5 Ways to Get on the Water in Washington, DC

Paddleboarders on the Potomac
Paddleboarders on the Potomac Alan Kotok
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To a Taoist, water is considered an aspect of wisdom. To Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, being in the water '...is normal for me. It's my home.' To most of us living in the mid-Atlantic area during the dead of summer, any way onto the water amounts to ten degrees off of the maximum amount of heat and humidity one can possibly stand—to us, getting on the water is the ultimate cool down.

Yet, we don’t get on the water for that reason alone. Water sports provide a variety of ways to get an outdoor workout, which is super important to those living in a city that was just named for the second year in a row the fittest in the country. So you see, DC's waterways offer divine opportunities for exercise and relaxation while allowing us to explore areas of the U.S. capitol and surrounding landscapes as well.

Here, some of the District’s favorite ways to splash off the day.

1. Flat Water Paddling

Kayakers alongside the Georgetown Waterfront near Key Bridge Boathouse
Kayakers alongside the Georgetown Waterfront near Key Bridge Boathouse

Be it the C&O Canal or the Georgetown Waterfront, you really can’t beat the flat water paddling options in downtown DC. Excursions guide you alongside some of DC's best-loved monuments and at the same time, expose you to nature and wildlife that is unique to the region. For just a small amount of money you can paddle away from city life—stand up, sit down; solo or partnered up. "It’s $20 for a double kayak for one hour," commented one of the staff members at Georgetown’s Key Bridge Boathouse , "you can't go on a date anywhere in the city for that price!"

2. Whitewater River Kayaking

White Water Kayaker on Great Falls in the Potomac River
White Water Kayaker on Great Falls in the Potomac River Potomac Paddle Sports

If you’re an old lick at flat-water paddling and want to go bigger—the  Potomac River attracts some of the best whitewater kayakers in the world. With class 1-6 rapids weaving across a two-mile-wide stretch of river, this area is an excellent place to learn and to practice old trades and new tricks. Beginners and advanced students come from all over to attend a variety of classes in all skill levels. Whether you want to learn the fundamentals or participate in advanced workshops that teach you how to control your roll, there are several excellent companies in the area that offer classes on the Potomac for beginners, intermediates, and for those with specialized needs.

3. Paddle Boating on the Tidal Basin

Peddle Boaters among the monuments in DC's Tidal Basin
Peddle Boaters among the monuments in DC's Tidal Basin Wikimedia Commons

You don’t have to go big to get on the water, enjoying it with ease can be just as nice. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a place more popular to hop on a boat than in DC’s Tidal Basin—especially during the spring cherry blossom season, and during the summer season as well.

This family-friendly, fit-for-all-ages activity is one of the most popular in Washington and with good reason—paddle boat rentals are placed right along the edges of the basin where you can easily launch into a relaxing day among the monuments and beneath wide open spaces that the city has arranged with its strict anti-sky-rise laws.

Lazy outings here will bring you around the perimeters of the Jefferson Memorial and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial while copters fly west toward Arlington Cemetery with the Washington Monument towering skyward overhead.

4. Cruising the Potomac

River cruise on DC's National Harbor at sunset
River cruise on DC's National Harbor at sunset Potomac River Boat Company

For many, just being on the water with no output is ideal—this outing is for them. Potomac River Sightseeing Cruises  takes you from various spots along DC's waterfronts to historic spots such as George and Martha Washington’s home in Mount Vernon , along the DC monuments; to Nationals Stadium for some major league baseball, and to Alexandria for an afternoon of tasting local dishes. If none of that suits your fancy, water taxi's cater to private events, charters, and host themed parties such as canine cruises—that’s right, cruises for fido.

5. Swim DC’s Free Pools

Marie Reed Community Center free pool in Adam's Morgan marks the start of the 2015 summer
Marie Reed Community Center free pool in Adam's Morgan marks the start of the 2015 summer DC Parks and Recreation

Take it easy on the water this summer and save your bucks for bigger expeditions by visiting one of DC's free pools to swim laps, sunbathe, or simply to splash around in the water. While the Potomac River is swimmable in most areas, others areas are stricken with undercurrents that can be unsafe. Rather than taking a chance, many locals head to pools where people of all ages can dunk their heads, enjoy, and swim to their heart's content.

Here are some of the best pools within DC’s city limits in all four quadrants:

Northwest DC

Adams Morgan

Nestled away in the Adams Morgan/Kalorama neighborhood is the Marie Reed Pool—with 25 lap lanes, free swim areas, and lessons.


One of DC’s highest-end community aquatic centers, Wilson Aquatic Center in Tenleytown has an Olympic size pool, spa sized whirlpool, and relaxation pool.

Volta Public Pool/NW

This small outdoor pool on the outer edge of Georgetown just off of Wisconsin Avenue has a free swim area, one lap pool, and space to sunbathe. It’s popular so plan to arrive just before opening to ensure a spot.

Northeast DC


Turkey Thicket is one of the newer pools in the District; with lanes for laps, area for free swim, lessons, and a kiddie pool.

Southeast DC

Eastern Market

The William H. Rumsey Aquatic Center is a terrific pool for families and friends, right in the heart of Eastern Market.

Southwest DC

Haines Point/East Potomac Pool / SW

Sitting alongside the Potomac River and Haines Point Golf Club, this Olympic-size pool is a community favorite.

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