The very first game that I went to as a 5-year-old kid was a Montreal Expos game at old Jarry Park. This connected me to the team early. As such, some of my all-time favorite players played in the great city of Montreal: Ellis Valentine, Rusty Staub, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and Warren Cromartie. When they moved to DC, I disavowed the franchise even though I knew they were there because of the mis-dealings of Jeffrey Loria and not due to some nefarious doings of the Washington ownership. They became “just another team”.
Having also seen old Expos games in Olympic Stadium and having caught the Washington Nationals at RFK and eventually their new digs, this is the only franchise for whom I’ve seen a home game in four stadiums over the course of my life. And of those 4, their current home is by far the best. In fairness, that’s not saying much; the others were either temporary or (in the case of The Big O) lousy.
Nationals Park suffers a little from raised expectations met by a solid if unspectacular delivery. After seeing a slew of amazing parks go up before it, hope was the national pastime would get a cathedral to behold in the nation’s capital. Nationals Park is perfectly nice, but the hope was for amazing.
Exterior aesthetics 8/10; Interior & Concourse Aesthetics 9/10; Sightlines & seating 8/10; Amenities & entertainment 9/10; Flow 5/5; Celebrating history 3/5; Scoreboards 4/5; Grand entrance 4/5; Sense of place 5/10; WOW Factor 19/30. Total 74 points divided by 2 for 37.
Instead of doing another red brick retro park, the Nationals went with something more reminiscent of The National Mall. Hence a lot of translucent glass, steel and concrete. Critics call it boring and reminiscent of a suburban office park. Fans call it understated, innovative vis-à-vis the faux red brick buildings, and fitting of its surroundings. I’m somewhere in between.
- Sightlines are generally good with the seats angling toward then infield
- While recent construction has made it all but impossible to get a view of the capitol from the ballpark, there is a nice view of the Washington Monument from right field
- Concourses are wide, with the field in view from the lower deck in all spots but the area immediately behind Homeplate
- There are some nice murals celebrating the history of Washington Senators baseball
- The centerfield gate where most arrive, while somewhat plainer than other “Grand Entrances”, opens from the street and just sort of invites you to come inside. The underused home plate interest on the other side of the park is the real “front door” and greets you with three statues of Washington greats (Walter Johnson, Frank Howard, Josh Gibson).
- There are a few social areas in which to congregate and have drink with a view of the game
- If you’re lucky enough to get into to one, the premium seating lounges are among the best in baseball
- There isn’t really a defining feature inside that makes the park uniquely Washington. The closest is the bluestone backstop, but that’s more for the TV audience than the ones in the park. The cherry blossom trees out in left field come closest, but those are really only around for a week or so at the start of the season. Otherwise, what is it?
- The neighborhood around the park has been growing and evolving. This has improved the panoramic view over time, but it also means that there are usually several ugly cranes and construction sites in your view.
- Despite the development, the two most dominant structures viewed in the outfield are still parking garages
- The upper deck feels higher than in other parks. There’s virtually no overhang in the lower areas, which pushes the upper deck further away
- There’s virtually no mention of the team’s Expos origins, relegating the team of my youth to the scrap bin
Overall, it’s a perfectly functional, fan-friendly stadium. But despite many repeat visits, I still don’t know what distinguishes Nationals Park from other ballparks from a physical structure standpoint.
Here’s where the park really shines. Local fare? Yes. Shake Shack? Yes. Interesting items that work? Yes. Quality classics? Yes.
For local fare, look for the Chesapeake Crab Company offering crab cakes and other crabby delights. There’s also an outpost of local steakhouse Medium Rare offering a wicked steak sandwich.
There’s an Asian stand that offers a bulgogi hoagie and Korean wings, and a Bao stand offering steamed buns loaded with toppings. You can also get better than average empanadas and some good Mexican food. Seafood lovers can hit the Lobster Shack in left field or the Harris Creek Oyster Co in the right field club area.
There’s a gourmet “haut dog” stand (also offering Bahn Mi), a really good Italian sausage and some killer tater tots. Enzo’s New York style pizza is available throughout the park. Old Hickory BBQ sells a 2lb bone-in beef rib. Shake Shack, Box Frites and a BBQ joint line a fine restaurant row in the rightfield club level.
My personal fave: Ben’s Chili Bowl’s Half Smoke “all the way”. Any park that offers this amazing dish from this DC institution automatically gets no worse than a 6 on this scorecard. It’s arguably the messiest yet tastiest encased meat treat at any yard.
The Nationals were one of the first parks to truly embrace the craft and local beer craze when it opened in 2008.
Devil’s Backbone (now owned by AB) has its own outpost out in leftfield. You can also find offers from Dogfish Head, Port City Brewing, Atlas Brewing, Old Ox, and some really nice stuff from DC Brau. There are also national “craft” options from Golden Road and Sierra Nevada, plus a decent selection of imports in addition to the macro domestics. The Club Level adds a few more local taps from Right Proper and 3 Stars.
For those who prefer mixed drinks, there seem to be quite a few full service bars throughout.
When the park first opened in 2008, this score would have likely been a 2. They put this park in a neglected part of town that used to house strip clubs, liquor stores and an asphalt factory. Civic leaders hoped that the ballpark would serve as an anchor for future development. At the same time, efforts doubled to clean the polluted Anacostia river.
Fast forward to today, and the area now has 20 bars or restaurants nearby. Hotels and office building are going up at a feverish pace. The nearby waterfront area has been booming, and the river is looking healthier and healthier. You’re no longer pre-gaming in a shipping container. It absolutely served its purpose as a catalyst in revitalizing the area.
You can watch the game from a rooftop bar in the Hampton Inn across the street. You can get good meals without changing neighborhoods. It’s unbelievable how much has changed in just over a decade. And it just continues to get better.
The price of attending a Nationals games is very high according to the Fan Cost Index. Parking can be the real killer. If possible, take the Metro to help manage the costs. And I find that using the secondary market can really help save some money for all but the truly marquee games.
The Green Line Metro stops a block from the centerfield entrance and is the preferred way to get here. Driving is do-able but expensive.
Note that the Green Line is the only line that services Nationals Park. This can mean crowded cars, especially after the game. WAMTA does not run extra trains on game nights, so there’s a premium on getting on the first train out post-game. Also note that service stops earlier than in most cities, so beware of night games that go into extra innings. But even with all that said, the low cost and freedom of not having a car to drive offset any reservations about the Metro.
Washington summers are really humid. Washington springs seem to be really wet. I’ve been weathered or delayed more here than any other park. Hopefully you’re doing a multiday trip in DC and have some schedule flexibility.
That said, it may be worth taking the risk to try to see a game here very early in the season. If your timing is right, you may also be in town as the cherry trees blossom. At the risk of sounding like a 65-year-old woman, the blossoms are magnificent. There are a few trees around the park that add an unworldly beauty to the place during the brief blossom period. Even though late March and early April games are often chillier or wetter than in other times a year, it’s just so gorgeous. Because a sunny day when the blossoms are out is a “good to be alive” day.
The Nats have been competitive most years since their move and made the playoffs many times. Up until 2019, like their hockey playing counterparts (The Capitals), they tended to blow their successful regular seasons by losing early in the playoffs, sometimes in excruciating fashion. As such, despite their win-loss record, the team was widely considered to be a bit of a disappointment. This may explain why attendance was always mediocre despite the newness of the team and its competitiveness. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with a World Series under their belt.
Washington is a transplant town. Often times visiting fans can rival the home town team. But National fans tend to be fairly polite, so the interplay between fan bases seldom escalates. In all, it’s a friendly atmosphere, but not an intense one.
The crowd aside, the Game Day experience is pretty strong. The Racing Presidents rival Milwaukee’s Racing Sausages as the best mascot race; fans genuinely get excited for this relatively new tradition. I also like the foghorn that blows after a home run, an homage to the park’s Navy Yard location. And the practice of offering day-of-game only $5 Grandstand seats (one per person, must enter ballpark immediately) is a pretty cool throwback scheme, and a great way to get fans into the park early.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Three fun DC restaurants:
- Ben’s Chili Bowl (U-Street. Home of the cheddar half smoke.)
- 2 Amy’s (Cathedral Heights. Wood-burning Neapolitan pizzas.)
- Bonchon (Navy Yard. Yummy Korean fried chicken wings)
Three places to imbibe before the game:
- Bluejacket (Navy Yards. Brewpub and eatery just east of the ballpark)
- Bardo Brewery (Ballpark. An outdoor taproom with games just south of the park)
- The Ugly Mug (Eastern Market. Casual bar with game day specials on a fun stretch of 8th St. SE that’s walkable to the stadium)
One bar in the area worth hitting:
ChurchKey (Logan Circle. Among the best beer bars in the country with many taps pouring fine elixirs and an even bigger bottle list)
Three craft breweries in the area worthy of your time:
- Aslin Brewing (Alexandria, VA. Underrated local brewery with excellent hazy IPAs)
- Capitol City Brewing Co (Downtown. OG brewery in a convenient location )
- Right Proper Brewing (Shaw. Some good funky brews that you can pair with good southern food.)
Three fun tourist attractions in the area:
- Smithsonian Museums (sort of a cheat because there are many. My favorite is American History)
- Mall Memorials (Lincoln, WW2, Jefferson, FDR, MLK, Washington, Korean War, Vietnam War)
- International Spy Museum (costs admission, but an excellent museum)
Nationals Park is a nice park that is aging well as the neighborhood around it continues to grow. You’ll find it be as fan-friendly as any and you’ll eat & drink well. Its central location close to the Navy Yard Metro stop invites you to add it to a DC visit. But other than forgoing red brick, it offers relatively little distinction and suffers a little in my ratings as a result. Rule of thumb: if you need the mascots to really deliver the sense of place, then perhaps you went a little too minimalist.