DC’s U Street is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city and the first of my DC travel guides. Having spent the last four years traveling to DC at least once a month, if not for several months at a time, I thought it was about time to share some of my knowledge of the nation’s capital beyond the National Mall.
U Street is a dynamic, youthful and cultural diverse epicenter in Northwest DC. It has become one of the top neighborhoods for dining and nightlife, but it’s the rich history of the area that sets it apart in my book.
The area was built up in the late 1800s as streetcars made their way to the corridor, opening the neighborhood up for development. It quickly developed into a Harlem, became home to the nation’s largest urban African American community in the 1920s, and developed into a center for celebration of African American life and black culture—especially in the music and arts scene.
U Street’s theaters like the Howard and Lincoln and its entertainment venues were places were influential African Americans like neighborhood native musician Duke Ellington and poet Langston Hughes for their starts. In its cultural heyday the corridor was known as “Black Broadway” as famous performers like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey and many more played local clubs of the day. A great place to spend time during Black History Month.
More than 2,000 speakeasies were established in the area during Prohibition and historians have credited these hideaways for helping integrate the city.
With continued revitalization (and the inevitable gentrification) this Victorian-era neighborhood is now filled with a mix of townhouses and new condo complexes, venues for music, comedy, performances, and more, and public street art, mural, and graffiti around every corner.
The U Street corridor’s cultural history remains intact in this vibrant Northwest DC neighborhood and the perfect place to spent an day exploring. In this travel guide you’ll find some of the best places to eat, things to see, what to see and do while exploring DC’s U Street neighborhood.
Discover the Street Art
This area’s rich culture and history is told through hidden and not-so-hidden street art, graffiti, and murals that scatter the corridor. Tributes to historical figures are especially popular in the area—lookout for the Obamas, MLK, Ben Ali and more. Here are a few of my faves in the area:
- Side of Ben’s Chili Bowl - 1213 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
- Black Broadway - 1344 U Street NW, Washington, DC 20009
- U Street by Michael Crossett + Skyler Kelly - 2017 11th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009
- James Bullough - 905 U Street NW, Washington, DC 20009
- Gagged George Washington - 1502 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
- Jazz on the side of Bohemian Caverns - 2001 11th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009
14 & U Farmers’ Market
Address: In front of the Reeves Center, at the corner of 14th and U Streets, NW
Nearby growers set up their vegetables, meat, dairy, and other yummy treats Saturday mornings 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. from May to November at the northwest corner of 14th and U Streets.
Greater U Street Heritage Trail
Website | Address: 1211 U Street NW, Washington, DC 20001
I love tours, especially walking tours and a self guided walking tour is the perfect way to explore the U Street neighborhood. You can take as much or a little time as you need to really discover this neighborhood’s rich and vibrant history. Swing by the Greater U Street Neighborhood Visitor Center (1211 U Street NW, Washington, DC 20001) next to Ben’s Chili Bowl for a map, download the self guided audio walking tour, or install the Cultural Tourism Downtown DC and U Street Heritage Trails App. Follow the 14 illustrated signs highlighting important heritage sites, information about national and international leaders in civil rights, science, and the arts, and of course lots of photos throughout the neighborhood. For more info or to download audio tours visit their website.
@velvetloungedc | Address: 915 U St NW, Washington, DC 20001
A grungy dive bar has a graffitied back patio, cool people, and chill vibes to spare! The Velvet Lounge is definitely less crowded on weeknights.
@goodwooddc | Address: 1428 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Modeled after an old general store, this vintage shop is filled with treasures galore—womenswear, rugs, art, midcentury and traditional furniture, and eclectic finds!
Website | @howardtheatre | Address: 620 T St NW, Washington, DC 20001
Dress up and enjoy a show at a DC institution—The Howard Theatre. When it opened in 1910 it was “the largest colored theatre in the world,” and was a place where locals could enjoy musicians, dancers, theater performances, comedy and more. Many popular names made their way through Howard Theatre including Duke Ellington! The theatre was renovated in 2012. Check their calendar for upcoming events.
African American Civil War Museum
Website | @afroamcivilwar | Address: 1925 Vermont Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001
Right across from the U Street Metro stop exit, the African American Civil War Museum commemorates the contributions of African American soldiers who fought from the Union during the Civil War. The building is fairly small, but the displays are well organized, interesting, and even has hands-on components. Spend time with Marquett, the historic interpreter dressed in period garb, to learn about the daily lives of Civil War soldiers and understanding the weapons and warfare of the time.
Don’t forget to pay your respects at the bronze statue by the metro stop when you leave.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Address: 1213 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
This DC institution has been serving up spicy hot dogs, chili-cheese fries and milkshakes continuously since 1958, and is a local and celebrity favorite. The most popular dish? The traditional DC half-smoke smothered in chili. They also have a veggie dog, veggie burger, and vegetarian chili for those of us who aren’t meat-eaters. Some people are obsessed with Ben’s, I’m not but it’s somewhere you go at least one to say you’ve been.
Also check out the full building length mural down the side of Ben’s featuring celebrities like the Obamas, Prince, Donnie Simpson, and Chuck Brown among others.
@haikandc | Address: 1513 17th St NW, Washington, DC 20036
Who doesn’t love ramen? Y’all know we definitely do! This sleek space has communal table, counter seating, and a patio. It’s perfect for a big bowl of Japanese noodles or some apps and cocktails after work.
Jumbo Slice Pizza
@jumboslicedc | Address: 1344 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Join the queue for this late night eatery and order the namesake dish—a Jumbo Slice. The slices of New York-style pizza can measure up to 32 inches in width and often more than 1 food in length! Personally I don’t think it’s the best tasting slice around town but after a night out on the town, it’s just riiight!
@dukemdc | Address: 1114 - 1118 U Street Washington D.C. 20009
U Street was once known as “Little Ethiopia,” and Dukem is one of the time-tested local favorites. Here you’ll find traditional dishes like sambusa, lentils, yellow peas, and of course injera (spongy bread), all of which you eat with your hands.
@dc_noodles | Address: 1412 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
You know if it’s Thai, I’m there. Drunken noodles, pad thai, steamed buns, and more. Plus it’s a more affordable eatery in the area with a friendly staff and quick service.