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The main area of interest for most tourists will be the National Mall, the large urban park located in the center of DC between Constitution Ave. and Independence Ave. It is surrounded by several Smithsonian museums, such as the American History Museum and the Natural History Museum, monuments such as the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and other sites of interest like the Reflecting Pool and the National Mall Carousel. The Smithsonian MetroRail station as well as numerous other stations provide convenient access to the area.
Another area of interest is Capitol Hill, located just to the east of the National Mall. Here you will find important government buildings such as the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. Other points of interest here are Union Station and the National Postal Museum. Take the MetroRail to Union Station or to the Capitol South station for easy access.
While this area is obviously most famous for the government buildings it houses, visitors can also get a taste of neighborhood life by heading to Eastern Market flea and farmers market that has a wide array of local arts and crafts. A stroll down 8th street SE is also reccomended - this strip includes several restaurants and bars worth checking out, including Belga Cafe, Banana Cafe and Piano Bar and Tapatinis.
Lafayette Square lies to the north of the National Mall on its west end. It is the historic area surrounding the White House and other historic buildings such as St. John’s Church and the Treasury Building. The peaceful Lafayette Park is located here, surrounding a variety of military statues. The Farragut West and McPherson Square MetroRail stations provide convenient access to this area.
Georgetown is known for the university holding the same name and hundreds of shops and restaurants, of course, but also for its historic homes, gardens that show off its history as a legendary 18th century port town. (The modern day Georgetown boasts a waterfront park and restaurant, business complex on the Potomac River). Named after King George II, the neighborhood also boasts the famous C&O Canal.
At the heart of Georgetown is the bustling M street and Wisconsin Avenue corridor. Home to many good restaurants and window browsing shops within the district, M street provides a unique mixture of street musicians, college students, politicos, and members of high society that continuously provide a festive environment.
(A little known fact, but the District of Columbia was originally a 10 mile square boundary which included the port town of Alexandria Virginia - just acros the Potomac. Alexandria was given back to Virginia but Georgetown remained)
Architecture seen in Georgetown include Georgian mansions, Federal and Classical Revival houses, and late Victorian Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque rowhouses.
Dupont Circle is another great DC neighborhood. The area combines residential homes (look for some fine Beaux Arts, Richardsonian Romanesque, and Queen Anne homes) with modern office buildings, embassies (Massachusetts Avenue, the boulevard that cuts through the heart of DuPont Circle, is considered "Embassy Row") with a lively restaurant and nightclub scene. The area (particularly east Dupont Circle) is also known for its considerable gay and lesbian population.
The centerpiece of this busy, urban space is the magnificent, white marble Dupont Memorial Fountain, designed by Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial.
It also touts one of DC's greatest art galleries, the Phillips Collection, as well as a host of other, smaller galleries.
Upper Northwest DC
Upper Northwest DC contains several distinct neighborhoods including Woodley Park, Tenleytown (home to American University), Cleveland Park, Wesley Heights and Cathedral Heights (home to the National Cathedral and the National Zoo). Each have a distinct charm of their own.
Penn Quarter is a vibrant new neighborhood recently revived with upscale restaurants, retail, entertainment and condos. The Verizon Center (formerly the MCI Center) started out as the focal point of the new neighborhood and Penn Quarter's popularity has just continued to grow. Catch a show at The Shakespeare Theatre or Woolly Mammoth, pop in to the National Portrait Gallery (open again after an extensive renovation and with a beautiful new atrium over the courtyard by famous international architect Norman Foster), check out the International Spy Museum, go see an indie flick at E Street Cinemas or a blockbuster at Regal Cinemas, shop at Urban Outfitters or Ann Taylor, and then wind down with an excellent meal at Rasikas, Jaleo, Zengo, Matchbox or Zaytinya.
Penn Quarter borders (and partially includes) Washington's Chinatown (sadly referred to as "Chinablock"), home to some pretty good Chinese lunch deals. Just walk down the block, pick a place and settle in for a yummy treat. One such restaurant was once Mary Surratt's boarding house, where the Lincoln assassination was plotted. Or ... splurge at one of the above mentioned restaurants for dinner.
Easily accessible on Metro' s Red, Green and Yellow Lines (Gallery Place/Chinatown Stop or the Archives/Navy Memorial Stop), Penn Quarter is a short walk from the National Archives, the soon-to-be-opened Newseum, and most of the Smithsonian museums along the National Mall. It's a great place to spend your evening after a long day monument/gallery hopping!
Adams Morgan is a hip neighborhood in NW DC. It's centered around the intersection at Columbia Rd. and 18th St NW. A lovely neighborhood filled with vibrant artwork and a diverse population. Home to a row of popular bars and clubs, Adams Morgan is peaceful during the weekdays but jumping at night and on the weekends, filled with bar-hoppers. Full of wonderful ethnic restaurants, you can find whatever you're craving, from Ethiopian, and Indian to French and Mediterranean. A laid back artsy neighborhood that's great for culture and the bar scene.
Accessible on the Metro's Red Line (Woodley Park-Adams Morgan), but to get to the action you have to walk about a half-mile across the Duke Ellington Bridge.
U Street Corridor
Home to Ben's Chili Bowl and birthplace of the late Duke Ellington, U Street is a must visit local on any trip to DC. Known as the Harlem of Washington, U Street was a haven for African American artists. Home to many eclectic businesses and restaurants, U Street is undergoing hopeful revitalization, with efforts to retain the historical significance. A must see is the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum. The Memorial is located right off the green line metro stop (U Street Cardozo, 10th St. Exit), and the museum is at 1200 U Street, a short 3 blocks from the Memorial. A hip and increasingly trendy neighborhood, also connecting to 14th Street which has several great bars and restaurants very near the 14th and U intersection, including Busboys and Poets, Love Cafe, Cafe St. Ex, and Bar Pilar, and also three performing arts spaces -- Source Theatre, the Black Cat, and HR57.
Accessible on the Metro's Green and Yellow Lines (U Street-Cardozo).
For those interested in getting off the beaten path, the NW DC Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods are up and coming hip enclaves worth visiting. Mt. Pleasant is the traditional Salvadoran neighborhood and its main drag, Mt. Pleasant Street, boasts tons of little Pupuserias - restaurants offering traditional Salvadoran fare include Ercilias and Haydees. Also look out on summer Saturdays for the Mt. Pleasant farmers market and the ladies selling mango slices from homemade carts. Mt. P, as the locals call it, was once a village outside DC and you can do a walking tour get a sense of how the area has evolved over the years.
Healthy eaters should check out breakfast at Dos Gringos coffee house while those who like fresh baked chocolate eclairs, sausage/egg/cheese bagels and donuts should head farther down the street to Hellers Bakery (going strong since 1922). On weekend nights, the little street buzzes with neighborhood joints such as the Marx Cafe and it's Saturday Rock en Espanol night, local sports pub and restaurant Tonic, some of the best pizza in the city at Radius and of course the Raven, known far and wide as the best dive bar in DC.
To get to Mt. Pleasant street, either go to Metro's Green line Columbia Heights stop and walk three blocks (cross 16th - Mt. Pleasant street runs parallel to 16th) or take the 42 bus from Dupont Circle or Adams Morgan.
Cross over 16th street and you are in Columbia Heights , which has changed enormously in the past five years, but is still a neighborhood in the middle of "revitalization" or "gentrification" (depending on who you talk to). A few good restaurants and bars have popped up in the area including Rumberos, with its pan-Latin American tapas and live music and the Mayorga coffeehouse and lounge bar. Both are on the 14th street main drag between Park and Columbia Road. Just a few blocks away is the Wonderland bar, a neighborhood place on 11th street with a DJ/dancing on Saturdays and a nice patio during the summer/spring. Columbia Heights has seen an explosion of construction in the past few years and is now home to several new apartment buildings and big box stores (Target, Best Buy). There is not much to "see" in Columbia Heights (i.e. it isn't the right neighborhood for a stroll), but it is a good destination for dinner and/or theater.
Accessible on the Metro's Green Line (Columbia Heights).
This active waterfront community offers restaurants with river views; a colorful, historic Fish Wharf; the award winning theater, Arena Stage (temporarily relocated across the river to Crystal City while their longtime home undergoes renovation and expansion, as of fall 2007); and plenty of boating activity. You can also visit Ft Lesley J. McNair, a Southwest landmark established in 1794, one of the nation's oldest military posts.
In Washington's early years, Southwest was referred to as “the island,” cut off from the city by the old Washington Canal, which followed the route of today's Constitution Avenue. You can still see a Lockkeeper's House at 17th and Constitution Avenue.
Southwest evolved as a multi-ethnic working-class community, which provides this neighborhood with a rich historic past. Anthony Bowen, an educator and former slave, made this a stop on the Underground Railroad. Entertainer Al Jolson, whose father was the rabbi at one of the immigrant synagogues, learned African American dialect playing in the neighborhood streets. And many prominent Washington families got their start in the modest homes that once lined Southwest's shaded streets.
Urban renewal revitalized Old Southwest in the 1950s. The unique street layout and housing arrangements of the new Southwest present a dramatic example of the vision of post-World War II urban planners and architects. The housing cluster of River Park, as well as Tiber Island's creative medieval design of apartment house, town house courts, green ways, walkways, and plazas, offer excellent examples of urban renewal's promise.
You can still find remnants of the Old Southwest, not far from the waterfront. On a walk around the neighborhood, you'll see St. Dominic's Church, an inspiring gothic structure, Wheat Row, the earliest row houses built in Washington, and nearby, a few significant late-18th- and early-19th-century structures. Most notable are two Federal-era homes, Thomas Law House, once home to Martha Washington's granddaughter and the Duncanson-Cranch House.