The Waterfront lies just south of the National Mall but despite its attractions and close-in location, is overlooked by most visitors to the city. Don't make this mistake; walk down to the Municipal Fish Market and have some seafood! The neighborhood is sometimes referred to as the "Southwest," as it is part of the small SW quadrant of the city; the vast majority of the city's southwest quadrant (modern day Arlington and Alexandria) retroceded to Virginia in 1846, in part 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 close to the Capitol. The neighborhood is one of the city's oldest, dating back to the 18th century. However, in 1815, 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 1870s, 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 20th 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 Municipal Fish Market and the churches around which the old communities were based.
In recent years, the Waterfront has moved into a new era as the construction of the Washington Nationals baseball stadium in 2008 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 ballpark, and 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 Municipal Fish Market, as well as several large marinas, endless rows of boats, and some big seafood restaurants. To the south and east are major military facilities at Fort McNair, home to the prestigious National Defense University, and the Navy Yard, the ceremonial headquarters of the U.S. Navy.
The main Metrorail stops in the area are the L'Enfant Plaza station on the Blue, Orange, Silver, Green, and Yellow lines and the Waterfront and Navy Yard stations on the Green Line. The Navy Yard station is closest to Nationals Park. The Smithsonian station (Blue/Orange/Silver lines) is also close to the neighborhood.
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 at Union Station and avoid the huge crowds.
Metrobus routes #70 and #71 run 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 Municipal 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.
- 1 , 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 on a navy base. However, unless you are a member of the military, you must fill out forms and be vetted prior to entering. See the website for more information. The museum displays, in chronological order, 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 gift shop is as good a place as you'll find to purchase various Navy-related souvenirs. Free.
- Voice of America Radio & Television Studios, 330 Independence Ave SW, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Tours: M-F 12PM. 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 30-45 minute tours are conducted in English on weekdays at noon. 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. You will need to have your passport or state-issued ID to enter. Free.
- 2 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.
- Blind Whino / Friendship Baptist Church, 900 Delaware Ave SW. A formerly white Romanesque church now hosts art exhibits, events, and the congregation of the Friendship Baptist Church.
- 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 bell tower 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.
- 3 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.
- 4 Wheat Row, 1313-1321 4th St SW. In a city full of row houses, these were the first, built in 1793. The houses are in the National Register of Historic Places.
- 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. A major renovation was completed in 2010.
- 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: $10-17, eighteen: $17-32.
- 1 Nationals Park, 1500 South Capitol St SE. Nationals Park opened in 2008, and is home of the 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 20th 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 an evening in the Waterfront District. The stadium is big, with comfy seats, an enormous scoreboard, and great concessions by venerable D.C. food establishments such as Five Guys, Ben's Chili Bowl, Dogfish Head, and Flying Dog Brewery. $20-250.
- Trapeze School New York (TSNY), 401 Tingey St SE, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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! 1-hour class: $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 Municipal Fish Market, 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.
- Captain White Seafood City, 1100 Maine Ave SW, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A family-owned business that specializes in crabs!
- 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, but Twelve stands out for its fresh, cut-to-order deli meats. A good place to grab a small sandwich.
- Jenny's At The Wharf, 668 Water St SW, ☎ . Asian food.
- Masala Art, 1101 4th St SW, ☎ . Indian food. One of two locations.
- 21st Amendment Bar & Grill @ Holiday Inn, 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 live jazz on W and Th nights.
- 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.
- Muse @ Mandarin Oriental, 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. Three-course: $80, Six-course: $110.
There are plenty of bars in the area.
- The Big Stick, 20 M St SE, ☎ . A sports bar with wood decor. Also serves sausages and snacks.
- Bluejacket / The Arsenal, 300 Tingey St SE, ☎ . A microbrewery in a former factory.
- The Bullpen at Half Street Fairgrounds, 1201 Half St SE (Just outside the Navy Yard Metrorail station, near Nationals Stadium), ☎ . Only open during the baseball season. 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 and you risk a long wait for a table. Mains: $10-25; Beer cans: $6; Cocktails: $8-14.
- Gordon Biersch, 100 M St SE, ☎ . One of two D.C. locations of the German brewery.
- 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.
- Secrets, 1824 Half St SW, ☎ . W-Su: From 9PM. A gay nightclub featuring all-male nude dancers and drag queen shows.
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 Hotel, 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.
- , 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.
- 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.
- Hilton Washington DC National Mall, 480 L'Enfant Plaza SW, ☎ , fax: . 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. UNDER RENOVATION; WILL REOPEN IN 2018. $200-350.
- Mandarin Oriental, 1330 Maryland Ave SW, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. 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. $240-500.
Most cafes have free WiFi. Otherwise, head to the library for free public terminals and Wi-Fi:
- Southwest Neighborhood Library, 900 Wesley Pl SW, ☎ . M-W 9:30AM-9PM, Th 1PM-9PM, F-Sa 9:30AM-5:30PM, Su 1PM-5PM.
- 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|