What You Don’t Know About D.C.’s Sacred Spots

From one church's Revolutionary roots to a funky synagogue, the capital’s unorthodox spiritual side

As folks did in New York City and Philadelphia, Washingtonians went into a frenzy when Pope Francis swept through the capital in 2015. Here, citizens (both faithful and laymen) lined up hours before to catch a glimpse of the pontiff at the White House, the parade (with famed popemobile!) and the Basilica, where he celebrated a special Mass. In a city where politics can be a kind of religion, those few days shined a light on a side of D.C. many don’t often see. Digging deeper, you’ll find the District’s devotional life reveals unorthodox surprises, from one church’s Revolutionary roots to a synagogue’s funky side. Below are a few ways to go on a “spiritual” journey of your own right here in the nation’s capital.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

This soaring cathedral served as a grand site for a rare Mass with His Holiness, but non-worshippers also find the largest collection of contemporary ecclesiastical art in the world, plus an undercroft of more than 70 chapels and oratories.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, D.C.

Saint John’s Episcopal Church

Though smaller in scale, this church across from Lafayette Square looms large in historical significance. The 1815 “church of presidents” counts as members chief executives from James Madison to contemporary White House residents, who sit at Pew 54. To top it off, Paul Revere’s son cast the bell in the steeple in 1822.

Saint John's Episcopal Church

Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church

Established in 1838, Washington, D.C.’s oldest A.M.E. church is the result of the merging of Israel Bethel and Union Bethel, the latter a stop on the Underground Railroad. The congregation counts among its members famous historical figures as abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass (whose funeral was held here) and the first African American U.S. senator, Blanche Kelso Bruce. U.S. presidents from William Howard Taft to Bill Clinton have attended services here, and leaders from Eleanor Roosevelt to Rev. Jesse Jackson have spoken before its flock. It’s also the site of the national memorial service for Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks.

Outside Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church

Islamic Center of Washington

Amid elegant embassy buildings and residences, this majestic cultural center offers visitors a feast for the eyes and the soul. Inside, find a breathtaking vision of soaring spaces, intricately decorated arches and a serene courtyard, inspiring a quiet moment for reflection.

Islamic Center of Washington's elegant arches

Mahatma Gandhi Memorial

Down the street, Indian sculptor Gautam Pal’s bronze of the activist offers a modest muse for contemplation. Captured mid-stride with head slightly bowed, the figure is an enduring reminder of the power of peaceful protest.

Mahatma Ghandi Memorial

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue

A Jewish temple may not be top of mind for catching a concert, but this unconventional temple almost became a nightclub after all. In recent years, the 1908 sanctuary has become a top spot for musical acts and cultural events. In keeping with its non-traditional bent, temple leaders even helped launch the Sixth & Rye food truck with Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn.

The decorated dome inside Sixth & I Historic Synagogue

Washington National Cathedral

This gothic structure complete with flying buttresses recalls the great cathedrals of Europe. Washington’s “Church for National Purposes” draws the faithful, history buffs and those who appreciate design. Among its many characteristic charms are “Star Wars” arch villain Darth Vader as gargoyle and a photo exhibit documenting the impact of the 2011 earthquake that damaged the regal edifice.

Inside Washington National Cathedral

ChurchKey

Though not a religious site, patrons at this bar atop equally popular sister restaurant Birch & Barley, worship at the altar of beer, thanks to suds master, Greg Engert.

Anne Kim-Dannibale
About the author

Anne serves as the Washington, D.C.,&nb...