By Patricia Hall, FairfaxFamilyFun.com
We have been to National Harbor many times and with each visit we discover something new. When the Gaylord National invited us to check out its SummerFest: Pirates on the Potomac package, we knew there would be plenty to do do make it a fun weekend getaway or “staycation” at the hotel and National Harbor in southern Maryland. This time we found all sorts of new things, from neat sculptures to pirate ships, to 3-D printed cars (yes, cars!).
Whether you are local or an out-of-town visitor, a regular to National Harbor or a newbie, a daytime visitor or an overnight guest, you will find much to do there and easily can create your own package for activities to fit your travel style and budget. Below we present our ideas for family fun (including suggestions for both those who are looking to save or looking to splurge) and highlight some new attractions.
Below are some of the new family-friendly attractions that have come to National Harbor in recent months.
1. Pirates on the Potomac
New to the waters of National Harbor is Urban Pirates, offering pirate-themed adventures via one-hour cruises. Daytime cruises for families engage the kids in a pirate adventure, and adults can enjoy “bring your own grog” cruises in the evening. Read our review in our post about the Gaylord National’s Pirates on the Potomac package, which further adds to the pirate fun with other activities for families.
2. Life-size art sculptures
Ever wanted to stand alongside with Marilyn Monroe? Take a selfie with George Washington? Join in on that embrace between the sailor and the nurse, made famous in that post-WWII photo? Visit American Way, a street at National Harbor, where you will find these and other statues plus an antique car. American Way is in the process of building a substantial art walk, so be on the lookout for more art and sculptures coming soon.
3. A mini mini-golf (UPDATE 2017: Mini golf is no longer available)
Love miniature golf, but short on time? Or just need to take a little break (and cover from the heat)? National Harbor now has a small mini-golf course under the East Pier Tent. At just nine holes that are independent of each other (not connected) this is truly a “mini” golf, but an affordable and easy way to pass the time.
4. 3-D printed cars
This is my favorite of the new attractions… you can tour a facility that prints cars! Located at American Way and St. George Blvd. (in the building that housed the former National Children’s Museum) Local Motors is printing 3-D cars and has some on display. You can visit the showroom and watch the process, attend workshops, and see a display where members of the community can contribute ideas. There’s also a big store selling Local Motors merchandise, including clothing and toys. On the day we visited, Local Motors was hosting an introductory 3-D printing class, highlighting applications and processes and co-creation projects. This was geared to audiences of all ages, and the kids in the class had many great questions, which Labs Manager Buddy Bernhard addressed well. We all got snacks and a tiny 3-D printed toy car to take home, and then we took a tour downstairs to see both actual 3-D printed cars and the type of equipment that makes them. You can drop by Local Motors anytime, but it may be good to call ahead to ask about tours and upcoming events.
Other ideas for fun:
What else can you do at National Harbor? Here are some our other top choices for families.
5. Peeps store
A favorite stop for many visitors to National Harbor is the Peeps store, one of only three such stores in the country. Fans for the sugar-coated marshmallow candies – which have gone from an Easter sweet to a year-round favorite – will find all kinds of Peeps items, including uniquely flavored treats that you can’t find anywhere else and Peeps merchandise such as clothing, magnets, luggage tags, and jumbo-sized plush animals. A favorite section for us is the Mike & Ike (a company brand) wall where you can choose your fruit-flavored candies individually, in whatever amount you want, to put in a bag or jar. In addition to classic flavors (such as cherry and lemon), you’ll find mango, blue raspberry, and many more.
6. Awakening sculpture
This poor guy… that’s what I always think when I see the “giant,” trying to emerge from the ground, only to be held back by dozens of kids (and some adults) crawling over him. The 72-foot sculpture (actually five separate aluminum pieces buried in the ground to look like a giant trying to emerge) is a huge hit with kids and tourists seeking fun photo ops. It’s on big sand lot below the giant screen on the plaza and provides a fun, free stop for families. Since it moved from its initial location at Hains Point in DC, this has been one of the most popular features of National Harbor.
7. Carousel and playground
Near the Awakening and sand lot is the a 36-foot carousel with beautifully decorated horses, tigers, and other animals. A nice thing about the carousel is that it doesn’t charge parents who are riding with their kids. Admission per child is $7 for unlimited rides for one day. Behind the carousel is a nice playground and toddler play area, both of which are open (for free) to carousel ticket holders. In front of the carousel are picnic tables.
8. Capital Wheel
It’s the first thing you see when nearing National Harbor: the 180-foot Ferris Wheel, rising high above the water and, at night, glowing in many colors. Looking at the Capital Wheel can be pretty, but be sure to actually ride this unique attraction with 42 climate-controlled and comfortable gondolas. The Capital Wheel offers a nice view of the Washington, DC; Alexandria, VA; and National Harbor, MD, and you can relax as you go around slowly a few times on the ride (approximately 15 minutes). We had gone on the Capital Wheel before during the daytime, but after going this time as sunset turned to evening, I think this is now my favorite time for this activity.
9. Fountain and laser shows
Stop by the Gaylord National at night to see the fountain or laser light shows, both of which are open to the public. Each evening at 6 pm, 7 pm, and 8 pm, the illuminated fountains in the hotel’s atrium jump up to 60 feet high and “dance” to the music. At 9 pm, a new laser light show creates fun colorful shapes in the atrium.
10. Harbor walk
One of the simplest (and free) ways to enjoy National Harbor is simply to walk along the edge of the water. There is a nice walkway from the plaza to the Gaylord and beyond that has some sculptures and benches at various spots where you can sit and enjoy the views of the water, the ships, and the Capital Wheel. It’s especially nice if you can do this at sunset or in the early evening.
11. Free movies and concerts
The Plaza at National Harbor has a huge screen often showing sports events and other specials. On Sundays at 6 pm, you can watch a free family-friendly movie right at the waterfront. And on Saturday nights, enjoy world-class performances by bands from the nation’s Armed Forces in free shows of multiple genres to please music lovers of all ages.
12. Farmer’s market
Shopping for fresh local produce and baked goods such as pies is a fun way to prepare dinner. On Saturdays and Sundays, you can visit the National Harbor Farmer’s Market on American Way (near the fountain) from 10 am to 5 pm.
13. Dueling pianos, bull riding, and more
National Harbor boasts multiple dining options from fast and casual to elegant. See my previous article for reviews on our great meals at McLoone’s Pier House and Cadillac Ranch and my recent post on our stay at Gaylord National for our experience at Pienza Market and National Pastime at the Gaylord National. For dining with a bit of crazy fun, head to Cadillac Ranch, where anyone daring enough (even kids) can try their hand at the mechanical bull. Or visit Bobby McKey’s, the dueling piano bar which hosts a Kids’ Day at least once Saturday afternoon a month, when the restaurant pairs two hours of all-request live music with a lunch buffet designed to make everyone happy. And don’t overlook the simple choices: we stopped by at Potomac Gourmet Market to check out he wine, cheese, and specialty foods, and discovered its deli, where we enjoyed the sandwiches so much we returned the next day (my son kept asking when they would come to Virginia!).
14. Boat rentals
Ride a swan! Rent a pedal boat (there are many shaped like swans), kayak, or stand-up paddleboard by the hour and enjoy National Harbor from the water. If you’ve never done any of these activities, no worries — your rentals include a quick lesson and a lifejacket. (Tip from a friend who’s rented these: the sun can really beat down on you here, so avoid doing this in the middle of the day).
15. Water taxi
There is plenty to do at National Harbor, but if you have extra time or just want a change of scenery, you can take the water taxi to Old Town Alexandria, just across the water. Even if your schedule allows for just a quick round trip, it’s a cheap way ($16 to and fro) to take a little boat excursion.
16. Lunch and dinner cruises
Make your boat trip more fun and splurge for one of the sightseeing or dinner cruises that depart from National Harbor. Itineraries include sailings past Washington, DC, monuments and landmarks and trips to nearby Mount Vernon Estate.
17. Tanger Outlets
There are plenty of specialty and mainstream shops along the waterfront at National Harbor, but savvy shoppers also will want to visit Tanger Outlets just a little further out. This outlet shopping center features more than 85 popular stores for kids’ and adults’ clothing, accessories, home goods, and luxury items. At 1.4 miles form National Harbor, it’s within walking distance, but you also can take free daily shuttle from three stops.
Wish you could hang on to your National Harbor memories forever? Have your child make his or her own new friend at the Build-a-Bear Workshop right at National Harbor. Whether it’s a bear, dog, cat, dinosaur, monkey, or other furry friend, you’ll have a huggable piece of your visit to carry with you forever.
19. Special events
National Harbor is home to large special events throughout the year, and in the summer this includes acts such as circuses and other traveling shows. See the National Harbor site to find out about upcoming events.
Disclosure: Thanks to the Gaylord National, Urban Pirates, and National Harbor for hosting our our visit, with lodging, meals, and family fun (pirate tour, mini golf, and Capital Wheel ride). The wording and opinions in this article are my own.
All photos (c) P. Hall