Chinatown, DC: The Complete Guide

Chinatown Arch in Washington, DC

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Chinatown is a small historic neighborhood of Washington, D.C., that features a variety of cultural attractions and businesses for tourists and residents alike. Whether you're looking for a delicious and authentic meal or to learn about the history of the city's Chinese-American population, Chinatown is an easy stop that's within walking distance of the National Mall and Penn Quarter. When the MCI Center was built in the 1990s—now known as the Capital One Arena—it helped to revitalize the neighborhood with new restaurants and stores but displaced many of the original businesses in the process. Despite gentrification, Chinatown remains one of the most popular destinations for tourists visiting the nation's capital.

Chinatown History

In the early 1900s, the Chinatown area was mostly populated by German immigrants, but Chinese immigrants began moving to the area in the 1930s after they were displaced from the original Chinatown along Pennsylvania Avenue when the Federal Triangle government office complex was built.

Like other Washington neighborhoods, Chinatown's population declined sharply after the 1968 riots when many residents moved to suburban areas, spurred by the city's rising crime and deteriorating business climate. In 1986, the city dedicated the Friendship Arch, a traditional Chinese gate designed by local architect Alfred Liu, to reinforce the neighborhood's Chinese character.

The core of the neighborhood was demolished to make way for the MCI Center, which was completed in 1997, and in 2004, Chinatown went through a $200 million renovation, transforming the area into a bustling neighborhood for nightlife, shopping, and entertainment.

Things to Do

Perhaps the most fascinating part about D.C.'s Chinatown is the way that the neighborhood has held on to its immigrant roots despite a declining Chinese population and an influx of national companies. For example, even big-name corporations like Starbucks, Subway, and Walgreens include the names of their business in Chinese characters prominently displayed on their storefronts.

  • Friendship Arch: You can't miss the entrance to Chinatown in Washington, D.C. The Friendship Arch is one of the largest of its kind outside of China and was built in 1986 to commemorate the relationship between the sister cities of Washington, D.C., and Beijing. It's located at the intersection of H Street and Seventh Street and is without a doubt the most iconic part of the neighborhood.
  • Alleyway Tours: To get a comprehensive history of Chinatown, join one of the informative Alleyway Tours. These tours are led by local youth volunteers and designed by the Chinatown Community Development Center, drawing on painstaking research and oral history from interviews of longtime residents.
  • Chinese New Year Parade: The most exciting time to visit Chinatown is, without a doubt, during the Lunar New Year celebrations. The New Year falls around the end of January or early February, depending on the year, and you can expect to see lion dancers, firecrackers, dragons, and much more during the annual parade through the neighborhood.
  • Nearby Museums: Chinatown is only about two blocks long, but some of the city's best museums are just a few minutes away on foot. The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum are just across from the Capital One Arena at the south end of Chinatown and are free to visit. Just a couple of blocks further are two important sites in American history, Ford's Theater and the Petersen House, where Abraham Lincoln was shot and then subsequently died.

What to Eat and Drink

Chinatown is considered one of the best neighborhoods in Washington for going out to eat and houses several of the city's best restaurants. As the neighborhood has gentrified and diversified over the years, you can now find all types of cuisine, not just Chinese food, although it's still the best place in the capital for finding an authentic Chinese meal.

  • China Boy: This no-frills restaurant is one of the most popular options for grabbing a quick meal. The diner is small and has limited seating, but you can easily your housemade pork buns and hand-pulled noodles to go and enjoy them outside.
  • Reren Lamen & Bar: The specialty at Reren is the lamen bowls, similar to ramen but using traditional Chinese ingredients that are all handmade or locally sourced. Make sure you arrive hungry enough to also try some of the appetizers like the beef and scallion pancake, Chengdu spicy wontons, or Nanking duck.
  • Tony Cheng's: This multilevel restaurant is best known for its dim sum and Mongolian barbeque. It's been a Chinatown landmark in Washington, D.C., for many years.
  • Daikaya: Daikaya isn't a Chinese restaurant, but it is one of the top places to eat in the neighborhood. This funky Japanese restaurant has a popular ramen house on the first floor that typically has a line out the door, while upstairs it serves cocktails and snacks in an izakaya setting.

Getting There

Chinatown in Washington, D.C., is located east of Downtown near Penn Quarter and easily accessible via all lines of the D.C. metro, so it's easy to reach from anywhere in the city. The red, yellow, and green lines all pass through the Gallery Place-Chinatown stop, which is the closest metro station. If you're riding the blue, orange, or silver line, get off at the Metro Center stop and it's just an eight-minute walk to the Friendship Arch.