Out on the town in D.C.: What to do and where to stay

by Jane Reynolds on September 28, 2010

The White House at night

Washington, D.C. may be the nation’s capital, where noteworthy decisions are made by serious politicians. But as we’ve discovered, presidents and diplomats can break some rules and party with the best of them too. So the D.C. nightlife scene is not one to disappoint. Dancing at nightclubs and jamming to live music are both popular after-dark D.C. pastimes, and for the more refined bunch, D.C. has plenty of activities to satisfy your cultured side. After the jump, check out our list of our favorite out-on-the-town D.C. activities, and the hotels that are convenient to each.

Downtown DC

What to do: Go to a comedy show

D.C. isn’t a mecca of comedy clubs, but there are several in the downtown area that provide some comic relief after a day of monuments and museums. After a day at the National Museum of Natural History, head to the nearby Capitol Steps Political Satire for some political jokes that poke at both sides; shows are at 7:30 every Friday and Saturday night. Or visit Improv,where there are shows featuring famous standup comics every night of the week.

Where to stay: JW Marriott Hotel Washington D.C.

A no-nonsense luxury hotel for the masses just steps away from the White House — and the Ronald Reagan building where the Capitol Steps shows take place — the JW Marriott has a shopping mall-like multistory lobby and 772 cozy guestrooms. It’s modestly plush, but in a populist way — especially when compared with the place across the street, the Intercontinental Willard, which is richer and more exclusive.

Artwork in Dupont Circle

What to do: Visit an art gallery

Over 30 art galleries call Dupont Circle home, and while most close around 5 p.m., many host openings between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. the first Friday of every month. Openings are quite the (free) scene, with the Washingtonian elite sipping on cocktails, discussing local artwork, and stroking the artist’s ego with doting questions. The Foundry Gallery brings in contemporary local art while the Kathleen Ewing Gallery focuses on photography.

Where to stay: The Dupont Hotel

Despite its modest 1940s-era exterior, the Dupont is in the vanguard of modern design among D.C. hotels after a yearlong, top-to-bottom renovation. Handsome, well-appointed rooms are the real highlight, but solid service, a popular local bar scene, excellent Cafe Dupont, and a prime Dupont Circle location complete the substance behind its style.

Bars in Dupont Circle

What to do: Hit the clubs

After your cultural intake at a local art gallery, you can hit the streets of Dupont Circle and go clubbing. Dupont Circle (and Penn Quarter) are known for their higher-class haunts, but there’s something for everyone in the neighborhood. Bouncers are less snooty than those in Manhattan and L.A.; you can usually find a dance party playing the type of music you like, and there are plenty of gay bars in the area. Most bars close at 2 a.m. but some stay open until 4 a.m.. Head to 18th Street Lounge, housed in Teddy Roosevelt’s former mansion, or down the street to Five and check out their popular rooftop deck.

Where to stay: The Fairfax at Embassy Row

Built in 1927 and recently changed from a Westin to a Starwood Luxury Collection property, the historic, 259-room Fairfax has an ideal location — near great dining and nightlife, but still quiet and close to the sights. Guest rooms, though small, are comfortable, the service is superb, and the features are solid. All around, a fine pick for the price.

The Kennedy Center

What to do: Make it a night at the theater

Make it a night at the theater at the Kennedy Center, the capital’s cultural pride and joy that’s credited with bringing D.C. into the ranks of the most cultural cities in America. Built alongside the Potomac River in Foggy Bottom and opened to the public in 1971, the Kennedy Center boasts two theaters, a theater lab, a cinema, an opera house, and a concert hall. The center hosts about 3,000 performances every year, so whether you’re looking to catch a symphony performance, an opera, or the ballet, you can find it here.

Where to stay: River Inn

The 125-room River Inn offers great value. Its 450-square-foot suites have full kitchens and pullout couches. Add in free perks like Wi-Fi, bike rentals, and Bally Total Fitness gym passes, and it’s tough to beat this gem. Just note that Foggy Bottom is sleepy — you’ll need to head elsewhere for restaurants and nightlife.

Streets in DC

What to do: Jam to live music

D.C. has local and international musicians who play all types of music. Yet the capital is known for its long history of blues and jazz — after all, Duke Ellington got his start in his hometown of D.C. So head to Madam’s Organ, a spot once making the list of Playboy’s favorite bars in America, where you can hear everything from reggae to bluegrass to jazz. Or visit the legendary Bohemian Caverns, where Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald once played, to catch a live jazz and blues concert.

Where to stay: Washington Hilton

Located uphill from Dupont Circle farther from the monuments but closer to the D.C. nightlife (including Madam’s Organ, which is within walking distance), this massive, 1,070-room convention-focused Hilton became a great hotel — outdoor pool, modern rooms, health club — after it finished its $140 million renovation in 2010.

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