The Kennedy Center | Self-Guided Tour & Visitors Guide

This post is about visiting the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, including tours and performances.

 

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How to Get to the Kennedy Center

There are a few ways you can reach the Kennedy Center, located at 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566.

If you decide to drive to the Kennedy Center plan on two things: parking fees and disorientation.

Parking at the Kennedy Center? 

Street parking in this part of Foggy Bottom is scant. You can find reasonably priced parking at nearby garages by making use of SpotHero.

Once you find a facility that works for you, book a reservation and they’ll email you a parking pass. You’ll have a space waiting for you and stress-free parking experience!

If you’re not familiar with the streets of Washington getting into the Kennedy Center can be a bit tricky.

The main vehicle entrances are from Rock Creek Parkway and Virginia Avenue. Be mindful of the time of day as rush hour lane changes play havoc with the approach (and your GPS).

Taking Metro, as with most destinations in D.C., is the smartest bet. The system may be delay-prone, but you’ll avoid the parking and direction headaches of driving.


Walking to Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center is accessible by a footpath along the Potomac River from both Georgetown and the National Mall.

If you’re taking one of our Georgetown tours, it’s a 15-minute walk from the neighborhood to Kennedy Center.

From the Lincoln Memorial, where our National Mall tour ends, it is also a 15-minute walk.


Kennedy CenterTaking Metro

Get off at the Foggy Bottom Metro stop, which services the Orange, Blue and Silver lines.

From there you can walk the roughly 8-10 minutes or you can take the free shuttle offered by the Kennedy Center.

The shuttle departs every 15 minutes from 23rd and I Street (which is where you will be exiting the Metro station). Look for a short red bus wrapped in the Kennedy Center logo.

If you choose to walk simply follow the footpath through the George Washington University campus where I Street would continue.

After a block and a half, you’ll meet up with New Hampshire Avenue, take a left and three blocks and a traffic circle later you’ll be at the Kennedy Center.

 


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Free Things to Do at the Kennedy Center:

Sure, the Kennedy Center may be the stomping grounds of high society in Washington, but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible to everyone.

In fact, there are some fantastic free offerings at the Kennedy Center that can really make a trip to D.C. something special.

TIP: You might also benefit from reading our post on free things to do in Washington, DC.


Millennium Stage

They are actually a pair of stages, to the north and to the south of the Grand Foyer.

Every night of the year at 6 pm (18:00), you’re invited for a free performance. The schedule runs the gamut from jazz and soul to opera and play productions.

 

 
 
Your best bet is to check the schedule ahead of time and plan your visit around something that appeals to your taste.

Docent-led Tours

If you get to the Kennedy Center early, take a free, docent-led tour of the grounds. The tours run every 10 minutes throughout the day. 

The tours are free and they run every ten minutes throughout the day. Walk-ins are welcome, the tours depart from the Tour Desk, which is on the A-Level.


Kennedy Center Roof Terrace

If you don’t have time for a tour, you can still access the Roof Terrace for free from 10 a.m. to midnight.

There are elevator banks accessible from both the Hall of States and the Hall of Nations. Take the elevators to the terrace level and walk out the doors onto the Roof Terrace for some of the best views of the National Mall, Arlington and Georgetown.

Take some great pics and relax with a drink from one of two restaurants on the terrace: The Roof Terrace Restaurant and the KC Cafe.


Nearby Attractions

The Kennedy Center is not far from a few other key sites in Washington, DC:

 


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Shows at the Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center is the official home to the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera.

But, the center is also always presenting some of the best in theater, opera, ballet, and music.

Travelling Broadway productions, such as Hamilton and Book of Mormon, usually stop at the Kennedy Center for a week or longer run.

You can often find discounted tickets on Today Tix or StubHub.


For an interactive comedy experience, join the ongoing show Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center.

A murder mystery whodunnit that gets you involved, no two shows are alike.

 

 

Shear Madness is the second longest running production in American Theatre and there is a show almost nightly in the Theatre Lab.


The Kennedy Center also plays host to the Mark Twain Prize, which honors top comedians, and the Kennedy Center Honors, which is a showcase of five legendary artists every year.

You probably won’t get tickets to these events… but I’m sure you’ll be able to catch them on TV!

 


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Tours of Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is a defining structure along the banks of the Potomac. Since 1971 it has been a cultural landmark for the District and the country.

The center is home to the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera.

On any given day the Kennedy Center may be hosting internationally-acclaimed artists, Broadway plays, opera or ballet.


Docent-led Tours

If you get to the Kennedy Center early, take a docent-led tour of the grounds.

The tours are free and they run every ten minutes throughout the day. Walk-ins are welcome, the tours depart from the Tour Desk, which is on the A-Level.

You can get there by walking into either entrance on the east side of the building. If you’re in the hall with state flags look for a stairway to your left, if you’re in the hall with the international flags look for the a stairway to your right. The tour will actually get you inside the performance spaces and will wind up on the Roof Terrace.

You can also take our self-guided tour of the Kennedy Center below or view their Virtual Tour online.

Kennedy Center Building Map

 

The entrance to the building faces away from the Potomac River. Enter through the Hall of States, the set of doors on the right side if you’re facing the building.

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1. Hall of States

It’s hard not to feel glamorous walking on the red carpet stretched along the 250-foot long hallway. Take note of the 56 flags draped from the ceiling.

Each of the 50 states, the 5 territories and the District of Columbia are represented in the order of admission.

The Kennedy Center is decorated by gifts from around the world, and as you walk down this hallway you’re surrounded by the most foundational of the gifts: 3700 tons of Carrera marble given by the government of Italy.

The Visitor Center and Gift Shop are halfway down the Hall of States.

 

2. Visitor Center

Located in the Hall of States, this is a great place to grab a map of the building.

This is also where you’ll find the Kennedy Center gift shop, but wait to buy anything until you’ve actually seen the building.

Across from the visitor center is the main box office, and just before that is a stairway leading down to the A-Level.

If you’re interested, the Kennedy Center offers free guided tours that start about every ten minutes leaving from the Tour Desk on the A-Level.

Head to the end of the hall to enter the Grand Foyer.IMG_9372

3. Grand Foyer

The Hall of States leads directly into the Grand Foyer, a room designed to make you feel small.

The ceilings rise more than 60-feet and from north to south the corridor is more than six football fields long. Eight 6-story tall mirrors (a gift from Belgium) make the space feel even more grand, reflecting the light shining through the massive windows faced toward the Potomac.

16 Orrefors crystal chandeliers (thanks Sweden!) hang from the ceiling emitting equal parts light and class. The Grand Foyer is flanked to the north and south by the Millennium Stages.

Every night at 6 p.m. they offer up free shows with artists across all genres.

Find the large bronze bust in the center of the Grand Foyer in front of the Opera House.

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4. JFK Bust

The centerpiece of the Grand Foyer is a 3000-pound bust of President John F. Kennedy sculpted by Robert Berks.

Surrounding the bronze 8-foot tall sculpture is an interpretive exhibit highlighting the life of our 35th president.

You’ll find interactive exhibits about Kennedy and the Kennedy Center, as well.

Take any exit out to the terrace for a quick stop outside.

5. River Terrace

The exits from the Grand Foyer lead to the River Terrace. It’s a great spot to sit and relax with good views of the Potomac, but don’t spend too much time here because there’s a better river view on the rooftop.

Instead, read Kennedy’s comments on the arts and head back inside…there’s still a lot to check out.

We’ll talk about the three theatres that are accessible from the Grand Foyer. Feel free to walk up to them if possible or just read about from here.

Eisenhower Theater

6. Theatre & Halls

The Grand Foyer offers access to the three main Kennedy Center performance spaces: the Eisenhower Theater, the Concert Hall and the Opera House.

Let’s start with the two smaller venues. To the north is the nearly 1200-seat Eisenhower Theater, which is where you’re likely to find many of the dance and theater performances.

The theater is named for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it was during his administration that the seeds for the Kennedy Center were sown.

At the southern end of the Grand Foyer, you’ll find the largest performance space at the Kennedy Center.

The Concert Hall seats almost 2500 people and is home to the National Symphony Orchestra(NSO). Look up to the seven Hadeland crystal chandeliers (thanks, Norway!) that fit into the honeycombed ceiling.

Another key piece of interest is the Rubenstein Organ, a gift from the Chairman of the Kennedy Center David Rubenstein (he’s also responsible for fixing the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and for our pandas!).

The organ was gifted to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy Center and the 80th anniversary of the NSO.

Now, let’s walk up the staircase at the middle of the Grand Foyer towards the Opera House.

This is the performance space of which you probably know the Kennedy Center best, it’s the annual host of the Kennedy Center Honors. Five artists are recognized annually for their contribution to American culture and the arts.

The massive Lobemyr crystal chandelier (thanks, Austria!) dominates the ceiling of a space adorned in red velvet. The stage is the official home of the Washington National Opera which performs before the almost 2400-seat space.

Make your way down the corridor on the south side – parallel to where you entered the building.

Hall of Nations Kennedy Center

7. Hall of Nations

Here is another corridor that mirrors the Hall of States, except this one is dedicated to the world.

The Hall of Nations is adorned with every nation’s flag that has diplomatic relations with the United States. You’ll find the flags hanging in alphabetical order.

The Hall of Nations also houses the Concert Hall box office and the coat check. Just like the Hall of States, the Hall of Nations connects the main entrance to the Grand Foyer.

There are elevators in the center of the hall so take those up to the Roof Terrace Level.

8. Roof Terrace

Moving now to the Roof Terrace Level. Here you’ll find even more performance spaces, although they are more intimate than the three main stages.

Tucked into the northwest corner of this level, the Terrace Theater seats just over 500 and was a gift from Japan for the American Bicentennial.

You’ll find the nearly 400-seat Theater Lab on the west side of the level.

There are also a pair of restaurants on the Roof Terrace level. The Roof Terrace Restaurant and the KC Cafe are worth checking out if you’re starving for views and food, otherwise, you can probably skip the meal.

Although, it may be worth your while to grab a drink.

View from Kennedy Center Rooftop

The Roof Terrace commands some of the best views of the District, and it’s free and open to the public from 10 a.m. till midnight every night.

In fact, it’s one of our picks for the top free things to do at night in DC.

The terrace wraps around the entire building, and your best bet will be to walk the perimeter.

The views change, highlighting different parts of the District.

Starting at the southeast corner you’ll get a great look at the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial off in the distance.

The southwest offers a sight line down the Potomac River where the Arlington Memorial Bridge connects the National Mall with Arlington National Cemetery.

Looking to the northwest, Teddy Roosevelt Island dominates the river as the office and apartment towers of Rosslyn rise beyond.

The Georgetown waterfront and the Key Bridge occupy the distance as the Watergate complex holds the foreground.

GeorgetownPano

The absolute best time of day for the terrace is at sunset as daylight fades beyond the Virginia hills.

Late in the spring and early in the fall the setting sun really casts the monuments is a golden glow best appreciated from the Kennedy Center rooftop.

So, remember to take your camera (unless you’re going to a show!)

 


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About the author

Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with 3 published books about the city. She has written for HuffPost Travel and has been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. She's also been interviewed by the Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. Canden is the host of our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All

With a M.A. in History from University College London and a B.A. in History from Elon University, she is an authority on D.C. history, and has led tours in the city for over 10 years. She currently resides in DC, but has also lived in London and South Korea, and has travelled to 25 countries. Her two children (both under the age of 3) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts.