Explore Washington D.C.

Global Gems: Inside D.C.’s Embassy Row

The capital’s diplomatic zone reveals architectural treasures and timeless tales.

Washington, D.C., comes close to city planner Pierre L’Enfant’s original vision of a cosmopolitan capital with wide boulevards, imposing monuments, lush green spaces and elegant embassies flanking the National Mall. But for envoys setting up missions in the nascent American capital in 1800, words including “elegant” and “cosmopolitan” didn’t immediately come to mind. Instead, they viewed Washington City, as it was known then, as a “pestiferous, brambly eyesore” that no one wanted to visit, let alone live in.

Credit civic leader Alexander Robey “Boss” Shepherd for spurring the city’s transformation into a world-class metropolis in the late 1800s. In came power-seeking millionaires who built gilded mansions along Massachusetts Avenue NW, earning the transverse the nickname “Millionaire’s Mile.” After the stock market crash of 1929, many of those palatial homes became headquarters for embassies looking to snap up bargains. In subsequent years, more nations moved in and erected modern edifices of glass and copper, bringing an eclectic mix to the zone’s architectural character.

Today, the State Department counts 188 chanceries throughout the District, with each putting its own cultural stamp on the city. Though its denizens may change from year to year, this unique enclave remains an important part of D.C.’s cultural and political life, its buildings revealing the stories of colorful residents, both past and present.

Tips for Visiting Embassy Row

Most are closed to the public, but many embassies (and some ambassadorial residences) offer occasional public programs. Contact offices for information, and visit social media pages for updates.

CulturalTourism’s annual Passport DC is a month-long open house typically held in the spring featuring festivals, food and cultural programs at chanceries and cultural institutions.

The Embassy Series invites visitors in for country-specific music concerts.

The International Club offers its members (free for anyone to join) special events like dinners, wine tastings and even masquerade balls with diplomats.

Walking tours, like DC By Foot and Washington Walks, give visitors an in-depth look (no inside access) at the history of this unique neighborhood. Check websites for reservations and cost.

SLIDESHOW: Inside Embassy Row

All photos ©Ron Blunt