The same millennial population and creative businesses that have turned the Washington, D.C. area into a foodie and cultural mecca have also transformed its retail landscape. The best places to take in the capital city’s enviable boutique scene? Its strollable, historic neighborhoods.
Until the early 2000s, pawnshops and mini-marts dotted 14th Street NW. Now, the stretch from Thomas Circle to U Street bustles with trendy restaurants, hip coffee bars and some of the capital’s coolest indie boutiques — particularly when it comes to home decor. “Over the past decade, Logan has really become a design destination, mixing bigger retailers with vibrant independent shops,” says Amanda McClements, owner of Salt & Sundry. Her airy home and kitchenware souk, located just off the main drag, stocks unusual cocktail ingredients (celery bitters!), Turkish hand towels and colorful dinnerware.
In addition to big retailers Room & Board and West Elm, decor-devoted neighbors range from luxe carpet and bedding dealer Timothy Paul Home to pint-sized kitchen and gift emporium Home Rule, where shoppers often score Washington-themed goods like Metro-map coffee cups or D.C. flag flasks.
Fashion figures in the mix, too. “For funky things, I head right to 14th Street,” says style expert Adele Chapin, the D.C. contributor to national shopping blog Racked.com. “You’ve got Redeem for interesting, New York-y men’s and women’s clothes you can’t find anywhere else in town, and Treasury for vintage.”
Browsers have been heading to D.C.’s oldest ’hood (founded in 1751) since colonial times. Back then, shoppers bargained for English imports and tobacco. Today, historic buildings along brick sidewalks hold dozens of local and national retailers. Top stops range from fashion to home decor; most cluster on M Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW.
On upper Wisconsin, preppies swoop into Sherman Pickey, which doles out natty bowties and seersucker jackets for him and hot-hued, ladylike frocks for her by Nicole Miller, Julie Brown and others, all in a sunny 19th-century storefront.
On M Street—the zone’s other main retail drag—trendy, upscale stores like Billy Reid and Rag & Bone intermingle with local standard-bearers, including women’s temple Hu’s Wear for labels like Jason Wu, Raquel Allegra and 3.1 Phillip Lim in hip, minimalist surroundings with a resident taxidermy black bear. At the other end of the street, avant-garde designer Pearlstein’s Relish traffics in edgy women’s wear by names like Dries van Noten, Thom Browne and Joseph Altuzarra. Palettes and fabrics are rich, and the look is power woman-gone-chic.
Well-heeled residents of nearby row houses look to upper Wisconsin, or “Book Hill” due to the library nearby, to snazz up their pads. Here, they find Asian furniture and pots at Carling Nichols; Latin American art and crafts at The Phoenix; and old paintings (sometimes of George Washington), vintage garden statues and pottery at quirky L’Enfant Galerie.
Visitors head to this Potomac River-side burg five miles south of D.C. for colonial history and boat cruises, but its bustling retail scene—some 80 percent of its boutiques are locally owned—makes Old Town Alexandria a treat to browse in, too. “People come to see the sites—Carlyle House or Gadsby’s Tavern—then stay and shop,” says Amy Rutherford, owner of country-cool décor den Red Barn Mercantile. “It’s nice to be surrounded by the old but have a contemporary feel in the stores”
Shops of all categories occupy storefronts on and just off King Street, the city’s main artery since hometown boy George Washington’s day. Nesters snap up “Mad Man”-era vintage cocktail shakers and bar carts at The Hour or beachy furniture and accessories like candles and dishware at Coco Blanca. At Irish Walk, shoppers find Celtic jewelry, housewares and other souvenirs reminiscent of the Emerald Isle.
Women’s fashion—at times with a classic, slightly Southern twist—also makes a strong, often colorful showing. In a snug 19th-century townhouse with high ceilings and bright green walls, Hysteria hawks curve-hugging Mother Denim jeans and fitted jackets by Smythe. “And Old Town’s shoe boutiques have a great selection,” says local personal shopper Cathy Starnes. “We’ll find classic styles with an edge—studded flats, pumps in colors that pop—at The Shoe Hive or Bishop Boutique.” For jewelry, Silver Parrot offers a large selection of intricate silver and gold rings, earrings and bracelets from independent designers around the world, plus Native American pieces.
There’s also a diverse lineup of other retailers—many located in historic buildings. For instance, toy store Why Not? fills an old stone house with dolls, books and games while cookware trove La Cuisine stocks copper sauté pans, baking chocolate and whisks from a pink antique storefront.
Once home to Gilded Age millionaires, this neighborhood just north of the White House buzzes with an eclectic mix of restaurants, bars and shops. Most are anchored along Connecticut Ave. NW above and below the circular park that gives the zone its name. “I love the vibrant, never-a-dull-moment atmosphere of Dupont,” says Anna Fuhrman, who has operated cozy hat, women’s clothing and gift emporium Proper Topper since 1995.
Other fashion-focused boutiques include Bloom for well-priced, femme costume jewelry and Beadazzled for DIY-ers looking for something more one-of-a-kind in its collection of African beads, gemstones and metals. On the other side of the circle, the savvy owner at Betsy Fisher specializes in sleek suits, party dresses and shoes by Diane von Furstenberg, Rachel Zoe and Hilton Hollis. Powered by all the chic women who work in the neighborhood, designer resale den Secondi entices bargain-hunting fashionistas to its second-level roost, while upscale local chain Sarar appeals to their well-heeled male counterpoints.
Nearby, one of the city’s oldest bookstores, Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café carries literary paperbacks, travel guides and political tomes while operating an open-late bar and café. Need gifts to take home? Tabletop shows off mod Jonathan Adler vases, quirky greeting cards and kid’s items on the lower level of a Victorian townhouse. And if all this shopping works up an appetite, the Mediterranean Way Gourmet hawks gourmet Greek and Italian goodies—oils, vinegars and picnic-worthy cheeses—in addition to some cosmetics and housewares.