Here's where the old and new blend in a lively rhythm of sights and sounds. Downtown Washington's historic streetscapes showcase the city's newest arts, dining, sports, and entertainment scenes along with world-renowned theaters, museums, and memorials.
Historic downtown, located between the White House and the Capitol, was once the heart of political, social, and commercial life in the Nation's Capital. Daniel Webster's home and office stood across the street from the Old City Hall, and Walt Whitman helped nurse the Civil War wounded in the Patent Office, now home to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Nearby, Samuel Morse opened the world's first telegraph office.
In this central part of the city, thousands of newcomers to Washington - including German, Chinese, Greek, and Italian immigrants - got their start. They lived and worked in this neighborhood, setting up shops and restaurants, often living above their stores. Their religious structures remain as monuments to their historic presence, and offer a fascinating social history.
Chinatown and Penn Quarter are two distinctive sections of Downtown you won’t want to miss.
This self-guided walking trail reveals the story of Downtown – follow the signs on this self-guided Cultural Tourism DC Neighborhood Heritage Trail to learn more about Washington's Downtown, just east of the White House. Cultural Tourism DC Audio Journeys are now available for the Downtown Heritage Trail. This free tours take listeners by the ear and leads them through the streets of Washington, telling the city’s great stories in dramatic fashion.
You’ll know you’re in Chinatown when you see the fabulously ornate Gateway Arch at Seventh and H Streets, NW. Washington’s Chinese community dates to the 1880s, when immigrants settled along Pennsylvania Avenue between Third and Sixth Streets. After it was forced out by construction of the Federal Triangle in the 1930s, the community relocated north to its current location. While many Chinese Americans have left Chinatown for the suburbs, a small community survives. In the 600 block of H Street you’ll see the Wah Luck House, whose architect also designed the arch, and the Chinatown Community Cultural Center, dedicated to preserving and promoting the neighborhood’s cultural heritage. Since the opening of the Verizon Center on Seventh Street brought development pressures to Chinatown, few of the old, inexpensive restaurants remain. Familiar western eateries — albeit with names in Chinese characters — have taken their places.
Just south of Chinatown (and north of Pennsylvania Avenue between Fifth and Ninth Streets) is the downtown neighborhood now known as Penn Quarter. At one time solidly commercial, this area now boasts 10,000 residents, along with an array of galleries, theaters, restaurants, and shops. Spend an afternoon at one of the neighborhood’s exciting museums, including some of DC’s newest: the Newseum, the U.S. Navy Memorial & Naval Heritage Center, the Crime and Punishment Museum, the International Spy Museum, and the Marian Koshland Science Museum. In the evening catch a world-class play at the Shakespeare Theatre Company or Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Stunning commercial buildings reinforce the historical significance of Washington's downtown. On almost every block you'll discover fine examples of diverse architectural styles: Italianate, Richardsonian Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, Classical, and Gothic Revival, with façades made from brick, stone, cast iron, terra cotta, and cast stone. Approximately 200 buildings within the Downtown Historic District carry a National Historic Register designation.
Check out our Calendar for up-to-date information on exhibitions, lectures and other heritage happenings in the city.
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