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The Need-to-Know Guide to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Catch a Broadway show, take a free tour and so much more when you visit Washington, DC's legendary performing arts venue honoring President John F. Kennedy.
The History of the Kennedy Center
President John F. Kennedy famously loved and promoted the arts, inviting authors and musicians to the White House and laying the groundwork for the the National Endowment for the Arts. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the performing arts powerhouse and living memorial in Foggy Bottom that bears his name, pays glorious tribute to his passion for all things creative. President Lyndon B. Johnson laid its cornerstone shortly after Kennedy was assassinated in 1964 and the center opened in 1971.
Performances at the Kennedy Center
The best way to experience Ken Cen (as the locals call it) is, of course, to see a show. This busiest of all U.S. performing arts centers hosts more than 2,000 performances a year, drawing two million people annually. The cheapest seats are at Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer, where free concerts, dance performances and other shows take place at 6 p.m. every night of the year.
The Kennedy Center serves as the official home for the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. It also plays host to a range of ticketed events including Broadway productions, dance performances, comedy shows and a range of concerts, which come from internationally known groups.
And if you follow America’s arts and culture scene in any way, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Hamilton. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s momentous play is at the Kennedy Center through Sept. 16 and we've listed every reason why this is a must-see show (if you haven’t already decided to check out one of Broadway’s instant classics).
Don’t miss out on catching a production from The Washington Ballet. Julie Kent, artistic director for the dance company, calls the Kennedy Center her “second home.” Go behind the scenes with the ballet in the video below, and learn what Julie hopes you’ll take away from seeing a performance.
The Spaces, Stages and Future Expansion at the Kennedy Center
The jumbo white marble edifice boasts dazzling, outsized interior and exterior spaces including the central, 630-foot-long, 63-foot-high Grand Foyer with its crystal chandeliers and distinctive red carpet plus a riverside terrace with fountains, spectacular views of Georgetown and walls inscribed with Kennedy’s words.
The center shelters seven theaters, including the Concert Hall, known for its impressive acoustics and symphonic performances, and the Opera House, with its luxe red decor and massive, 50-foot-wide, starburst-like crystal chandelier, a gift from Sweden. Artwork given by other countries can be found both in and outside the center, including a statue of Don Quixote (a gift from Spain) and Henri Matisse tapestries in the Opera House lobby (a gift from France). You can see nearly all of these treasures on free guided tours, which happen every day on a walk-in basis.
And currently under construction is the REACH, the first major expansion in Kennedy Center history designed to bridge the gap between audience and art. The project from renowned architect Steven Holl is set along the scenic Potomac River and will transform the Ken Cen campus from a traditional performing arts center into a living theater where guests can engage directly with art. The REACH is currently slated to open to the public on September 7, 2019.
Dining and Shopping at the Kennedy Center
You can also eat and drink at the Kennedy Center, a particularly good idea before a show. Venues include the informal KC Café and the fancier Roof Terrace Restaurant and Bar, for spins on classic American fare with terrific river vistas. The Roof Terrace Restaurant also offers a popular Sunday buffet brunch. Also on site: two gift shops loaded with art- and Kennedy-themed souvenirs.