It’s hard to pick favorites when it comes to Washington, DC’s neighborhoods, simply because there are so many wonderful ones. 

They share many great characteristics, and contain multitudes. NoMa is known for its vibrant food scene – and Downtown has some fantastic restaurants, too. The Shaw/U Street area is a great spot for an evening out, and also a wonderful place to learn about the city’s history – more specifically, the African American musical maestros who put it on the map during the 1900s.

DC simply has too many fantastic neighborhoods to list here. Still, we have to start somewhere, so consider exploring these neighborhoods as you get to know the city.

The exterior of Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark restaurant founded in 1958 on U Street, Shaw, Washington, DC, USAt
Ben’s Chili Bowl is landmark restaurant on U St – and a favorite of local celebrities © Joaquin Ossorio-Castillo / Getty Images

1. Shaw/U Street

Best neighborhood for a fix of culture 

The Shaw and U Street neighborhoods are two areas that merge into one. The area they share is known for its rich history: this was the epicenter of African American life for much of the 20th century, when, thanks to a cluster of Black-owned theaters, it was often referred to as the “Black Broadway.” Although it’s undergone various gentrification-related transformations since then (including in the ’90s, when the Green Line metro arrived, and the Franklin D Reeves Municipal Center was built), it’s still one of DC’s most diverse neighborhoods.

Head to Habesha Market in Little Ethiopia to feast on African delicacies such as awaze tibs (a stew-like dish) before catching a concert at the Howard Theater, which opened in 1910 and has welcomed luminaries like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and Nat King Cole to its stage. Just outside the venue, don’t miss the statue of Duke Ellington, the great composer and jazz pianist who was born just a few streets away. Shaw/U Street is also where you’ll find some of the city’s most affordable hotels, including the funky U Street Hotel, a capsule-style property where rates start around $90 a night.

Rowhouses in Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC
Get lost in the many rows of Capitol Hill's beautiful townhomes © Grace Cary / Getty Images

2. Capitol Hill

Best neighborhood for history buffs

Blocks from some of the city’s most important landmarks and legislative buildings – such as the Library of Congress (the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution), the Supreme Court and the US Capitol, all of which are open to the public – base yourself in Capitol Hill for optimal access to DC's top historical attractions. The neighborhood features rows of gracious townhouses and a canopy of trees. The best way to explore the area is on a walking tour – such as the free ones offered by DC by Foot.

In October, residents especially love to go all out decorating their homes for Halloween, while in March and April, you can beat the Tidal Basin's cherry blossom season crowds at Capitol Hill's Stanton Park, which is lined with the same gorgeous blooms. For a memorable meal, try the unlimited small plate special at Balkan restaurant Ambar (they also have locations in Shaw and Arlington).

People walk by historic brick buildings in Georgetown, Washington, DC, USA
Historic Georgetown is one of DC’s poshest neighborhoods © Dan Herrick / Lonely Planet

3. Georgetown

Best neighborhood for shopping

DC’s oldest neighborhood, Georgetown is the starting point for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which opened for trade in 1850 and connected the city to the rest of America. Today, Georgetown is one of DC’s swankiest districts, known for its cobblestone streets, excellent shopping and Michelin-starred restaurants. Spend a day meandering along the waterfront and down M Street, popping in and out of stylish boutiques and stopping to dine al fresco. You don’t need a lobbyist’s salary to eat well here: in 2023, local hotspot Yellow, which specializes in Levantine cuisine, bagged a Michelin Bib Gourmand award.

Amid the fantastic dining and independent boutiques are numerous reminders of Georgetown’s history, including Tudor Place, the former home of Martha Washington. Visit this historic landmark to admire 18,000 decorative objects and take in what might be DC’s finest example of Federal-period architecture.

Alexander Calder’s untitled aluminum-and-steel mobile hangs from the ceiling above visitors at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building on the National Mall in Washington, DC, USA
Just off the National Mall, the superb National Gallery of Art is stuffed with masterpieces © Robert Alexander / Getty Images

4. Downtown 

Best neighborhood for an art fix

Downtown DC is where you’ll find some of the city’s top arts institutions, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, whose galleries were once a Masonic temple. No art lover should miss the stately National Gallery of Art, where a world-class collection includes paintings by Leonardo, Vermeer, Degas and Van Gogh. 

For something more modern, head not to a gallery but a hotel – specifically 14th St NW’s Hotel Zena, which is all about female empowerment. Bespoke artworks on display in the lobby include the collection of 20,000 buttons worn by people who attended women’s-rights marches. A short walk away lies Black Lives Matter Plaza, a pedestrianized two-block stretch of 16th Street NW, whose giant letters spell out “Black Lives Matter” – and lead directly to the White House.

A street of brightly colored row houses in Adams Morgan, Washington, DC, USA
Adams Morgan is filled with colorful row houses and eclectic restaurants and shops © Nicole Glass Photography / Shutterstock

5. Adams Morgan

Best neighborhood for a night out

This fabulously eclectic neighborhood is known for its colorful row houses, independent bars and hip boutiques. You’ll find a lively nightlife scene on and around 18th St NW, where there’s a bar here for every type. College kids love the Madam’s Organ Blues Bar, where (very strong) drinks are served in Mason jars and enjoyed on a lively rooftop patio, while the Blaguard is an Irish bar popular with sports fans (don’t miss its weekday happy hours from 5 to 8pm).

Craving a cocktail? Your spot is the Green Zone, where mixologists devise tipples made with far-flung ingredients, including many from the Middle East (think Lebanese arak, or the Desert Falcon cocktail, made with rum, dates and desert citrus). There are plenty of live-music venues in Adams Morgan, too – like Songbyrd, a 250-capacity venue that’s also a bar and restaurant, and Bossa, which hosts everything from jazz sessions to spoken-word events.

Customers eat at outdoor picnic tables at Union Market, NoMa, Washington, DC, USA
You’ll have a hard time deciding what to eat at gourmet food hall Union Market in NoMa © TJ Brown / Shutterstock

6. NoMa

Best neighborhood for gourmets

The aroma of bagels and biscuits coming from Union Market, or the selfie-snapping bloggers you’ll see outside Insta-friendly restaurants such as Masseria tell you you’ve arrived in NoMa (short for “North of Massachusetts Avenue”). This new-ish neighborhood has some of DC’s best independent restaurants, and it’s also a great place for food-themed souvenirs.

Top spots include Salt & Sundry, founded by local food blogger Amanda McClements; budding chefs come here for the quirky cookbooks and stylish kitchen utensils, as well as regular book readings. Union Market’s outlets include a concession of macaron specialist Ladurée alongside independent restaurants like La Jambe, founded by charcuterie-loving local Anastasia Mori (don’t miss the chance to sample its famous Tuscan cheese sandwich). If you’re basing yourself in this area, consider staying at the Citizen M Noma, just a short walk from Union Market.

This article was first published Oct 8, 2014 and updated Apr 6, 2024.

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