Head to the DC Alley Museum in Blagden Alley to see this colorful mural by local artist Lisa Marie Thalhammer.

Photo by Natalie Beauregard (“LOVE” by Lisa Marie Thalhammer, @lisamariestudio, www.lisamariestudio.com)

Washington, D.C. has exploded with new restaurants and bars that rival those in some of the country’s more popular food cities. There was always an undercurrent of cool beyond Capitol Hill and K Street—not to mention strong African American and LGBTQ communities—but the city has really come into its own in the past 10 years.

D.C. neighborhoods previously deemed dangerous or undesirable have become destinations in their own right, drawing locals and visitors alike with exciting dining options, things to do, and public art. There’s a thriving craft beer and spirits scene, plus trendy hotels and forward-thinking museums.

When visiting the city, be sure to explore beyond the Mall to discover the places where people who live in D.C. actually, well, live. It’s in these areas, including the can’t-miss neighborhoods below, that you’ll find what our nation’s capital is really about.

Columbia Heights

Today, Columbia Heights is one of D.C.’s most dynamic neighborhoods, though it’s taken a long road to get there. Located in the upper part of the Northwest quadrant, the area was home to many of the city’s middle-class Black residents in the first half of the 20th century—Duke Ellington himself was a resident—but it suffered significant damage during the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination. With much of 14th Street burned to the ground, many locals fled to the suburbs and those remaining were left with a neighborhood to rebuild—a process that didn’t happen in a meaningful way until the Columbia Heights metro station opened in 1999.

Meridian Hill Park hosts a lively afternoon drum circle every Sunday.

Photo by Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

These days, stately row houses and embassies line 16th Street, while some of the city’s most buzzed-about restaurants cluster around 11th and 14th. Creatives and professionals lend the neighborhood a lively vibe; bikers and picnickers come for the beautiful, European-style Meridian Hill Park with its fountains, statues, and Sunday drum circles; and a long-standing Hispanic population brings diversity with the GALA Hispanic Theatre and the Mexican Cultural Institute.

Try the Argentinian tenderloin with baby onions at Latin American favorite Seven Reasons.

Photo by Jennifer Chase

Travelers should head to Columbia Heights for the food, specifically the Middle Eastern fare at the acclaimed Maydan (where dishes like sweet potatoes, butterflied bronzini, and lamb shoulder are cooked over a wood-burning hearth) and the Latin American cuisine down the street at Seven Reasons (which Esquire named the best restaurant in the country in 2019). Also worth trying is Filipino favorite Bad Saint (make a reservation or go right when it opens at 5:30 p.m. and get in line) and prix fixe spot Rooster & Owl (don’t miss the short ribs with Thai chili peanuts).

The Wharf

For years, this mile-long stretch along the Potomac was primarily known as the location of the oldest continually operating open-air fish market in the country. Beyond the waterfront stalls selling fresh crab and oysters, there wasn’t much there, that is until the Wharf development debuted in October 2017. Now, in addition to the Municipal Fish Market, the neighborhood includes four different recreational piers, 10 acres of parks (including a new, 1.5-acre space called “The Green”), three live music venues, and multiple award-winning restaurants.

Pick up locally made souvenirs at Shop Made in DC.

Photo by Miriah Miranda

Summer is when the Wharf is at its most entertaining. Transit Pier hosts live concerts and a mini-golf course (which converts to a skating rink come winter), while District Pier features festivals and activities like outdoor yoga. If you’re visiting in the colder months, revel in the neighborhood’s music scene, which centers around the Anthem (a 6,000-seat concert hall for headliners) and Pearl Street Warehouse and Union Stage (smaller, more intimate spots that focus on local and regional live music). There’s also great shopping, especially at Shop Made in DC, which showcases locally made goods; Politics and Prose, an outpost of D.C.’s beloved indie bookstore; and A Beautiful Closet, a Black-owned fashion boutique selling clothes, jewelry, and home decor.

Taste your way round Lebanon at new spot Ilili.

Photo by Rey Lopez

Also make time for meals at Ilili, chef Philippe Massoud’s new high-end Lebanese restaurant, and Kaliwa, which offers a taste of the Philippines, Thailand, and Korea through dishes like drunken duck noodles, fried whole fish, and grilled short ribs. For drinks, head to Whiskey Charlie, a rooftop bar where cocktails feature freshly squeezed juices and ingredients made in house.

Blagden Alley

Blagden Alley packs fascinating history, destination dining, and Instagram-able art into a few blocks in Shaw, a neighborhood in Northwest D.C. In the 19th century, D.C.’s tony row houses were backed by hundreds of intersecting alleys, where, especially during the severe housing shortages caused by the Civil War, many of the city’s immigrants and African Americans resided in lean-tos and shanties, often among stables and workshops. Despite several attempts over the years to eradicate alley dwellings citywide, Blagden remained largely intact until the 1968 riots, after which it was mostly abandoned.

The alley itself, as well as many of its original buildings, survives today thanks in part to community activism in the 1980s. After being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, it became home to a thriving arts scene centered around the now-closed Signal 66 art space and Planet Vox TV studio. In 2014, La Colombe Coffee Roasters opened its first D.C. location in one of the old stables, signaling a changing tide for the area.

Grab a drink in the greenhouse on Calico’s outdoor patio.

Photo by Scott Suchman

Today, visitors can sip five different kinds of Old-Fashioneds at Columbia Room (which won the James Beard Award for outstanding bar program in both 2017 and 2018), pair local beers with barbecue fare at Calico (where the massive outdoor patio boasts a vintage greenhouse), and dine on inspired Mid-Atlantic cuisine at Michelin-starred the Dabney (try the Chesapeake rockfish with clam veloute). For a side of art with your meal, walk around a bit to check out the open-air DC Alley Museum, which encompasses a series of colorful murals painted on garage doors and the sides of buildings. Started in 2015, the project works with artists who have a history in the Shaw neighborhood and includes tributes to musicians Sun Ra and Erykah Badu as well as Lisa Marie Thalhammer’s rainbow-hued LOVE piece.

This article orginally appeared online in January 2021; it was updated on January 5, 2022, to include current information.

>>Next: Plan your trip with AFAR’s Travel Guide to Washington, D.C.

Natalie Beauregard Natalie is a a New York-based writer and editor focused on travel, food, and drink. Her work has appeared in AFAR, TimeOut, Fodor’s Travel, Edible Brooklyn, Serious Eats, and Vox Creative, among others.