. She agreed, and a crypt was eventually built underneath the rotunda.

It took a while for all of this to take shape, however. The War of 1812 got in the way and then the British captured the city and set it on fire – pushing construction back a bit. The crypt was finally completed in 1827, but by then, Washington was long-since buried at Mount Vernon and the plantation owner refused to disinter him so he could be reburied at the Capitol.

Today, the crypt sits empty – though it has been used for bicycle storage from time to time.

DC Fact 6: A “secret” subway exists below the House and Senate office buildings.

The "subway" that shuffles Senate and House staffers (Source: Wikipedia)
The “subway” that shuffles Senate and House staffers (Source: Wikipedia)

What a tease, right? Well, since 9/11, house and senate staffers have had access to their own underground subway, shuffling them between their private offices and the voting chambers. While a curious bit of Washington trivia, you’re not missing all that much – rides take just a minute or two.

DC Fact 7: DCers love their wine – they drink 25% more than any state.

Oh, have another glass – you're in DC! (Source: Shutterstock / Nicole Glass Photography)
Oh, have another glass – you’re in DC! (Source: Shutterstock / Nicole Glass Photography)

It’s true; a Beer Institute study, tracking consumption of all alcoholic beverages, gave DC “top marks” for its love of wine. What does that mean for you? Well, it turns out that the capital saw a flurry of wine bar openings a couple of years back – many of which threw off the “high-end,” luxe mantle in favor of casual digs. In fact, there are so many, you may have to extend your stay to get a good taste. (Check out this Eater roundup for top picks, should you need some enological guidance.)

DC Fact 8: There was a typo in the etching on the Lincoln Memorial.

The awe-inspiring Lincoln Memorial – never mind the typo (Source: iStock / Kiyoshi Tanno)
The awe-inspiring Lincoln Memorial – never mind the typo (Source: iStock / Kiyoshi Tanno)

You probably can’t see it now – it’s been touched up since the monument’s erection – but early carvers made the mistake of etching an “E” at the beginning of the word “Future” on the north wall inscription. It turns out there is no spellcheck for engravers.

DC Fact 9: The National Cathedral sports a Darth Vader gargoyle.

Can you spot Darth Vader? (Source: Shutterstock / Nicole Glass Photography)
Can you spot Darth Vader? (Source: Shutterstock / Nicole Glass Photography)

Built in the classic English Gothic style of the 14th century, the National Cathedral is undeniably a treasure of Washington, DC. While it has served as the center of worship for countless presidents and is renowned for its architectural beauty, few recognize the building’s hidden gem: a Darth Vader “gargoyle” on the northwest tower. It wasn’t a prank or goof – it was actually the result of a 1980s public carving competition. Lucky for Americans, Darth Vader is a permanent cathedral fixture that will bless generations of visitors for years to come.