Bethesda is situated along a major thoroughfare that was originally the route of an ancient Native American trail. Henry Fleet, an English fur trader, was the first European to travel to the area, which he reached by sailing up the Potomac River. After staying for two years with the Piscataway tribe—either as a guest or prisoner—he returned to England, spoke of potential riches in fur and gold, and won funding for another North American expedition.
Most early settlers in Maryland were tenant farmers who paid their rent in tobacco. The extractive nature of tobacco farming meant that colonists continued to push farther north in search of fertile land, and in 1694 Henry Darnell surveyed a 710-acre area that became the first land grant in present-day Bethesda. Rural tobacco farming was the primary way of life in Bethesda throughout the 1700s; while the establishment of Washington, D.C. in 1790 deprived Montgomery County of Georgetown, its economic center, the event had little effect on the small farmers throughout Bethesda.
Between 1805 and 1821, the area of present-day Bethesda became a rural way station after development of a toll road, the Washington and Rockville Turnpike, which carried tobacco and other products between Georgetown and Rockville, and north to Frederick. A small settlement grew around a store and tollhouse along the turnpike. By 1862, the community was known as "Darcy's Store" after the owner of a local establishment, William E. Darcy. The settlement was renamed in 1871 by the new postmaster, Robert Franck, after the Bethesda Meeting House, a Presbyterian church built in 1820 on the present site of the Cemetery of the Bethesda Meeting House. The church burned in 1849 and was rebuilt the same year about 100 yards south at its present site.
Throughout most of the 19th century, Bethesda never developed beyond a small crossroads village, consisting of a post office, a blacksmith shop, a church and school, and a few houses and stores. It was not until the installation of a streetcar line in 1890 and the beginnings of suburbanization in the early 1900s that Bethesda began to grow in population. Until that time, dependence on proximity to rail lines insulated Bethesda from growth, even as surrounding communities located directly on these lines blossomed. The arrival of the personal automobile ended this dependency, and Bethesda planners grew the community with the newest transportation revolution in mind.
Subdivisions began to appear on old farmland, becoming the neighborhoods of Drummond, Woodmont, Edgemoor, and Battery Park. Further north, several wealthy men made Rockville Pike famous for its mansions. These included Brainard W. Parker ("Cedarcroft", 1892), James Oyster ("Strathmore", 1899), George E. Hamilton ("Hamilton House", 1904; now the Stone Ridge School), Luke I. Wilson ("Tree Tops", 1926), Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor ("Wild Acres", 1928–29), and George Freeland Peter ("Stone House", 1930). In 1930, Dr Armistead Peter's pioneering manor house "Winona" (1873) became the clubhouse of the original Woodmont Country Club (on land that is now part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus). Merle Thorpe's mansion, "Pook's Hill" (1927, razed 1948)—on the site of the current neighborhood of the same name—became the home-in-exile of the Norwegian Royal Family during World War II.
That war, and the expansion of government that it created, further fed the rapid expansion of Bethesda. Both the National Naval Medical Center (1940–42) and the NIH complex (1948) were built just to the north of the developing downtown. This, in turn, drew further government contractors, medical professionals, and other businesses to the area. In recent years, Bethesda has consolidated as the major urban core and employment center of southwestern Montgomery County. This recent growth has been significantly vigorous following the expansion of Metrorail with a station in Bethesda in 1984. Alan Kay built the Bethesda Metro Center over the Red line metro rail which opened up further commercial and residential development in the immediate vicinity.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the CDP has a total area of 13.2 square miles (34 km2). 13.1 square miles (34 km2) of it is land and 0.1 square miles (0.26 km2) of it (0.38%) is water.
The main commercial corridor that runs through Bethesda is Maryland Route 355 (known as Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda and as Rockville Pike and Hungerford Drive in more northern communities), which, to the north, connects Bethesda with the communities of North Bethesda and Rockville, ending, after several name changes, in Frederick, Maryland. Toward the South, Rockville Pike becomes Wisconsin Avenue near the NIH Campus and continues beyond Bethesda through Chevy Chase, Friendship Heights and into Washington, D.C., ending in Georgetown.
The area commonly known as "Downtown Bethesda" is centered at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue, Old Georgetown Road and East-West Highway. Other focal points of downtown Bethesda include the Woodmont Triangle, bordered by Old Georgetown Road (Maryland Route 187), Woodmont and Rugby Avenues, and the Bethesda Row, centered at the intersection of Woodmont Avenue and Bethesda Avenue. Much of the dense construction in that area followed the opening of the Bethesda station on the Red Line of the Washington Metro rapid transit system, also located at this intersection and the centerpiece of the Bethesda Metro Center development. The Medical Center Metro stop lies about 0.7 miles north of the Bethesda stop, Medical Center, which serves the NIH Campus, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
As of the census of 2000, there were 55,277 people, 23,659 households, and 14,455 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 4,205.8 inhabitants per square mile (1,624.2/km²). There were 24,368 housing units at an average density of 1,854.1 per square mile (716.0/km²). The racial makeup of the CDP was 85.86% White, 2.67% Black or African American, 0.17% Native American, 7.92% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 1.23% from other races, and 2.11% from two or more races. 5.43% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There were 23,659 households out of which 28.0% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 53.4% were married couples living together, 6.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 38.9% were non-families. 32.2% of all households were made up of individuals and 11.6% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.30 and the average family size was 2.92.
In the CDP, the population was spread out with 21.8% under the age of 18, 4.6% from 18 to 24, 29.2% from 25 to 44, 27.1% from 45 to 64, and 17.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 41 years. For every 100 females there were 87.7 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 84.0 males.
Bethesda is a very wealthy and well-educated area. According to the 2000 Census, Bethesda was the best-educated city in the United States of America with a population of 50,000 or more. 79% of residents 25 or older have bachelor's degrees and 49% have graduate or professional degrees. According to a 2007 estimate, the median income for a household in the CDP was $117,723, and the median income for a family was $168,385. Males had a median income of $84,797 versus $57,569 for females. The per capita income for the CDP was $58,479. About 1.7% of families and 3.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 1.8% of those under age 18 and 4.1% of those age 65 or over. Many commute to Washington, D.C. for work. The average price of a four bedroom, two bath home in Bethesda in 2010 was $806,817 (which ranks it as the twentieth most expensive community in America).
Bethesda is often associated with its neighboring communities, Potomac, Maryland, Chevy Chase, Maryland, Great Falls, Virginia, and McLean, Virginia for their similar demographics. In April 2009, Forbes ranked Bethesda second on its list of "America's Most Livable Cities." In October 2009, based on education, income, health, and fitness, Total Beauty ranked Bethesda first on its list of the U.S.'s "Top 10 Hottest-Guy Cities." In 2009, Self magazine ranked Bethesda as the second healthiest place for women in the country, a year after being ranked number one. As of 2009, 8 Pulitzer Prize winners live in Bethesda, as do several well-known political commentators (including George Will, David Brooks, and Thomas Friedman).
Important medical institutions located in Bethesda include the National Institutes of Health campus, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and the adjoining Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, as well as a number of other military medical and research institutions. Other federal institutions include the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division.
The headquarters of defense conglomerate Lockheed Martin, managed health care company Coventry Health Care and hotel and resort chains Marriott International and Host Hotels & Resorts, Inc. are located in Bethesda. Software company Bethesda Softworks was originally located in Bethesda, but moved to Rockville, Maryland, in 1990. The Discovery Channel also had its headquarters in Bethesda before relocating to Silver Spring in 2004. On the professional services side, numerous banks (PNC, Capital One Bank) brokerage firms (SmithBarney, Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, Fidelity) and law firms (Ballard Spahr, JDKatz, Paley Rothman, Lerch Early & Brewer) maintain offices in Bethesda. Bethesda has two farmers markets, the Montgomery Farm Woman's Cooperative Market and the Bethesda Farmer's Market.
Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) has developed much of the west side of downtown Bethesda into an area called Bethesda Row. The vibrant district includes Barnes & Noble, an Apple Store, a cinema, and dozens of shops and restaurants. Also located in downtown Bethesda is one of the Madonna of the Trail monuments, erected by the National Old Trails Association working in concert with the Daughters of the American Revolution. Judge Harry S Truman, presided over the dedication of the Bethesda monument, on April 19, 1929. Nearby is the Bethesda Post Office. Also starting in the heart of downtown Bethesda, is the Capital Crescent Trail which follows the old tracks of the B&O Railroad stretching from Georgetown, Washington, D.C., to Silver Spring, MD. Walter Reed Medical Center and the Bethesda Theater are two important Art Deco architectural structures in the suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C.
Bethesda is the home of Congressional Country Club, which is recognized as one of the most prestigious country clubs in the world. Congressional has hosted four major golf championships, including the 2011 U.S. Open, won by Rory McIlroy. The AT&T National, hosted by Tiger Woods, has been played at Congressional four times. Bethesda is also home of the exclusive Burning Tree Club, the Bethesda Country Club, and the Bethesda Community Baseball Club, which operates the Bethesda Big Train, a summer collegiate baseball team.
A number of ambassador residences are in Bethesda, including Bangladesh, Cape Verde, Guyana, Honduras, Lesotho, Morocco, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Zimbabwe.
Bethesda is also home to a federally funded and operated health science university, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). The primary mission of USU is to prepare graduates for service in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Public Health Service. The university consists of the F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine, a medical school, and the Graduate School of Nursing, a nursing school.
The Washington Japanese Language School (WJLS, ワシントン日本語学校 Washington Nihongo Gakkō), a supplementary weekend Japanese school, holds its classes at the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda. The WJLS maintains its school office in North Bethesda, adjacent to Garrett Park. The institution, giving supplemental education to Japanese-speaking children in the Washington, D.C. area, was founded in 1958, making it the oldest Japanese government-sponsored supplementary school in the U.S.
The Writer's Center in Bethesda publishes Poet Lore, the longest continuously running poetry journal in the United States.
Notable companies based in Bethesda include:
Downtown Bethesda is managed by Bethesa Urban Partnership, a non-profit organization established in 1994 by Montgomery County.
Washington Metro's Red Line services two primary locations in Bethesda: the downtown area at the Bethesda, and the area near the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed Medical Center at the Medical Center Washington Metro stations.
Local buses include:WMATA's Metrobus
The Montgomery County Ride On bus system also has several routes through Bethesda.
Bethesda Circulator, a free loop bus that operates Monday-Saturday and covers most of downtown Bethesda.
Long-distance buses include Vamoose Bus and Tripper Bus, both of which provide service from downtown Bethesda to the proximity of Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan, New York City.Tripper Bus, a privately owned company, provides service from Bethesda at the southwest corner of Elm Street and Wisconsin Ave to New York City between 8th and 9th Ave near Penn Station, in close to proximity to Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Bethesda is featured in the 1993 movie Dave, the 1994 movie True Lies, the 1999 movie Random Hearts, the 2003 movie Shattered Glass, the 2005 movie The Pacifier, and the 2012 movie The Bourne Legacy. It is mentioned in the 2001 movie Wet Hot American Summer and the 2007 movie Fred Claus.
Bethesda is mentioned in a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, a 2009 episode of 24, a 2013 episode of Family Guy, a 2013 episode of Homeland, and a 2013 episode of Scandal. It is also featured in several episodes of the American science fiction television series The X-Files and the 2008 Canadian mini-series XIII, as well as the American space opera Babylon 5, where it is home to the Bethesdadome, the medical headquarters of the Earth Alliance.
Bethesda is featured in the book series The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, written by American author Ann Brashares, who has ties to the area.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks is a video game development and publishing company famous for The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series. The town of Bethesda itself is featured in Fallout 3.
Bethesda is claimed to be "Where the diners are famed for / Waitresses so rude" in the Joan of Arc song "To've Had Two Of".