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4 MIN

Neighbourhood Watch: Washington's Georgetown, Hipster Free Since 1751

A place to see and be seen since the days when JFK called it home, Georgetown is comfortable in every sense of the word

For a visitor from a more trend-seeking city like Toronto, Montreal or New York, stepping into Georgetown feels exactly like you’ve been transported into a living, breathing J.Crew catalogue: The men wear boat shoes, khakis and bright button-up shirts; the women wear blue-and-white stripes and pearls. In this quintessentially Washington neighbourhood, there’s a clear lack of that grungy, edgy sort of vibe that you’ll find in other big North American cities.

You could argue that the all-American aura of Georgetown started to take root when then-senator John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline purchased the red brick Marbury House on N Street in the 1950s. That one real estate transaction helped Georgetown reclaim its historic place as one of Washington’s most sought-after neighbourhoods for the well-heeled. Over time, it became a preppy paradise.

Named after King George II, today's Georgetown is a playground for DC royalty. For visitors, it’s a place to take in history, have a drink and browse boutiques that focus on home design. Here are some of Billy’s picks for things to check out in the neighbourhood.

The history

Georgetown’s history reaches back to 1751, when it served as a port for trade with Europe – tobacco was the primary commodity. The waterfront boomed, sprouting lumber yards and mills for cement and steel. During the American Revolution, the port also became a key depot for shipping military supplies.

Georgetown later became a place to see and be seen, and Congress declared it part of the District of Columbia in 1871. The area took a turn for the worse during the Great Depression, and Georgetown became one of Washington’s nastiest slums. Eventually New Deal economics worked, however, and The Georgetown Act, passed in 1950, sealed the area’s status as a historic district.

Now, where to see signs of the past? Marbury House, the Federal-style rowhouse where John Kennedy lived before he was elected president, can be found at 3307 N Street. And a less-than-10-minute walk east from there is the longest-standing house in DC: the Old Stone House, which was built in 1765 by a German-American immigrant named Christopher Lehman. The National Park Service preserved the structure, previously a clock shop, as an example of pre-Revolutionary architecture. Inside, you’ll find a handmade clock made by the shop’s one-time owner, John Suter Jr.

Sam Kittner/Downtown Georgetown BID

The Old Stone House is exactly what it sounds like

Often abbreviated to C&O Canal, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was built in the 1890s and served the people who lived along the Potomac River by transporting coal, lumber and agriculture. With Georgetown already struggling economically after the First World War, the 1936 Potomac River flood caused the C&O Canal to go bankrupt; it was a hard blow for the entire community. (Remember the slum days? This didn’t help.) Today, the C&O Canal has turned into a public landmark for education, hiking and exploring.

Strolls

The oldest Jesuit-run university in the United States, Georgetown University’s campus is picture-perfect throughout the seasons. Start your walk at Healy Gates at 37th and O Street, where the university’s intricate seal is proudly on display. Don’t miss out on the Jesuit Community Cemetery in the middle of campus, where more than 350 Jesuit priests are buried, and Healy Hall, home of Riggs Library, one of the few remaining libraries in the United States entirely made out of cast iron.

For a less touristy walk, head to Montrose Park, sandwiched between Dumbarton Oaks on R Street between 30th and 31st. The park has a distinct, locals-only vibe, with play places for children, corners for quiet contemplation or picnics al fresco.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge connects northern Virginia to DC. Its wide pedestrian area is riddled with young professionals and students walking or running across it. Be sure to take a moment to stop and take in the views of the Rosslyn, Va., skyline, the Washington Monument and the kayakers on the Potomac River. (Canoe or kayak rentals are available at the Key Bridge Boat House.)

Courtesy Downtown Georgetown BID

The Key Bridge and Potomac River

Food and drinks

Born in 1963, Clyde’s of Georgetown is everything everyone loves about a saloon, with a sturdy oak bar and classic American fare (think: crab cakes and steaks), plus a Sunday half-priced wine list, which may not be an old American tradition but it is a bonus. If you’re in the mood for Southern-style barbecue instead, Old Glory serves up everything from St. Louis ribs to 20-hour smoked brisket.

Then there are the not-traditionally-American restaurants that are both delicious and made for people-watching: the pho and Vietnamese sandwich shop Sprig and Sprout, or Italian comfort-food joint Il Canale.

Baked goods can be found at Pie Sisters, which serves pies both savoury and sweet; either the pulled pork barbecue or jumble berry will make you a customer for life. Or pop into Baked & Wired, where you’ll find a everything from gourmet buttermilk biscuits, ice cream sammies and espresso from U.S. artisan roasters.  

You can’t beat drinks down at the Washington Harbour. On the weekends, the harbour comes alive with an eclectic crowd from all parts of the city. For excellent live music and a good pint of Guinness, there’s Ri Ra, the token Irish spot on M Street. And those with their dancing shoes on should head to Chinese Disco, a bar for hip, young professionals looking to sip and boogie. (Pro tip: Chinese Disco’s growlers are the best bang for your buck at $37 to $70 for a litre of any cocktail you want, served in a bucket of ice with a sleeve of plastic cups for sharing around.)

Romantics fear not, because the rooftop of Georgetown’s Graham Hotel is just the place for you. Dubbed The Observatory, you can nibble on crudités, smoke specialty cigars and sip on cocktails the whole night through. The best bit? The panoramic views of DC.

LUXE SHOPPING

On M Street, the shopping is a lot more intimate compared to the high street. Glossy boutiques line the sidewalk, urging every passersby to stumble on designer goods they thought they didn’t need. You’ll quite easily find a pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps or a Proenza Schouler jacket at Hu’s Wear. Owner Marlene Hu Aldaba curates all of the ready-to-wear designer pieces, sourced from New York, Paris and Milan.

Naturally Georgetown has a store dedicated to the perfect button-up Oxford shirt. Hugh & Crye is a DC-based clothing company run by two young entrepreneurs who decided that men’s shirts needed more sizing options. With three different height options and four different fits, Hugh & Crye’s mandate is to help you look like a local.

Finally, since all those colourful Victorian rowhouses need pristine furnishings, Cady’s Alley is 120,000-square-foot home design mecca with shops that house everything from local antiques to high-end designer furniture. Stores include Design Within ReachCirca LightingDonghia and more.

Published Wednesday, July 20th 2016

Header image credit: The corner of Wisconsin and M streets. Courtesy Sam Kittner/Downtown Georgetown BIA

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