“You had me at ‘free water jitney,’” my friend told me. I had just described the delightful romp my family had in DC for my birthday: mini-golf, free boat ride, lobster rolls, and ice cream on a pier. Yes. All of those things, right here in DC. The night before my birthday, we had no plan. But it turned into one of my favorite birthdays ever. It was such a perfectly fun day that my friend repeated our adventures two days later with her family and also loved it.
You can have this day too! If you’re feeling the itch to get in one more day of summer vacation fun but you can’t afford to get to the beach, fear not. The District of Columbia has you covered.
There were once upwards of 30 miniature golf courses in D.C., in the heyday of mini-golf in the 1930’s. Now only one outdoor course remains in the District, East Potomac Miniature Golf on Hains Point. It is the oldest continually operating mini-golf in the country and is on the National Register for Historic Places. It is also simple, timeless fun for the whole family.
I will admit I have biked or run past this course countless times, and never once stopped. To be honest, for years I did not even think it was open. But mini-golf is alive and well on Hains Point, and it is a delight.
The course features a classic design with 18 holes, including some that still follow the original design from the 1930s. My children, ages 4 and 7, said it was “the best mini-golf ever.” (Admittedly, their sample size is pretty small.) But my husband and I also really enjoyed the course. The holes are challenging enough for adults to have fun too. (I wanted to go back and repeat some!)
What this mini-golf does not have are a lot of bells and whistles. There are no theme decorations or flair. But for us, it added to the charm of the outing. We were just there to have fun together as a family, putting balls through tiny obstacle courses, as folks have done at this course for 87 years.
Verdant mini-golf in the middle of a city is almost magical enough, but the fun did not stop there. Next up on our summer romp: a boat ride. We took the free water jitney, a small water taxi, across the Washington Channel to enjoy the fun and flavors of District Wharf, the new development along the waterfront in southwest Washington.
The jitney ferries passengers back and forth from Hains Point to “recreation pier” at District Wharf. It is a very short ride, but what a pleasant way to travel.
When we rode the water jitney, we had to wait for only a minute for it to come pick us up from the small boat landing across from the golf course. The water was pretty busy that day, but this is one traffic jam I can enjoy: boats, kayaks, and paddle boarders were everywhere.
If your family is ready for more time on the water, you can rent kayaks or paddle boards from The Wharf Boathouse.
A good staycation day ought to conclude with a toast. District Wharf is full of great options for food and drink, with dozens of new restaurants in the development.
My family usually likes to walk down the pier and take in another frequently overlooked historic gem, the Municipal Fish Market. The fish market claims to be the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the United States! Seafood barges sell fresh or cooked seafood. We often pick up a platter of fried shrimp or fish and eat it outside overlooking the water.
For my birthday excursion, we kept with our beach vacation vibe and got lobster rolls from Red Hook Lobster Pound. (My picky eater child LOVED them.) We topped off our afternoon with gelato from Dolcezza, a family favorite. Dolcezza’s location at the Wharf even has soft-serve gelato. I did not think Dolcezza gelato could get more delicious, but the soft serve machine proved me wrong.
Originally, I had been hoping to go out of town for my birthday. But sitting on the pier, eating my gelato, watching the sun sink lower in the sky over a cavalcade of boats, there was no place I would rather be. I have lived in D.C. for 18 years, but the city is still full of surprises. Find one yourself in these dog days of summer!
What you need to know
Getting there: Hains Point is between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel, just a quarter mile from the National Mall. The man-made island is a popular spot for cyclists and runners. You can walk or bike there. Or you can drive and take advantage of the free parking (gasp!). Shuttle buses run to Hains Point during the Cherry Blossom festival in late March-early April.
Tickets: You can buy your mini-golf passes on-site at East Potomac Miniature Golf. Adults can golf for $7 each. Kids and seniors pay $6.
Water jitney: The free water jitney runs back and forth from East Potomac Park to the District Wharf’s recreation pier. It runs daily from April-November. The water taxi closes 30 minutes before sunset every day. The jitney opens at 10 am Monday-Friday and at 9 am on Saturdays and Sundays. In December-March, the water jitney will run on weekends and holidays only. Check the current status here.