The Waterfront, lies just south of the National Mall, but despite its attractions and location, has remained overlooked by most visitors to the city. Don't make this mistake; walk down to the Fish Wharf and have some seafood! The neighborhood is often referred to as the "Southwest," as it is part of that rare SW quadrant of the city—the vast majority of the city's southwest quadrant (modern day Arlington and Alexandria) retroceded to Virginia in the early nineteenth century to avoid the criminalization of the slave trade.
The Southwest Waterfront was long considered an embarrassment by the U.S. government—the city's notorious slum of run-down hovels, shacks, tents, and refuse, all right next to the Capitol. The neighborhood is one of the city's oldest, dating back to the eighteenth century, but early in its history the city built L'Enfant's envisioned Washington City Canal, which cut the Waterfront off from the rest of the city. Intended to boost downtown commerce, the canal instead proved most adept at catching and then pooling raw sewage from the city, which at the time lacked a sewer system. Needless to say, the stench brought down the price of real estate, and the neighborhood was attractive only for poorer Washingtonians looking for cheap housing. (In the late 1800s the city finally got rid of this eyesore, forcing it underground.)
For the first 150 or so years of the city's history, European immigrants moved into the western portion of the neighborhood (west of 4th St) and African Americans, mostly freed black slaves, lived in the eastern portion. Both communities, while poor, were dynamic, and the area had a bustling commerce, and was home to some of the nation's most wealthy African Americans. But in the twentieth century, the Waterfront became overpopulated, and its economy plummeted during the Depression. By the 1950s city planners devised a plan for urban renewal, which entailed more or less the wholesale demolition of the neighborhood and the eviction of its residents. Despite obvious protests from locals, the city went through with the plan. The Waterfront district was razed, sparing only a few landmarks, including the Fish Wharf and the churches around which the old communities were based.
In just the past decade, the Waterfront has moved into a new era, as the construction of the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium set off a spectacular real estate boom and a wave of new construction. Condos and apartment buildings have sprung up throughout the western section of the neighborhood and around the new ballpark, and new restaurants, clubs, and bars have followed. The Washington Channel, which separates the parkland on Hains Point from the rest of the Waterfront, is home to the 200-year-old open air seafood market, the Fish Wharf, as well as several large marinas, endless rows of boats, and some big seafood restaurants of questionable tourist-trappiness. To the south and east are major military facilities at Fort McNair, home to the prestigious National Defense University, and Navy Yard, the ceremonial headquarters of the U.S. Navy.
The main Metro stop in the area is the L'Enfant Plaza station on the Blue, Orange, Silver, Green, and Yellow lines. If going to the Fish Wharf, the Smithsonian station (Blue/Orange/Silver lines) is about a block closer. Further along the green line is the Waterfront station, and then the Navy Yard station, which is right by Nationals Park and, of course, the Navy Yard itself.
The D.C. Circulator's Union Station-Navy Yard "Navy" line runs down from Union Station, past the Capitol, through Capitol Hill, and then down to New Jersey Ave and M St SE, near Nationals Stadium. Oct-March M-F 6AM-7PM, Apr-Sep M-F 6AM-9PM, Sa 7AM-9PM, with extended service on Nationals game days (so you can sneak out by bus to reach the Metro Red Line and avoid the huge crowds).
Metrobus routes #70 and #71 also come down along 7th St (and run north along 7th St/Georgia Ave NW through the Mall, East End, Shaw, and all the way up to Silver Spring), stopping at L'Enfant Plaza station before winding around the Waterfront station, and then looping around the neighborhood streets directly south.
Coming from Virginia, take I-395 across the Potomac, and then take Exit 4 for Maine Ave. From the north, the main roads are 9th and 7th St SW, while the main east-west street is M St SW/SE. The main bridge heading over the Anacostia River is the S Capitol St bridge, which connects to the Anacostia Fwy (DC-295/I-295), which heads northeast to the Beltway near the junction with I-95N to Baltimore, or southwest to the Beltway close to Old Town Alexandria.
As with the rest of downtown D.C., parking can be scarce. For parking near the Maine Ave Fish Market, there are some metered spaces at the south end of Water St SW. As long as there isn't a Nationals game, parking is a little easier further east, and you can usually find nearby on-street parking for Arena Stage productions.
There are a couple big attractions here, but yet, since the Southwest Waterfront doesn't register on many visitors' itineraries, they're delightfully uncrowded and even unknown. Even locals will be surprised and impressed to hear about the Titanic Memorial or the Naval Museum.
- U.S. Navy Museum, Gate: 6th M St SE, ☎ . M-F 9AM-5PM, Sa-Su 10AM-5PM. This is a great museum, and you'll likely have the place to yourself—only visitors in the know will know to find a museum off the Mall, on a navy base. The museum walks you in chronological order through exhibits of each major point in Naval History—the Revolutionary War, battles with the Barbary Pirates, the Civil War, polar exploration, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and through the present day. There is also an interactive submarine exhibit, and a host of real big guns out in the courtyard. The biggest exhibit here is the destroyer USS Barry, docked just outside the museum, which you can explore on tours. The gift shop is as good a place as you'll find to purchase various Navy-related souvenirs. Be sure to call in advance to make certain you will be able to visit - it appears to now be limited to those with military IDs or Department of Commerce Personnel. Free.
- Voice of America, 330 Independence Ave SW, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Tours: M-F 12PM,3PM. The Voice of America is an international multimedia news broadcast facility operating around the clock, famous around the world, especially for broadcasts conducted throughout Nazi-occupied Europe and later the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. The tours here are another one of those undiscovered gems—you get to watch televised broadcasts going out to all corners of the world, and you'll see that one room where all presidential handshakes with foreign heads of state are filmed. The 45 minute tours are conducted in English, but tours can be conducted in Spanish or Mandarin Chinese upon advance request. You can also advance request a special "kid's version" of the tour. Reservations recommended, although you usually can get on a tour without one. Free.
- Titanic Memorial (Women's Titanic Memorial) (on Washington Channel past the west end of P St. If arriving by car, park at the south end of Water St SW). Here stands D.C.'s most confusing memorial. The first point of confusion is that the Women's Titanic Memorial is dedicated to the men who died on the Titanic. The reason is, of course, that the men stayed on board and drowned so that the women and children could escape on the lifeboats. The second point of confusion has to be the statue's pose, which looks to be an imitation of that scene with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio—but that would be too cheesy for a serious memorial. On the contrary, the blockbuster stole the idea from D.C.'s statue.
Little architecture survived the urban renewal, but those buildings that did are some of the better examples of early Washingtonian architecture in the city.
- Friendship Baptist Church, 900 Delaware Ave SW, ☎ . This attractive white Romanesque church has been the center of the southwest's African American community from its construction in 1886 until the urban renewal project.
- St Dominic's Church, 630 E St SW, ☎ . St Dominic's, built in 1875, served as the center of the European Catholic community just west, and its working belltower remains one of the area's principal landmarks. Visiting a mass can be rewarding if only to enjoy the impressive music ensemble and excellent acoustics.
- Thomas Law House, 1252 6th St SW. A 1796 mansion commissioned by speculators betting on a neighborhood development that never occurred. The building is named after its first resident, who was married to Elizabeth Custis, granddaughter of one Martha Washington.
- Wheat Row, 1313-1321 4th St SW. In a city full of row houses, these were the first, built in 1793. The urban renewal plan sought to integrate the original buildings into the Harbour Square owners coop, and the buildings today serve their original intent.
- Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, ☎ . A highly acclaimed not-for-profit theater devoted to modern and contemporary American theater, with an emphasis on politically engaging, intense, and often edgy drama. One of the city's great theaters, it has just completed a $125 million renovation, and is currently a real hot "destination" among locals.
- East Potomac Golf Course, 972 Ohio Dr SW, ☎ . The point at the western end of the Waterfront District, just south of the Tidal Basin, is mostly covered by the 36 hole East Potomac Golf Course. The courses are a little crowded and boring (completely flat), but the views of the monuments more than make up for these deficiencies. The golf course also houses an old mini-golf course, and is ringed by a jogging path popular with bikers and roller bladers. Nine holes: $10-13, eighteen: $26-31.
- Jazz at the Empress Lounge (In the Mandarin Oriental Hotel), ☎ . F-Sa 8PM-midnight. The Mandarin Oriental's Empress Lounge is a beautiful spot for live jazz, and Friday and Saturday nights are home to top-notch jazz vocalists over cocktails and a bar menu. The music is traditional, the chairs comfy, the atmosphere stylish, the food great, and the cocktails unimpressive. Free.
- Nationals Park, 1500 South Capitol St SE. Nationals Park is brand new, having opened just in 2008, and is home of the equally new Washington Nationals baseball team, The Nats. The Nationals, though, have history beyond its latest 2005 beginnings—D.C.'s first baseball franchise from 1891-99 bore the same (interchangeably with the Washington Senators), as did its two other successors throughout the twentieth century. None were very successful though. The first disbanded after nine years with a 0.366 win percentage; the second and third eventually left the city to become the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers. And the modern incarnation was formerly the Montreal Expos. Following in the D.C. tradition, the latest incarnation of the Nats performed progressively worse with each passing year, until 2010, when the team finally started turning itself around, and acquired a bonafide superstar-prodigy in pitcher Stephen Strasburg. The games are fun, and are a great excuse to spend the latter half of a day in the Waterfront District, and to enjoy the new stadium. The stadium is big, with comfy seats, an enormous scoreboard, and happily vendors from venerable D.C. food establishments like Five Guys, Ben's Chili Bowl, and Dogfish Head and Flying Dog Brewery. $20-250.
- Trapeze School New York (TSNY), 401 Tingey St SE, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The New York trapeze school has opened a location in this "far-flung" part of town. Classes cater to just about anyone, all ranges of athletic ability, ages six and up, and are a great way to inject a bit of thrill into a D.C. visit. Expect to be sore afterwards! $40-75.
- Westminster Presbyterian Church, 400 I St SW, ☎ . Blue Monday Blues: M 6PM-9PM, Jazz Night: F 6PM-9PM; food: 6PM-8:30PM. This church hosts extremely popular (and crowded) weekly live music nights: Blue Monday Blues and Friday Jazz, both featuring local musicians. $5 admission.
The Waterfront is D.C.'s main harbor, and the launch point for all its main Potomac riverboat cruises.
- DC Sail, 600 Water St SW, ☎ . DC Sail is the community association National Maritime Heritage Foundation, which offers sailing lessons, races, other miscellaneous events, including those aboard its 50 foot sailing schrooner for up to 40 people.
- Entertainment Cruises (The Odyssey, The Spirit), 600 Water St SW, toll-free: . The Odyssey is D.C.'s formal-affair cruise for a fancy dinner and drinks, while the Spirit of Washington is more the party boat, with live DJs, a buffet, and no dress code. Both offer daily lunch and dinner tours, and sell out far in advance in the busy summer months, so book ahead. Lunch cruises are a good deal cheaper, but seeing the monuments and memorials from a ship is, of course, more romantic at night. Dinner: $90-120, lunch: $50-80.
Necessities aren't hard to find, but the neighborhood here is still in its infancy—don't expect to find any terribly interesting shopping.
- Washington Design Center, 300 D St SW, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Browse: M-F 9AM-5PM; Shop: M-F 9AM-5PM, Sa 10AM-3PM. This huge center for luxury interior design is geared towards industry insiders, not consumers, but you can visit to browse some of the showrooms, or to buy directly from the Kitchen, Bath and Building Products Center on the concourse level. You can also sign up for a tour of the center by sending them an email in advance.
With the big exception of the Wharf, the Southwest Waterfront is pretty barren in terms of good eats. The channel-side restaurants just south of the Wharf look pretty from the outside, and yes, they do have lovely views, but the food is overpriced and unimpressive, and so are the ambiance and service. The dining options to the north around the big government buildings are mostly limited to bureaucrat-filled pricey cafeterias. Around Nationals Park during lunch hours it pays to look for food stand vendors—the Korean lady at M and 2nd St SE makes some mean bulgogi.
The Fish Wharf, aka the Wharf, aka the Maine Avenue Fish Market, 1100 Maine Ave SW, ☎ +1 202 484-2722. 8AM-9PM daily. The Wharf is a real D.C. cultural tradition, that's survived the neighborhood's upheavals for over two centuries, and the big open-air seafood market is a tourist attraction in its own right. It's centered on a big parking lot surrounded by some ten huge steel barges, most of them family owned, all offering copious quantities of seafood, fresh, live, raw, cooked, or however else you want it. Chowder, grouper, snapper, catfish sandwiches, oysters, clams, mussels, squid, shrimp, jumbo shrimp, jumbo jumbo shrimp, tiger shrimp—the fishmongers will shout out their products as they try to catch your attention in the bustle. This is, of course, the Mid-Atlantic, so it's time to find some shellfish, blue crabs in particular, covered in the local spice of choice, Old Bay—a peppery mix of celery salt, bay leaf, mustard seed, black and red pepper, cinnamon, and ginger. Peak times, when the market puts out its vastest display of fish, run from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon.
- Atrium Cafe, 400 Virginia Ave SW, ☎ . M-F 6:30AM-4PM. There are plenty of bad sandwich shops and cafeterias in the Federal Center area, but the hard-to-find Atrium Cafe manages to be a good deli and cafeteria at the same time. The deli meats are fresh and they have plenty of good condiments (you must be insistent that you get the condiments you want, or this fast-moving business will give you the minimum). Cash only. $4-7.
- Cafe Twelve, 409 12th St SW. This is yet another one of the many sandwich shops just south of the Mall (this one close to the Holocaust Museum), but Twelve stands out for its fresh, cut-to-order deli meats. A good place to grab a small sandwich.
- Five Guys, 1100 New Jersey Ave SE, ☎ . 11AM-10PM daily. The D.C. burger institution has just opened up this location, and is basically the only place to eat anywhere in the neighborhood around the stadium. The burgers are big and juicy, the boardwalk fries (fresh cut and cooked in 100% pure peanut oil) are unmissable, and they have plenty of seating indoor and out. $5-10.
- 21st Amendment Bar & Grill, 550 C St SW (at the Holiday Inn), ☎ . 11AM-1AM daily. Celebrating the greatest constitutional amendment of them all (the repeal of Prohibition), this spot attached to the Holiday Inn serves adequate food and drinks at appropriate prices. The big draw, though is the Th night 6PM-9PM live music—the Marcus Johnson project is playing weekly through at least the end of 2009. Marcus Johnson is a virtuosic performer, and so are the rest of his musicians. Even if you don't like smooth jazz, you may enjoy the show anyway for their great musicianship.
- Justin's Cafe, 1025 1st St SE, ☎ . Kitchen: Su-Th 11:30AM-10PM, F-Sa 11:30AM-11PM. The lack of food options by Nationals Stadium makes this bar/restaurant an important place to find a pre-game dinner or after-game bite (the kitchen will stay open late when Nats games run long). The menu is fairly basic pub grub like sandwiches, salads, pizza, burgers, fries, etc., despite some menu descriptions with a bit of pretense, but the atmosphere is friendly and the craft beer selection is great. $8-14.
- CityZen, 1330 Maryland Ave SW (inside the Mandarin Oriental), ☎ . Tu-Sa 5PM-11:30PM. Here is the Waterfront's one stand-out restaurant. The dining room is modern and attractive, and the international menu is world-class, one of the very best in the city, prepared by acclaimed chef Eric Ziebold. It's no surprise, really, that the Southwest's one great restaurant is located in the ritzy Mandarin Oriental hotel. Three-course: $80, Six-course: $110.
Bars are still few in the area, as the business district empties after work, and the residential district is still relatively small. If you are looking for a tipple, especially if coming off the Mall, the hotel bars are often the best bet. Pre-game drinks are pretty much limited to The Bullpen by the stadium, but Justin's Cafe (see above) is a good, if crowded, option not too far away.
- The Bullpen, 1299 Half St SE. Just outside the Metro on the way to Nationals Stadium is the Bullpen, basically a big yard for pre-game drinking. It's always lively before night games, with random live music, $6 drinks, plastic cups, and passable bar food served out of trucks. The food in the stadium itself can be better, but it's less expensive here.
- Cantina Marina, 600 Water St SW, ☎ . M-Th 11:30AM-10PM, F-Su 11:30AM-midnight. This waterfront patio has the odd feel of a spring break party at the beach, if more laid back. The food is above average, albeit a bit overpriced, and the views are lovely. In keeping with the beach party style, the (good) drinks come in plastic cups. In short, decent food in a section of town that lacks good restaurants, plus good drinks, good music, and a great seating area equals a good choice for a relaxing, laid-back dinner. Sip your margarita over some jambalaya while watching the steady stream of planes and helicopters fly over the water and Hains Point. F-Sa in good weather can get crowded, though, and you risk a long wait for a table. $10-22.
- Lot 38 Espresso Bar, 1001 2nd St SE, ☎ . M-F 6:30AM-6PM, Sa-Su 8AM-4PM. A rare sign of neighborhood life in the form of an actual family-run local business! It's a great coffeeshop with a big space, and serves as a really good meeting place pre-games, if the Bullpen isn't your thing. Free Wi-Fi.
The Waterfront area can be a little boring by way of nightlife and dining, but it is extremely close to both the airport and the Mall, and it benefits from the corresponding views. And of course, if you're by the Metro, you're not far from the rest of the city.
- Capitol Skyline, 10 Eye St SW, ☎ . The location of this hotel is arguably the least desirable of the Waterfront District, but it is the closest to the Nationals stadium. On the upside, it wears its funky 1960s look with a playful stylishness. It also has a huge outdoor pool and deck, with poolside bar. $140-200.
- Courtyard Washington Capitol Hill/Navy Yard, 140 L St SE, ☎ . The claim to be in Capitol Hill is borderline dishonest. But the hotel is right by a Metro and the stadium, and was renovated in late 2012, so it's in good shape. $120-300.
- Channel Inn, 650 Water St SW, ☎ . This is both the area's only small hotel and the only accommodations right on the waterfront promenade. All the rooms have nice views, but the balcony view room is the obvious favorite. $170-200.
- Holiday Inn Capitol, 550 C St SW, ☎ . Just one block from the National Air and Space Museum, this hotel has notably more stylish decor than you would expect from a Holiday Inn, as well as one of the best bars in the immediate area (21st Amendment). $100-250.
- L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, 480 L'Enfant Plaza SW, ☎ , fax: +1 202 646-1000. The location one block off the Mall promises some of the best views in the entire city—especially those facing the Mall (north & east). Shell out the extra money for the rooms with a "superior view." Year-round rooftop pool. $200-350.
- Mandarin Oriental, 1330 Maryland Ave SW, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The small, Hong Kong-based Mandarin Oriental is renowned for its service, and this location is a favorite upscale choice of businessmen as well as foreign dignitaries. It has a huge spa, and a large space of outdoor gardens by the water. And of course, it houses the highly-acclaimed CityZen restaurant. $240-500.
There are four Starbucks in the business district (north of I-395, south of the Mall), all of which have free Wi-Fi, as does Lot 38 Espresso Bar. Otherwise, head to the library for free public terminals and Wi-Fi:
- Southwest Neighborhood Library, 900 Wesley Pl SW, ☎ . M,W 1PM-9PM, Tu,Th-Sa 9:30AM-5:30PM.
- The National Mall is just footsteps away from the Waterfront, and has one of the world's greatest collections of museums. If you're staying here, you'll be spending time there.
- Historic Uniontown, where the Navy Yard workers once lived is just across the river in much feared Anacostia. It's a very interesting contrast with its neighbor to the north, and has several attractions worth seeking out.
|Routes through Waterfront|
|East End ← National Mall ←||W E||→ Capitol Hill → Largo|
|Greenbelt ← East End ←||N S||→ Anacostia → Suitland|
|East End ← National Mall ←||W E||→ Capitol Hill → New Carrollton|
|Petworth ← East End ←||N S||→ Arlington → Huntington|