Explore Washington D.C.

Down by the Water: See D.C. From a Different Perspective

Kayaks, cruises and waterside strolls reveal new views of the capital city.

Two rivers run through Washington: the legendary Potomac and its lesser-known sister, the Anacostia. In a city perhaps most famous for political debates and white marble sites, these waterways are a vibrant reminder that D.C. is also a town blessed by Mother Nature.

“People forget you’re never more than a few steps away from nature here, especially if you get out on the water,” said local writer Gayle Putrich, who frequently canoes both wet wonderlands.

Putrich and other boaters ply one of the most historic bodies of water in the country. George Washington surveyed the Potomac—and traveled it to get to his riverside Mount Vernon estate—and British traders used it to ship tobacco back home. The smaller Anacostia, which is just 8.5 miles long and empties into the Potomac at Buzzard Point,  was once lined with farms and Native American encampments.

Today, both rivers make a relaxing backdrop for enjoying the outdoors and offer a different way to take in the beauty of the capital city.

Float Your Own Boat

Boating in DC operates seven concessions in locations like Georgetown in D.C. and National Harbor in Maryland. It offers one-hour to one-day rentals of kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, canoes and, at some locations, hydro bikes (pontoon-like water cycles). The company also leads guided kayak excursions past the monuments during the day and at twilight. Hot spots to float by range from Old Town Alexandria’s bustling waterfront in Virginia to National Harbor with its glitzy Capital Wheel and Georgetown’s Washington Harbour.

If you want more wind at your back, DC Sail gives beginning lessons from the Gangplank Marina in Southwest D.C., where budding sailors learn to captain a 19-foot Flying Scot in four sessions, and offers weekly “social sails” for $20.

Key Bridge Boathouse
Key Bridge Boathouse (©Brooke Sabin)

Ride On

If you’d prefer to have someone else steer, there are multiple ways to float on. Departing from the Gangplank Marina and National Harbor, Spirit Cruises serves up lunch and dinner on a multi-level yacht with panoramic windows, the better for drinking in city and monument views. Also departing from the Gangplank Marina, Odyssey is a low-slung, elegant dining craft designed to slip under all of the Potomac’s bridges. Both vessels offer music and dancing.

DC Water Taxi runs laid-back routes between Georgetown and the National Mall on an open-air boat; it’s ideal for kids or for a quick intro to the city. Potomac Riverboat Company’s taxi travels from Alexandria to National Harbor, the National Mall and Nationals Park. The company’s tours glide by the monuments, along the Alexandria Waterfront and to Mount Vernon, with dogs allowed on some outings.

For more-adventurous cruising, Urban Pirates sails from National Harbor aboard the Relentless, festooned with skull-and-crossbones flags. Costumed, joke-cracking, wannabe Jack Sparrows' entertain on family-friendly sails Wednesdays through Sundays, with weekend nighttime “bring-your-own-grog” booze cruises for adults.

Entertainment Cruises' Odyssey
Entertainment Cruises' Odyssey (Courtesy Entertainment Cruises)

Go Alongside

Sometimes, the best way to “soak in” the river is by strolling its waterfront.

“There’s something about how people relax and feel casual by the river,” said Monty Hoffman, one of the developers behind The Wharf D.C., a retail, restaurant and residential complex coming to the Southwest Waterfront in the fall of 2017.

For now, attractions near the Anacostia include Yards Park, which combines green space, a geometric pedestrian bridge, an illuminated obelisk and a wading pool.

Riverfront paths also let you relish the easygoing charms of the water. The Mount Vernon Trail, which follows the Potomac from Theodore Roosevelt Island in Georgetown down to Mount Vernon, meanders past bird-filled wetlands with views of the monuments. The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail skirts the Anacostia through both developed and undeveloped areas and is a good choice for bikers, too.

The Mount Vernon Trail
The Mount Vernon Trail (©Brooke Sabin)