Many visitors to Washington, DC will stick to the National Mall and the area around it. They’ll gaze up at the national monuments, maybe visit one of the Smithsonian museums, peer through the fence at the White House, and, if it’s springtime, soak in the delicate cherry blossoms. But only a quick walk from the National Mall and Tidal Basin is the District Wharf, or Wharf DC as it is also known. A recent revitalization project has put new life into the Washington waterfront. Escape the urban jungle for the Washington, DC wharf!
A Brief History of the Washington, DC Wharf
The area along what is today the Washington, DC waterfront has been utilized for hundreds of years. The land was already in use before the Europeans set foot on the continent. But as the population of European settlers and their descendants grew, the region became a popular spot for plantations, especially the waterfront along the Potomac River.
By the beginning of the 1800s, the DC wharf had a proper fish market. The Maine Avenue Fish Market is the country’s oldest operating fish market. Today, it’s a few blocks from its original location.
Fast forward to around 2009 when a project got underway to redevelop and revitalize the wharf and the surrounding waterfront. The first phase of the District Wharf renewal project opened in the fall of 2017. Phase II recently kicked off and is set to be completed in 2022. Both phases include hotels and residences along with park space, boat slips, and, of course, retail and restaurants.
Revitalizing the Wharf
The recent revitalization of the wharf covers a mile of the coast. For visitors, it can be a little confusing at first. From the street, it appears to be a modern outdoor shopping area. But, if you’re in a car, the block between the major street, Maine Avenue SW, and the waterfront is narrow and sometimes one way or occasionally doesn’t go anywhere.
While you can shop along Maine Avenue SW, and there are plenty of shops and restaurants, the main action is “around back” along the waterfront.
Because everything is open-air and not a shopping mall, the spot is also very dog-friendly!
What to Do & Where To Eat at the Wharf DC
Maine Avenue Fish Market
The best place to start off a visit to the District Wharf is, without a doubt, the Maine Avenue Fish Market. The fish market is a throwback to another era. Colorful signs advertise the stalls in the open air market. In a nod to the market’s past — when vendors would go down the river to buy fish and then return to the market sell them — a number of today’s vendors still operate from floating barges that are below street level.
If you like seafood, the market is tempting. Shrimp, oysters, clams, fish of all sizes and types — and that’s only the beginning. Some of the fishmongers and vendors serve their wares cooked, too, at small restaurants and to-go stands. If you want an authentic meal, the Maine Avenue Fish Market at the Wharf DC is the place. This is also the place to be if you’re looking for an early meal. Many of the shops open up well before lunch.
Eating at the Wharf
If seafood isn’t your thing or you want to try something new, there are more than two dozen restaurants at District Wharf to tickle your fancy. You can indulge in favorites like Shake Shack or Ben & Jerry’s. Or, you can try popular DC spots like Italian coffeehouse and cafe Dolcezza, bake shop District Doughnuts, and seafood restaurant Hank’s Oyster Bar. Whether you’re looking for casual or high end, relaxed or to-go, there’s a spot for you. You’ll even find small kiosk-style places lining the waterfront, such as Union Pie and Red Hook Lobster Pound.
The great part is that you can order then grab a seat or a table along the boardwalk right along the waterfront. You can get a burger and your spouse can get a fish platter. Then you can meet up at a common table.
What to Do at the Wharf
In addition to the number and variety of restaurants, you’ll find a similar story with the shops at the wharf. The Wharf DC has everything you need and somethings you didn’t know you needed. Among the shops that call the wharf home are a spa, DC favorite Politics & Prose Bookshop, an art gallery, a dry cleaner, and more. Looking for a great souvenir? Try Shop Made in DC for something special made by a local artisan.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, the wharf also hosts events, serves as a spot for yoga workouts, and even has several music venues.
District Wharf is a bit hidden and off the beaten path. But it’s a breath of fresh air in a busy city like Washington, DC.
Getting to the Wharf DC
Wharf DC is very easy to get to. There are nearby bus stops which are serviced by a number of bus lines. There are also two Metro stations (Waterfront and L’Enfant Plaza) that are within a quarter-mile and only a five to ten-minute walk. And, because this is the wharf, you can arrive by water. If you have a boat slip, you can cast anchor at the nearby marina. Otherwise, you may want to try the water taxi.
If you’re driving, the easiest place to park is the underground parking garage beneath the wharf. From my experience, the garage can be busy so consider booking a spot ahead of time using a service like SpotHero. During my cherry blossom season visit, I did just that and it was incredibly convenient and easy to use: book, drive, scan, park.
Wharf DC also operates free modes of transportation, too. There’s a water jitney that operates across the Washington Channel between the wharf and East Potomac Park. If you’re more “downtown,” there’s a free shuttle bus that runs a circuit up to the National Mall at L’Enfant Plaza Metro and back.
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All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own. This post contains an affiliate link.