As the capital of the United States, Washington, DC, offers unique insights into American government, history, politics, art, and culture. The city, however, is much more than its iconic landmarks: It’s home to vibrant, diverse communities reflecting a range of different cultures from around the world. These cultural enclaves throughout the city and its suburbs provide the familiar scents, tastes, and scenery of far-off places (and can help combat homesickness for international students).
DC’s International Neighborhoods
Situated on the north bank of the Potomac River, the nation’s capital boasts 17 free Smithsonian museums — filled to the brim with science, art, history, and cultural exhibits — a great deal of historical monuments, and a multitude of other sights to see. Beyond the main tourist spots, however, is a city and its surrounding areas filled with people from all walks of life sharing their culture through food, art, theater, music, and more.
Since the DC metropolitan area extends to suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, international students may have to travel outside the city to experience a bit of their own culture. But with the city’s well-connected Metro (subway) and bus lines, getting around is easy.
“The DC area has everything. If you want to go to shopping, go to Georgetown or Tyson’s Corner. If you want to see political or historical things, go to the White House or [the] Smithsonian Museums. Plus, it’s not hard to find Japanese or other countries’ foods,” said Minori, an American University student from Japan.
East Asian & Chinese Neighborhoods
Established in the 1880s and moved in the 1930s to its current location along H and I streets, between 5th and 8th streets NW, Chinatown may no longer be the hub for Asian communities it once was, but it is still one of the best places to find regional cuisine in the capital. Many also come to see the Friendship Arch, built in 1986 to honor the relationship between the sister cities of DC and Beijing. The Chinese New Year Parade is also a major attraction, when the streets are filled with lion dancers, firecrackers, and dragons.
With many transplants from DC’s Chinatown, along with new immigrant arrivals, Rockville, Maryland, has become a destination for Chinese culture and food. This DC suburb boasts a variety of restaurants serving hand-pulled noodles, dumplings, Northern-Chinese dim-sum, and other regional dishes. A&J Restaurant serves traditional Taiwanese dishes in a no-frills setting and is a popular spot among locals.
Koreatown, Annandale, Virginia
Koreatown, just 13 miles outside of DC proper in Annandale, Virginia, has a large Korean population; head here to sample Korean restaurants, bakeries, markets, and shops. Near the intersection of Little River Turnpike, Columbia Pike, and Annandale Road, visitors can find a range of Korean BBQ, Korean fried chicken, and karaoke spots. The popular family-owned Kogiya Korean BBQ is well worth the waitlist when visiting the area.
Though there may be a concentration of Indian restaurants and grocery stores in Virginia’s Loudoun and Fairfax counties, there isn’t just one street or neighborhood that’s a must-see. Repeat visitors will be rewarded to find local favorites — and tastes reminiscent of home.
The capital, however, is home to a large Indian population, making it easy to find a range of authentic regional cuisines in restaurants around the city, including Northern Indian staples at Pappe or street food specialties at Glassey. For those looking to connect with their Indian roots, the Hindu Temple of Metropolitan Washington hosts a variety of events throughout the year.
Near Rock Creek Park, not far from the National Zoo, the northwest neighborhood of Mount Pleasant is home to a large Latino population. The main drag boasts a variety of restaurants and taquerias serving everything from tortas to tamales. If you’re looking to take something home, stop in one of the many bodegas or markets selling Latin-American staples, such as homemade tortillas, plantains, chiles, and spices.
Next to Mount Pleasant is Columbia Heights, another neighborhood known for Latino influence and culture. Check out the myriad free events at the Mexican Cultural Institute (former home of the Mexican Embassy) showcasing art, music, and food throughout the year. Housed in a historic 16th-Street mansion, the Institute’s interior features impressive and colorful murals depicting Mexican history.
It is also worth catching a show at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, which has been entertaining and educating visitors on Hispanic culture through live performance since 1976.
Feel at Home Without Leaving Campus
Located in Tenleytown, a residential neighborhood in northwest DC, American University (AU) is a top-100 university in the US.* Its 90-acre campus offers easy access to ethnic food, art, music, theater, sports, and other cultural sites, both nearby and downtown. AU welcomes international students from more than 150 countries and provides support to help international students acclimate and thrive in their new surroundings.
Finding a Home Away from Home
With its range of free museums, cultural events, educational activities, and ethnic neighborhoods, DC makes it easy for international students to find a sense of belonging in a new country, while the surrounding areas provide plenty of opportunities to feel right at home.
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*U.S. News & World Report, 2023