Many Washingtonians who live west of the Anacostia River know little about historic Anacostia beyond the stereotypes, and as a result rarely patronize its restaurants or experience its natural and cultural amenities. That’s a shame, because Anacostia played a unique role in local history and culture, and there are a lot of fun things to do in the area.
To help you get started, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best places to visit and noted why they’re so special. Of course, there are often undiscovered gems in our own backyards, so locals may benefit from this list too!
A little about Anacostia
First, a bit of history. The name “Anacostia” derives from the anglicized name of the Nacochtank Native Americans who lived on the banks of the river. Captain John Smith is said to have sailed down the Anacostia in 1608 while searching for the main branch of the Potomac River.
Fast forward a couple centuries: Uniontown, as the area was then known, was incorporated within the Anacostia Historic District as one of the first DC suburbs. According to the National Park Service, it was designed to be financially available to some of DC’s working class. However, like many neighborhoods in DC, this subdivision prohibited the sale, rental, or lease of property to any “Negro, Mulatto, or anyone of African or Irish descent.”
However, by 1880, 15 percent of the neighborhood’s residents were African American. In 1886, the name of the neighborhood officially changed from Uniontown to Anacostia. Today, about 99 percent of Anacostia residents identify as black.
Anacostia specifically refers to the neighborhood along and near Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave SE and Good Hope Road SE. Some people unfamiliar with the area call everything east of the Anacostia River "Anacostia," but locals strongly object, noting that there are many, many neighborhoods there.
I’d like to share what you can’t miss in this vibrant neighborhood.
Here are some of the best things to do
1901 Fort Place SE
DC’s many museums and monuments pay homage to national and global history, but the Anacostia Community Museum is the place to visit to learn more about the history of Washington, DC. Possibly the most under-the-radar Smithsonian, this museum hosts regular films and discussions and features exhibits about history, diversity, and culture.
This year, the museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an exhibit devoted to the work it has done throughout the community. If you like what you see, you can also sign up to become a volunteer.
1411 W Street SE
Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery and eventually freed, was a statesman best known for his firsthand accounts of slavery as well as his civil rights activism throughout the 19th century. What many people don’t know is that Douglass made a home with his wife and children atop Cedar Hill right in Anacostia.
Cedar Hill, a Department of Interior National Historic Site, offers a small museum and a short film documenting Douglass’ life as well as tours of the property. Be sure to climb to the top of Cedar Hill for one of the best views in the entire city.
Corner of Martin Luther King Junior Ave and V St SE
Curtis Brothers Furniture Store closed its doors long ago, but the large outdoor chair still stands tall (at a whopping 19 feet, to be exact). The chair was built in the early 20th century, so it has seen its fair share of neighborhood changes.
It is certainly not meant for sitting, but some locals will tell you that they have climbed it (or at least attempted to) in their day.
If you want to experience the city's natural habitat and get away from traffic, why not bike or walk the beautiful Anacostia Riverwalk trail?
Not only does this path provide a scenic option for city-dwellers, it also connects cyclists and pedestrians to various commercial, recreational, and residential locations across the city including Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, which hosts the annual Lotus and Water Lily Festival celebrating global culture in the wild wetlands of the park.
DC is a city of neighborhoods, and in turn a city of murals. Anacostia’s murals are particularly spectacular because they highlight themes of diversity and community.
Don’t miss the “Many Voices, Many Beats, One City” mural located at MLK Market on Martin Luther King Ave and Howard Road SE, which honors the Godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown.
Cross over to Anacostia by way of the Frederick Douglass Bridge and soak up the sun with gorgeous views of the Anacostia River. It's particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset.
1231 Good Hope Road SE
Located in the heart of downtown Anacostia, the Arts Center provides a space for DC’s creative community to come together. It's home to Art-drenaline Café, which specializes in locally-sourced and freshly prepared food and drink with an international flavor.
The arts center also hosts performances in its black box theater and art shows in its gallery space, as well as pop-up stores and boutiques. Mahogany Books, a bookstore that promotes reading, writing, and cultural awareness in the African American community, is slated to open at the center before the end of the year.
2020 Shannon Place SE
Formerly known as the H Street Playhouse when it was located on H street NE, the playhouse helped revitalize the main street and the greater neighborhood around H street Corridor.
The theater reopened in 2013 as the Anacostia Playhouse in Historic Anacostia, a neighborhood the website refers to as one of “both rich with history and great promise.” The space currently hosts readings, plays, concerts, fundraisers, and extra-curricular activities.
1241 Good Hope Road SE
Located between Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and 13th Street SE, this contemporary art space hosts exhibitions from both American and international artists. The gallery is open on Wednesday through Saturday from 12:00 to 7:00 PM, and by appointment.
1500 Anacostia Drive SE
The only roller skating rink in the National Park Service, the Anacostia roller skating pavilion boasts “fun for the whole family” — and it doesn’t disappoint. Roller skate rentals are free with valid ID, and on summer weekends visitors can dance to DJ music on the open air rink. The pavilion is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
2315 Martin Luther King Jr Avenue SE
The Islamic Heritage Museum is a project from Collections & Stories of American Muslims, a nonprofit based in Ward 8. The museum aims to educate people about the rich history of Muslims in America.
The museum is open on Tuesday through Sunday from 12:00 PM to 5:00 pm. Admission is $7.00 for adults, and $5.00 for Students and Seniors.
2200 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SE
For food, drink, and entertainment in historic Anacostia, be sure to visit Uniontown bar and grill, whose name is a nod to the history of the neighborhood.
In addition to happy hour specials from 4:00 to 7:00 PM, the bar also hosts nightly events, including comedy night Wednesdays and live band Saturdays.
1208 Maple View Pl SE
Hungry for a delicious meal? Caribbean Citations has you covered. Be sure to go on one of the “Discount Days,” where Government employees, teachers and staff, and metro workers eat for less.
In keeping with its community-minded ethos, Caribbean Citations also provides daily discounts for first responders, military, police, and firefighters.
Anacostia Park, between Anacostia Drive and Good Hope Road SE
The Anacostia River Festival is a premier event of the National Cherry Blossom festival. The free festival invites DC residents and visitors alike to celebrate the Anacostia River by renting a canoe, playing lawn games, and exploring the Southeast DC arts scene.
1201 Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE
A work of art by DC-based sculptor Wilfredo Valladares, “Journey Anacostia” reflects the "diverse history and heritage of the Anacostia community and seeks to inspire the viewer to establish a dialogue on the interconnection of the past, present and future of Anacostia."
This public art installation is a joint project between the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development.
If you're feeling overwhelmed by this massive list, don't fret! You can see many of these sites in one day. Simply exit at Anacostia Metro station and follow the neighborhood heritage trail, An East of the River View: Anacostia Heritage Trail.
"The trail takes you through Historic Anacostia, including the Frederick Douglass home," says Steven E. Shulman, executive director of Cultural Tourism DC. "With 20 stops along the way, you can spend an afternoon taking in the neighborhood and its must-see sites."
What do you like to do in the neighborhood? Did I miss your favorite spot?
This post has been updated with a quote from Steven E. Shulman.