Gleaming monuments, political turmoil—in some ways Washington, DC never changes. But step out of the shadow of the Capitol dome and you’ll find a city in flux. With neighborhoods across the city being renewed, revitalized and reenergized, the District is shedding its reputation as a stuffy and somewhat sketchy burg and taking on a new identity as the capital of cool.
Adult Entertainment – Adams Morgan and Mt. Pleasant
DC’s all-around funkiest ‘hood and once undisputed nightlife champ, Adams Morgan has grown up in recent years. High-end condos and the emergence of competing nightlife areas have ushered in a new breed of posh, sophisticated spots to imbibe after dark. Recent arrivals like the restaurant Mintwood Place and three-level cocktail lounge Jack Rose, with a dizzying selection of bourbons and gourmet bar snacks (priced accordingly) are emblematic of the change. Even with fewer stumble-drunk weekend warriors, Adams Morgan and Mt. Pleasant, its more low-key residential neighbor to the north, remain two of DC’s most vibrant and diverse neighborhoods. Colorfully painted houses and storefronts, cheap ethnic eats, offbeat shops, dives, and an all-around laidback vibe are among the reasons both locals and tourists love the area.
Where the Wonky Things Are – Capitol Hill
If DC was a company, Capitol Hill would be the HQ. This is where you find bars like Bullfeathers and Hawk ‘N’ Dove crawling with drunken congressional staffers and overhear conversations that begin, “I was watching C-Span the other night….” But the Hill is funkier and more down-to-earth than you might think: just take a look at Eastern Market, a long-running food hall, flea market and city institution; and Capitol Hill Books, the city’s best used bookstore. A slew of new bars and restaurants, including Lavagna and Ted’s Bulletin, have also been gaining buzz along Barracks Row (aka 8th Street).
Hipster Hideaways – Columbia Heights, Petworth
Just east of Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights is in the midst of a renaissance that began when bargain-hunting hipsters moved in. A streetscape-altering condo and retail development followed, luring professionals and young families. The vibe is casual, with hipster dives like Wonderland and the Red Derby joining beer bar Meridian Pint, Tibetan dumpling spot Mad Momos and coffee/gastropub the Coupe among neighborhood favorites. You’ll find a similar scene up the road to the east in Petworth, another DC ‘hood whose fortunes have improved in recent years. Long considered a great, affordable place to live if you didn’t mind heading elsewhere to go out, that’s changed with the addition of spots like the Petworth Citizen, Scandinavian diner Domku, Southern-fried dive DC Reynolds, and the casual Looking Glass Lounge. And there are more bars, restaurants and commercial developments on the way.
Well heeled and well traveled – Dupont Circle
Stately embassies, stunning 19th century homes, a farmer’s market, an art museum, one of the city’s best bookstores—it’s no surprise that Dupont Circle is one of the District’s most desirable places to live. Formerly a bohemian “gayborhood,” Dupont has buttoned up in recent years, with chains like Banana Republic becoming more common than independent record shops and boutiques. But there is culture (the Philips Collection is the city’s best private art museum) and an international flavor, along with great casual dining (DGS Delicatessen, Hank’s Oyster Bar, Pizza Paradiso) and enough bars to cause you to forget at least a few weekends. And then there’s Dupont Circle fountain, a microcosm of DC where you’ll find think tankers, teenage punks, diplomats, bums, tourists, and grad students all sharing real estate.
Cobblestone and Popped Collars – Georgetown
DC’s oldest neighborhood, Georgetown positively brims with history. It also answers a question you never thought you’d ask: What do you get when you mix quaint cobblestones and multi-million dollar homes with the pastel sweater set, wasted co-eds, throngs of tourists, and enough shopping per square foot to make a mall jealous? Indeed, Georgetown is a love it or hate it kind of place, with charming side streets containing some of the city’s priciest addresses and eye-roll inducing main drags teeming with popped collars, bros and ladies lunching. Go for the history, architecture, shopping, or just a taste of patrician, upper crust DC. Or don’t.
H is for Hip, Hot and Happenin’ – H Street, Near Northeast, NoMa
In a city where urban renewal projects are as common as traffic jams, the stunning transformation of Near Northeast and the H Street Corridor (aka the Atlas District) stands out. What had been a derelict commercial strip on H Street NE seemingly overnight has become one of the city’s top nightlife areas, boasting some of DC’s coolest bars, restaurants and music venues. Pioneering haunts like Food Network-featured gastropub Granville Moore’s and indie rock mecca the Rock N’ Roll Hotel are surrounded by an increasingly diverse array of shops and amenities as the neighborhood becomes more family friendly. The good vibes are spreading too, with the popular Union Market food hall making a destination out of NoMa (North of Mass Avenue), an area previously known for office complexes.
Not (Strictly) for Tourists – Penn Quarter/Chinatown
Urban renewal at its best and worst, Penn Quarter/Chinatown is finally seeing returns from a long-term overhaul that began in the ‘90s. A new sports arena and convention center came first, followed by a renovated National Portrait Gallery, an art house movie theater, and the family friendly Spy Museum, among other attractions. Now with pedestrian-friendly streets and proximity to the monuments, the National Mall and the Smithsonian, Penn Quarter is thriving. A bevy of chains (Fado, Potbelly etc.) and the erosion of Chinatown leave a bad taste in some mouths, but the hood still boasts top-tier dining (Corduroy, Ris and Oyamel to name a few), a little gallery scene, and legit nightlife options. With more apartments and condos coming every day, it’s feeling more local—and less touristy—every day.
Corridor of Cool – U Street Corridor, Shaw, Logan Circle
Formerly Duke Ellington’s stomping grounds and the heart of African American culture in DC, Shaw and the U Street Corridor have taken on new life after falling on hard times in the ‘70s. U Street is now DC’s most popular going out area, with bars, restaurants and boutiques lining every block. You’ll find a bit of everything from vintage bargains and designer threads to steaks, ethnic eats, chilidogs, and the city’s best cocktails. And there’s plenty of live music at clubs like the Black Cat, 9:30 and ‘20s throwback Bohemian Caverns. Shaw is a residential ‘hood full of history (a hotbed of jazz and theater in the ‘20s known as “Black Broadway”), and while it’s now U Street’s quieter companion, new restaurants and a small gallery scene are providing fresh energy. Just south of U, Logan Circle has become one of DC’s most sought-after zip codes. Block upon block of Victorian row houses were the initial draw, but now high-end stores like Bang & Olufsen have take up residence, and raved-about restaurants like Cork, Ghibellina and Le Diplomate attract gourmands in droves, allowing it to become a destination in its own right.