A New View of Washington, DC

Come See What’s Happening along the Potomac River

Elnicki Wade

A wave of change has hit the District of Columbia over the past few decades. Some transitions were gradual; others left long-time residents amazed by the unexpected growth in the metro area.  Of all the communities that continue to evolve, the Potomac River waterfront keeps morphing in the blink of an eye.

Boaters see it. Navigating the stretch from the Chesapeake Bay to Washington used to be a long haul, ending with only a few places to dock and then venturing up into the city’s interior to experience monuments and cultural amenities.  Now, a trip up the Potomac rewards visitors with a dazzling array of restaurants, shops, sports arenas, music venues, cultural centers, and green spaces — all within walking distance of where you tie up your boat.

This riverside renaissance has sparked a new excitement about the nation’s capital. From National Harbor to Georgetown Waterfront, the stretch of 20 miles along the Potomac River has become a top boating destination where visitors watch fireworks sparkle the sky around the Washington monument, fish for bass in the waters near George Washington’s home and bring a little luck to the hometown baseball team.  To experience it all with ease, take your boat or the water taxi to these riverside neighborhoods and join the District’s summertime fun.

National Harbor

The Capital Wheel at National Harbor

The 350 acres where National Harbor now stands was once farm fields and marshlands, until 1984 when the Peterson Companies began developing the property into a world-class boating destination 10 miles south of DC. The marina and a plethora of restaurants and boutique shops started attracting visitors, followed by Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center Tanger Outlets and MGM National Harbor Hotel & Casino. 

To get a clear picture of the area’s expansive growth, take a ride on the 180-foot-tall Capital Wheel. Down below you’ll see children riding horses and aquatic critters as they swirl around on the Carousel, as well as American flags flapping in the breeze at Spirit Park. Don’t be alarmed if you notice a giant’s head, arms and legs emerging from the beach. It’s a massive statue called “The Awakening” and the largest installation among scores of artwork on the grounds that includes life-like replicas of famous figures from Henry Ford and Louis Armstrong to Rosie the Riveter and soldiers from each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.

National Harbor bustles year-round, but it really shines in spring and summer. Along with its own Cherry Blossom celebration, it also hosts festivals that showcase jazz music, Chesapeake seafood, and craft beer and wine. Families flock to movie nights on the big outdoor screen and enjoy the Salute the Sunset concert series that features military bands. 

The Yards

As you cruise up the Potomac toward DC, head northeast when you reach the Anacostia River, and after you pass under Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, you arrive at The Yards.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, industry dominated the deep-water port with shipbuilding, maritime trades, a sugar refinery, brewery and more. 

Decades of industrial waste and neglect took a toll on the waterway, so in 2004 when Forest City Washington, Inc. took over the 42-acre strip of land, it agreed to help clean up the river and shoreline. By the time The Yards development opened in 2010, an environmental resurrection was underway.

The results of this urban renewal are astonishing. The Anacostia River is on the mend, and community growth along the waterfront is flourishing with new restaurants, pubs and retail stores, as well as a brewery, winery, dog park, gardens, and colorful Dancing Fountains with a splash pool for cooling down during the summer heat. 

Boaters can dock at the marina and walk to the National’s baseball stadium or see DC United play soccer at Audi Field. The nearby Metro stop takes visitors all around the city, and 12 miles of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail are open for hikers, joggers, bicyclists, outdoor enthusiasts and dog walkers. The Ballpark Boathouse rents kayaks and canoes, while festivals and concerts showcase the diversity of local cuisine, culture and music.

The Wharf

When you head south out of the Anacostia River, head starboard after the National War College to cruise up Washington Channel. The island that lies between the Channel and Potomac River was built with rocks and debris dredged from the river in the late 1800s to drain swamp waters. Today it’s home to East Potomac Park with a golf course, playground, bike trails, tennis center and picnic areas.  For the past few decades, it’s offered the perfect vantage point for watching the Southwest Waterfront’s dramatic transformation.

The Wharf

What many consider the stunning centerpiece of the waterfront dates back to the late 1700s when Fort McNair was erected to protect the capital’s southern ports. By 1805, the Fish Market was packing ice around Chesapeake delicacies such as crabs, oysters and fish. It is America’s oldest seafood marketplace and a favorite spot for provisions. By the late 1950s, the neighborhood fell upon hard times, and the city began plans for development. 

In 2014, Hoffman-Madison broke ground on the first phase of the revitalization, and phase two wrapped up in 2022, extending the riverside development to a mile long. Now, tall modern buildings with walls of windows guarantee a spectacular view of the four piers and channel. With 60 eateries ranging from casual cafes and an Irish pub to an oyster bar and Mediterranean cuisine, dining options seem unlimited. Three entertainment venues — The Anthem (6,000-capacity), the more intimate Pearl Street Warehouse and Union Stage — host A-list and local performers. The atmosphere is lively year-round, even in winter when the Wharf sets up an ice-skating rink and kids toast smores in a firepit.

The 400-slip marina also got a makeover with new amenities such as fuel pumps, a dock shop with snacks and a swanky new boater’s lounge with Gordon Ramsay’s latest high-end restaurant on the top floor. The new Oasis Boat Club allows you to get out on the water if you didn’t come by boat.

Georgetown Waterfront

Georgetown Waterfront viewed from the Potomac River

Exiting the Washington Channel to cruise north up the Potomac River brings boaters to Georgetown Waterfront, a 10-acre spread of revitalized land between the historic Watergate complex and Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge. In Colonial times, the shore was lined with wharfs and warehouses, creating one of America’s busiest tobacco ports.  

After the Civil War, the river began to silt up and couldn’t accommodate large seafaring ships, so Georgetown turned into an industrial area housing businesses from an ice company to a construction materials manufacturer. By the mid-1900s, most of the factories moved away or shuttered, and by the 1970s, abandoned industrial buildings were torn down, leaving the riverside as a dumping ground and parking lot where the city stored garbage trucks and a mountain of salt. 

Before long, urban revitalization efforts kicked in, giving the waterfront a fresh new look and purpose. Today, lovely commercial and residential buildings stand along the shore, offering a scenic view of Rosslyn, Virginia’s skyline, historic landmarks and the graceful arches of the bridges. Boaters pull up along the promenade to dine at a dozen restaurants or lounge around firepits sipping cocktails at outdoor bars.  

The 10-acre park presents urban green space where you can lay down a blanket for a picnic, watch rowing races on the river or let your dog growl at ducks at the water’s edge. Amenities include a stone labyrinth, areas for music events and festivals, and landscaping that showcases the blooms of the season. At the other end of the development, Thompson Boat Center rents kayaks, canoes and small outboards for visitors who want an active water experience. Overall, the entire development now bustles with an energetic vibe.

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