Washington, DC is a Vibrant, Cosmopolitan Musical City in a Smallish Package

This guide can serve as a starting point for any string player wanting to explore the unexpected joys of music in Washington, DC.

By Emily Wright | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Like any other metropolis, Washington, DC, exists on a number of axes: the first, referential—what it was. The second, experiential—what it is. The third, aspirational—what it could be. Each of these tugs against the others, but in a country so young, the contrast is not nearly so stark as it is in a place like London or Beijing. It’s worth mentioning because just beneath the veneer of political ambition and indecorousness wrought from money and power—forces as ancient as civilization itself—there exists a city still trying to define itself. It is a smallish town with a surprising capacity for new people, new ideas, and real participation in the creation of communities. I hope the following guide can serve as a starting point for any string player wanting to explore the unexpected joys of music in Washington, DC.

The District’s largest and most populous northwest sector is home to most of the embassies, of which there are more than 150. On any given night, there will be a glitzy gala or two, performances of every possible incarnation, meet and greets with diplomats, guest speakers, or celebrations of a particular holiday or custom endemic to a specific country. Some examples: the Estonian embassy frequently holds events when Arvo Pärt is in town or his work is being played locally. The Argentinian ambassador holds all kinds of tango nights, both milongas and more formal performances. I once walked by the Finnish embassy and was enticed inside by the sounds of an event celebrating Jean Sibelius. I left with ten new best friends and a fistful of colorful Marimekko coasters. 

Washington DC National Catherdral
Washington DC National Catherdral. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith.

Most embassies are open to the public in some fashion, though calling ahead is a good idea unless an event is specifically listed as not having a guest list. Many countries also have cultural centers separate from their diplomatic infrastructure, and though I could not get official comment from any of them, it must be to keep the spies from ruining a perfectly nice concert cocktail hour with their shifty eyes and poorly cut trench coats. 

Speaking of shifty eyes, just next to the Watergate Hotel is perhaps the most iconic place to see music in DC: The Kennedy Center. The main stage is home to the National Symphony Orchestra, plays host to prestigious headliners, and serves as a seasonal home to lots of local ensembles. For a less formal experience, the KC Millennium Stage offers free concerts, films, and talks that tend to feature artists on the ascendant. 

The Lincoln Theatre on U Street was the heart of what was called DC’s “Black Broadway” and served as a place where African Americans could gather and partake in world-class entertainment before desegregation. It fell into disrepair for a period, but was reopened in 1994. Since then, it has consistently offered performances by fantastic artists (Janelle Monáe, Lauryn Hill, Bryan Ferry, Kathleen Hanna) and events in a unique and beautiful setting. 


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Lincoln Theatre lobby
Lincoln Theatre lobby. Photo: Tim Brown/Wikimedia.

The National Cathedral in Woodley Park manages to feel stately and warm at the same time, hosting everything from giant productions of Handel’s Messiah to intimate string quartet recitals and academic talks. It’s a go-to for major holiday concerts: Christmas, Black History Month, July Fourth programs always sell out well in advance. 

What the Kennedy Center is to the classical and jazz establishment, the 9:30 Club is to rock and the like. A wonderfully intimate venue tucked unassumingly beneath Howard University’s main campus, it’s worth a visit. My advice is to get there early, try one of the nearby dining hotspots, listen to the opening acts, and stay until they kick everyone out. 

DC’s long run as a punk haven—Bad Brains, Fugazi, and Minor Threat formed there—is still going strong at the Black Cat, where hardcore and experimental nights alternate with themed events like Punk Rock Karaoke and K-Pop Dance Party. For a town with a reputation for conformity, it’s nice to know there are places where Us Weirdos can flail around in the dark, together.

It would be remiss not to make some mention of DC’s home cooking, even though it lacks strings: Go-Go music, most famously Chuck Brown’s Go-Go is the sound of the city, no matter where you are. Do yourself a favor and stroll by the corner of 7th and Florida in Shaw, or go to a Caps game and celebrate a win to the sound of “Bustin’ Loose.”


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Luthier Chris Jacoby applying varnish to a violin
Chris Jacoby. Photo: Nick Allen.

And memorable musical experiences are sometimes to be found by chance in this town. For example, on the weekends, nearly any pub with a weathered Irish flag outside is likely to have a band with a tin whistle, fiddle, and singer playing music that will break the floorboards and, often, your heart.

And what if you need an instrument? Or need an instrument repaired? Takoma Park is technically not in the District, but its location makes it a de facto extension of DC NW. And it’s there that you’ll find Potter Violins, a full-service purveyor of classical stringed instruments, accessories, and service. The shop in historic Blair Mansion is home to rockstar luthier Chris Jacoby, a lovely stage that hosts recitals and seminars, and everything from student rentals to the finest examples out of Cremona and Mirecourt. Just down the road from Potter, you’ll find the House of Musical Traditions. Their offerings trend toward folk instruments, but it’s one of those vanishingly rare places where you might find exactly what you were looking for (no matter how unusual), or maybe a treasure you never knew you needed. Across the river, technically in Virginia, you’ll find Foxes Music Company and Brobst Violin Shop, both well-loved institutions with a robust selection of stringed instruments and accessories that don’t require the trek across town to get to NW.

The Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast DC’s bustling H Street Corridor is where the Capital City Symphony calls home. Every winter, Atlas puts on a weeklong festival called Intersections, which features nearly 300 performing groups and artists. SongByrd Music House in lovely Union Market is a tiny place with a stage, restaurant, and a unique vibe. It’s become known as a venue for acts on the verge of hitting it big. It doesn’t get more DC than a visit to the Marine Barracks at 8th and I. The President’s Own (the United States Marine Band)is phenomenal, and if you time it correctly, you might be able to catch the goosebump-inducing Silent Drill Platoon too. Most of their events are free to the public. 


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Brobst-Violin-Shop-photo-David-Brobst
Brobst Violin Shop. Photo: David Brobst.

Smallest of the quadrants, the Southwest Waterfront is an emerging destination for concertgoing. The Anthem is a newish venue with an eclectic mix of performances, but I think of it as a place for stellar bluegrass and other string-laden folk styles. Nearby, Pearl Street Warehouse serves up heaps of instrumental music alongside solid dining options. 

Festivals are spread throughout the year: the summer influx of tourists combined with the capital’s small size make large-scale events difficult in the hotter months, though about an hour outside of DC you’ll find monster summertime gatherings at Merriweather Post Pavillion and in Baltimore’s inner harbor. DC Jazzfest happens on the Southwest Waterfront at the tail end of summer, while the repurposed old Walter Reed campus hosts the cumbia-heavy Down in the Reeds, Jazz in the Parks, and the super eclectic Home Rule Music Festival, a nod to DC’s continuing quest for representation and self-determination. 

Ensembles and Playing Opportunities

Whether you’re a professional on the audition circuit or a passionate amateur looking for a place to play, DC is awash in opportunity. Many ensembles and schools have multiple locations or are itinerant, rehearsing at a NW church one week and a spacious arts center in SW the next, so get used to seeing your favorite players in a number of venues! 

Captial City Symphony
Captial City Symphony. Photo: Ceylon Mitchell.

Student or Amateur Organizations

  • Levine School 
  • Washington Conservatory of Music
  • Capital City Symphony
  • Friday Morning Music Club
  • Washington Sinfonietta
  • Symphony of the Potomac
  • Arlington Philharmonic

Professional Ensembles

  • National Philharmonic
  • Pan American Symphony Orchestra
  • Apollo Orchestra 
  • Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
  • Alexandria Symphony Orchestra
Le Diplomate Restaurant in Washington DC
Le Diplomate Restaurant. Photo: Elvert Barnes/Wikimedia.

Recommended Restaurants

  • Planta Queen—Plant-based dining with an eye for sustainable living and dining. 
  • Ben’s Chili Bowl—House-made chili and DC signature dish, the half-smoke (smoked and grilled sausage served a bit like a hot dog with a variety of toppings). 
  • Salt Line—Oyster bar “bringing New England and the Chesapeake together.”
  • Tabard Inn—Classic Dupont Circle eatery that opened in 1922, the longest continuously operating restaurant/hotel in DC
  • Le Diplomate—French café culture in the capital’s 14th St. corridor. 
  • miXt Food Hall—Diverse food with a focus on community.