We do a lot of walking when we travel. And we do so with purpose. We love architecture, urban green spaces, and the serendipity of discovery, whether that’s a neighborhood coffee shop or a bistro at the end of a nondescript alleyway. But first and foremost, we’re on the hunt for street art. There’s no better way to get a finger on the pulse of a city. Street art is an expression of a city’s past, the issues it grapples with present day, and its aspirations for the future. Through incredible initiatives such as MuralsDC, an organization collaborating with the city’s Department of Public Works and Commission on Arts and Humanities, DC has created a veritable cornucopia of street art. The goal is to replace illegal graffiti with artistic revitalization projects, and in this endeavor they have been very successful.
So whether you’re looking for the perfect backdrop for your #OOTD or you’re looking to discover some great local artists, here are some of the best places to find street art in Washington DC.
Blagden Alley is the name given to a collective network of small alleyways boxed in by 9th and 10th Streets and M and N Streets. The area was designated as a historic district in 1990, and growing reinvestment has turned it into a haven for hip bars and eateries. But the area is also home to The DC Alley Museum, which came about through the combined efforts of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Blagden Alley neighbors. Commissioned murals cover garage doors and facades, and plaques carrying the name of the piece and the artist can be found beside them, like in any other museum. But since Blagden Alley has grown in reputation as a street art hub, uncommissioned murals now also fill its nooks and crannies.
Blagden Alley gives you the most bang for your buck, but if you can spare the time, strolling around the Shaw neighborhood will yield many street art treasures as well. Perhaps you’ll even stumble upon the Watermelon House (yes, it’s a house painted to look like a watermelon!).
Any city of consequence has enduring institutions, but the sign of a great city is the way in which it reinvents itself. For famous examples, look no further than New York City’s Highline or Seattle’s Gas Works Park. And Washington DC has reinvented itself, too, with projects both big and small. One shining example is Dupont Underground, a former subterranean streetcar station that has been repurposed into a 15,000 sq.ft. multidisciplinary platform for creative expression. At the core of Dupont Underground is Up From The Underground, an exhibition of contemporary and historic graffiti from six generations of local artists. You’ll find intricate, vibrantly colored tags and illustrations from the entrance to its terminus and every inch of its subway-tiled walls in between.
Pro Tip: Checking Dupont Underground’s event calendar is a must. Beyond being an incredible street art destination, it hosts traveling exhibitions, festivals, concerts, and much, much more. You can also rent the space for private parties.
U Street Corridor
The U Street Corridor has a number of memorable murals, the most famous of which can be found on the walls of eatery and local landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl. Ben’s Chili Bowl recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, and it has played a prominent role in Washington DC history during that time. It’s most significantly remembered as the only spot that was allowed to stay open during the riots of 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and it counts many celebrities and politicians among its clientele. But Ben’s Chili Bowl isn’t the only draw. If you walk along U Street and take the time to look down the alleys, you’ll find most of the walls are home to striking street art, some extending the length of the entire building.
Pro Tip: While you’re here, you can fold in the Greater U Street Heritage Trail, which highlights important African American history that took place in the neighborhood. Whether you choose to download the audio tour or just follow the map, you’ll learn about leaders in civil rights, law, science, and the arts such as Duke Ellington and Thurgood Marshall who have all left their mark here.
NoMa and the Metropolitan Branch Trail
New York City loves its abbreviated names for neighborhoods, and so does DC. NoMa stands for North of Massachusetts Avenue, which covers the area between Union Station and trendy food hall Union Market. Thanks to POW! WOW! Washington DC, murals by artists from all over the world blanket NoMa and extend all the way up the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The Met Branch Trail is a busy urban rail-with-trail that shares a corridor with Metro’s Red Line, MARC commuter service, CSX freight trains and Amtrak. POW! WOW! originated in Hawaii but has since expanded its week-long street art festival across the globe, and Washington DC holds its annual festival in May. But don’t fret if you can’t make it out for the festival, the artwork can be easily visited year-round with their handy map. (Thanks for the tip, StreetArtChat!)
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from our time in New York City, it’s that to understand a city, you have to walk its streets. And Washington DC is no different. It’s easy to get caught up in the monuments, government buildings, and world-class museums. But people live, work, and die there, day in and day out, like in any other city. So, challenge yourself to go out and explore. Get the street-level view of DC’s heart and soul: the character of its neighborhoods, the diversity of its residents, and the stories they have to tell. You’ll find it written somewhere on a wall.
And if you find yourself famished after all that street art hunting, check out our post on Washington DC restaurants every travel foodie must visit!
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– L. & J.