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The smallest quadrant in DC has seen some of the city’s biggest changes. Triangular in shape, Southwest is framed by parks, waterways, and the museums and monuments of the National Mall. On its northwestern edge is the Jefferson Memorial, and in the springtime, the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin are enveloped in a halo of soft pink and white blossoms, presenting the city at its very finest. Southwest’s unique geography, plus the construction of the I-395 highway in the 1950s, isolated the area from the rest of the city, and residents often referred to their neighborhood as “the island.” It has always had a friendly, town-within-a-city feel that differentiates it from other Washington DC neighborhoods. It boasts a historically diverse population that has long catered to families. Although a new luxury residential and retail development along its western edge called The Wharf has earned plenty of press, perhaps an even better symbol of Southwest is Culture House, located on Delaware Avenue SW; It’s a vibrant center for creative, community-based programming housed in an old church.
In the shadow of the Capitol, Southwest was for centuries a blue-collar neighborhood of dockworkers and fishermen, who would sell their daily catches straight from their boats. Following World War II, the neighborhood became an experiment in urban renewal, as city developers razed entire blocks, displacing thousands of low-income residents, in order to build newer, Brutalist-style federal buildings with modern amenities. L’Enfant Plaza and Southwest Federal Center were the results of that effort, along with many of the apartment buildings comprising the Waterfront.
Today, yet another transformation has taken place in Southwest, a tremendous revitalization of its western edge that began with the opening of the Waterfront Metro Station in the 1990s. New development on 4th Street SW and at The Wharf seeks to pay homage to the neighborhood’s past as well as position it for a more sustainable future. In addition, the construction of brand-new venues like The Anthem for live music and Audi Field’s soccer arena have drawn thousands of spectators from all parts of town.
Those who are lucky enough to live in Southwest will find homes that are within walking distance to some of the city’s greatest attractions, such as the free museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution, the US Botanic Gardens, International Spy Museum, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the many monuments along the National Mall. With prices for nearly every budget, Southwest apartments and housing options range from gracious, subdivided townhomes to sleek waterfront towers. The secret’s out: Southwest is a great place for everyone, from recent graduates to retirees to Hill staffers with young families.
Southwest is framed by Independence Avenue to the north and South Capitol Street SW to the east. An army base, Fort Lesley J McNair, comprises its southern border, which ends at the Anacostia River. To the west are the Washington Channel and the Potomac River. This quadrant is further subdivided into Waterfront and The Wharf neighborhoods, both of which can be found on its western side.
Southwest is a surprisingly easy neighborhood to navigate by car due to its proximity to I-395 and the large public parking garages at The Wharf. You’ll find them on Maine Avenue SW and at the Fish Market. In addition, there is a public garage at L’Enfant Plaza.
There are three Metro stations within the neighborhood. L’Enfant Plaza, served by the Yellow and Green Lines, Federal Center SW on the Blue Line, and Waterfront on the Green Line.
WMATA MetroBus Routes 52, 74, and P6 all roll through the neighborhood, and Routes 30N, 30S, 32, 33, and 36 make stops along Independence Avenue. In addition, you can catch the DC Circulator on M Street SW and Maine Avenue.
There are dedicated bike lanes on Maine Avenue, 4th Street SW and at The Wharf. Those who enjoy getting out for a walk will also find this neighborhood quite pedestrian-friendly.
Your best bet for great eats in Southwest is at The Wharf, a collection of upscale restaurants and retailers surrounding The Anthem live music venue along the Washington Channel. They include fine Vietnamese flavors at Moon Rabbit DC, Tacos Dorados at Mi Vida, and seafood paella at Del Mar.
There are some other good choices tucked around the neighborhood, as well:
Sacred Grounds Café is located inside St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church. Friendly staff pour brews from Rise Up, a local Maryland roaster. They also serve quiche, breakfast sandwiches and other light fare. On the rooftop of the Hyatt Place Washington DC/National Mall, you’ll find City Bar, a rooftop garden with a selection of craft beers, wine, and cocktails. You can enjoy a cocktail here while the sun sets by the Washington Monument — it gets crowded, especially on nights when there’s a DJ.
L’Enfant Plaza isn’t just a Metro Station; it houses a collection of shops from big names such as CVS and Starbucks to smaller retailers like Shoes by Lara and the 4U and Mina women’s clothing boutiques.
The museum shops of the Smithsonian are a destination in and of themselves — you can find custom gemstone jewelry at the Museum of Natural History, cookbooks and Americana at the American History Museum, and elegant Asian textiles, rugs, music, and books at the Freer Gallery of Art.
For groceries in Southwest, there’s a Safeway on 4th Street SW as well as a Whole Foods and a Harris Teeter next door in the Navy Yard.
An eminently walkable neighborhood, simply head up 4th Street SW and watch how the housing styles change, from the historic facades comprising Wheat Row to more modernist 1960s apartment and condo buildings, then take in a few blocks of rather charmless government facades before arriving at the National Mall. Washington Walks offers architecture tours of the neighborhood; check their website for dates and times.
The largest free museum complex in the world, the Smithsonian Institution has something for everyone, be they history lovers (American History Museum) or wannabe astronauts (National Air & Space Museum). Although all of the museums on the National Mall are within walking distance to Southwest, the closest museums to the neighborhood highlight the objects, paintings, and sculptures from the African and Asian continents at the Free Gallery and the National Museum of African Art, as well as contemporary artworks at the Hirshhorn Museum. The National Museum of the American Indian has fascinating displays of artifacts, jewelry, and textiles, as well as an award-winning dining hall featuring authentic Native American cuisine.
Located at the center of a flower-filled courtyard, the Smithsonian Castle is the museum’s main information hub; you can get all of your questions answered here and line up your sightseeing itinerary. You can also tour the fascinating circa-1840s building and even see the crypt of founder James Smithson.
The most popular museum at the Smithsonian is the National Air & Space Museum. It’s definitely worth a peek to see the original 1903 Wright Brothers airplane, the first to take flight, as well as the Spirit of St. Louis, an Apollo lunar module, and other historic aircraft. In addition, it has an IMAX Theater.
The National Mall is a grassy, sometimes muddy, 2-mile expanse that is known as the “nation’s front yard.” Flanking the Mall are the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial, with the Jefferson Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the Roosevelt Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, along its perimeter. You’ll often find amateur soccer and volleyball teams on its playing fields, and during the summer, it’s the site of the National Folklife Festival.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the country’s official memorial to the six million Jews and other ethnic groups who lost their lives during The Holocaust. Admission is free. Visitors are assigned an identity at the beginning of its main exhibition, when World War II starts, only to discover their fate through the subsequent galleries. There are deeply moving stories, videos, and other installations as well as a hall for reflection. The museum has additional galleries devoted to contemporary issues of genocide.
The US Botanic Gardens, adjacent to the Capitol, has more than 65,000 plants, a beautiful Art Deco conservatory as well as gardens devoted to tropical, desert, and medicinal foliage. Its festive displays are especially popular around the holidays, and best of all, everything is free.
There is a fee to get into the International Spy Museum, but its exhibits are worth it. You can see a lipstick case that doubled as a pistol, a letter George Washington wrote to a prospective spy, and James Bond’s Aston Martin. Interactive exhibits let you pretend you’re involved in an undercover espionage mission. You won’t want to leave.
Artechouse’s Instagrammable displays let you be one with the art, literally. Current installations present an immersive cityscape replete with cherry blossoms (sound familiar?) that will stay with you long after you leave.
The brand-new Audi Field, with room for 20,000 fans, is located at Buzzard Point in the southern part of the neighborhood. It’s where the DC United soccer team plays and is right next door to Nationals Park; a boardwalk connects to the shops and restaurants of The Yards, located along the Capitol Riverfront.
If you’re seeking some room to stretch your legs, you’ve come to the right place in Southwest. The neighborhood’s entire western peninsula is a 300-acre man-made island called East Potomac Park. It has an 18-hole public golf course, East Potomac Golf Course, a miniature golf course, a swimming pool, and a playground. Hains Point, at its southern tip, is where the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers converge.
Other neighborhood parks include the King Greenleaf Recreation Center, which has tennis courts, baseball fields, a playground, and Landsburgh Dog Park. Randall Field, which also has playing fields and a playground, is next door to Culture House.
There is a college in Southwest, but it’s not accessible to the public. To gain admission to the Inter-American Defense College, which offers Master’s degree programs, you need to be a member of the military, a police officer, or a federal worker who is nominated by a state official. It is located within the Fort McNair Army Base. Nevertheless, students and graduates of all stripes will find the history, attractions, and ever-changing fabric of this neighborhood appealing; it’s why many consider it one of the best places to live in DC.
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