Many of the neighborhoods in downtown Washington have fuzzy edges. The center or defining structure of these areas is easy to determine, but not so with the streets that make up their borders. So it is with Chinatown, Penn Quarter, and Judiciary Square, which is why we have decided to discuss them together. For general purposes, Penn Quarter and Judiciary Square each are bordered by Pennsylvania Ave NW to the south and Massachusetts Ave and New York Ave to the north with Chinatown making up a few square blocks at the north end of this polygon. Where exactly these three neighborhoods begin and end is debated, but it is reasonable to say that Judiciary Square expands from I-395 on its eastern border to 6th St while Penn Quarter makes up the rest of the territory over to somewhere around 13th St.
Now that the cartography is out of the way, we can discuss the multitude of things to do in these areas. In addition to several sights well worth seeing, the Penn Quarter-Chinatown section of the city was the focus of much attention in the 90s and 2000s and now boasts many shopping, dining, and nightlife options. What makes these options extra attractive is that the Penn Quarter area is well serviced by the Metro. The Gallery Place-Chinatown station (Red, Green, Yellow) and the Metro Center station (Blue, Orange, Red, Silver) mean that you can easily reach anywhere in this neighborhood with no more than a few blocks walk.
We are starting our tour, however, in the Judiciary Square neighborhood – which itself is serviced by the Judiciary Square Metro station (Red). Whichever way you look coming off of the Metro you are likely to see a courthouse of some kind (it isn’t called Judiciary Square for nothing). In fact, much of the neighborhood is utilized by government buildings with the U.S. Tax Court, D.C. Superior Court, Metro Police, D.C. Court of Appeals, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (among others) all residing in the Judiciary Square neighborhood.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals – on Indiana Ave between 4th and 5th Streets – was designed in 1820 to serve as both the courthouse and city hall to Washington, D.C. The statue of President Lincoln standing in front of the neoclassic building was built with funds raised by Washington residents and was dedicated only 3 years after his assassination. The building was re-faced with limestone in 1916 and the north façade was changed from classic Ionic to a modern glass and steel portico. The southwest corner of the complex (at 4th and Indiana) features the Darlington Memorial Fountain, complete with a gilded bronze statue of a nude “Maiden and Fawn” dedicated to Joseph J. Darlington, the former leader of the Washington Bar Association. There was controversy at the time of its design (1922) because the symbolic connection with Darlington and a forest nymph were not immediately apparent. Honestly, we still don’t get it.
From the Court of Appeals, crossing E Street to the north walks you right into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Directly to the west, across 5th St, is the Marian Koshland Science Museum. Open 10:00 am to 6:00 pm daily (closed Tuesdays), this museum features interactive exhibits designed to spur teens and adults into conversation and action regarding today’s most important scientific issues. The cost for an adult ticket is $7.
For a glimpse into Washington’s cultural history, walk east along F Street past the beautiful structure housing the National Building Museum until you come to 3rd Street. Here you will find the Holy Rosary Church, the last vestige of one of the few Italian communities in D.C. At one time, a primarily Italian residential community surrounded the small Catholic church, but now the church stands alone – although it is still functioning and still offering Italian-only sermons.
For even more historical culture, head over to Washington’s Chinatown, the center of which is found on H St NW between 6th and 7th Streets. On that street is where the Friendship Archway is located, a traditional Chinese gate that rises to a height 60 feet above H Street and contains over 270 depictions of dragons. Also along H Street is where you will find several decently authentic Chinese restaurants. Sadly, other than these restaurants and a smattering of shops, Chinatown has otherwise given way to the growth and chain store nature of the area. All of Chinatown’s buildings do have signs with their Chinese names as well as their English ones though, so if you’ve ever wanted the Chinese translation of Chipotle, you’re in luck.
Just around the corner from the Friendship Archway (at 7th and F Streets) is the Verizon Center, a 20,000 seat sports and concert venue. Although the arena is always hosting events, it is primarily used as the home for the NBA’s Washington Wizards, NHL’s Washington Capitals, WNBA’s Washington Mystics, and Georgetown University’s Men’s College Basketball team. Bars and restaurants surround the Verizon Center and there is even a movie theater and bowling alley in the Gallery Place complex next door.
Walking down G St towards 9th you pass by the classic façade of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery and just a block south (on 8th and F) is the International Spy Museum, but we’re heading to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library at the intersection of G and 9th Streets. The glass and metal building serves as the central branch of the D.C. Public Library and contains a substantial Washintonia collection on the city’s history and the Black Studies Center, which focuses on African-American culture.
At the corner of F St NW and 10th St, half a block north of Ford’s Theatre, is Madame Tussaud’s, the famous exhibitor of lifelike wax figures. The Washington, D.C. branch naturally focuses on local figures – including all 44 Presidents – as well as civil rights leaders and the usual assortment of personalities from Hollywood, sports, and media. The price ranges from $16.29 to $23.27 depending on the type of ticket and if it’s purchased in advance, but the figures and the interesting sets (news desks, offices, living rooms) make for fun photos.
Over on the western edge of Penn Quarter – where H St, 13th St, and New York Ave NW all meet – sits the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This is the only major museum in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the achievements of women artists. The collection includes 4,500 objects and an 18,500-volume library and research center. Admission is $10 for adults and the museum is open from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm (12-5 Sundays).