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Washington, D.C.’s Neighborhoods Not to Miss

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Head to the DC Alley Museum in Blagden Alley to see this colorful mural by local artist Lisa Marie Thalhammer. 

Photo by Natalie Beauregard (“LOVE” by Lisa Marie Thalhammer, @lisamariestudio, www.lisamariestudio.com) 

Head to the DC Alley Museum in Blagden Alley to see this colorful mural by local artist Lisa Marie Thalhammer. 

Venture beyond the Mall to explore the restaurants in Columbia Heights, the music scene at the Wharf, and the art in Blagden Alley.

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No longer just for politicians and tourists, Washington, D.C. has exploded with new restaurants and bars that rival those in some of the country’s more popular food cities. There was always an undercurrent of cool beyond Capitol Hill and K Street—not to mention strong African American and LGBTQ communities—but the city has really come into its own in the past 10 years, ditching its reputation as transient and embracing local voices instead.

D.C. neighborhoods previously deemed dangerous or undesirable—or that simply didn’t exist—have become destinations in their own right, drawing locals and visitors alike with exciting dining options, things to do, and public art. There’s a thriving craft beer and spirits scene now, plus trendy hotels, forward-thinking museums, and, with the Nationals’ 2019 World Series win, a  baseball team at the top of its game.

When visiting the city, be sure to explore beyond the Mall to discover the places where people who live in D.C. actually, well, live. It’s in these areas, including the can’t-miss neighborhoods below, that you’ll find what our nation’s capital is really about. 

Columbia Heights

Today, Columbia Heights is one of D.C.’s most dynamic neighborhoods, though it’s taken a long road to get there. Located in the upper part of the Northwest quadrant, the area was home to many of the city’s middle-class black residents in the first half of the 20th century—Duke Ellington himself was a resident—but it suffered significant damage during the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination. With much of 14th Street burned to the ground, many locals fled to the suburbs and those remaining were left with a neighborhood to rebuild—a process that didn’t happen in a meaningful way until the Columbia Heights metro station opened in 1999. 

Meridian Hill Park hosts a lively afternoon drum circle every Sunday.

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These days, stately row houses and embassies line 16th Street, while some of the city’s most buzzed-about restaurants cluster around 11th and 14th. Creatives and professionals lend the neighborhood a lively vibe; bikers and picnickers come for the beautiful, European-style Meridian Hill Park with its fountains, statues, and Sunday drum circles; and a long-standing Hispanic population brings diversity with the Gala Hispanic Theatre and the Mexican Cultural Institute.

The royal sea bass ceviche at Seven Reasons comes with purple sweet potato and quinoa.

Travelers should head to Columbia Heights for the food, specifically the Middle Eastern fare at the acclaimed Maydan (where dishes like sweet potatoes, swordfish kebabs, and lamb shoulder are cooked over a wood-burning hearth) and the Latin American cuisine down the street at Seven Reasons (which Esquire recently named the best restaurant in the country). Also worth trying is Filipino favorite Bad Saint (make a reservation or go right when it opens—5:30 p.m. on weekdays and 5 p.m. on weekends—and get in line) and prix fixe spot Rooster & Owl (don’t miss the barbecue carrots with cornbread ice cream).

The Wharf

For years, this mile-long stretch along the Potomac was primarily known as the location of the oldest continually operating open-air fish market in the country. Beyond the waterfront stalls selling fresh crab and oysters, there wasn’t much there, that is until the Wharf development debuted in October 2017. Now, in addition to the Municipal Fish Market, the neighborhood includes four different recreational piers, 10 acres of parks, three live music venues, and multiple award-winning restaurants.

Pick up locally made souvenirs at Shop Made in DC.

Summer is when the Wharf is at its most entertaining. Transit Pier hosts live concerts and a mini-golf course (which converts to a skating rink come winter), while District Pier features festivals and activities like outdoor yoga. If you’re visiting in the colder months, revel in the neighborhood’s music scene, which centers around the Anthem (a 6,000-seat concert hall for headliners) and Pearl Street Warehouse and Union Stage (smaller, more intimate spots that focus on local and regional live music). There’s also great shopping, especially at Shop Made in DC, which showcases locally made goods, and Politics and Prose, an outpost of D.C.’s beloved indie bookstore.

“Top Chef” star Kwame Onwauchi is behind the Afro-Caribbean cuisine at Kith/Kin.

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Also make time for meals at Kith/Kin, where 2019 James Beard Rising Star chef Kwame Onwauchi serves tantalizing Afro-Caribbean cuisine, and Del Mar, which offers a taste of coastal Spain in the form of tapas, grilled fish, and paella. For drinks, head to Tiki TNT, a multistory, Polynesian-style bar with colorful decor, creative cocktails, and a rum distillery on site.

Blagden Alley

Blagden Alley packs fascinating history, destination dining, and Instagram-able art into a few blocks in Shaw, a neighborhood in Northwest D.C. In the 19th century, D.C.’s tony row houses were backed by hundreds of intersecting alleys, where, especially during the severe housing shortages caused by the Civil War, many of the city’s immigrants and African Americans resided in lean-tos and shanties, often among stables and workshops. Despite several attempts over the years to eradicate alley dwellings citywide, Blagden remained largely intact until the 1968 riots, after which it was mostly abandoned.  

The alley itself, as well as many of its original buildings, survives today thanks in part to community activism in the 1980s. After being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, it became home to a thriving arts scene centered around the now-closed Signal 66 art space and Planet Vox TV studio. In 2014, La Colombe Coffee Roasters opened its first D.C. location in one of the old stables, signaling a changing tide for the area.

Grab a drink in the greenhouse on Calico’s outdoor patio.

Today, visitors can sip five different kinds of Old-Fashioneds at Columbia Room (which won the James Beard Award for outstanding bar program in both 2017 and 2018), pair local beers with barbecue fare at Calico (where the massive outdoor patio boasts a vintage greenhouse), and dine on inspired Mid-Atlantic cuisine at Michelin-starred the Dabney (try the Eastern Shore–style chicken and dumplings). For a side of art with your meal, walk around a bit to check out the open-air DC Alley Museum, which encompasses a series of colorful murals painted on garage doors and the sides of buildings. Started in 2015, the project works with artists who have a history in the Shaw neighborhood and includes a tribute to musicians Sun Ra and Erykah Badu as well as Lisa Marie Thalhammer’s rainbow-hued LOVE piece.

>>Next: Plan your trip with AFAR’s Travel Guide to Washington, D.C.