Exploring Washington DC From the Potomac River

See the Bay: Discover DC and the Potomac River

Politics aside, there’s plenty to see and do in the nation’s capital, especially if you plan to explore via the Potomac River, the second larges tributary of the Chesapeake Bay (the Susquehanna being the largest).

Captain John Smith discovered the Potomac in 1608 and dubbed it the Patawomeke after an Algonquian Indian family place name for the area that is now Washington. The river runs 405 miles from Fairfax Stone Historical State Monument State Park in West Virginia to its 11-mile-wide mouth between Point Lookout in Maryland and Smith Point in Virginia.

Sailors and non-sailors know Washington, DC, in spring for its cherry blossoms and the festival along the Potomac to celebrate them.

For sailors who don’t live in the DC area, traveling the 116 miles from the river’s mouth to Washington is an investment, yet well worth it for the scenery along the way and the destination. Once you arrive at the nation’s capital, here are some suggestions for discovering the waterfront:

The Wharf

If you haven’t heard the buzz about the District Wharf, the newly developed waterfront section in southwest Washington, you may be new to the area. The Wharf Marina, a 306-slip facility for boats up to 300 feet long, welcomes transient boaters for the day, the night, or longer.

Not only do transient boaters have access to the Wharf’s wide variety of restaurants (from $4 falafel to a $60 steak dinner), shopping, live music venues, and the Municipal Fish Market, but they also have access to laundry, pumpouts, ATMs, a grocery store (five-minute walk), and the metro.

The District Wharf in Washington, DC, is a popular place to visit by foot or boat. Photo courtesy of the District Wharf

Water Taxis

You may catch a water taxi at (and travel to) the Wharf’s Transient Pier, Georgetown, Alexandria, VA, or National Harbor. If you don’t have time for a longer exploration by water, the water taxi is a great way to get where you need to go and see the sights on the river, too. You may purchase one-way and round-trip tickets, as well as daylong, weeklong, or monthly passes. Reserve tickets online.

Bike or Paddle

Boating in DC rents kayaks, paddleboard, canoes, pedal boats, swan boats, rowing sculls, sailboats, and more from seven different boathouses: Ballpark, Fletcher’s, Key Bridge, National Harbor, Thompson Boat Center, Tidal Basin, and the Wharf. You may sign up for guided daytime and sunset monument tours, full moon tours, and of course, cherry blossom tours in spring. You may take a nature tour from Fletcher’s Cove, located upriver of Georgetown before you get to the Chain Bridge. In that part of the river, it’s worth kayaking to a popular rock formation called the Three Sisters islets near the Key Bridge and also next to the deepest part of the river at 80 feet.

There’s no need to bring your own bike to DC. Capital Bikeshare offers 4500 bikes at more than 500 locations in the DC area, including two near the Wharf. Renting bikes costs $2 per hour or $8 a day for a 24-hour pass. Other options include a three-day pass, a 30-day one, or an annual membership for $85. All you do is join, find your bike station, unlock a bike, ride, and return it later. 

If you’ve never cycled in Washington, DC, you are missing out. The city boasts abundant rail trails from the 184-mile-long Chesapeake and Ohio Towpath to the 18-mile paved Mount Vernon Trail, both with great vistas of the river (find more at bikewashington.org).

Kayaking, standup paddleboarding, boating, and sailing are all available on the Potomac at Washington, DC. Photo by Katie May Dixon

Sightseeing Cruises

Seeing the monuments from the water is a must-do part of the DC experience. Hornblower cruises offers dinner, sightseeing, and holiday cruises departing from the Wharf or other locations, including Alexandria.

Boat Rentals

There are a few boat clubs that run out of the Wharf: Freedom Boat Club, Carefree Boat Club (membership club for boats from 18 to 27 feet long), and Barton and Grey Mariner’s Club (membership club for crewed Hinckley Yachts). Because these clubs require membership, they’re ideal for those who live regionally or have reason to visit DC often. Short-term visitors would be better served with water taxis, tour boats, or kayak rentals.

Take a Walk

If you’re travel weary from a long boat cruise or car ride into the nation’s capital, DC is a great place to stretch your legs and see the sights in the open air. A walk along the waterfront, whether in the newly revamped southwest part of the city, at Washington Harbor in Georgetown, or at the Tidal Basin, offers pretty views and fascinating history. Among the monuments that are reachable by foot and open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year are the Lincoln, Jefferson, National World War II, Martin Luther King, Jr., FDR, and Vietnam Veterans Memorials.

The Cantina Cup Regatta, hosted by DC Sail, which is Washington DC's community sailing center, on the Potomac River. Photo by Tom Sliter

DC Sail

DC Sail is the community sailing program of the National Maritime Heritage Foundation. Its mission is to promote and sustain affordable educational, recreational, and competitive sailing programs for all ages in a fun and safe environment. DC Sail empowers its participants to develop self-respect and sportsmanship, foster teamwork, and cultivate sailing skills and an appreciation for maritime-related activities. In addition, DC Sail enhances the DC community by using sailing to bolster community spirit and volunteerism.

Its programs, located in both Southeast and Southwest Washington, DC, are reconnecting people of the metropolitan region to the water. Sailing opportunities are available for adults and youth aboard small boats as well as DC Sail’s 65-foot schooner, American Spirit. Proceeds from programs and year-around fundraising initiatives go toward offering under-served youth the opportunity to learn to sail through DC Sail’s Youth Scholarship Program.

The annual Cantina Cup regatta, which took a year off in 2020 due to Covid-19, is currently scheduled for September 18, 2021.

Sailboat racing in DC Sail's Cantina Cup, held in September on the Potomac River. Photo by Tom Sliter

More Sailing Clubs

And don’t forget some of these other great sailing clubs and yacht clubs in the DC area:

Capital Yacht Club

Daingerfield Island Sailing Club

Pentagon Sailing Club 

Potomac River Sailing Association 

Sailing Club of Washington

Seafarers Yacht Club

Oasis Marinas in the Vicinity

All can be booked directly on your phone through Snag A Slip.

The Wharf Marina in Washington DC – The Wharf Marina is a waterfront destination for residents and visitors alike. This remarkable mile-long neighborhood along the Washington Channel of the Potomac River reestablishes Washington DC as a true waterfront city. Boaters enjoy easy access to shops, restaurants, cultural uses, hotels, music venues, free events, and public areas including waterfront parks, promenades, piers, and docks. The Wharf Marina is located just south of the National Mall, offering easy access to DC’s most beloved monuments and memorials, art venues, sporting events, and more.

National Harbor Marina in National Harbor, MD – Nestled along the Potomac River in Smoots Bay, National Harbor is home to National Harbor Marina. Enjoy all the amenities of a waterfront resort, plus world-class facilities and staff. Whether you’re a permanent boating resident or here for the day, you’ll benefit from the centralized location. Just a short hop from historic sites and a world of dining and entertainment venues, National Harbor Marina isn’t just a place to dock—it’s a destination to be discovered.

The Yards Marina in Washington, DC – The Yards Marina in Washington, DC, is a brand new, 52-slip marina located in the Yards, DC’s hottest new neighborhood. Situated on the Anacostia River, between Nationals Park and the Washington Navy Yard, the Yards Marina gives boaters direct access to the ballpark, as well as 10 square blocks of fine dining, craft breweries, luxury apartments, and popular retailers. In addition, Yards Park, which hosts a great number of special events throughout the year, is just steps from the docks.

National Cherry Blossom Festival

Washington, DC’s signature National Cherry Blossom Festival runs March 20 – April 17, 2022. The 2020 event mixed virtual and in-person programming. Stay tuned for more details about what will unfold in 2022 at nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.