Explore Washington D.C.

The Best Places for Live Music in Washington, D.C.

If you, like Duke Ellington, claim “an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats,” be sure to drink in D.C.’s storied and thriving live music scene.

Born in Washington in 1899, the jazz great played many a gig in the city’s so-called “Black Broadway,” a stretch of nightclubs along and near U Street NW, where several other big-name African American entertainers also got their starts. (Think hometown boy Marvin Gaye, plus Ella Fitzgerald and The Supremes.)

Some of these historic venues still book top talent, like the famed Howard Theatre, which reopened in 2012 after a $29 million renovation and is now graced by a statue of Ellington perched on a treble clef and playing a curved keyboard.

Another native son, John Philip Sousa led the U.S. Marine Band for 12 years in the late 1800s, writing salute-worthy compositions like “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Semper Fidelis.” Admirers can visit the grave of the “March King” at Congressional Cemetery and enjoy free concerts around the region by the Marine CorpsArmy, Navy and Air Force bands.

Foo Fighter frontman Dave Grohl grew up in suburban D.C., taking in hundreds of shows at the legendary 9:30 Club. Now he’s one of the acts drawing crowds there. He also helped found 14th Street’s indie club Black Cat, where his band has thrilled fans by popping in for a surprise show.

D.C.’s even got an indigenous sound: a funk genre called “go-go,” the syncopated, get-up-and-dance music played most famously by Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers on their hit “Bustin’ Loose.”

And just about every other genre can be found here, from classical masterpieces played by symphony orchestras to the latest pop singles belted out by headlining divas. Here are some of the top D.C. music venues. Take your pick, tune in and drink up! 

9:30 Club

Dubbed the "gold standard of rock clubs" by The Washington Post and a frequent winner of nightclub of the year awards, drawing stellar talent with an impressive sound system, sightlines and reputation. Standing room only. Visit the basement-level Back Bar early for first entry into shows.

The Howard Theatre

A 1910 landmark that helped launch the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye and The Supremes. Su gospel brunch. Seated (supper club-style) or standing-room shows.

Kennedy Center

A living memorial to President John F. Kennedy offering performances in the Opera House, Concert Hall, Eisenhower and Terrace theaters plus the Family Theater and Theater Lab. Millennium Stage hosting free shows daily at 6 pm. Tours weekdays. Gift shops and roof terrace with sweeping city views.

Black Cat

Indie rockers call this dark club home. There's the upstairs Mainstage and the smaller downstairs Backstage (often with local bands), plus DJ and theme nights, pinball machines, a bar and a cafe with vegan options.

Echostage

This hangar-like space (30,000 square feet) in an emerging neighborhood attracts big names in electronic dance music and other genres. (Tiesto and Lorde have both played here.) Standing room, bottle-service tables to reserve. High-tech sound and visuals.

Strathmore

Scenic acres in Maryland with 2,000-seat concert hall, base of National Philharmonic and second home of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Wolf Trap

Since 1971, America’s only national park for the performing arts featuring music and dance in Filene Center, an open-air pavilion with seats plus lawn space. Winter shows in 18th-century barns.

Blues Alley

Tucked in a Georgetown alley, an 18th-century carriage house-turned-supper club showcasing jazz greats from Dizzy Gillespie to Dave Brubeck since 1965. Performers influence the menu, with Tony Bennett's shrimp and artichoke hearts and Sarah Vaughan's filet mignon. 

The Birchmere

Just outside D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia, this down-home venue dubs itself “America’s Legendary Music Hall,” because stars like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett and B.B. King have played here. Concert goers sit at long checkered-cloth-covered tables to order (grilled salmon, smokehouse ribs) and then see them on stage.

Capital One Arena

Anchoring downtown's bustling Penn Quarter, the arena hosts top touring musicians plus the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals. Each October the surrounding streets become pop-up stables, when equestrians gather here for the Washington International Horse Show.

Madam's Organ

Find live music nightly at this rowdy Adams Morgan bar where redheads get a half-price drink special. Pool tables, karaoke and rooftop bar. One Nite Stand (reggae, funk, R&B) every Monday, Latin Blues Funk Tuesday, The Human Country Jukebox country music Wednesday, Clusterfunk Thursday.

Folger Theatre

At Folger Shakespeare Library (with the largest collection of Shakespeariana in the world), an Elizabethan-style theater presenting classic plays and concerts.

Washington National Cathedral

World’s sixth largest cathedral, Gothic-style “Church for National Purposes.” Woodrow Wilson’s grave, concert schedule. Parking beneath, free on Sun. Themed guided tours daily (prices vary, visit website to reserve). Gardens till dusk. $12, children (5-17)/seniors $8, under 5 free (no admission charge for Su tours).