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Anacostia is the popular name for the huge swathe of the capital consisting of the many neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River (often referred to as East of the River). Its heart, in the small, historic neighborhood of Anacostia, is immediately across the Frederick Douglass Bridge from the Nationals Ballpark.
Most D.C. metro area residents reflexively recoil in fear at the sound of infamous "Anacostia," known only for its extreme poverty, prowess in homicide statistics, and the ever lurking danger of accidentally crossing that river and falling into a panic attack, hopelessly lost among its labyrinthine streets.
This is all more than a little melodramatic and misinformed. There are a bunch of good reasons to add a day trip to D.C. East of the River on your itinerary. First and foremost, with its unusually rural character and extreme poverty, Anacostia is so different from the rest of the city that no serious traveler could be bored. The fact that such a place could exist so incongruously in the shadows of the nation's capital is reason enough to send a tingle up a curious traveler's spine when crossing the Anacostia River.
But the most important reason to visit is simply to better appreciate the area's rich history, which served as home to notable residents from Frederick Douglass to Ezra Pound, Marvin Gaye, and the infamous former mayor of D.C., Marion Barry (who was jailed for (literally) smoking crack in office). There are two excellent small museums here to help visitors do just that—the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum and the Frederick Douglass House.
Once covered by marshy swamplands, the region was first inhabited by a small settlement of Nacochtank Native Americans, who gave the Anacostia River its name. (The marshes have since been drained, save the beautiful preserve at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.) The area began to be developed as a part of the nation's capital in the 1850s, when Uniontown was developed as an affordable neighborhood for workers employed at Navy Yard across the river. The neighborhood soon after gained one very famous resident just to the southeast in the abolitionist, prominent black intellectual, and former vice presidential candidate, Frederick Douglass, who at the time became known as the Sage of Anacostia. Prevented from living in Uniontown proper by segregation laws, he built his house just outside at Cedar Hill.
Beginning with the Civil War, D.C. East of the River experienced a military-fueled construction boom, as the North set to defend the capital against incursions from Confederate Virginia, and to protect Navy Yard from Confederate artillery, with a ring of forts in the region's hilly terrain. The forts have since been dismantled, but the sites of the two most notable forts, Fort Stanton and Fort Greble, have been turned into parks.
Most of the Anacostia's development took place in the early 20th century, particularly during The Great Migration of southern African-Americans to the North, and during World War I, when the U.S. government built the Anacostia Naval Station and Bolling Airforce Base.
Post World War II, Anacostia underwent rapid and dramatic demographic change—from a population that was nearly 90% white to one that was (and is) over 90% black. The first catalyst for such dramatic neighborhood change was the construction of I-295, the Anacostia Freeway, which cut off the entire population of Greater Anacostia from the waterfront. Second, during the 1950s there was a large influx of new African-American residents—not coincidentally at the same time as the federal government made the D.C. public school system the first fully integrated system in the country in 1950. By 1957, the city became the nation's first majority black city, with a good deal of the city's African-American population living in the communities of Greater Anacostia which had been founded by free blacks as early as before the Civil War. The third catalyst was the creation of many massive public housing structures East of the River, which concentrated D.C.'s poorest residents in areas far away from the city center and its services and amenities.
The corresponding White Flight in the 1950s of white residents from old communities such as Uniontown (now known as Historic Anacostia) took with it most of the community infrastructure and wealth. Anacostia, always the poorest section of D.C., badly needed investment from the federal government (which administered the city), but investment was not forthcoming; as a result, D.C. East of the River suffered, and continues to suffer, from chronic neglect.
There are, however, reasons for an optimistic vision of Anacostia's future, as the crime rate has plummeted since the peak in the early 1990s, and the city under home rule has renewed its efforts to help Anacostia grow.
The biggest issues of the day in Anacostia remain drug crime and the disastrous public schools. A great read for visitors to the area is Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Suskind's A Hope in the Unseen. The biography chronicles the exceptionally rare journey of Cedric Jennings, a student at the abysmal Ballou High, who managed to escape the usual fate of Anacostia's high school students and go on to Brown University.
The historic Downtown Anacostia neighborhood is easy enough to reach by Metro. Take the Green Line to the Anacostia Station, then walk out to Martin Luther King Jr Dr and turn left to walk north a half of a mile to the historic center. (To skip the walk, you can take the B2 Metrobus towards Mt Rainier.) On foot, you could easily see the Big Chair, historic center, grab some take out from Cole's, and then visit the Frederick Douglass House.
You could walk from the Anacostia Station to the Anacostia Museum up Morris Rd, but it's a hilly mile and a half walk, and Morris is a lonely road for visitors to be walking on. Take the bus instead.
The Kenilworth Gardens are further from downtown, but still easy to reach via Metro. Exit the Deanwood stop on the Orange Line. Take the pedestrian overpass across Kenilworth Avenue and go left on Douglas Street. Go right on Anacostia and enter any open gate on your left. It's about a half mile walk to the gate.
Anacostia is well served by bus. The B2 runs from the Anacostia Green Line Station up Martin Luther King Jr Dr, then Minnesota Ave, and then across the Pennsylvania Ave Bridge to the Blue/Orange/Silver Line Potomac Avenue Station, and on to RFK Stadium. The northbound route passes right in front of the Frederick Douglass House (southbound requires you walk a block from MLK Jr Dr).
For the Anacostia Museum, walk out to the W2/W3 bus stop on Howard Ave (in front of the Anacostia Metro stop). Either bus will take you right to the museum's doorstep. On the way back, for the heck of it, you could pick up the W2/W3 where you left off and take a meandering scenic route through Naylor Gardens, Garfield Heights, Shipley Terrace, and Douglass to the Congress Heights Green Line stop.
A car is a very convenient way to visit Anacostia (since on-street parking is easy pretty much anywhere), and is the best way to really get to know D.C. East of the River. I-295 (SW Fwy) and DC-295 (Anacostia Fwy/Kenilworth Ave) are the main highways, which will quickly shuttle you east and west around this district. Other major thoroughfares relevant for visitors include Martin Luther King Dr especially, but also S Capitol St, Pennsylvania Ave, and Minnesota Ave.
From downtown D.C., the most attractive route across the river is the 11th St Bridge (I-295), which provides spectacular views of Historic Anacostia going south, and even more amazing views of the Capitol heading north. It also dumps you off right at the intersection of MLK Jr Dr and Good Hope Rd, making it very convenient for visiting downtown Anacostia. The other two bridges heading south from downtown are at S Capitol St and Pennsylvania Ave. To drive to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens from downtown, it really doesn't matter which bridge you take—just get on DC-295 going east (Anacostia Fwy/Kenilworth Ave). It's tricky to get off at the right point, though—you must be on the southbound side of Kenilworth Ave, so make a U-turn at the city border, then get in the service lane to turn right on Douglas St, then right on Anacostia Ave, which will take you right to the park gates.
Coming from the Capital Region of Maryland, take the exit 22B off I-495/I-95 for MD-295 (Baltimore-Washington Pkwy), which will turn into DC-295 after you enter the city. The simplest way to get to downtown Anacostia is to take DC-295 to continue on I-295 southbound, to exit 3B and turn left on Howard Ave, then turn left on MLK Jr Dr.
From Northern Virginia, get on the Beltway (I-495/I-95) going east to exit 2A-B to get on I-295 northbound.
OK, canoe is not a very practical way to visit Anacostia, but it is by far the most fun. The Anacostia River is easily navigable by canoe, and there are several places to launch: Anacostia Park, Bladensburg Park (in Bladensburg, Maryland), and the public boat ramp at Langston Golf Course in the east of Capitol Hill.
The main destinations for a canoer are the Anacostia Park, which covers much of Anacostia's waterfront, and of course the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, to which you can simply pull right up and disembark. It's important to watch the tides, though, since at low tide you won't get anywhere near the gardens. If you haven't canoed on the Anacostia before, pay the Anacostia Watershed Society's website a visit.
The principal sights—the ones you have to see in order to lay claim to having visited Anacostia—are the Smithsonian museum, the Frederick Douglass House, and, of course, the Big Chair. The two museums are small but excellent, and the latter attraction is a good photo op! The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are a destination in their own right, and merit a visit during the summer even if you are otherwise uninterested in visiting Anacostia.
America's Islamic Heritage Museumphone: +1 202 610-0586address: 2315 Martin Luther King Junior Avenue SEMuch of the museum's content is displayed on a series of panels covering a diverse set of personalities including Estevanico, Omar ibn Said, Hajj Ali, Yarrow Mamout, and Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb. It makes note of America's unique ethnic groups and migration patterns, including the hard to define Melungeons and the immigration of Bosnian Muslims starting in the 19th century. There is an extensive section on the Nation of Islam with old newspapers, photographs and other memorabilia.
phone: +1 202 633-4820address: 1901 Fort Place SEThe Smithsonian's least visited museum, far from the Mall, is a small but superbly exhibited tribute to Anacostia and D.C. "East of the River", and also to African-American history.
The Big Chairaddress: 2101 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SEThe Big Chair is Anacostia's most recognized landmark, and it sits right in downtown Anacostia on MLK Jr Ave. It was erected in 1959 as an advertisement for the now closed Curtis Brothers Furniture Store across the street, and at the time of its creation, it was reputed to be the largest chair in the world - high and .
Historic UniontownThe heart of historic Uniontown is bounded by MLK Jr Ave, Good Hope Dr, 14th St, and W St SE. In this community of well preserved, wooden, Gothic houses, look especially for the colorful Rosie's Row of townhouses on the north side of U St just west of 13th, and for the 1879 St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church at 1244 V St SE. The neighborhood is small enough where you could easily cover it on foot from the Frederick Douglass House and downtown Anacostia, and you would race through all there is to see in a car.
Fort Stanton Overlookaddress: 1600 Morris Rd SEFort Stanton was the first of dozens in the "Fort Circle" designed to protect the capital from Confederate attacks during the Civil War. All that remains is a historic marker, but the real attraction is the superb view of the capital from this high, grassy hill behind the church parking lot.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Sitephone: +1 202 426-5961address: 1411 W Street SEFrederick Douglass' house in D.C. In addition to the small museum and gift shop, you may visit the house, but only on a tour. Tours are available by RSVP at 9AM, 12:15PM, 1:45PM, 3PM, and 3:30PM daily.
phone: +1 202 536-8994address: 1241 Good Hope Rd SEThe Honfleur Gallery has one foot in the world of international contemporary art, and one foot in Anacostia. The world inside, with its large, beautiful space stocked with a surround sound system and flat screen TVs, looks like it would be more at home in Manhattan than, well, Anacostia. But it is run by a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting the arts in the world just outside, and in bringing them together with its annual East of the River showcase of local artists' work.
phone: +1 202 426-6905address: 1550 Anacostia Avenue NEThe only aquatic gardens managed by the National Park Service in the country is a marvelous off-the-beaten-path destination in D.C. The Kenilworth marsh is all that remains of the vast marshlands that once covered the riverbanks of the Anacostia (before being dredged for development), and is the only place where you can really imagine the District before it became America's capital. The prime attraction are the cultivated ponds, full of waterlilies, but it's also a worthy destination for the riverfront trail, greenhouses, and birdwatching. The best time to visit is without a doubt on an early summer morning, when the waterlilies are in full bloom. Free summer garden tours are available Sa-Su 9AM & 11AM (Memorial Day-Labor Day).
address: 2700 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SEWhy visit a mental hospital? Because the historic grounds and buildings are beautiful (if a little run-down and creepy). On top of that, you can see some great views from here of the D.C. skyline. The hospital was founded in 1852 as the first major government-run mental institution, and at its peak housed 7,000 patients, which at one point included both President Lincoln's and President Garfield's assassins. The hospital still operates, but on a much reduced scale. The Department of Homeland Security has plans to relocate here in 2021. Construction may have already started, as money for the purpose was requested in the 2016 Federal budget. You aren't really supposed to drive into the facility, but a little smooth talking at the gate may get an architecture buff inside. The east campus, owned by the District instead of the federal government, is being redeveloped. The centerpiece of the east campus is a newly opened arena that became home to the Capital City Go-Go, the NBA G League farm team of the Washington Wizards, in 2018. Once the 2018–19 G League season ends, the WNBA's (women) Washington Mystics (whose season falls during the NBA offseason) will begin playing in the new arena. The complex also serves as the practice facility for the Wizards, whose parent company also owns the Mystics and Go-Go.
phone: +1 301 779-0371address: 4601 Annapolis Road, Bladensburg, MDBladensburg Waterfront Park is just outside the city boundaries to the east, and offers free river boat tours along the Anacostia River, accompanied by a park naturalist. They also rent canoes, kayaks, paddle boats, and rowboats Sa Su 10AM-6PM.
phone: +1 202 584-5007address: 3779 Ely Pl SEA very nice non-profit-run public ice rink (the only indoor public ice rink in the city, actually) in Fort Dupont Park. While it's probably not worth the effort to get way out here just for ice skating, if you're in the area, it's fun.
phone: +1 202 690-5169address: Fort Dupont Dr SEThe National Park Service puts on well-attended weekly summer jazz concerts at the Fort Dupont Park Theatre. To get to the stage, turn right on Fort Dupont Dr off of Randle Circle (at the intersection of Massachusetts & Minnesota Aves). Check the events calendar on the website for specifics.
Eat and drink
The old canard that there are no sit-down restaurants east of the Anacostia River is certainly false today, and probably was always a... suburban legend. But still, full-service establishments are rare here. Most places will serve patrons through glass, with perhaps a table or two, but mostly geared towards carry-out. Exceptions to this rule though have been and are multiplying. There's even a 24/7 option at the Denny's (a particularly well-run location) at 4445 Benning Rd NE by the Benning Rd Metro stop.
There are big hopes to turn Martin Luther King Jr Ave near the Big Chair into a thriving commercial corridor, and it's probably more a question of when than a question of if, naysayers be damned. Uniontown Bar & Grill, a full-service restaurant and sports bar, was the physical embodiment of this idea, and was fabulously successful in a neighborhood starved for such options. But irony and metaphor were lurking in the shadows—the proprietor was evicted after pleading to charges of cocaine trafficking in 2012. That was a big blow psychologically, but the place has bounced back in late 2013 under new management as Cedar Hill Grill & Bar, which looks to be bigger and better than the original, and without the drug baroness.
If you're looking for a place to go out and drink (legally), options are limited, but there are a few good ones: look for Big Chair Bar & Grill, Cedar Hill Bar & Grill, and Player's Lounge.
phone: +1 202 575-9464address: 2863 Alabama Ave SEIn a strip mall by the more upscale Hillcrest neighborhood, this is probably southeast's most popular spot for wings. In addition to mild, hot, and nuclear, they have flavors like garlic & parmesan, teriyaki, Old Bay, Thai chili, Jamaican jerk, etc. The seafood and sandwiches are also popular.
phone: +1 202 525-4287address: 2122 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SEConceived as a coffeeshop, this spot across the street from the Big Chair has found its true calling as Anacostia's take on the bar from Cheers. That is, great and sometimes loud music (with DJs and occasional live bands!), Jamaican food off the grill, and really friendly locals. So you can still stop in for a basic diner-esque breakfast, but the real fun is after folks get out of work, when you can stop in, grab a beer or a stiff cocktail, and make friends while watching the Skins or the Nats. Or stop in late for some dancing! The events schedule is sometimes posted on the Facebook page.
Cedar Hill Bar & Grillphone: +1 202 450-2536address: 2200 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SEOut of the ashes and dirty laundry of Uniontown Bar & Grill comes a full-service bar & grill named Cedar Hill, after the eponymous hill up the street on which lived one Frederick Douglass. It's quite new (July 2013), which means your experience may be unpredictable, but it really is the symbolic hub of the efforts to move Anacostia into the 21st century, and very much worth checking out. It proudly boasts (as of late 2013) Ward 8's only tap—including a draft microbrew! Some specialty cocktails too. The big plan is to open the second floor as a music venue, so be on the lookout for big things here.
Mama's Kitchenphone: +1 202 678-6262address: 1208 Mapleview Pl SEMama's is pretty new on the scene, but it's a very popular take-out counter with some seating, great pizza and sandwiches, and unexceptional but good ribs. Bread is made on the premises by the friendly Turkish owners, which makes those sandwiches a really good bet!
The Pizza Placephone: +1 202 561-0060address: 2910 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SEIt's not a best kept secret that Congress Heights has one of the city's best pizza places. It's not a secret at all because, simply put, no one realizes this! But this is indeed some of the best New York-ish style pizza in the metro area. They'll spend a good half hour from the time you order cooking it, and that's always a good sign that you are getting pizza that's properly made and fresh out of the oven. It's meant for takeout or delivery, but there is a small table with two seats. Subs are also a cheaper option, but the pizza is the real reason to come. Rare among takeout east of the river, they accept credit cards.
phone: +1 202 582-6595address: 4405 Bowen Rd SEThe authentic Jamaican food here, plus the fresh ginger and fruit smoothies, is probably the number one pure culinary reason to head east of the Anacostia. This bright little carryout place is out of the way, but is one of the best examples of what a neighborhood carryout can be.
Player's Loungephone: +1 202 574-1331address: 2737 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SEOne of Anacostia's few full service establishments is a comfortable, stylish place for some drinks and a meal. It's way out of the way, but it's a nice family-run establishment catering to a crowd in their thirties and older, local politicians (it was Marion Barry's favorite until his death in 2014), and the twenty-somethings when the DJ arrives on Friday and Saturday nights (great R&B here). The kitchen closes at an early 8:30PM daily, so make sure to show up before then if you want to try their renowned soul food.
phone: +1 202 562-0041address: 3923 S Capitol St SWThe name "Secrets" is right—this is one of the best vegetarian-health food restaurants in D.C. and it's tucked away in Bellevue at the extreme southern tip of the city. It's centered on a health food store, with a cafe like section for eating.
Shop Expressphone: +1 202 399-6955address: 3900 Benning Rd NESo Ray's hip, gourmet steakhouse around the corner didn't make it. So what to do for good food in Deanwood? The answer is a ways downscale from Ray's the Steaks, but the fried chicken prepared at this gas station-looking convenience store is shockingly good, especially if you get it fresh. Business really picks up most nights after midnight, so if you don't mind hanging out on this corner after midnight, that's the time to go! Skip the fries.
Wah Sing Restaurantphone: +1 202 581-4500address: 2521 Pennsylvania Ave SEThis modest Chinese restaurant and (full) bar has been here a good 30 years, which should raise questions about those claims of no sit-down restaurants East of the River! And the food is a good deal better than you might expect—it's notably less greasy than most Chinese restaurants (especially those on this side of town).
Accommodations are extremely scarce in Anacostia. You will almost certainly have better luck looking elsewhere for a hotel. There are accommodations on the military base, but those are only available to those who have official business there (i.e., people actually allowed on the base). If you are intent on staying East of the River, the closest you'll get are the hotels in Suitland, Maryland, fifteen minutes away, by the junction of I-495/I-95 and Branch Ave.
phone: +1 202 715-7707address: 1800 Good Hope Rd SE
In the time-honored words of former Mayor Marion Barry, "Outside the killings, D.C. has one of the lowest crime rates in the country." This was considered in poor taste at the time, and rather inaccurate, but it contains at least a nugget of truth. With the one exception of homicides, D.C. East of the River actually sees a good deal less violent crime than the trendy north central neighborhoods—you are less likely to be assaulted, mugged, etc. here than in Adams Morgan! Big deal, you say—you'd rather get mugged than shot to death. But muggings are always a far greater problem for travelers. They often target visitors unfamiliar with their surroundings, and occur with far greater frequency than rare, but highly publicized homicides. The type of violence here is far less likely to affect visitors than residents. It's quite unlikely that you will experience anything dangerous walking down main streets during the day, especially in the Historic Anacostia neighborhood.
Which are those main streets? When visiting the "downtown" neighborhood, stick to MLK Jr Ave and Good Hope Rd, and the side streets in Historic Uniontown around Frederick Douglass' House. Walking from the Deanwood Metro station to the Kenilworth Marshes at night would be a bad idea, but there isn't much reason to be there after dark anyway.
- Prince George's County surrounds Anacostia on all sides not bounded by the river, and serves an interesting contrast to the city's poorest district. Though a suburb, PG County is in places more densely populated, has far more commerce, and is indeed the wealthiest majority-black county in the United States. NASA's visitor center is just up DC/MD-295 by the beltway, and when combined with the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, makes a great itinerary (especially if you are traveling with kids).
- For more of D.C.'s African-American history, the mecca is Shaw, which served as home to D.C.'s Black Broadway in the early 20th century.