Washington DC lies in the middle of the United States’ Atlantic coast, a politically geographic compromise that led US President John Kennedy to quip that the city had all the charm of the North and all the efficiency of the South, which is to say it lacked both.

But essentially it is an international city with a domestic cast. All of the United States’ great institutions flourish there, from national museums and monuments to the halls of justice and power. As the capital of one of the world’s most powerful nations, it is home to embassies, NGOs and the world’s most powerful lobbyists and influence-peddlers. Despite being an international brokerage house of power, it is a very liveable city, with green spaces, a clean and reliable subway system (the metro), free museums and an increasingly sophisticated cultural and culinary scene.

What is it known for?
Washington is a government town. It is rare to find a family without at least one member working directly or indirectly for the US government. The social calendar is dictated by political seasons and its shifting climates. From Tammy Haddad’s annual White House Correspondents’ brunch to the Kennedy Center’s galas, Washington hosts and hostesses follow the scent of power with the keenness of bloodhounds.

Unlike other major US cities like Boston and New York, which grew organically as populations surged, DC was originally laid out in the 18th Century by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French architect. He envisaged the grand boulevards and avenues that cut the landscape into odd angles, making it a difficult city to navigate. At DC’s centre is the National Mall, surrounded by institutions like the Smithsonian museums and the botanical gardens, which are free to visitors, and anchored at either end by the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial. Visitors can suffer from monument madness, but a quick trip to the U Street Corridor or Eastern Market will remind tourists that there is a real city there, with all the problems and delights of a living, breathing metropolis.

The restaurant scene is in overdrive, with top chefs like Jose Andres throwing their culinary weight around, an influx of shops serving nothing but meatballs or pies, and plenty of traditional comfort food, such as President Obama’s favourite, Ben’s Chili Bowl. Nightlife has also grown beyond Irish pubs and college bars (the city has more than a dozen colleges and universities), with hip hotel bars and scene-y lounges opening up. The crowds still lack the fashionable wattage of Manhattan and Los Angeles, but new night owl options are increasing the city’s fun factor.

Poverty rates in the District are higher than the national average, the public schools are infamously bad and all but one of the 10 safest neighbourhoods are in the north and west quadrants of the city. But overall crime statistics, including homicide rates, are at 20 year lows and dropping steadily.

Where do you want to live?
While northwest DC remains the top quadrant of the city for middle-class renters and buyers, some neighbourhoods in the northeast and southeast have taken off in the last decade. East of Capitol Hill and Union Station, row houses are being bought and renovated, and areas around Eastern Market and H Street are quickly gentrifying due to desirable housing stock, mass transit links and affordability. “Neighbourhoods with a bit of an edge are hot right now,” said Suzanne Des Marais, the 2011 president of the Washington DC Association of Realtors. “These are places with emerging local businesses and solid, older housing stock.” Neighbourhoods that fit this bill in northwest include Bloomingdale, LeDroit Park, Truxton Circle, Petworth, Park View and Shaw, near the vibrant U Street Corridor. “Those looking for something hip in an up-and-coming area are moving to Shaw where you can get a row home for around $500,000, less if it needs works,” said Jennifer Knoll, real estate agent with Long and Foster Real Estate.

Buyers can also get a lot of value for money if they look for condos in areas that were overdeveloped in the mid-2000s, during the market’s peak, such as Chinatown and near the Convention Center. “If an investor or buyer has time on his side, I suggest buying one of the many short sales in those areas,” said Knoll.

Side trips
Many DC residents head to the Eastern Shore of Maryland for seaside trips, or other spots along the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore is less than an hour away by car or train. Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the state university and beautiful Federal-style buildings, is another popular getaway, as is Fredricksburg, George Washington’s birthplace. There are many wineries in Virginia that make for a lovely day of tastings. Travelling west you will reach mountains, including a few modest skiing options. Classic resorts like Greenbrier in West Virginia and the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia are evergreen retreats for weekends out of town.

Washington is served by three airports: Dulles International (IAD), Reagan National (DCA) and Baltimore-Washington International (BWI), connecting DC to the rest of the country and the world.

Practical info
The overall picture for the market in DC is positive compared to the rest of the country, particularly in the lower to mid-ranges. In high-income areas, there is low inventory and it is a seller’s market, but prices are still off their high point of five years ago. Renting, particularly along the red line in northwest DC, is expensive. A 700-sq-ft apartment in central, fashionable Dupont Circle can go for $2,500 a month without parking.

Property prices vary according to condition, size and location, and a renovated condo can start at $200,000. Many buyers are looking for an apartment that is already redone, since it is hard to borrow the cash needed to buy a place that also needs a new kitchen or bathroom. “But if you have cash on hand, the investment works as long as the buyer doesn’t go overboard on the remodeling,” said Knoll. Competition for good houses can be fierce. “Cash investors are very active right now, looking for properties to renovate and resell,” said Des Marais. Be sure to find a knowledgeable agent who is familiar with DC neighbourhoods and can point you in the right direction. “There are real differences in value, block to block and even building to building,” said Knoll. “Make sure they can advise you on them.”

Further information
DCist: city news and urban diary
Wonkette: DC political gossip
Washington City Paper: arts, news, blogs and columns
Eater DC: restaurant and nightlife blog
H Street Great Street: neighbourhood news and blog