A National Harbor getaway offers plenty of fun, food and relaxation for all ages in a lovely, waterfront location that will make you feel miles away from your everyday life. Just across the Potomac from Virginia, at the southern edge of Washington DC, the location by the river makes you feel secluded and special, even if you're only staying for a bit.
We enjoyed an adults-only overnight on our first stay at National Harbor, but there is plenty of family fun too. We saw several larger groups too, including multi-generational families and a group of bridesmaids with matching shirts.
Fun Things to Do at National Harbor
Ride the Capital Wheel
Okay, this was at the top of our list because that big, lovely, colorful wheel has been calling to us since it opened in 2014. The only dilemma is whether to ride in the daytime when you can see more, or at night when the festive lights of the wheel and the city are lit. We opted for a daytime ride, but returned at night to admire the lights.
The Capital Wheel is 180 feet tall, so it's 42 climate-controlled gondolas offer an incredible view. You can see the National Harbor area, across the Potomac to Virginia, and north to the DC monuments. We could easily pick out the Capitol Building and Washington Monument near the mall. Across the river, you have a nice view of Dyke Marsh and, closer to the bridge, the Jones Point Lighthouse (once the southernmost corner of DC).
A ride on the wheel is incredibly smooth and you make several rotations. The enclosed cars and the smooth ride make the Capital Wheel a good option even for young children and those with a little fear of heights (like me).
Tickets to the wheel are $11.25 for kids 3 to 11, $15 for adults, and $13.50 for folks over 60. If you're feeling flush, you can rent the VIP carousel, with leather bucket seats and a glass floor, for $50 each. Some National Harbor hotels offer stay and ride combo offers, so check when you book.
J. Seward Johnson’s sculpture, “The Awakening,” was moved from it's previous home in East Potomac Park to anchor the waterfront, and welcome boats arriving at the marina. Five cast iron pieces stretch 70 feet across depicting a giant emerging from the sand. It's an impressive piece of art and a blast for kids and families to play on. Everyone wants a picture in the mouth or hand of the giant!
Another fun art installation is the Belvedere, a large terrazzo mural highlighting the history and geography of Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC. Kids can try to locate the 70 elements of local history, including images of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, listed on the benches and depicted in the mural.
Stroll by the River or Get Out on the Water
After you visit The Awakening, take a walk along the riverfront to enjoy views of the Potomac and the impressive lobby of the Gaylord Hotel. Climb to the top of the hill for the best sunset views. In the other direction you can stroll out on a long pier and relax in colorful Adirondack chairs. Or take the kids for a ride on the carousel (weekends in season).
The pier with the chairs is also the spot to catch a water taxi to Old Town Alexandria. In the warmer months (late March through October), you can also take a water taxi to the National Mall. From May to September you can rent stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and pedal boats at the marina, or take a class on the water. SUP Yoga anyone?
Shop for Unique Gifts and Bargains
There are lots of unique shops in the National Harbor area, or you can take the free shuttle to bargain shopping at Tangier Outlets. We really enjoyed our stop at Marbles: The Brain Store, which was full of interesting toys and gadgets you could try before buying.
We also had to stop by the Peeps store, and snag a picture with the Peepmobile parked out front. Even if you don't eat them, Peeps sure are cute.
National Harbor Restaurants and Bars
There are at least 30 National Harbor restaurants for a meal or a snack destination during your visit. Enjoy an indulgent dinner of filet, bison short ribs, and brews at the very popular Granite City Food & Brewery. The dining room is sleek and open, with views of the brewing tanks from almost every booth. There's also a large bar, and the place was hoping on the Saturday night we visited.
Jon, the manager, took us behind the scenes for a quick brewery tour. Granite City is part of a Minnesota-based chain, and their patented brewing process allows them to give a consistent start to the beer for all 34 locations, then finish the process in-house.
[quote]Fermentus Interruptus™… allows us to ship sweet liquid called wort, from our central brewing facility to individual stores. When this liquid reaches the stores, we begin the fermentation process and complete the brewing.[/quote]
You'll find several signature brews, a few seasonal specials like the pumpkin beer that we enjoyed, and a long list of other drink specials, martinis, and wines. The food menu is also varied, with a nice range of meats and burgers, pastas and flatbreads, plus seafood and vegetarian options. They also offer an extensive Sunday brunch.
If you're more in the mood for a cocktail, we suggest the AC Lounge in the 2nd floor lobby of the AC Hotel (our home for the night). The bartenders whip up delicious mixes in a sleek space, with nice outdoor tables you can enjoy when the weather is warm.
Stop by later in the evening and ask for a taste from the porthole, a unique infuser that allows the bartender to create spice, fruit, and herb-flavored liquors that pack a punch.
Where to Stay on a National Harbor Getaway: AC Hotel National Harbor
All that food, drink, and fun goes further if you don't have to drive home late in the evening. There are 6 nice hotels to choose from at National Harbor, but AC Hotel National Harbor was our host for the night, and we loved our stay.
A European-styled hotel that is part of the Marriott chain, the National Harbor property is one of only 5 AC Hotels in the US. The decor is sleek, modern, and comfortable, and the harbor location manages to be both centrally located, and quiet and relaxing.
Rooms feature a clean, minimalist design that doesn't distract from beautiful views of the Capital Wheel and the Potomac River. Wood floors, comfortable beds, and convenient features like wall outlets with integrated USB ports are welcome.
The European feel carries over to the complimentary breakfast; where guests enjoy warm tarts and croissants, freshly carved prosciutto, fresh fruits and juices, and delicious coffee and espresso.
If you're looking for a more bustling experience, try the Gaylord National Resort, popular with families, convention-goers, and groups.
Special Events at Maryland's National Harbor
While it's a fun day trip or overnight getaway anytime, seasonal events give visitors special incentive to visit National Harbor. During the holiday season, the Gaylord hosts Christmas on the Potomac with ICE!, a winter wonderland featuring two million pounds of ice sculptures, ice slides, a synchronized Christmas light show, kids activities, and more. ICE! is open mid-November to early January and it's an impressive and fun holiday outing.
If you live in the Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia area (aka the DMV) you have likely admired the view of National Harbor and the Capital Wheel from the Woodrow Wilson bridge. If you've never visited, it's time to plan a trip. Whether you go for a special event, a day trip, or a staycation break, a National Harbor getaway offers one-of-a-kind activities, food, and fun.
We were hosted by AC Hotel National Harbor during our most recent visit. As always, all opinions are our own.
This article was published in 2015 and updated in 2018.