Eileen Gunn a RoamRight Blog Author

A Different Way to Experience DC at National Harbor

After nearly annual trips to Washington, DC over the years we recently discovered National Harbor, an entertainment district outside the city on the Potomac River in Maryland. We loved it. This enclave of hotels, restaurants and entertainment is a nice base for a visit to the nation’s capital and an easy weekend getaway on its own.

Here were some of the many things we found to do over a three-day stay. 

1. Sleep

For our visit we stayed at the enormous Gaylord National hotel. We had a bright room with a balcony overlooking the glass-enclosed atrium with its “village” inspired by colonial Alexandria across the water. 

The Gaylord is an easy place to stay with kids thanks to its enormous pool, outdoor splash pad and activities like dive-in and dancing fountain shows. The Pienza Marketplace in the atrium has a well-above-average buffet breakfast. And there are coffee-and-muffin places if you want something easy. 

If the Gaylord is too big and busy for you, there are half a dozen other hotels in the area including a Westin, Residence Inn and AC Hotel. They’re smaller and just as convenient to everything you want to do.

2. Hit the Water

After you’ve checked in, head to the waterfront where you’ll see plenty of ways to get out on the river. I recommend renting kayaks. One of the staff at Boating in DC told me that this is his favorite spot of a handful they offer for kayaking. Head under the bridge you can see from the dock and you’ll find an undeveloped stretch of shore with a surprising amount of wildlife. 

Kids from 4 to 12 will get a kick out of an Urban Pirates excursion (and their parents will, too). Board the good ship Relentless, get your pirate clothes and name and say the pirate oath. You’ll also sing songs, fight off a rogue pirate with water cannons and collect some booty from a treasure chest (and you have a nice ride around the harbor, too).

3. Play 

The Harbor draws local people and tourists for events like free outdoor zumba classes and movies in summer. When the sun sets kids swarm all over The Awakening, A collection of metal limbs spread that are meant to resemble a giant waking from a nap in the sand. 

A colorful carousel charges $7 for an all-day ticket. I doubt anyone uses it all day, but come at an off-peak hour like we did. We took in the views while our daughter rode five times in a row, each time on a different critter, making us feel we got our money’s worth. 

4. Take in the Views

We thought we’d go around the giant Capital Wheel Ferris Wheel once or twice and be done. But your $15 ($11.50 for kids) gets you a good ten-minute ride, plenty of time to look around and take in the views. We lucked out and timed our ride to see the sunset over the river.

At a little after 9:00 in the evening the Gaylord offers a view of different kind, when a 15-minute laser show takes over the atrium. The lasers are synced to patriotic music like Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare.” With some laser techniques we’d not seen before it’s worth stopping in for, especially if you can get a prime perch at the balcony bar.

5. Dine

The Harbor has a plethora of dining options, with a combination of mid-priced and upscale chains (like McCormick & Schmick’s) and local restaurants. The places with a water view are the priciest of course. We had surprisingly good barbecue at Brother Jimmy’s Backyard. The head chef is an experienced and competitive pit master who has raise the restaurant’s game quite a bit. The smoky and peppery brisket is some of the best we’ve had, and the sides and kids menu are good, too. 

If you have kids, accept that you’ll be dragged into the Peeps & Co. store right by the water. The variety of flavors and colors they offer for their sugarcoated marshmallow animals is staggering. Our daughter liked the birthday cake flavored bunnies best.

6. Venture across the water

Alexandria and George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate are just across the water and I’m a big fan of both. You can only see the house at Mount Vernon via a tour for which you get a timed-ticket when you arrive (It’s busy when school is out). Before and after you can spend a good amount of time exploring the grounds. Kids love the scavenger hunt for which you can download an app. It sends you all over the property and is a good way to see the slave quarters, workshops, lovely gardens and farm.

Alexandria has a lively farmers market full of southern meat and produce on Saturday morning. King Street has plenty of books shops, stores and Dining (We like the fish and chips at Doyle’s). The Torpedo factory on the waterfront is a cool arts space, where you can see an eclectic collection of artists working in glass-walled studios. 

You can fit Mount Vernon and Alexandria into one day if you get a reasonably early start and you drive. You can get to the former by boat and the latter by water taxi, which are enjoyable if pricey options. The ride to Mount Vernon is long and the boat and taxi schedules limit your flexibility quite a bit. If you want to travel this way, plan on doing one or the other in a day. 

7. Explore Washington, DC

The National Mall is a 20-to-30-minute drive from the National Harbor area, (and there is a way to go by water taxi as well). We’ve stayed in a variety of neighborhoods and hotels in the city and while I’ve liked several of them, I have yet to find one that is a slam-dunk for families in terms of location and amenities. So I liked being able to take in DC’s museums, government buildings and neighborhoods like Georgetown, and then have the Harbor area to return to in the evening. Kids can swim and run around, and there are plenty of easy family friendly dining options nearby. It brings a nice balance to a busy a city getaway.

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About the Author

Eileen Gunn

Eileen Gunn, a RoamRight Blog Author

Eileen is a journalist whose work has appeared in the HuffPost, U.S. News, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Parents.com and many other publications. She has traveled on five continents, three of them with her daughter. She calls New York City home. You can read Eileen's blog at Familiesgotravel.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.

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