Washington DC

DC Nightlife: What to Do in Washington DC at Night

POV Rooftop
POV Rooftop
POV Rooftop

Washington DC can feel like a small town, especially after hours when the workforce of several million people returns to the suburbs and the District’s population shrinks to just over 700,000 people (compare that to over 8 million residents in New York City). You’d think that the nightlife would shrink with it. Fortunately, that’s not the case. In fact, DC has always punched well above its weight class.

For those still in town, the District’s late night party goes well into the wee hours. The buttoned-up day crowd is replaced with a nightlife where the buttons loosen up. But, don’t worry, the city doesn’t lose its distinctive nerdy character as one of the smartest cities in America — a lot of entertainment for Washingtonians is mixed with museums, culture, and education. Get smart while tossing a few back. If that sounds like fun, this “small town” is the place for you.

Live the movie Night at the Museum

Citywide
Never let Ben Stiller best you. Never. Show up at just about any one of the city’s many amazing museums — including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Geographic Museum — and party with dinosaurs, historical figures, and priceless works of art.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

See free shows at this buttoned down Kennedy Center

Foggy Bottom
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is the nation’s artistic performance venue. If you’re going, expect to put on a bowtie or gown. At the new interactive and interdisciplinary Kennedy Center extension, The Reach, you can see everything from Native American electronic music act A Tribe Called Red to Fela! The Concert, a Tony-award winning Broadway play. (Shows are free September 7-22 as part of its opening festival.)

Buy a ticket to unstuffy theatre

Citywide
The theatre scene in DC is prolific. You can see Shakespeare or visit Ford’s Theatre and hope that post-Civil War assassinations are long past. Or, you can also try something a little more “today” at Wooly Mammoth, Studio Theatre, DC Arts Center, or Gala Hispanic Theatre, which all  feature contemporary plays.

Stop climbing the company ladder and start climbing for fun

Rockville and Crystal City
The District is one of the fittest places in America. Plenty of gyms stay open late, but, frankly, climbing is a lot more fun than weights and a treadmill (and still an amazing workout).

The Eleanor
The Eleanor
The Eleanor

Feel like a giant while bowling

NoMa
It’s nearly impossible to sidestep the jokes, but what the Washington-area is most known for when you talk about lanes is tiny balls. Duckpin bowling is a local obsession. The balls and pins are smaller and there are only ten pins to begin with, so you’re bound to leave feeling bigger and better than you would at a regular alley.

U Street Music Hall
U Street Music Hall
U Street Music Hall

See every conceivable music act

Citywide
There’s no excuse for not seeing music in the District. Nearly every single style of music is here and nearly every single touring act stops through at one of the many music venues. There are larger venues such as Capital One Arena and Merriweather Post Pavilion that have global acts, and then slightly smaller venues such as The Howard Theatre, DAR Constitution Hall, The Anthem, The Fillmore, and 9:30 Club that have bigger acts in a smaller setting. Want something even more intimate? You have club-like spaces including Black Cat, U Street Music Hall, and Rock & Roll Hotel. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Listen to music enshrined in law as an American treasure

U Street
Speaking of music, the city is known for being the birthplace of hardcore punk and Go-Go, but it was also a center for jazz. Jazz is such a DC thing that it was even deemed an American treasure by Congressional act, HR-57.

Watch movies with a drink in hand

Citywide
Soda is fine. Every now and then a Coca-Cola slushy hits the spot, but nothing beats a beer, wine, or cocktail while you’re watching the big screen. You can do just that at Angelika Pop-up, Suns Cinema, and Landmark’s E Street Cinema.

Learn to dance to Caribbean rhythms

Citywide
Most Washingtonians can’t sit still. It’s a work hard, play hard kind of town. It’s also a dance hard town too. Nowhere is that more apparent than the salsa scene where the District shows both its moves and international flair.

SingSing Karaoke Palace
SingSing Karaoke Palace
SingSing Karaoke Palace

Rent a room and sing your heart out

Citywide
If you have friends that don’t karaoke, leave them behind. Find new friends and rent a room at one of the many venues in DC, such as Sing Sing Karaoke Palace or Muzette Karaoke & Restaurant.

Underground Comedy DC
Underground Comedy DC
Underground Comedy DC

Watch subterranean comedy

Dupont Circle and Mt. Pleasant
Ok, not all of Underground Comedy’s shows are actually underground. Though perhaps the best one is, at Big Hunt. See local talent and, on occasion, big names — such as Patton Oswalt and Hannibal Buress — popping in to pop off.

Live the life of a spy

Penn Quarter
Washington DC is nothing if not full of intrigue. But if you’re having trouble spotting who’s the spook, be one yourself.  In the city’s escape rooms, you can don the cloak of a master spy and solve the puzzle.

barmini by José Andrés
barmini by José Andrés
barmini by José Andrés

Drink high and low

Citywide
Just like there’s every conceivable kind of music, the District is also known for its drinking dens from Tiki bars to avant-garde cocktails. And you can choose based on your mood. Feeling fancy? Try one of the many upscale hotel bars such as The Lounge at Bourbon Steak, Quill at The Jefferson, or St. Regis Bar. Don’t feel like spending $19 for a cocktail, slum it at the city’s best dive bars Showtime Lounge, Dan’s Cafe, or The Raven Grill.

El Tamarindo
El Tamarindo
El Tamarindo

Eat on the street

Citywide
There are all-night diners and late-night kitchens for El Salvadorian or Chinese food, but we all know the food that’s most sought after you’re out late-late is grab-and-go. Try the city’s famous Jumbo Slice pizza or scarf down falafel, empanadas, meat pies, or shawarma. Grease be damned!

Try our better version of a hot dog

U Street & H Street Corridor
In DC, the half-smoke rules.  While some may argue over who makes the best one, and exactly what it’s made of, no one argues that Ben’s Chili Bowl is not the one true outpost of the half-smokes glorious past on U Street.

Get crackin’

Citywide
The District is lucky to be so close to the coast. With that comes a bounty from the ocean, including local oysters and rockfish. But any self-respecting Washingtonian will tell you that summer is all about blue crabs. Grab a bushel from The Wharf for your own party from Captain White’s Seafood City, hit one of the city’s favorite spots, Ivy City Smokehouse, or go to Arlington and visit Quarterdeck.  Don’t like picking the meat? Crab cakes from Rappahannock River Oyster Bar are among the best in the area.

Alexandria Colonial Tours
Alexandria Colonial Tours
Alexandria Colonial Tours

Scare yourself silly

Alexandria
Alexandria isn’t part of the District, but the dead don’t know that. It turns out that Alexandria was part of DC between 1801 and 1846. Join this ghost and graveyard tour and get haunted by Virginians and former Washingtonians alike.

Tour the monuments at night

The Mall
The monuments are towering and impressive during the day, but they really hit their mark at night. Whether the Lincoln, Jefferson, or King Memorial, both up-lighting and less crowding offer a far more reverential and striking view of the monuments in our nation’s capital.

Potomac Riverboat Company
Potomac Riverboat Company
Potomac Riverboat Company

Pop and yacht-rock

The Wharf
There are many Potomac River boat tours and ferries, but to maximize the fun you’re going to have to pick and choose. Some are just bad food on a choppy river. Look for specialty tours and, especially, ones where the city’s first microbrewery, DC Brau, is involved.

ARTECHOUSE
ARTECHOUSE
ARTECHOUSE

Go digital

Capitol Hill
The world of art is changing with technology; there are far more digital and interactive exhibits. The best place in DC, and really the country, to experience the intersection of art and technology is at Artechouse. Immerse yourself in its current exhibition, Infinite Space.

Ditch the spin class and just spin

National Harbor
While Washingtonians are busy working out, some of us are just trying to shake off the daily grind. Effortlessly spinning and looking over the city at 180 feet in the air is one way to do just that. Sit back and relax with the Capital Wheel.

Read late into the night and early morning

Dupont Circle
While the “Clinton scandal” perks more than a few ears in Washington, there was a time when it involved a book that former president Bill Clinton bought at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café, an all-night bookstore and cafe. Go there, grab a bite, and buy whatever book you want. They didn’t release a record of his purchase, even by subpoena, so they won’t release yours either!

District Trivia
District Trivia
District Trivia

Prove you’re smarter than your friends

Citywide
You already know you’re smarter than your friends, but you’re looking for a way to enshrine it as law. Here’s your chance. District Trivia meets at a few bars in the city and nearby and is determined to take the whole thing not too seriously — even if you do.

Have a late night ball

SW Waterfront
The Nationals are one of the most exciting teams in baseball since May — before that, not so much — but we only have a few months left, and that’s if they gain the wild card.  Check out the “Beltway Series” versus the Baltimore Orioles or late game with the Atlanta Braves in September.

See directly into The White House (if you dare)

Penn Quarter
All partisan rancor aside, you have always wondered what the president and first family do at night. You would love to be a fly on the wall. How about a spy on a roof? As creepy as it is, you can virtually see inside the White House from the POV Rooftop at the W Hotel. Just don’t make any shooting gestures or loud incendiary remarks. Secret Service counter-snipers have their sights trained on nearby rooftops.

Attend a college lecture in a bar

Shaw
Being smart is social capital in the nation’s capital. Fortunately, you can learn and let your hair down at the same time with Nerd Nite DC, a lecture series hosted at DC9 Nightclub. Topics range from Icelandic folklore to mating rituals of sea mammals.Sign up here for our daily DC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Derek Brown is a writer and expert on spirits and cocktails who is based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ideasimprove.

Washington DC

15 Totally Free Things to Do in DC

A full itinerary, completely free of charge.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Washington DC is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, and for those of us who call the District home, it’s easy to see why. With dozens of world-class museums, murals that transform streets into galleries, and sites brimming with history, DC offers a full agenda-completely free of charge. Whether you want to try a new farmer’s market, explore a new hike, or polish off your roller skating or canoeing skills, here are some of our favourite free things to do in the District.

Flickr/gawnesco
Flickr/gawnesco
Flickr/gawnesco

Hike, bike, or stroll along the C&O Canal

The historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is one of the most accessible nature escapes from the District. Thanks to a multi-year restoration project, the first mile of the canal is an idyllic walk that’s easy to access in Georgetown. Stick to a short stroll there, or grab a bike or lace up your hiking shoes for a longer adventure along the 184.5-mile canal.

Jump on the pickleball craze

Pickleball is working its way up the ladder past kickball and softball as one of America’s favourite games. Jump on the craze and practice your paddling at one of the District’s pickleball courts in Takoma Park, the Palisades, and more. Plus, Washington DC Pickleball invites guests to drop in to beginner sessions to try their hand at the sport before signing up for a $30 annual membership.

Flickr/mcfeelion
Flickr/mcfeelion
Flickr/mcfeelion

Bike the Mount Vernon Trail

DC is incredibly bike-friendly, and luckily that applies to the land immediately outside of the city as well. Start in the city and bike along the Mount Vernon Trail, a scenic route that hugs the water and cuts through the woods. It’s about a 10-mile trip from DC to Mount Vernon, but you can cut the trip slightly short and end at the Old Town Alexandria waterfront-just make sure to factor in time for ice cream before pedalling home.

Explore a sculpture park

While not located in the District proper, Glenstone, an expansive sculpture park in Maryland, is worth the 45-minute drive. Tickets to the park are free (just be sure to reserve several weeks in advance), and the 300-acre space offers stunning art, architecture, and open land. In addition to its indoor gallery spaces, you can spend hours walking on paths that wind through sculptures, meadows, and forests.

Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Flickr/Geoff Livingston

See the monuments at night

When the sun goes down-and the summer humidity somewhat dissipates-head to the National Mall for the rare chance to see the monuments without busloads of tourists. Moonlight will give you a different perspective as you traverse the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial or gaze up at the Washington Monument set aglow with lights.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Museum hop the day away

One of DC’s greatest strengths is its world-class Smithsonian museums that are open to the public free of charge. There is no shortage of options, from the intimate Renwick Gallery, to the sprawling National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonians offer something for everyone. Pro tip: Some of the museums are open late in the evenings, making for an ideal date night.

muralsdc
muralsdc
muralsdc

Explore the city’s murals

Washington is home to hundreds of murals that are becoming as much a part of the city’s landscape as the monuments on the National Mall. Take a self-guided tour of these colourful creations no matter which neighbourhood you happen to be in. MuralsDC, the organization behind 150 of the District’s public artworks, is a great resource for mapping out a route to explore the city’s street art.

Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington

Take in a birds-eye view of the city

Washington looks pretty stunning from up high, and there are few spots within the city that make for phenomenal vantage points. Rooftop bars and restaurants offer epic views for the price of a drink or two, but there’s no more iconic sight than seeing the city from the top of the Washington Monument, which is completely free. Book a ticket ahead of time and ride an elevator all the way to the top of the monument and step out on the 500-foot observation deck.

Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Flickr/Nicolas Raymond

Wander through a garden

DC is home to some of the most beautiful urban gardens in the country, and many of them are open to the public for free. There is nothing like an afternoon spent strolling through, or picnicking, at the expansive 446-acre United States Arboretum or wandering through the Botanic Garden on the edge of the Mall. For something a bit smaller, explore the grounds at Tudor Place or Dumbarton Oaks (free in the winter), both of which are in Georgetown.

Flickr/ehpien
Flickr/ehpien
Flickr/ehpien

Hike the Billy Goat Trail

You can catch one of the District’s most popular hiking trails, the Billy Goat Trail, from the C&O canal. The full trail is 4.7 miles and ranges from easy to strenuous, so hike a section in and back or make the full loop for the variety.

Pay your respect at Arlington National Cemetery

Just across the Potomac from DC, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 veterans. The cemetery is an expanse of 639 hallowed acres and the ANC Explorer allows visitors to locate graves, notable sites, and take self-guided walking tours to spots including the tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as the final resting place of President John F. Kennedy.

Lace up your roller skates

When was the last time you went roller skating? Chances are it’s been too long. So get back into this nostalgic activity at the Anacostia Park roller skating pavilion. You can rent skates for free, just show proof of a government-issued ID, and the skating pavilion is open from 9 to 5 every day.

Help clean up the Anacostia River

We all know there’s a lot of work to be done to keep our waterways clean. Do your part, and have some fun, by participating in the city’s Green Boat initiative. On select weekends, DCers can join a two-hour guided paddle along the Anacostia River to collect trash and monitor the river’s progress.

Eastern Market
Eastern Market
Eastern Market

Stroll your local farmer’s market

DC’s close proximity to the farms of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and beyond mean that the city’s farmers’ markets always have something to offer. Check out the year-round markets like Eastern Market in Capitol Hill and the Sunday market in Dupont Circle or head to seasonal markets like the pop-up in front of the White House that draws vendors like Cucina al Volo and Call Your Mother Deli.

The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress

Play tourist all around the city

It’s easy to forget that all those traditionally touristy activities can be fun for locals too. If you haven’t been on a tour of the White House, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or the Capitol, this is your sign. All are free with advanced reservations. Plus, tucked in the northern quadrant of NW, the Washington National Cathedral is free and open to all. Tour the cathedral’s impressive architecture, 215 stained glass windows, 112 Gothically-inspired gargoyles, and enormous pipe organ. See if you can spot the sculpture of Darth Vader.

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Madeline Weinfield is a Thrillist contributor.

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