Culture + Style

It’s Different when It’s Live: 6 Can’t-Miss D.C. Music Venues

Museums, restaurants, monuments — Washington, D.C., has them all, and millions of tourists flock to the city each year to take advantage of the sights. But what do locals know that tourists may not? That the D.C. concert scene is one of the hottest on the East Coast … and possibly the most criminally underrated.

Just about every musical act, big and small, underground or mainstream, makes a stop here; it’s the nation’s capital, after all. And the sheer diversity of venues means there’s literally something for everyone.

With so many fabulous places to see music in D.C., you may want to make a pilgrimage just for music alone. Here are just six can’t-miss places to get you started.

9:30 Club

Named the third-best venue in the nation by Rolling Stone, the 9:30 Club is everything you want a club to be — not too big, super cool and acoustically phenomenal. Who’s played the 9:30? REM, Beastie Boys, Adele … seriously, it would be easier to list who hasn’t. Bill Clinton even hosted his staffers here.

Bands love to play the 9:30, and that means you’ll see acts that can instantly sell out much larger arenas. The club celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2016 with a secret Foo Fighters show (it was awesome). Want in on the cool? All you need are tickets.

Pro tips: Go up the staircase in the lobby and take a right at the top for some truly great (boozy or not) coffee drinks. For eats, hit up Satellite Room behind the 9:30 for insanely good, crispy-to-the-last-bite poutine tots and a Vincent Vega milkshake (vanilla with Bulleit bourbon).

Blues Alley

dc concert
Sit back with a Creole-style meal and listen to jazz at Blues Alley. (Photo: Mandie Drucker)

Tucked away on a side street in Georgetown you’ll find Blues Alley, the oldest continuing jazz supper club in the country. The brick-walled interior harkens back to the Jazz Era. This is how jazz is meant to be experienced — in an small, cozy setting where you can really listen to the music.

Blues Alley is so quintessential that musicians like Winton Marsalis and Dizzy Gillespie have recorded “Live at Blues Alley” albums. So sit back, enjoy the menu of Creole-style cuisine (with dishes named after jazz favorites who’ve played there, like Tony Bennett’s Shrimp and Artichoke Hearts), and lose yourself in the groove.

Pro tip: There’s no official dress code, but D.C. jazz aficionados tend to dress to impress.

Black Cat

Located in one of D.C.’s coolest neighborhoods, this is the kind of “hole-in-the-wall” club you might see in a movie. The Black Cat, in the U Street Corridor neighborhood, was started by music investors in the early 90s (including D.C.-area local Dave Grohl).

It showcases indie rock, punk, metal, alternative and more. Check out the 700-person-capacity Mainstage upstairs, a big square room with a checkerboard floor and great sightlines, sound and a bar that runs almost the length of the room.

There’s even a place to sit down in the back, in case you feel the need to kick back for a few (you won’t).

Pro tip: Get there early on weekends and head to the Backstage Bar for the Star Trek-, Dr. Who- or Daria-themed happy hours.

The Hamilton

dc concert
Enjoy dinner and a show at The Hamilton. (Photo: Getty Images)

Upstairs is a massive restaurant and bar in a glamorous, city-block-long building. The interior is lush, with extremely high ceilings, marble and stately woodwork. Downstairs is a beautiful, state-of-the-art music venue that feels like a big-but-intimate nightclub of the past.

Behind the dance floor, which wraps around the stage, you can sit back and enjoy full table service of delicious food (like sushi, lobster rolls and cheese plates to die for), drinks and a great beer selection.

Pro tip: Tables are often reserved, so get your ticket early if you want to be sure you can sit. If not, no worries; take a seat at the main bar or watch the show from “the Loft.”

The Howard Theatre

dc concert
Get a dose of history and an earful of amazing tunes at The Howard Theater. (Photo: Getty Images)

On the National Register of Historic Places, The Howard Theatre opened in 1910 and became an institution for African American performers: Think Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Sara Vaughan and James Brown. BB King’s guitar, Lucille, is even on display in the lobby.

The theater fell into disrepair after the 1969 riots and closed in 1970. It reopened in 2012 after a $30 million renovation, and this stunning theater is once again filled with music played by the likes of Parliament Funkadelic, The Roots, Chaka Khan and more.

Pro tip: The Howard Theatre offers a full menu, but locals know the restaurant scene in the Shaw neighborhood (home of Howard University) is one of the best in the District. Our picks? Fabulous raw bar and more at Eat the Rich on 7th Street NW, or for something a little different, Bistro Bohem on Florida Avenue for Czech/Central European cuisine.

Gypsy Sally’s

This relative newcomer in Georgetown, with a focus on Americana, jam bands and bluegrass, calls itself “the music venue for serious music lovers who don’t take themselves too seriously.”

The waterfront club is pretty and comfortable with no ear-splitting decibel levels. (Bonus: You can listen to records spin in the attached Vinyl Lounge, complete with VW bus inside.)

The stage is only slightly off the floor here, so you can get up close and personal with the band, or take a seat in the raised areas behind the dance floor with tables and wait service.

Pro tip: Stroll down the Georgetown waterfront, and if it’s cold, take a spin at the outdoor ice rink that overlooks the Potomac.