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Distinctive D.C. neighborhoods that blend rich U.S. history with exciting new attractions

Learn how the intricate histories of four D.C. neighborhoods led to each becoming must-visit hot spots for food, dining, and entertainment.

Play at the water’s edge in Capitol Riverfront

This booming waterfront area, home to Navy Yard, was once centered around a war-time shipyard and weapons-making plant until plans formed in 2003 to turn the former industrial hub into a mixed-use neighborhood with residences, offices, park space, and restaurants. 

In the 1800’s, the Navy Yard was the nation’s largest shipbuilding facility, with the area around it becoming a busy commercial district that attracted laborers, engineers, sailors, and civilians. However, just after World War II, the bulk of the military operations moved out, pollution was a problem, and the area became neglected. “The waterfront was not considered an amenity; it was a place of industry,” says Jane F. Levey, chief historian for the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. “People didn’t want to live there.” 

But after two decades of revitalization, the riverfront location is now a big part of the neighborhood’s appeal. Dining hot spots have popped up, including Bluejacket for house-made beer and The Salt Line for locally sourced seafood. Sports fans flock by the thousands to Nationals Park and Audi Field, home to Major League Soccer team D.C. United.

Nearby, the five-acre Yards Park, situated along the Anacostia River, has a giant shallow pool, waterfall, performance venue, and boardwalk.

Indulge in the history and culture of Penn Quarter 

Wander a few blocks north of the National Mall and you’ll find yourself in a neighborhood diverse in its culture, attractions, and architecture. This downtown hub, known today as Penn Quarter, was established early on in the history of the nation’s capital. 

After D.C. was named the capital city in 1800, its downtown built up organically as members of Congress doing business with the President wanted to live in between the Capitol Building and the White House. “It’s where everything ended up happening,” Levey says. Developers quickly followed suit, building the U.S. Patent Office in 1836 (today the National Portrait Gallery) and the General Post Office building in 1839 (now the Kimpton Hotel Monaco DC).

Penn Quarter’s historic blocks have been preserved and developed into retail and shopping, also drawing visitors with attractions ranging from Ford’s Theatre to the Capital One Arena. The Chinatown Friendship Archway, a traditional Chinese gate adorned with tiles and dragons, marks the entrance to Chinatown.

Penn Quarter is a destination for some of the best dining in D.C., with renowned restaurateur José Andrés’ China ChilcanoJaleoZaytinya, and Minibar all in the area. A farmer’s market, as well as several food, wine, art, and culture-focused festivals, are popular throughout the year. 

Enjoy the music at Southwest and The Wharf 

Positioned where the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers meet, Southwest and The Wharf is a newly transformed neighborhood with strong historic roots. 

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Southwest was a working-class neighborhood of immigrant and Black communities. Starting in the 1950s, the neighborhood was the site of one of the nation’s first urban renewal projects, which displaced many of the families who called the area home. By the early 2000s, a new revitalization project sought to increase housing and green space, as well as bring new restaurants, shops, and attractions to the area. Today, Southwest maintains its history and diversity while being one of the city’s most up-and-coming areas.  

“The arts vibe has always been something that folks in Southwest have been proud of,” says Ryan Pierce, a volunteer with the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and a resident since 2014. Arena Stage, founded in 1950, puts on a combination of classics and new productions, and Westminster Presbyterian Church has hosted jazz musicians on Friday nights for decades. Joining those venues in recent years is Pearl Street Warehouse, an intimate venue serving diner-style fare, and The Anthem

The neighborhood is also home to ARTECHOUSE, an innovative digital art space, and the Museum of the Bible. In 2018, The Wharf—a two-billion-dollar development project spanning 24 acres along the water—was completed, and now features a boardwalk, water taxi stop, and shopping. There’s also more than 20 new restaurants, including La Vie and its top-floor views, as well as Rappahannock Oyster Bar, which celebrates local seafood from the Chesapeake. Phase Two of The Wharf is currently under construction and is set to be completed in 2022.

Find local food and spirits at Ivy City and Union Market

After the Civil War, Ivy City was mapped out to be a predominantly Black subdivision. Residents forged a strong, passionate community, and many families living there today have been in the neighborhood for generations, Levey says. 

The 20th century brought the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and the neighborhood became a busy industrial zone full of warehouses, factories, and a rail yard that employed many residents. Ivy City remained overwhelmingly industrial for decades, but by the 1980s, economic distress hit the historically low-income neighborhood hard. Dozens of government initiatives and redevelopment projects over the years struggled to gain traction, until the vacant Hecht Company Warehouse was redeveloped into apartments and shops in 2011, spurring new interest in the area. 

Today, Ivy City maintains its grit and industrial vibe, but new development continues. In the last decade, several craft breweries and distilleries have made new use of the old warehouses, creating a destination for sipping made-in-D.C. beverages. A restaurant scene has popped up, too, including Michelin-starred Gravitas in the former Hecht Warehouse.

For a dose of nature, just east of the neighborhood is the U.S. National Arboretum, a free-to-enter 446-acre collection of plants, gardens, and exhibits open for exploring and perfect for hikes and picnics. 

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.