DC is divided into four quadrants with the Capitol Building’s rotunda as the center. The dividing streets are North Capitol, East Capitol, South Capitol and the National Mall. Therefore, the Mall is basically split down the middle: The Smithsonian Castle, Air and Space Museum and Lincoln Memorial are in southwest DC, while the Natural History Museum and American History Museum are in northwest DC. (Here’s a map of the Mall that I just discovered that newbies might find interesting.)
Street and number addresses start out at the Capitol so there are many identical addresses. That’s why it’s VERY important to note the quadrant, otherwise, you could be looking for a building on K Street SE, for example, when you are really meant to be on K Street NE. This would be a BIG error.
Streets running north and south are numbered (1st, 2nd, etc.) and streets running east-west are letters (interestingly, there’s no J).
The quadrants aren’t identical sizes and they never were. At one time it was an almost perfect square but now—see that big chunk out of southwest?—that’s Arlington and Alexandria, which the district eventually gave back to Virginia.
Northwest is the largest of the quadrants, covering over a third of the city. Its neighborhoods include Federal Triangle, Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom, Adams Morgan and Georgetown, among others. This quadrant is typically what people think of when they think “DC.”
Southwest is the smallest quadrant and is really just a sliver of the city. Therefore, it’s not often mentioned, and many people don’t realize that half the Mall is actually in the quadrant. Southwest is dominated by the waterfront area (which is an up-and-coming residential area) as well as the Bolling Air Force Base and Anacostia Naval Station. Check out this local blog to learn more about this quadrant.
Northeast’s neighborhoods include Pleasant Hill, Fort Totten and much of Capitol Hill, among others. The National Arboretum (Love!) and Gallaudet University (a well-known school for the deaf) are also found in Northeast.
Southeast is bisected by the Anacostia River. The quadrant is known for high crime rates. The part west of the river includes the Library of Congress and Eastern Market, but when traveling east of the river you’ll want to be aware of your surroundings. Though that’s always a good idea, no matter where in the city you find yourself.