The US Capitol marks the geographic center of D.C., out of which the city’s quadrants—NW, NE, SE, SW—and neighborhoods all radiate. Downtown, which encompasses the White House, is the heart of the city and is the Washington D.C. neighborhood most people call to mind when they envision the city. To the south of the White House you'll find the National Mall, the D.C. neighborhood home to a mile-long grassy park and instantly recognizable monuments. Heading east you run into up-and-coming Capitol Hill, and slightly farther north is Gallery Place/Chinatown. Trendy Dupont Circle abuts Downtown to the north and is just slightly northwest of the U Street Corridor. If you keep heading west you'll hit Georgetown, cross the river and you're in Arlington, Virginia. With a few exceptions (including the National Zoo and the Philips Collection), there's not much of a reason to venture any farther than north Dupont Circle—the farther north you go the more residential the city becomes (and the fewer metro stops you'll see).
The most enduringly fashionable, beautiful Washington D.C. neighborhood is, naturally, the province of the White House. Most of the action takes place around Penn Quarter in the vicinity of K Street and 14th Street, which starts to merge into the U Street neighborhood. The area is mostly populated by hotshot politicos and wannabes.
U Street Corridor/Columbia Heights
If Adams Morgan is on the upswing, the U Street Corridor in Columbia Heights has already arrived. The neighborhood has taken a long time to bounce back after drug riots decimated it in 1968—for ages it was the province of drug dealers and gangs. While it's still not the best place for walking alone after dark, it has many of D.C.’s most cutting edge bars, restaurants, clubs, and shops.
Leafy Georgetown, in the northwest quadrant, with its old-world feel and red-brick townhouses feels like a city within a city. A youthful, preppie vibe permeates the area thanks to Georgetown University. The best shopping in D.C. is located along this neighborhood’s M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, where you'll also find everything from brand name stores like Banana Republic and Bebe intermingled with jazzy boutiques like Urban Chic to sophisticated restaurants and nightlife. The area's most famous residents were John and Jackie Kennedy, who made Georgetown fashionable in the 1950s.
The former slums of Capitol Hill are slowly but surely shaping up to be one of the hottest new D.C. neighborhoods. The cool areas worth visiting are focused around famous Eastern Market (especially great on Sundays when shopkeepers from near and far crowd the streets outside of the market to sell their wares)—the farther you get from the market the more residential the neighborhood becomes. There's also a burgeoning (younger) gay scene here as well as a number of hip cafes, bars, restaurants, and bookstores.
Foggy Bottom, which tends to blend into Georgetown at the west end of downtown, is mostly residential with a smattering of fashionable hotels and restaurants. Some famous D.C. buildings are here, most notably the Kennedy Center, the Watergate Complex and the Pan-American Health Organization. Unless you’re a fan of modernist architecture, there's not much reason to visit.
This pleasant park south of the White House and west of the Capitol is where you'll find the majority of D.C.'s famous landmarks, including the memorials to Lincoln, WWII and Vietnam Veterans. It's populated by hoards of tourists but the monuments are so iconic and worth seeing that it's one of the few places where you hardly notice the crowds.
Pre 1939, Adams Morgan (also known as A-Mo) was a stylish neighborhood in the northwest section of the city, but it hit rough times during WWII. Its name comes from the merging of a black school with a white school in 1955, making it the first racially integrated section of the city. These days it's on the upswing, with bars, nightclubs and restaurants drawing the city's young and fashionable to 18th street. It can still be slightly sketchy after dark so if you're partying late it's a good idea to catch a cab back to your hotel.
Aside from Georgetown, Chinatown/Gallery Place is the busiest neighborhood in the city. If you hate crowds, don’t plan on spending a lot of time here—the streets are consistently jam-packed with tourists and locals who crowd in to experience the plethora of new restaurants and bars. The Chinese of Chinatown have long since left, but D.C. holds on to the idea that they might one day return (in an effort to preserve the area's heritage, local law requires that new businesses display signs in English and Chinese). The large colorful arch here, called the Friendship Archway, was erected in 1986 to symbolize D.C.'s friendship with Beijing.
Tree-lined, sophisticated Kalorama is mostly residential and, given that it is far removed from public transportation, there's a good chance most visitors will never make it out here. There's not too much to see aside from the Embassy Row mansions along Massachusetts Avenue NW which, quite frankly, aren’t that exciting.
Dupont Circle is the zip code with the second largest concentration of gay residents outside of San Francisco. Centered around a huge traffic circle (a nightmare for drivers from out-of-town—we recommend you avoid driving here unless you absolutely can’t help it) it's known for its happening clubs and bookstores, not to mention a plethora of cute, pocket-sized cafes and dive bars. It's also where a large number of embassies have set up shop.
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Washington DC Travel Guide