A surprising number of new hotels opened in Washington, D.C. during those months when leisure travel was not recommended. Since the usual flow of visitors and businesspeople to the capital was halted, some hotels chose to rethink their mission and their role in the city fabric. They took a proactive approach by welcoming the neighbors into their public spaces, supporting small businesses, and offering programming that spoke to locals as well as guests. In the lobbies, restaurants, and bars of these five D.C. hotels, you’re just as likely to sit down beside a local as another guest. And honestly, how better to get to know a city than through the people who live there?
- Neighborhood: Thomas Circle
- Book Now: From $259 per night, expedia.com
A recent addition to Viceroy Hotels’ Urban Retreats Collection, the female-focused Hotel Zena, was fashioned from the Adam’s rib of two previous hotels, a Holiday Inn and Donovan House. The hotel doesn’t simply name cocktails after suffragettes or print a feminist credo on your keycard to complete its mission: Instead, the stylish interior was commissioned from a woman-owned design group; the walls and ceilings positively crackle with a collection of vibrant, provocative art created by and depicting women; and even the general manager overseeing the day-to-day operations is a woman (alas, still a rarity in the hospitality business). While the cheeky artwork celebrates women’s accomplishments (yes, that’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s face in a pointillist mural created from tampons!), the curved surfaces and rosy palette celebrate the female form.
The female impulse toward activism and nurturing is represented, too, by an ongoing partnership with N Street Village, a nonprofit that provides services (housing, medical help, and advocacy) to D.C. women experiencing homelessness. Hotel Zena has a playful side, too, holding weekly speed-dating nights at the Figleaf Bar & Lounge and meditation classes led by a neighborhood wellness guru, Faith Hunter.
Thompson Washington DC
- Neighborhood: Navy Yard
- Book Now: From $213 per night, expedia.com
The newly built Thompson property, which opened in early 2020, fits comfortably in the Navy Yard, a colonial-era neighborhood that’s enjoying a renaissance of development. The hotel, within home-run distance of Nationals Park baseball stadium, offers views of both the Anacostia River and the city. The interior design offers a hint of the neighborhood’s history as a port for shipping and shipbuilding: Expect lots of crisp navy-blue details and nautical curves on walls and furniture. You’ll also see elements that reflect the area’s industrial vibe, like lofty ceilings and tall, metal-paned windows in guest rooms and public spaces.
On the ground floor, NYC’s serial restaurateur Danny Meyer has opened Maialino Mare, a seafood-focused trattoria, which ensures that local food lovers will venture over from the Navy Yard’s other outstanding eating options. Chesapeake Bay oysters, crabs, and fish make starring appearances on the menu. A roof deck has almost become de rigeur in the capital, and the Thompson’s Anchovy Social offers 6,000 square feet of wraparound city views, with seating inside and out. Among other local partnerships, as part of its Culture Lives Here campaign, the hotel is teaming up with D.C. fashion entrepreneur Aaron Crist, proprietor of Hyde Closet, for a pop-up. The Hyde Closet website delivers a customized weekly subscription rental box of men’s fashion (and cologne!) cherry-picked from local designers and retailers, a kind of Rent the Runway for menswear.
- Neighborhood: Dupont Circle
- Book Now: From $179 per night, expedia.com
If the staff at Yours Truly seems unusually committed and upbeat, it’s because they were kept on when the previous Wink Hotel closed in early 2020 pending a complete overhaul, and they were consulted on the new iteration. Another undeniable charm of the hotel also stems from the planning stages: The design firm received instructions to envision the public space as a gathering place as much as a hotel, and sure enough, the boho, brutalist lobby has become a magnet for locals. It also doesn’t hurt that the music playing throughout the hotel comes from the turntable at Uncle Tony’s Donut Shop, a new and used vinyl store adjoining the lobby, or that Mercy Me, the hotel’s South American–inspired café and bar, is a project by Daniela Moreira and Andrew Dana, the superstar team behind D.C.’s Call Your Mother deli and Timber Pizza.
The brutalist, ’70s boho design of the lobby and guest rooms—with warm burnt orange, gold, and brown overtones, mellow vintage Persian carpets on sleek concrete floors—harken back to Dupont Circle’s time as a hub of the city’s counterculture. The independently owned 355-room hotel offers discounts at local shops, bakeries, and galleries as well as at the onsite Groom Guy, a men’s “lifestyle agency” that started as a COVID pop-up, cutting hair in the hotel lobby. Finding the rhythm of a destination is easier when you’re seated among locals, with a tropical drink or a breakfast taco in front of you.
Kimpton Banneker Hotel
- Neighborhood: Scott Circle
- Book Now: From $178 per night, expedia.com
Benjamin Banneker, an 18th-century African American freeman, was instrumental in the surveying and design of D.C., including mapping out the district’s meridian, which modern-day 16th Street follows. Banneker was a remarkable self-taught scholar, inventor, astronomer, and intellectual who corresponded with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—and this new hotel, aptly sitting on 16th Street, honors his contributions to the city. The hotel’s unmistakable energy is urban and sophisticated. Toronto-based Mason Studio uses a palette of black, brown, white, and dark blue to provide a rich backdrop for the bold, mostly abstract artwork throughout the property. The art collection includes local as well as international artists. The hotel partners with the nonprofit Black Artists of DC to select a rotating exhibition of work by local artists of color, including a striking lobby mural by D.C.-based Nigerian-American artist Victor Ekpuk.
The rooftop bar, named Lady Bird for the former First Lady (and decorated with a subtle speckled nod to the city’s official bird, the wood thrush, thus scoring a double birdie), has already become a favorite of D.C. locals. A U-shaped bar offers a convivial opportunity to combat the lingering symptoms of social distancing.
Riggs Washington DC
- Neighborhood: Penn Quarter
- Book Now: From $296 per night, expedia.com
The transformation of the historic and stately Riggs National Bank into a hotel is nearly miraculous. The new entity manages to honor the grandeur of the Romanesque revival building without the chill that could have resulted from all those hard marble surfaces. Instead, the landmarked building retains some iconic bank fixtures like coffered and barrel-vaulted ceilings, modified teller windows at reception, and oh-so-serious conference rooms, but leavens everything with a touch of whimsy: An extravagant floral display introduces color, plush seating and theater-worthy curtains introduce texture, and the lively sounds of silverware and laughter from the all-day Cafe Riggs break the solemn hush. The café, with a widely varied and fascinating menu by Momofuku alum Chef Patrick Curran, has become a popular gathering spot from morning acai bowls and cardamom buns to late-night steak frites.
The bank’s basement vault has been repurposed into a stunning cocktail bar, Silver Lyan, which prides itself on unusual ingredients and thoughtful preparations. (The Project Apollo, a gin sour, uses freeze-dried pineapple, the first fruit sent on the Apollo missions.) Upstairs, guest rooms feature stylishly hued soft furnishings by Voutsa. Four suites, named for four first ladies, are decorated with elements that reflect their interests. For instance, you’ll find a baby grand piano in the suite named for music lover Louisa Adams, and a giddy plethora of flower-print fabrics in the rooms dedicated to Ida McKinley. The yin/yang play of the Riggs—where soft is juxtaposed with hard, pretty with austere, cool with warm—holds a mirror up to a city where impulses often waver between heartfelt public service and chilly ambition.