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Washington, D.C. Travel Guide

10 Under-the-Radar Neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.

There's more to D.C. than Georgetown and Capitol Hill.

Above and beyond its political role, Washington, D.C., is a city of neighborhoods—most famously, buzzy Georgetown, student-filled Foggy Bottom, and family-friendly Capitol Hill. But this thriving metropolis has plenty of under-the-radar neighborhoods too, each offering its version of local restaurants, cafés, shops, historic sites, and all-around vibe. Here are the 10 best neighborhoods to explore, no matter your politics.

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Not too long ago, NoMa (“North of Massachusetts Avenue”) was an industrial desert with a high crime rate. That all changed with the opening of Union Market in 2012, kicking off a revitalization of trendy restaurants, nightlife, markets, and distilleries that hasn’t let up. Union Market remains the centerpiece of this small but jam-packed neighborhood, a foodie go-to for southern biscuits, locally made sausages, and a super fresh fish market. Nearby, La Cosecha Market offers Latin-American-inspired dishes, including empanadas and fresh ceviche.

It’d be hard to pick just one restaurant in this restaurant-rich realm; contenders are Puglia-inspired Masseria, with a six-course tasting menu and sofas and fire pits in an enclosed courtyard, and St. Anselm, a gastropub specializing in grilled meats. But that’s not all. Bikers, walkers, and runners flock to the 8-mile Metropolitan Branch Trail, which connects Union Station and Silver Spring; it also accesses a bounty of breweries and pubs. Round out a NoMa experience with a visit to the off-the-beaten-path Smithsonian National Postal Museum, across the street from Union Station; who knew stamps could be so interesting?

INSIDER TIPThe REI flagship store in NoMa occupies the former Uline Arena (aka Washington Coliseum), where the Beatles made their U.S. debut in 1964; a corner pays tribute to this historic event with old concert posters and chairs from the former concert hall.

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Navy Yard/Capitol Riverfront

A fusion of sports, creative dining, and outdoor fun define this festive neighborhood along the Anacostia River. The heart of it all is Nats Park, the home stadium of the pennant-triumphant Washington Nationals, with the state-of-the-art Audi Field nearby, where D.C. United plays. On gamedays, home team fever pulses through the crowds and in the neighborhood’s many sports bars. But rest assured, you don’t have to love sports to love the Capitol Riverfront—there’s much more.

Back in the day, the U.S. Navy’s shipyard dominated the neighborhood; naval offices remain headquartered here, and the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and the Navy Art Collection are open to the public. There are plenty of hip restaurants and bars too, including Bluejacket Brewery, Silver Diner (with a chic rooftop bar), and Osteria Morini, beloved for its northern Italian fare. In warmer months, listen to live music, rent kayaks, and splash in fountains at Yards Park.

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Southwest Waterfront

At long last, Washington, D.C., is taking advantage of its riverfront, and there’s no place more exuberantly doing this than the historic Southwest Waterfront, just south of the National Mall at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. There’s always been life here, including the nation’s longest continually operating fish market (dating back to 1805) and innovative Arena Stage. But ever since The Wharf opened in 2017, the neighborhood has experienced a rebirth.

This express-made collection of contemporary restaurants, shops, hotels, bars, and music halls includes Del Mar, Fabio Trabocchi’s take on Spanish coastal fare; the 6,000-seat Anthem concert hall; and Politics and Prose, D.C.’s fabled indie bookstore. In the warmer months, there’s kayaking, outdoor movies, concerts, and yoga, while colder weather brings holiday illuminations and ice skating on an outdoor rink. The nearby International Spy Museum displays the world’s largest collection of spy artifacts on public display.

INSIDER TIPThere’s a free shuttle bus that runs every 10 minutes from L’Enfant Plaza Metro/VRE Station and other stops. You can also take the Potomac Water Taxi there from Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria, and National Harbor.

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Perhaps no D.C. neighborhood feels more small-town cozy than Brookland in Northeast D.C.—which, admittedly, is a little odd, considering it’s also known as “Little Rome.” A cluster of churches and chapels include the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, one of North America’s largest Catholic churches; and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land of America, offering cloister walks and replicas of Holy Land shrines. Both places offer guided tours as well as traditional services. But here, too, are tree-lined streets edged with eclectic houses and neighborhoody restaurants and bars, including Brookland’s Finest Bar & Kitchen and Right Proper Brewing Company. At Monroe Street Market, galleries and studios featuring painters, crafters, and potters edge a brick-paved pathway.

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Ivy City

Most people will drive right by Ivy City, tucked away along car-choked New York Avenue N.E.—if they don’t know it’s there. The main reason to stake out this small enclave, still retaining a bit of its past grittiness, is for its gastronomy scene. Here, you’ll find Ivy City Smokehouse, a fish market and smokehouse with a rooftop deck; the crab cakes and shrimp po’boys are divine. The Chesapeake-inspired Gravitas offers ambitious tasting menus, wine-pairing optional. And Panda Gourmet, occupying a nondescript Days Inn, is probably D.C.’s best go-to for Sichuan food.

Among a cluster of breweries drawing fun-loving crowds—especially to their patios on sunny days—are Other Half, featuring hazy IPAs and barrel-aged stouts, and Atlas Brew Works, a reliable source for sours, IPAs, and lagers. For craft spirits, try District Made Distilling, using regional heirloom grains and/or women-owned Republic Restoratives, a small-batch distillery, and cocktail bar in a mod-industrial setting. Ivy City continues to transform, so stay tuned!

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Columbia Heights

As far away in mind and spirit from Capitol Hill’s political business as you can possibly get within the same city, Capitol Heights is a lively, diverse neighborhood in Northwest D.C. where you’ll find neighborhood cafés, global cuisine, locally owned shops, tree-lined residential streets, and popping nightlife. Follow locals to leafy Meridian Hill Park, dating from 1791 and filled with statues, shade trees, and a splashing fountain; an African drum circle takes place on Sunday afternoons.

A plethora of unique restaurants reflect the neighborhood’s diversity; favorites include Chicatana, one of several hot-spot Mexican restaurants, and Pho Viet, which everyone declares serves the best pho around. Go-tos for nightlife include the lively Cloak & Dagger, owned by two former breakdancers; the multi-level Zeba Bar, with something going on nearly every night of the week; and the Wonderland Ballroom, a neighborhood bar. The GALA Hispanic Theatre stages new and classic works in the beautiful restored 1924 Tivoli Theatre (performances typically are in Spanish with English subtitles).

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Famous African-Americans including Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes once lived in this Northwest D.C. neighborhood, when the neighboring U Street Corridor thrived as “Black Broadway.” Shaw struggled, however, after the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and didn’t regain its footing until the late 1990s, when the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was built in its southern section.

Since then, the neighborhood has exploded with trendy cafés, upscale wine bars, and notable restaurants—favorites include The Dabney, offering upscale Mid-Atlantic fare; Dacha Beer Garden, often with a line wrapping around the block to get in; and HalfSmoke, serving up the city’s famous hot dogs. Reminders of the past include the Howard Theatre, which opened in 1910 as the nation’s first large music venue for African-American audiences. The legendary 9:30 Club is another popular music spot.

INSIDER TIPThe Shaw neighborhood was named for Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the first official Black units during the Civil War. Their story is told at Shaw’s African American Civil War Memorial and Museum.

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Glover Park

Most people zip through Glover Park en route on Wisconsin Avenue to the National Zoo to the north or Georgetown to the south. But spend a little time in this quiet Upper Northwest residential neighborhood, and you’ll discover a close-knit community, feeling every bit like a village within the city. This is the place to go for neighborhood eateries, parks, upscale bars, and bustling coffeehouses—try Mario’s Trattoria, beloved for its housemade pasta and open-air rooftop deck; Breadsoda, a fun and casual go-to for burgers, beer, and games; and Dumplings and Beyond voted best dumplings in D.C. The vice president lives here, too, on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory; you can’t tour the historic Queen Anne–style mansion, but you can visit with staff astronomers, see the Master Clock, and peek through a telescope lens into the night sky at the Naval Observatory. This facility was founded in 1830 in Foggy Bottom but moved to Glover Park in 1893 to escape light pollution.

INSIDER TIPGo hiking at Glover Archbold Park, a sublime urban escape where a 2.5-mile woodsy trail delves into birdsong-filled woodlands.

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On the Anacostia River’s south side, this historic Black neighborhood in Southeast D.C. offers a collection of under-the-radar sites. Chief among them is Cedar Hill, where formerly enslaved and powerhouse statesman Frederick Douglass lived the last 17 years of his life (1877–1895); it’s filled with his family furnishings, and little touches such as his easy chair and dumbbells make it seem as if the “Lion of Anacostia” merely stepped out for a moment.

Here, too, is the Smithsonian-affiliated Anacostia Community Museum, whose rotating exhibits by local artists and thought leaders delve into D.C. history and culture. Anacostia Arts Center has boutiques and galleries, including Vivid Solutions DC, a gallery showing photography and contemporary art; and Art-adrenaline Cafe, serving healthy eats. Nearby Honfleur is another gallery showcasing conceptual paintings. There’s nothing like being by the river, and the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in Anacostia Park is a pretty spot to stroll and scan the river for ospreys, great blue herons, and beavers. Don’t leave without snapping a selfie with the 20-foot-tall, aluminum “Big Chair” at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and V Street SE; the original was constructed in the late 1950s as an ad for a local furniture company.

INSIDER TIPThe brightest, most lavish new addition to the area is the Entertainment and Sports Arena in neighboring Congress Heights, serving as the home venue for the Washington Mystics and the Capital City Go-Go, along with big-name concerts. 

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First of all, this vibrant, Northwest D.C. neighborhood, with its tree-shaded row houses and vibrant community events, is fast becoming known for its cool restaurants—without the D.C. price tags. Some of its culinary delights include wood-fired pizza at Timber Pizza Company, and southern favorites at Hitching Post. Coffeeshops and bars round out the friendly, community-gathering vibe, including The Coupe, which sources its ingredients from local producers.

But then, there also are the historic sites. Abraham Lincoln escaped White House pressures (and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation) at President Lincoln’s Cottage, his hidden retreat now open for tours. Many famous Washingtonians—including Pulitzer-Prize–winner Upton Sinclair, Abraham Baldwin, signer of the U.S. Constitution; and Charles Truman Jenkins, inventor of the TV—rest in eternal peace at historic Rock Creek Cemetery. Some tombstones are elaborate, with sculptures and mausoleums, notably the mysterious Adams Memorial by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

INSIDER TIPPoPville, a neighborhood blog created by the “Prince of Petworth” (aka Dan Silverman), provides insider info about Petworth and beyond.

alisongold9399 March 22, 2024

Long time DC resident here, and I'm confounded a bit by this article. Your section on Petworth includes a restaurant from Petworth, UK, and another that is located in Columbia Heights (The Coupe) a neighborhood that is also featured here. Your section on Columbia Heights includes Room 11 which has been closed for a number of years. And while Meridian Hill Park touches the Southern edge of Columbia Heights, it's far more walkable from U Street. Not sure who wrote or edited this, but I would be careful in trusting the understanding of geography and what places are still open.