Navigating D.C.

The corner of 3rd St and E St shouldn’t be hard to locate, in theory. Especially if you know you’re at 16th St and H St. Regardless of the city, numbered and lettered streets are typically in order, right? Navigating Washington, D.C., can be a little trickier. To begin with, there is not one intersection of 3rd and E. There are four intersections of these roads. One sits in each quadrant of the city (NW, NE, SW, and SE).

It’s been said that the capital city of the United States was intentionally confusing in order to befuddle invading armies. While this may just be a humorous rumor, it can certainly feel like the city is designed to confuse visitors. When I started a job in D.C., I often had trouble finding my way around the city. It’s laid out in a grid, which I expected to make finding my way around simple. I had no idea about the duplicates of streets and intersections in different quadrants, the diagonals that ran across the grid, or what to do when entering the largest traffic circles I’d ever seen. Even to reach destinations a few blocks away, I would have to refer to the maps on my phone, and sometimes even have it map a route for me. While I did have this option, it grew tedious and a little embarrassing. I wanted to be less dependent on technology and have a general lay of the land.

This canal runs through the Georgetown neighborhood of DC

Fortunately, there is an underlying logic to navigating this maze that I learned over time. Knowing a few basic rules makes navigating D.C. a lot more manageable.

  1. DC has four quadrants: NW, NE, SW, and SE

When naming a road in DC, it is crucial to include the direction at the end. There is a 3rd street in every quadrant, so you’ll want to know if you’re trying to reach 3rd Street NE, 3rd Street SE, and so on.  

  1. There is no J, X, Y, or Z Street.

The alphabet streets end with W Street. J Street was left out because J’s and I’s look a little too similar for the taste of the city planners. However, because the letter I can also look like a lower-case L, it is sometimes written “Eye Street”.

  1. Numbered Streets run north/south, lettered streets run east/west

Of course, there are infinitely more numbers than letters. Therefore, after the letters run out, two-syllable words beginning with each letter are used. After those run out, three-syllable words are used in the same way. For example, just past W St is Adams St.

  1. The numbers and letters begin at the United States Capitol building

The numbers and letters count up from the US Capitol. While there isn’t a “0 Street,” the road that would be in this location is known as Capitol Street. North Capitol Street NW extends north from the Capitol and South Capitol Street SE extends south. One block away from these, in both directions, are 1st Streets (NW, NE, SW, and SE). East Capitol Street NE extends eastward, and there is no street here to the west, due to the presence of the National Mall. Because these streets form the borders of the quadrants, and specify which direction they run from the Capitol, the quadrant endings are not as critical to find your way.

  1. Diagonal streets are usually named after states

Major diagonal streets in Washington include Wisconsin Ave, New Hampshire Ave, Rhode Island Ave, and New York Ave.

  1. Sometimes, the rules are broken.

Of course, as cities grow, roads are added. While the general grid of Washington, D.C. still exists, it is now filled with many other streets that don’t follow the pattern. Parks, universities, and other attractions occasionally throw off the pattern. While these rules provide helpful clues to finding your way, they won’t always clarify locations, especially as you get farther away from the Capitol.  

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