Arts and Leisure
- Best of Washington DC
- DC Art and Food Tour
- DC’s Top 10 for Kids
- DC Food Trucks
- Dining Alfresco in DC
- DC’s Best Outdoor Watering Holes
- DC’s Unsung Memorials and Monuments
- DC’s Outdoor Concerts and Events
- Green Dining in DC
- DC’s Best Family-Friendly Hotels
- DC Wine Bars
- DC Cupcake Wars
- DC Hotels with the Best Views
For roughly its entire first century, Washington grew as a political power but languished as a cultural backwater where arts played second fiddle to the day’s decision-making. But by the beginning of the 20th century, the scales became more balanced, partly due to the city’s natural maturation but also because philanthropy, especially that benefitting the arts, became fashionable in the Gilded Age.
Coupled with the city’s growing intellectual capital (Washington today has the largest percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees of any U.S. city, according to the Brookings Institution), the climate existed for a world-class arts and entertainment community.
While the city has long been known as a destination for history, monuments, and the world’s biggest library, it is slowly becoming a center for the arts as well, with a vibrant theater scene nearly rivaling Chicago’s second place to New York, an arts establishment that conserves some of the world’s greatest works and nurtures new and emerging artists, and a stopover for musicians at all stages of their careers.
It’s hard to walk down a street in DC and not bump into a museum or gallery, and it’s impossible to find a night on the calendar when there’s nothing to do. Washington’s performers and artists are hard at work daily, vying for exhibit and stage space throughout the city at small appointment-only galleries and large exhibition halls, at the well-known performing arts venues like Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, or an intimate off-the-beaten-path black box like the District of Columbia Arts Center.
Washington DC is home to one of the country’s first art museums, the Corcoran, and numerous museum galleries, such as the Renwick, a Smithsonian outlet showcasing crafts and decorative arts, and the National Museum of African Art, a unique underground space that remains one of the city’s best-kept secrets. There are also a number of small nonprofit and commercial galleries that support young and emerging artists and cater to new and experienced collectors.
And, of course, the city contains the taxpayers’ own National Gallery of Art, the country’s premier free art museum, funded initially in 1937 as a gift by financier Andrew Mellon. Across the city, art devotees will find something to their liking in Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, U Street, or the National Mall.
For classical entertainment, Kennedy Center is the city’s crown jewel, home to the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera, and the Washington Ballet. Kennedy Center also stages Broadway touring shows and revamped works of classics such as Ragtime. Across the city, smaller entertainment venues, including George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, hosts a variety of concerts and recitals.
To enjoy dance music, jazz, rock, and punk, the city boasts a number of clubs and after-dark venues that celebrate these genres, long a part of the city’s cultural fabric. Among the success stories is the revival of jazz, blues, and rock along U Street, a historic center for music where Duke Ellington, Shirley Horn, and Tony Taylor cut their teeth from the 1920s through the 1950s.
The city is also known for its unique form of music, go-go, a blend of funk, swing, blues, and early hip-hop with a distinctive rhythmic style all its own, frequently heard in clubs on the fringes of town.
In terms of theater, Washington’s community is blossoming into one of the nation’s best, home to two Regional Theatre Tony Award-winning theaters and numerous stages that showcase new works and reworked versions of classics. In the past three years, the city has served as a launching pad for three shows to Broadway, including the blockbuster Next to Normal, winner of three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. From traditional musical theater to experimental shows to opera or straight plays, if it’s on stage, you’ll find it in DC.
Spring and summer are the biggest seasons for outdoor events and festivals in DC, although Washingtonians also like to brave December’s chill to watch the lighting of the National Christmas Tree or crowd the banks of the Potomac River to be entertained by the city’s waterskiing Santa. Annual events range from the renowned National Cherry Blossom Festival and American Folk Life Festival in the spring and summer to neighborhood favorites like the Halloween High Heel Drag Queen Race.
Sports fans also will find plenty in Washington. Its moderate four-season climate and waterside location provide numerous outlets for nearly any type of recreation, including rowing, running, cycling, hiking, skating, and surfing. Well, maybe not surfing, but stand-up paddleboarding—it’s not just for Samoans anymore. There’s also horseback riding, sailing, running, and tennis.
Unsurprisingly, Washington is one of the fittest cities in the country, according to Men’s Health magazine, evident in the number of runners, cyclists, and walkers out daily enjoying the city’s trails and scenery. And if your love of sports leans more toward sitting on the edge of a foldout seat, beer in hand, the city has that too: Washington hosts five major-league sports teams and numerous collegiate teams whose schools participate in nearly every Division I sport available, including local favorites lacrosse and crew. Sparkling venues like the new Nationals stadium and the Verizon Center, with their great concession selections and safe, friendly atmosphere, enhance the experience.
- Most Powerful Portraits: National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art
- Best Museum Space: Phillips Collection
- Best Theater Venue: Arena Stage
- Best Free Show: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
- Best Under-the-Radar Tony Award Winner: Signature Theatre
- Best Place for a Movie Opening: AMC Loews Uptown
- Most Impressive Parade: Military Parades
- Best Short Hike: Theodore Roosevelt Island
- Best Museum Gardens: Dumbarton Oaks
- Best Biking Trail: Capital Crescent Trail
© Patricia Nevins Kime from Moon Washington DC, 1st Edition