Washington, DC, the USA's capital, teems with iconic monuments, vast (and free) museums and the corridors of power where visionaries and demagogues roam.

Seeing the White House and soaring Capitol will thrill, but it's the cobblestoned neighborhoods, global cafes and jazzy bohemian quarters that really make you fall for Washington, DC, no matter your politics. Here are the best neighborhoods to explore on your trip to Washington, DC.

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Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC
Some of the best museums in the country can be found near the National Mall © Albert Pego / Shutterstock

National Mall

Best neighborhood for museums

A nation is many things: its people, its history, its politics and its amassed knowledge. Somehow, each one of these is given architectural life on the National Mall, the center of iconography of the most iconic city in America.

The National Mall is where the nation’s ideals are expressed in educational institutions, monuments and memorials. It's also where Americans come to protest, to rally and to watch presidents get inaugurated. A monument-studded park edged by the magnificent Smithsonian museums, this must-visit destination provides days – if not weeks – of enjoyment and edification for visitors.

There are no options for accommodations in the National Mall area, and this district has always been a bit of a food desert. The National Park Service operates a handful of kiosks that sell cold drinks, sandwiches and ice cream, and food trucks congregate behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture, behind the National Museum of the American Indian, and near the Hirshhorn Museum.

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White House in Washington, DC
A high-end neighborhood surrounds the White House, the USA's most famous address © Tetra Images / Getty Images

White House Area and Foggy Bottom

Best neighborhood for playing politico

Play image association with the words "Washington, DC," and chances are the first thing that comes to mind is the White House. The president’s pad is likely to take your breath away the first time you see it, not least because you’re standing in front of a building whose image you’ve seen a thousand times before.

The surrounding streets are equally impressive, with handsome building stock and a bustle that comes courtesy of this neighborhood's role as America's center of bureaucratic and political business (or should that be shenanigans?).

Four- and five-star accommodation options with good restaurants and bars predominate in the White House area. Choices in Foggy Bottom are cheaper and often offer self-catering facilities. As you might guess, this neighborhood is high-end eating territory, the pinnacle of the power-lunch and show-off dinner.

That said, you usually get what you pay for – there’s too much competition for local chefs to rest on their laurels. College kids, bureaucrats, lobbyists, journalists and theater-goers coexist in this neighborhood, and there are multiple drinking dens geared toward each group. Many of these can be found on K Street.

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Low-angle view of Wisconsin and M streets in Georgetown, Washington, DC
The aristocratic neighborhood of Georgetown is home to old-school pubs, big-name shops and high-end restaurants © Glowimages / Getty Images


Best neighborhood for luxury

Georgetown is DC’s most aristocratic neighborhood, home to elite university students, ivory-tower academics and diplomats.

Chi-chi brand-name shops, dark-wood pubs, snug cafes and upscale restaurants line the streets. Lovely parks and gardens color the edges, while sweet cycling trails roll out along the waterways.

Georgetown has limited accommodation options compared to other neighborhoods, but the properties that are here generally are swanky and/or set in vintage buildings. Elegant, high-end restaurants share the sidewalk with winsome cafes, cupcake shops, pizza parlors and quick-bite student eateries.

US Capitol Building in fall in Washington, DC
The area around the US Capitol is filled with museums, hip restaurants and accommodations with character © Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

Capitol Hill and South DC

Best neighborhood for sightseeing

Capitol Hill and South DC, the city’s geographic and legislative heart, surprises by being mostly a row-house-lined residential neighborhood. The vast area holds top sights such as the dramatic Capitol, book-stuffed Library of Congress and heartbreaking Holocaust Memorial Museum, but creaky bookshops and cozy pubs also thrive here. The areas around Eastern Market and H St NE are locals’ hubs, with good-time restaurants and nightlife.

Capitol Hill has hotels and hostels with character. New midrange and upscale chain properties have begun to pop up around the Wharf and Navy Yard, but you're a bit isolated from the main sights there.

Capitol Hill has long been an outpost for the DC burger bar, the type of unpretentious spot where you roll up your sleeves and knock back a side of beer with your patty. Hip, upscale eateries have colonized the neighborhood.

The boozing atmosphere on Capitol Hill, still very much a residential neighborhood, is one of those homey pubs where policy talk gives way to NFL predictions. H Street NE is a funky contrast to the Hill’s red-brick conviviality. The Navy Yard area around Nats Park has hip breweries and a winery.

Introducing Washington, DC

Downtown and Penn Quarter

Best neighborhood for theater

Penn Quarter forms around Pennsylvania Avenue as it runs between the White House and the Capitol. Downtown extends north beyond it. Major sights include the National Archives, a trove of eye-popping documents; the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, hanging big-name works; and Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

This is also DC’s entertainment district and convention hub, so the place bustles day and night. Heaps of hot bars and restaurants provide sustenance.

Downtown hotels are fairly staid and oriented toward business travelers, although there are a couple of exceptions. Prices can shoot up if something big is going on at the Convention Center. Lots of stylish new restaurants have begun cooking in the neighborhood, and food trucks abound at lunchtime.

Chinatown has loads of beery drinking establishments, and Blagden Alley holds a clutch of smart spots for cocktails, wine or coffee.

A crowd of onlookers at the annual LGBT Capital Pride Parade near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC
Dupont is the center of Washington, DC's LGBTIQ+ community © bakdc / Shutterstock

Dupont Circle and Kalorama

Best neighborhood for LGBTIQ+ travelers

Dupont offers flashy new restaurants, hip bars, cafe society and cool bookstores. It’s also the heart of the city’s LGBTIQ+ community. It used to be where turn-of-the-20th-century millionaires lived. Today those mansions hold DC’s greatest concentration of embassies. Kalorama sits in the northwest corner and ups the regal quotient.

Dupont is DC's most lodging-filled area. Lots of hotels with hip boutique style and B&Bs mingle among the townhomes and embassies.

Dupont is ace for eats. Classy nouveau cuisine and upscale ethnic eateries cater to the flocks of diplomats and businesspeople, while casual cafes cater to the more bohemian.

DC’s gay nightlife mecca, this neighborhood is packed with bars ranging from raunchy to ritzy. Regardless of your sexual orientation, there’s something to keep you drinking around the circle. Chill coffeehouses, super-sleek lounges and ramshackle joints known for cheap happy hours abound.

Pedestrian on the street at 15th and U Streets NW in Washington, DC
U Street is one of DC's best entertainment districts © Tim Brown / Getty Images

Logan Circle, U Street and Columbia Heights

Best neighborhood for nightlife and restaurants

This neighborhood covers a lot of ground. Logan Circle stars with hot-chef-helmed restaurants and stylish bars amid stately old manors. Historic U Street has been reborn as a jazzy arts and entertainment district. Columbia Heights booms with Latinx immigrants and hipsters.

Onward, Northeast DC is a stretch of prosperous residential blocks holding some great far-flung sights, as well as distilleries and breweries.

The area isn't a particularly popular choice for accommodations, as it's far away from the National Mall and other main sights, but staying out here does mean experiencing a more local side of the city. Most hotels and B&Bs congregate near Logan Circle, which is handy for eating and drinking.

Several of DC's most abundant, restaurant-filled streets are here. Sniff your way along 14th Street in Logan Circle for on-trend restaurants, 11th Street in Columbia Heights for intimate and neighborly eateries, Upshur Street in Petworth for low-key foodie spots, and U Street in the heart of it all for soul food and budget joints.

The U Street Corridor has evolved into one long strip of bars, plus a fair few jazz spots and concert halls. Further north, Columbia Heights and Petworth have become trendy with nighthawks. Ivy City is the city's de facto distillery district, with tasting rooms that pour fine cocktails, and good breweries are out this way, too.

Rowhouses along a street in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC
The Adams Morgan neighborhood has a dense concentration of bars and restaurants © Andrei Medvedev / Shutterstock

Adams Morgan

Best neighborhood for staying out late

Adams Morgan has long been Washington’s fun, nightlife-driven party zone. It’s also a global village of sorts. Vintage boutiques, record shops and ethnic eats poke up between thumping bars and a growing number of stylish spots for gastronomes.

Adams Morgan is a small area, so there aren't a lot of places to stay. A stylish hotel, hip hostel and some scattered B&Bs sum it up. They're a hike from the Metro. The area around 18th Street NW and Columbia Road NW is loaded with ethnic eateries and funky diners.

Eclectic foodie hot spots have been popping up in their midst, bringing wood-burning ovens, barbecued eel and Michelin stars to the neighborhood as well. Chic whiskey saloons and music cafes are making inroads among the rowdy dive bars.

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This article was originally published October 2014 and was last updated April 2021.

This article was first published October 2014 and updated April 2021

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