The Best of D.C., Beyond The National Mall

The Best of D.C., Beyond The National Mall

Enjoy the Capital's rich culture, food and shopping beyond the usual tourist destinations

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Monday, June 16, 2014 - 9:45am


By Bianca Alexander

For an authentic adventure in the Nation’s Capitol, step away from Museum Row and lose yourself in the bohemian U Street District. 

Over 17 million people flock to Washington, D.C. each year from all over the world, and for good reason. With its balmy weather, beautiful architecture and historic appeal, Washington, D.C. is one of the top three vacation destinations in the United States, a place where discriminating travelers can find a range of package holidays.  Though most tourists visit with hopes of catching glimpses of The White House, the Smithsonian or the cherry blossoms in full bloom, those seeking a more unique eco-conscious experience of the nation’s capitol should look no further than the historic U Street Corridor.

Approximately ten minutes north of the White House and a hop, skip and jump from museum row, the U Street District is an emerging part of town that offers a savory taste of D.C.’s past, present and future. During daylight hours, saunter “U” between 9th and 18th to find a mix of eclectic boutiques, artsy restaurants and specialty yoga studios. After dark, listen for the pulsing beat of urban nightlife: a stand-up bass and snare drum emanating from a live jazz band, the sultry cooing of a lounge singer at a cigar bar, or the thump of hip-hop dance mixes at one of the area’s velvet rope nightclubs.

In the early 1900s, the area was largely populated by middle-class African-Americans, who first settled there during the Civil War, moving into the beautiful Victorian homes that now border U Street. At the time, the region offered new streetcar lines, inexpensive land, and the absence of residential segregation. Many residents belonged to a privileged class of doctors, lawyers and business owners who due to their skin color, were forbidden to live in other parts of the city. By the 1920s, the neighborhood incubated a renaissance of institutions, artisans and services that not only met the needs of area residents, but also helped make the area one of the city’s most vibrant cultural, residential, and business districts. In the 1940’s, U Street was the place to go to hear musicians like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and other artists who began their careers in the neighborhood’s nightclubs and theaters.

By the 1960’s, U Street had become a center point for the civil rights movement, serving as a bastion for activists against legal segregation and racism. 1968 marked a historic turn for the corridor. In April of that year, Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Distraught and angry blacks acted out by setting fire to popular U Street establishments, leaving empty storefronts, depressed property values and urban blight in its quake for the next forty years.

The area didn’t begin to recover economically until the opening of the nearby U Street and Columbia Heights Metro stations in 1991 and 1999, when visionary entrepreneurs began showing renewed interest in the area. Real estate investors rehabbed the old Victorians and transformed abandoned lots into condos for new waves of upwardly mobile young people moving into the city for government jobs. This slow migration helped gradually gentrify the area with hip coffee shops, novelty bars and vintage boutiques. Today, the neighborhood boasts a fresh mix of urban hipsters, artists and fashionistas who consider U Street a mecca for great food, conscious shopping and nightlife.

With a metro pass, a bike share pass or a good pair of walking shoes, you can too. The U Street Corridor is accessible from the U Street/Cardozo/African-American War Memorial stop on the green line of the Washington, D.C. Metro system. A twenty-minute walk from downtown, it’s also easily navigated on foot. Or, for sporty types, find one of Capitol Bike Share's 300 bike stations across the D.C. area. They're free for the first 30 minutes, which means you can pick up from downtown and drop off near U Street gratis, then pick up again to head to your next destination without increasing your carbon footprint. 

However you arrive, click here for a few tips on enjoying the best of the neighborhood.