Washington’s New Waterfront

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture 21 Guide

Whether you want to spot bald eagles, go on a riverboat tour, ride a 180-foot ferris wheel overlooking the harbor, or simply take a relaxing stroll through nature, D.C.’s new waterfront has something to offer.

This guide discusses the revitalized waterfront districts along the Potomac River and Anacostia River. In particular, we visit:
• The Anacostia Riverwalk
• Anacostia Park
• Water activities
• National Harbor
• The District Wharf
• The Georgetown waterfront

The Anacostia Riverwalk

The Anacostia Riverwalk is a multi-use trail that stretches north from Nationals Park and the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge to Kingman and Heritage Islands Park on the west bank of the river. It crosses the river at Benning Road NE, and then returns south again from the Anacostia Recreation Center back to the Douglass Bridge and Poplar Point, Anacostia, on the east bank of the river.

Along the way, it passes through playgrounds, nature areas, marinas, historical monuments, and more, and it connects to a number of other trails in the area. As a bonus, the Anacostia Riverwalk is so well-situated that it is used not only for recreation, but also for bicycle and pedestrian commuting.

instructional gif for blue and green links in The Great Tours DC articles

Kingman and Heritage Islands Park is an area that consists of a stretch of mainland riverfront and two man-made islands, created from the dredging of the river in the early 20th century. The islands are only accessible by foot and they do not contain any facilities like restrooms or developed picnic areas.

It is one of the closest areas to a wilderness that you will find within the city boundaries. However, there is plenty of parking on the mainland near RFK Stadium; and, it is a short walk from the Stadium‑Armory Metro Station on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines.

The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative

In the year 2000, a concerted redevelopment effort of the Anacostia Watershed area began. As part of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative , the D.C. government and the Department of the Interior joined forces.

On the east bank of the river, the oldest and largest of the Riverwalk parks is Anacostia Park, managed by the National Park Service. It blends the best features of urban community recreation centers and a wildlife oasis. It offers playgrounds, ball fields, picnic and grilling areas, and outdoor fitness equipment, plus the only roller skating rink in the entire National Park Service. The skating pavilion is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and skate rentals are free.

Bald Eagles

Anacostia Park is one of the places you are most likely to spot one of the D.C. area’s resident bald eagles. The eagles currently nest nearby in two locations: at the National Arboretum and in a park near the Metropolitan Police Training Center. The eagles regularly hunt along the river.

Water Activities

People rowing in Anacostia Park
The Ballpark Boathouse, on the west bank of the river, offers boat rentals that access the Anacostia River.

Anacostia Park also offers a public-access boat ramp and fishing is legal with a valid D.C. fishing license. You can find information about obtaining a license from the DC.gov website.

With the restoration of the Anacostia River, kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, and even paddleboard yoga have become popular. The Ballpark Boathouse, on the west bank of the river near Nationals Park, offers boat rentals that access the Anacostia River. Additionally, the Anacostia Watershed Society offers motorboat tours from a number of locations, including Bladensburg, Kingman Island, and the 11th Street Bridge.

These tours are free but require advance reservations, which can be made on their website. Additionally, a number of companies also offer sightseeing cruises along the southern reaches of the Anacostia and down into the Potomac River on larger ships.

National Harbor

Ferris wheel lit up with lights during night, National Harbor in Maryland
The National Harbor was designed as a tourist destination and includes hotels, restaurants, shopping, outdoor recreation, and a casino.

National Harbor is a fairly new development on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, just south of the Capital Beltway. Developed in the early 2000s, it was designed as a tourist destination and includes hotels, restaurants, shopping, outdoor recreation, and a casino.

One of its star attractions—and probably the easiest to spot—is the Capital Wheel, a 180-foot-tall Ferris wheel positioned on the edge of a dock extending into the river. Rides are available both day and night. Each ride lasts about 15 minutes, and each car seats up to eight adults.

At National Harbor, another attraction is water-taxi trips, which are available to and from Old Town Alexandria, the National Mall, the District Wharf, and Nationals Park and D.C. United’s Audi Stadium. At Old Town, you can transfer water taxis to reach Georgetown.

The National Harbor waterfront also features many places to eat, including pubs, wine bars, fast food, family-friendly restaurants, and places offering seafood and international cuisine. You will also find a number of shops selling clothing, jewelry, gifts, home goods, and specialty foods.

The District Wharf

District Wharf waterfront with boats and people
The District Wharf’s developers aimed to attract D.C.’s young urban professionals to the area, as well as young families.

The District Wharf is a new development in Southwest D.C. Stretching south along the Potomac riverfront from the historic fish market, it is a modern complex of mixed-use development, consisting of mid-rise buildings with ground-floor commercial spaces and residences above.

The developers aimed to attract D.C.’s young urban professionals to the area, as well as young families, by including shopping, dining, nightlife, event spaces, green spaces, fitness facilities, playgrounds, and more. This neighborhood is also home to the Arena Stage, which features three, separate stages and focuses on new works by American artists.

The complex also includes a marina for privately owned boats as well as entertainment cruises, water taxies, and rowing facilities like those at Anacostia and National Harbor. Free yoga classes are offered in the parks in the warmer months, and an ice skating rink operates from December through February.

The Georgetown Waterfront

The Georgetown waterfront district perfectly blends the old and the new. The newest part of the Georgetown waterfront is called Washington Harbor.

This new, mixed-use complex focuses on food, especially seafood. From November to March, it is also where you will find the region’s largest ice skating rink. It is almost 12,000 square feet in size and positioned right on the riverfront.

Just downriver from the Washington Waterfront is the Thompson Boat Center for canoe and kayak rentals, as well as mile marker “zero” of the C&O Canal towpath. It a quick walk from there to the Kennedy Center.

Upriver is Georgetown Waterfront Park, operated by the National Park Service. This park hosts a set of riverfront trails that are convenient for walking or biking along the waterfront and also offer unique features, like a labyrinth for walking meditation and a pollinator garden that attracts bees and butterflies.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Anacostia Park
Anacostia Watershed Society
National Harbor
District Wharf