Washington DC’s District Wharf is the US capital’s latest foray into trendiness. This thriving, mile-long stretch of restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and outdoor activities, right along the Washington Channel on the city's Southwest Waterfront, was once an industrial pier. Today, it's a place where Washingtonians come to relax, shop and play. Looking to visit? Here’s a plan of attack.

People dine at outdoor tables as the sun sets, with boats parked in the marina behind them © Trisha Ping / Lonely Planet
Many restaurants at the District Wharf offer waterfront dining © Trisha Ping / Lonely Planet

Waterfront dining in DC

Once, the only thriving entity along the Southwest Waterfront was the historic Maine Avenue Fish Market (established 1805). This local favorite continues to serve up fresh crab, shrimp and fish (preferably smothered in Old Bay spices and eaten at waterside tables). But since the Wharf’s grand opening in October 2017, visitors can choose their waterfront dining spot from among nearly 20 restaurants – and there are more in the works.

One of our favorites is Hank’s Oyster Bar at the Wharf,  Jamie Leeds’ fourth ode to 'urban beach food' in the DC area, which offers both indoor and outdoor seating. Celebrated chef Mike Isabella oversees modern-French-themed Requin, featuring three dozen cheeses, charcuterie and 1,000 sq ft of primo patio space. And chefs Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong bring Filipino, Thai and Korean street-inspired cuisines to lively Kaliwa. Make reservations on a Friday or Saturday for kamayan, a meal served on banana leaves in traditional Filipino style that is eaten with the hands.

Two men order fresh seafood from a walk-up counter in DC © Trisha Ping / Lonely Planet
The Maine Ave Fish Market, in business since the 1805, is a Wharf mainstay © Trisha Ping / Lonely Planet

If you’re looking to splurge, Fabio Trabocchi’s Del Mar is very la-di-da, showcasing his wife Maria’s Spanish-Mallorcan heritage through perfectly executed tapas, seafood and paella. At the other end of the price scale (though certainly still delicious), there are several food kiosks, including Red Hook Lobster Pound. Or grab a picnic lunch from Taylor Gourmet, take the free jitney across the channel to East Potomac Park and enjoy a picnic beneath the cherry trees.

Finally, if it’s dessert you’re after, head straight to chef Christina Tosi’s award-winning Milk Bar, famed for its made-for-Instagram baked goods.

aerial shot of people sitting on barstools in a dimly lit, modern wood-paneled bar © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Pull up a barstool at Brighton SW1 © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Sunset drinks on the shore

For the cocktail crowd, a two-story rum distillery, mixologist and bartender Todd Thrasher’s Potomac Distilling Company, is opening soon. DC’s second distillery promises to be a go-to destination, with three bars (including a rooftop tiki bar) and a menu filled with tempting bar snacks, flatbreads and sandwiches.

In the meantime, grab a brew at the classy but casual Brighton SW1, a margarita at the open-air, dockside Cantina Bambina or a handcrafted cocktail on the rooftop Whiskey Charlie—the ideal sunset-watching spot.

All night jam sessions

A major part of the Wharf’s game-changing nature centers on Seth Hurwitz’s The Anthem. The 57,000 sq ft, 6,000-seat music venue kicked off its concerts with the Foo Fighters in October 2017 and hasn’t looked back; Judas Priest, Bon Iver, LCD Soundsystem and Morrissey are some of the artists who've recently performed there.

If you’re looking for something that’s a little bit less of a production, check out the nearby Pearl Street Warehouse, resembling an Austin music hall (it also serves a killer breakfast until 10:30am). Or to be truly laid back, join everyone rocking out at the free outdoor concerts that often take place on the stage at Transit Pier.

Blue and white adirondack chairs cluster around a firepit on the District Wharf © Trisha Ping / Lonely Planet
The District Wharf is dotted with casual hangout spots for people to gather © Trisha Ping / Lonely Planet

Play, paddle and more

There’s something super cool about being able to put-in your boat in the middle of urbanity and paddle off onto a serene river. Amid all its chi-chi offerings, the Wharf offers this down-to-earth experience too, thanks to kayak and paddleboard rentals at The Wharf Boathouse. If you don’t want to travel on your own steam, book a sightseeing cruise on the Potomac past DC’s many monuments – or even all the way to Mount Vernon. You can also play mini-golf on Transit Pier (which turns into a skating rink in winter), hang out around the mod firepit on Recreation Pier or simply chill on one of the swings dotting the latter (if you can score one at sunset, you’re golden).

The Wharf hosts a whole slate of events through the year, including Pumpkin Palooza, Zombie Rides, a holiday boat parade and Running of the Chihuahuas on Cinco de Mayo. Check their events page for the latest.

Local retail therapy

There are no chain stores at the Wharf. Each shop was hand-selected for being locally owned and offering carefully curated items. Politics and Prose is the second DC outlet of the popular independent bookstore; check in to catch one of the frequent author readings. A Beautiful Closet, owned by a former World Bank staff member, is the place to go for clothing, gifts, home décor and fair-trade goods from around the world. District Hardware and Bike is a funky, family-owned hardware store, bike shop, and water-sports retailer that has expanded from its Foggy Bottom base. And in this upscale setting, of course you need an art gallery or two. The gallery of local painter, photographer and sculptor Martha Spak serves that purpose with her calming contemporary artworks on display.

Water taxi parked at a pier on the Potomac at the Wharf District in DC © Trisha Ping / Lonely Planet
The Wharf Water Taxi serves Georgetown, Alexandria and National Harbor © Trisha Ping / Lonely Planet

Make it happen

Parking at the Wharf is a bear – and expensive. Here are a few more wallet-friendly options.

  • Snag a spot on a nearby street (4th or G Sts SW, for example).
  • Park at East Potomac Park and take the free jitney across the waterway.
  • Via Metro, travel to the Waterfront station and walk half a mile, or get off at the L’Enfant Plaza station and take the free Southwest Neighborhood Shuttle.
  • If you’re taking a taxi or rideshare, ask to be dropped off on G St, a few blocks away, to avoid traffic and hassle.
  • For those coming from Georgetown, National Harbor or Alexandria, the Wharf Water Taxi is an affordable option.
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