Neighbourhood Watch: Washington’s Dupont Circle

Away from the grandeur of Washington’s great monuments, a down-to-earth neighbourhood with (literal) underground attractions


Dupont has all that’s good about upper northwest D.C., a bustling area of offices, shops and restaurants that will be as busy at noon on a Tuesday as dinnertime on Saturday. Off of the main drag, Connecticut Avenue, streets are lined with adorable row houses (home to the Washington elite; they cost roughly a million for a three-bedroom) and stately embassies. Dupont Circle was one of the neighbourhoods designed by the city’s original planner and has served as a meeting place since the 1880s.

People in the District work hard and play hard, usually starting with happy hour in the hours following work, when most bars and restaurants have food and drink specials. Lately, the crowd has shifted somewhat from bohemians to young professionals with families. The neighbourhood has a definite buttoned-up feel, but isn’t as preppy as Georgetown or as businesslike as downtown.

Meanwhile, there is the actual circle, a small park in the middle of a traffic circle that has a marble statue and fountain in the middle. This area mostly people walking through or sipping coffee and reading on benches, but from time to time it turns into a space for outdoor yoga classes or daytime dance parties. In the winter, it’s a favourite spot for the D.C. Snowball Fight Association to pelt each other with fresh flakes. On a weekend night, you’ll probably hear some music wafting from a brass band outside the Metro entrance.

Art and history

Though you can find several giant galleries at the National Mall downtown, where there’s art from centuries ago, galleries in Dupont are mostly private and showcase work from the 20th century to present. On the first Friday of each month, in an event called First Friday Dupont, from 6 to 9 p.m., galleries host simultaneous openings for an $8 suggested donation.

The most famous of these is the Phillips Collection, a privately run art museum with an impressive hoard of 20th century art from O’Keefe to Rothko, housed in the mansion of the founder and collector, Duncan Phillips. Beyond the obvious charms of the art itself, it’s enjoyable exploring the quaint intimacy of the rooms of the 1897 Georgian Revival-style house.

The Hillyer Art Space is steps away from the Phillips Collection. Rather than household names of the 20th century, here the focus is on local and international artists who have not had a major solo exhibition in the last several years. It’s relatively small and open only during the afternoon (and not on Sundays), but it can be exciting for enthusiasts of contemporary art who are in the mood to make a new discovery.

History lovers should pop into the Heurich House Museum, housed in either a small castle or a giant mansion, depending on how you look at it. This is the former home of Christian Heurich, a German businessman, who, in his day, owned a brewery that was the largest non-governmental employer in the city. The house has been kept up with many original furnishings and is impressive inside and out. The only way to get in is with a guided group tour, which are $5 and happen Thursday, Friday and Saturday – check the schedule before you go. History and/or beer lovers might find some fun here. Beer-themed events take place here regularly.

Book stores

The District is full of professionals in government and nonprofit work, so it’s no wonder book stores do well here.

Kramerbooks is one of a few famous bookstores in the city, and has a bustling restaurant and bar called the Afterwords Café attached. The bookstore is often crammed with many shoppers and even more books in a relatively small space. Notes on most shelves that show employee recommendations; followers of said advice have included President Obama, who has been known to bring his daughters here from time to time. If you’re there on a weeknight, you’re more likely to catch an author doing a reading.

For those who enjoy trawling used bookstores for gems, pop into Second Story Books, where the collection represents the best of a large warehouse of used book donations in nearby Maryland. Inside the shop is quiet and not typically crowded. You’ll get left alone to look at books, CDs and DVDs, as well as a collection of antique books and posters which are interesting but usually pricey. Outside on a sunny day, there will be a small rolling shelf on the curb with extra-discounted books and music.

Comic books are not left behind in this book crawl. Comic geeks should try Fantom Comics for old and new books and events with authors and illustrators.

Go underground

The District has laws that restrict property owners from building over a certain height, so you won’t see skyscrapers anywhere in the city. In Dupont, commercial buildings top out around eight or 10 storeys. It’s no wonder that entrepreneurs have started growing downwards; a number of underground businesses have popped up in D.C.; when someone says a place in Dupont Circle is underground, they might mean it literally.

Among the buried treasures: Little Sesame, a lunch-only restaurant accessible by a narrow staircase that opens into a tiny, well-decorated space. Its hummus-centered menu has been popular since its opening in January, perhaps predicting a new trend in the city. The fast-casual meal will run around $10 and include a bowl of creamy hummus and cooked vegetables, a fluffy pita and green salad heavy on mint and parsley. It has just 16 seats, so many diners order to-go to eat on a bench in the circle or back in their offices.

Speaking of below the surface, Dupont Underground is a project that has staged art events in a disused trolley station in the area. It had its first exhibition open this spring, and will soon announce its plans for the next. When you visit, it’s worth checking to see whether something is on.

Where to have a happy hour

For people serious about beer but not looking for a serious bar, try Sauf Haus, a German-style beer garden on the roof outfitted with picnic tables and lots of European (mostly German) beers on draft. When your appetite inevitably arises, a snack stand in the corner offers giant sausages and two-pound pretzels (to share, one hopes). Despite the presence of patio heaters, this place is definitely more of a spring/summer spot than a winter one – it can get breezy up there.

The board game bar craze is represented in Dupont Circle: At Board Room, patron/players can rent classic games (everything from Monopoly to Cards Against Humanity) for a token $1 to $4 fee; there’s also a list of “extra special vintage games” by request at the bar, and a whole lot of victory beer (21 taps) to choose from. If you don’t know what game to play, ask the game warden, because some kids’ games are better left in your childhood. Board Room doesn’t have a kitchen, but guests can order from local restaurants or go next door for a pizza.

Neighbourhood Watch: Washington’s Dupont Circle
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