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Buzz has been building in DC's Southwest Waterfront ever since the newly built area within it called The Wharf opened its polished doors to the public in 2017. While The Wharf is DC’s newest residential and retail neighborhood, encompassing about 25 acres of prime marina-front real estate, there is so much more to this dynamic neighborhood than just what The Wharf has to offer, which admittedly is quite a lot.
Located in the Southwest quadrant of the city, DC's Waterfront begins at 14th Street and encompasses the residential corridors of 4th Street SW, M Street, and South Capitol Streets before ending at the Anacostia River. The Washington Channel lies to the east, while to the south is Fort McNair, one of the country’s oldest army bases. At its southernmost tip is Greenleaf Point, where the Potomac River, Washington Channel, and Anacostia River all meet.
Water played a huge role in shaping this area, as well as the city’s African American history. Waterfront was a historically black neighborhood, home to both DC’s wealthiest merchants as well as its poorest laborers. The neighborhood served as a stop along the Underground Railroad, and when the Civil War ended, African American soldiers known as the Washington regiment of the US Colored Troops triumphantly marched up 7th Street SW.
In the 1950s, many of the aging buildings were replaced by Modernist federal office and apartment buildings in the Waterfront, as the city sought to develop a cultural center here. Arena Stage, one of the country’s first nonprofit theaters, opened in 1960 and became renowned as an artistic powerhouse as well as a neighborhood center, hosting popular public dialogues on politics and race. A recent, multi-million renovation ensures it will be around for generations to come.
As the Waterfront area embraces its past, new memorials have been dedicated to the African Americans who made history here, from Pearl Street at The Wharf to the Banneker Monument near the 14th Street Bridge. And just a few steps away, on the National Mall, a spotlight is finally being shone on African American history through the new MLK Memorial and the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Along with the neighborhood’s restaurants and shops, with new ones seeming to pop up nearly every day, Waterfront has become a destination with something for everyone.
The Waterfront neighborhood is bordered by I-395 to the north, South Capitol Street SW to the east, Fort McNair to the South, and the Washington Channel to the west. Proximity to major highways like I-395 and I-695 as well as to Independence Avenue makes this neighborhood conveniently located to the city’s main attractions, especially the free museums around the National Mall and the Capitol.
Because of all the new development at The Wharf, it’s easy to both walk and drive around this neighborhood, as wide new parking garages are plentiful at The Wharf on Maine Avenue.
Bicyclists should head to the western part of the neighborhood to find dedicated bike lanes on 4th Street SW and Maine Avenue at The Wharf.
The WMATA MetroBus serves the neighborhood via Routes 52, 74, and P6. The DC Circulator travels along M Street SW and Maine Avenue, heading from Eastern Market to L’Enfant Plaza. The Wharf Shuttle operates buses every 10 minutes that take riders from The Wharf Marina to L’Enfant Plaza and the National Mall. Best of all, it’s free. The opening of the Waterfront Metrorail station in 1991 sparked the neighborhood’s latest renaissance.
The place to eat in DC's Waterfront is at The Wharf, which has over 20 upscale bars and restaurants. A must-try is Kith/Kin in the Intercontinental Washington DC – The Wharf, an IHG Hotel. Helmed by Chef Kwame Onwuachi, who recently won the James Beard award, it blends the flavors of Africa, the Caribbean, and New Orleans, taking diners on a culinary journey through the African Diaspora. Try the jerk chicken with tamarind BBQ sauce or the fried snapper Escovitch.
Pastry chefs Susan Limb and Patrick Musel worked at the White House prior to opening Bethesda’s Praline Bakery in 2016. Their outpost at The Wharf opened in 2019 and features the same mouth-watering treats, like the generously filled almond croissant, chocolate opera cake, and ham and cheese baguette sandwiches.
For great cocktails and views that can’t be beat, Whiskey Charlie at The Wharf tops them all. Try the Waterfront Queen, made with gin, fresh strawberries, lime, and champagne.
4th Street SW, by the Waterfront Metro, is another happening dining destination. The fine Indian restaurant Masala Art is known for its tandoori lamb chops and Garam Masala platters (they can even be made with tofu). Sit at one of the red leather banquettes at Station 4 while you people watch. Their menu is filled with brunchtime favorites like steak and eggs and French toast; you can also enjoy a sandwich or a wood-fired pizza. Then, satisfy your need for caffeine at the nearby Starbucks.
Newly opened on Buzzard Point, the southernmost part of Southwest, The Point DC is a great place to escape the crowds on its expansive open-air patio. Seafood tops the menu, with tasty fried oyster hush puppies and a large crab cake sandwich, but other specialties include Brussel sprouts with crispy rice and Benito flakes.
The closest brewery is Atlas Brew Works in the Navy Yard, which makes for a great place to fill your growler before the Nationals Game.
Even if you don’t feel like cooking dinner, the Municipal Fish Market at The Wharf is worth a visit to see the bountiful displays of fresh catches from a dozen vendors, including crabs. Also known as the Maine Avenue Fish Market, it’s the oldest continuously operating fish market in the country, dating to 1805.
Other shops at The Wharf include everything from noteworthy book seller Politics & Prose to home goods at Patrick’s, plus clothing boutiques like A Beautiful Closet and fine art at Maggie O’Neill and Martha Spak Gallery.
You can also support black-owned businesses by shopping at the Anacostia Arts Center; it’s just across the bridge in Anacostia.
For groceries in the Waterfront neighborhood, head to the Safeway on 4th Street SW. In addition, there is a Whole Foods and a Harris Teeter in the Navy Yard, next door.
History is alive in today’s Waterfront neighborhood; both the DC Cultural Trail and African American History Trail offer self-guided tours of the neighborhood that begin with markers at the Waterfront Metro Station. You can download the brochures for free on Cultural Tourism DC’s website.
The mathematical genius Benjamin Banneker had surveyed the city’s earliest boundaries using astronomy as his guide. In the 1960s, a park was dedicated in his honor on 10th Street SW at the edge of L’Enfant Plaza overlooking The Wharf. It has a central fountain and shaded park benches and recently underwent a restoration that replaced both the trees and their soil mixture with more sustainable varieties.
In the 1800s, some of the city’s wealthiest residents, like Lewis Jefferson, the city’s first black millionaire, lived in the southern part of the neighborhood. Sadly, not much remains of the neighborhood’s architectural past besides four historic 18th Century Homes on 4th Street SW known as Wheat Row. You can stroll past and take note of their beautiful, terraced Georgian facades. Nearby on 6th Street SW is Thomas Law House, also known as the Honeymoon House for when it hosted Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis, and her new husband, Thomas Law. It’s a private residence today.
In 1848, the country’s largest nonviolent slave escape took place in the Washington Channel. The schooner Pearl attempted to sail around the Chesapeake Bay with 77 men, women, and children, but was captured. The incident angered abolitionists around the country and led to the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as the Supreme Court hearing, which eventually outlawed slavery in the District. The site of the boat launch has been named Pearl Street in honor of the victims. In addition, a memorial marker at stands at Pearl Street and 7th Street SW.
The Wharf Marina hosts an annual Holiday Light show where boats get bedazzled in their festive finest. It’s also where you can board a Water Taxi bound for Alexandria, Georgetown, or the National Harbor. In addition, you can rent a picnic boat or launch your own stand-up paddleboard or kayak. You can also take a sightseeing cruise along the Potomac River offered by City Cruises DC, here.
There are several places to enjoy live music at The Wharf, starting with The Anthem, which has featured everyone from Fitz & The Tantrums to Bob Dylan. For an even more intimate setting, there’s the Pearl Street Warehouse, a throwback, speakeasy-style club witha a diner. The District Pier also hosts free concerts.
Other parks in the area include the Southwest Duck Pond, which has in-ground water features that attract birds of all feathers. 7th Street Park at The Wharf has interactive fountains and LED light displays. The Southwest Waterfront Park is a great spot to watch the airplanes taking off at Regan National Airport.
While there are no colleges in DC's Waterfront, the entire area has been on a warp-speed trajectory with the recent opening of The Wharf. And while those brand-new residences are gorgeous indeed, collegiates and recent graduates alike may breathe a sigh of relief to know that they can still enjoy the Waterfront’s best activities and nightlife without forking over their entire paychecks — just rent a few streets inland to the subdivided townhomes and historic apartment towers.
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