Where to see performing arts in Washington, DC

Enjoy the best in theater, dance, classical music and opera—in the capital’s world-class theaters and concert halls



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The King and I at the Olney Theater

The King and I at the Olney Theater

Concert halls and classical music venues

Kennedy Center

  • Critics choice
  • Free

The John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—the national cultural center of the United States—hosts a great variety of music, particularly on its free Millennium Stage. However, its primary focuses are classical and jazz. A welcome addition is the slate of intimate KC Jazz Club shows scheduled in the Terrace Gallery. The Center has five auditoriums. The Concert Hall is where the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington Chamber Symphony (among others) perform; its acoustics are first class. The Opera House hosts dance and ballet, Broadway-style musical performances, and is the home of the Washington Opera. Productions in the Eisenhower Theater tend to have more of an edge, while the Theater Lab and Terrace Theater are the Center’s most intimate spaces.

Atlas Performing Arts Center

Opened in 2006, this four-theater venue incorporates the long-abandoned Atlas, an art moderne cinema built in 1938. The programing emphasizes drama and dance, but the center also hosts resident companies such as the Capital City Symphony and Congressional Chorus, while the Library of Congress and Washington Chorus often drop by.

Folger Shakespeare Library

The marble façade sports bas-relief scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Inside is the world’s largest collection of his works, including the 79-volume First Folio collection. Standard Oil chairman Henry Clay Folger, who fell in love with Shakespeare after hearing Ralph Waldo Emerson lecture on him, endowed the lot. Other items include books, musical instruments, costumes and films, as well as paintings, drawings, playbills and many fascinating manuscripts. Reflecting the collection, exhibitions and events, such as music recitals, focus on the West during the Renaissance and early modern age. There are special events for Shakespeare’s birthday on 21 April.

Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress

  • Free

The problem with some Washington venues is that standards of architecture and acoustics don’t always match—with monumental structures yielding muffled sound. But this auditorium in the Jefferson Building rises to the occasion on both counts. Programming is intriguing and intimate, running from classical to country to world music, with recent bookings ranging from the Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir to folksters Noel Stookey, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Jimmy LaFave, performing for the Woodie Guthrie centennial celebration.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

  • Free

Occasional choral performances, or carillon and organ recitals, which are healthily attended.

  1. 400 Michigan Avenue, NE, Northeast, (4th Street)
More info

St Augustine’s Church

  • Free

As the Mother Church of the local African American Roman Catholic community, St Augustine’s is best known for its wonderful Easter vigil service. The Sunday 12.30pm mass is also popular. Led by the more sedate choir and choral group, the latter complete with ensemble accompaniment of bass, guitar and drums, the service becomes a mix of Gospel, old-time revival and traditional mass.

  1. 1419 V Street, NW, U Street Corridor, (15th Street)
More info


This suburban competitor to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall features a blond-wood interior that suggests a huge sailing ship. Part of a larger arts complex, Strathmore books jazz, rock and contemporary music, from Randy Newman and Bauhaus to Kenny G and the American première of Steve Reich’s 2x5. But it’s designed for acoustic music, best heard in performances featuring such visiting classical soloists as Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn. The venue is a second home for the Baltimore Symphony.

  1. 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD
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Wolf Trap

Calling itself "America’s National Park for the Performing Arts", Wolf Trap consists of two essentially separate performance spaces—the Barns and the Filene Center. Don’t let the name "Barns" fool you. Yes, the space is rustic, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be sitting on a milking stool. The acoustics here are top-notch, as are the seating and facilities. The Filene Center is the sprawling outdoor concert facility with lawn and pavilion seating. The scope of the performances at both spaces is broader than that at many venues in the District that also use the name "national". Note that the shuttle bus runs only in summer.

  1. 1645 Trap Road, Vienna, VA
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Warner Theatre

Built in 1924, the Warner Theatre has seen a variety of acts on its stage. The early deco design of the auditorium gives it either a decadent gaudiness or a stately individuality, depending on the performance. Comedians, dance troupes and Broadway plays dominate, but music acts still surface now and then.

  1. 13th & E Streets, NW, The Federal Triangle
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National Academy of Sciences

A favourite of chamber ensembles, this space hosts groups such as the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players and the Mendelssohn String Quartet. The performances are free but the seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. Navigating the one-way streets around the Academy can be tricky so either take a cab or study your map before you set out.

  1. 2100 C Street, NW, The Northwest Rectangle, (21st Street)
More info

Lisner Auditorium

Located in George Washington University, Lisner hosts dance troupes, Latin music and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. Author readings and rock shows are scheduled as well, sometimes on the same night, as when Dave Eggers split the bill with They Might Be Giants. This is the most likely DC site for shows by prominent African performers, including Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

  1. 730 21st Street, NW, Foggy Bottom, (H Street)
More info

Theaters and performance spaces

National Theatre

One of the city’s oldest theaters (it dates from 1835), the National has a history as a Broadway tryout house—productions have included the flamingly awful jukebox musical Hot Feet, which went on to an ignoble 97 New York performances in 2006. But in recent decades it has been home mostly to touring fluff—when it doesn’t sit empty, that is. A new Broadway-bound musical If/Then runs from November 2013.

Signature Theatre

Signature’s signature is first-rate Sondheim—the hit musical Company featured in 2013—and if its instincts for straight plays aren’t always as keen, it’s still an ambitious outfit. Landmark productions in past seasons have included the first Assassins to be staged outside New York, a Passion that put the house on the map with national critics, and a world-première Van Gogh musical (The Highest Yellow) from Tony-nominated composer Michael John LaChiusa.

Warner Theatre

Built in 1924, the Warner Theatre has seen a variety of acts on its stage. The early deco design of the auditorium gives it either a decadent gaudiness or a stately individuality, depending on the performance. Comedians, dance troupes and Broadway plays dominate, but music acts still surface now and then.

Olney Theatre Center

It’s a hike, but the hour-long drive to this suburban Maryland house can be worth the trouble. Founded as a summer theater in the 1930s, it saw performances by a startlingly starry roster over the decades: Helen Hayes, Tallulah Bankhead, Olivia de Havilland, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Uta Hagen and Ian McKellen are just a few of the names who’ve toured there. More recently, Olney’s season has been largely subscriber-friendly fluff, and a fiscal crisis that nearly bankrupted the place in 2009-10 hasn’t helped. But now and again artistic director Jim Petosa will offer up something gratifyingly bold. A newish 440-seat main-stage completes a campus with no fewer than four performance spaces—one of them a casual outdoor stage.

Glen Echo Park

Until 1968, Glen Echo was a popular amusement park just a trolley ride from Downtown. Today, it is preserved by the National Park Service (2pm weekend tours) and run by a non-profit group as a site for theater, art and dance. It also has a playground, picnic tables, plenty of places to explore and a charming 1921 carousel. The following are highlights of the activities on offer:Adventure Theatre 301 320 5331, www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org. See website for showtimes and tickets. One-hour plays for fours and over based on fables, fairy tales, musicals and children’s classics, using puppets and actors. Living Classrooms 202 488 0627, www.glenechopark.org/living-classrooms. From a former stable building, this program offers hands-on outdoor activities in the park, including live animal encounters for children up to 15. Puppet Company Playhouse 301 634 5380, www.thepuppetco.org. See website for show times, but usually 10am, 11am Thur, Fri; 11.30am, 1pm Sat, Sun. Tiny Tots shows 10am. Plays for all ages, most of them adaptations of classic stories for children such as Cinderella and The Jungle Book. Reservations recommended.

  1. 7300 MacArthur Boulevard, Glen Echo, MD, (Goldsboro Road)
More info
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