A Fun Family Weekend At National Harbor
It’s a challenge for a city or region to develop a new tourist area from the ground up. It’s even more unusual for to develop one that is robust enough to be self-sustaining and genuinely worth visiting. But Maryland has done exactly that with the *National Harbor, a great base for a visit to Washington, DC with kids but also a destination in itself for an easy weekend away with kids.
Here’s what we suggest for a family weekend at National Harbor:
Friday afternoon: Check-in and Explore
We stayed at *The Gaylord National Resort, which is enormous, with a beautiful shopping and dining atrium and extras like dive-in movies on the weekend, summer scavenger hunts, holiday ice shows, dancing fountains and a not-to-miss evening laser show.
After you’ve settled in you can set out to explore. National Harbor has lots of activities for kids and families. There are free and popular events like outdoor movies and Zumba classes in summer and live music and light shows for the holiday season.
We were pleasantly surprised by the prices and value for the carousel and Capital Wheel ($15 and $11.25, respectively, for adults and kids). We assumed the latter would take us around once or twice, but we stayed on for quite a while and went around eight or ten times, enough to feel we really enjoyed the views. We caught the sunset over the Potomac River, which was nice. But the lights from the monuments in Washington, DC are a too far away to see very well so waiting for nightfall isn’t essential; you might even see more in daylight. The outdoor Flight Deck bar beneath the wheel is an equally good place to catch the sunset and is casual enough that you can bring your kids. (Happy hour is from 4:00-7:00 on weekdays and noon – 3:00 on weekends.)
The carousel at National Harbor is $7 for all-day access to the ride and a small playground next to it. I doubt anyone rides all day. But if you catch it at a not-busy hour as we did, your child can ride five times in a row (or more) and then play at the playground a bit while you enjoy the harbor views and consider your dinner options. You’ll feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth.
Once the summer sun goes down and things start to cool off kids flock to the Awakening, a sprawling statue of a giant breaking through the sand of the artificial beach in center harbor (top). The more agile kids climb up and slide down his shin while smaller kids are happy to crawl around the enormous face and hands.
National Harbor has a wide variety of kid friendly restaurants in a range of prices. The restaurants closest to the water are the priciest – think oyster bars, steak houses and Italian that is all upscale but still family friendly. Retreat a block or two and options become less expensive and a more casual.
We were surprised and impressed by how good the barbecue was *Brother Jimmy’s. The peppery, melt-in-your-mouth brisket was by far the best dish, though pulled pork, ribs and fried chicken were good, too. They didn’t have ribs on the kids’ menu. But the chef, an experienced pit master, promised he would add them soon, in part because his own grandkids love them. Sides are good and portions are large; sharing plates is a good way to go.
Make your way to the lobby of the Gaylord Hotel by 9:15 to catch to the laser light show. It’s 15 minutes of dancing lasers and patriotic music and fairly impressive. You can see it from the atrium floor or the balconies of atrium-facing rooms but I think the best perch is the balcony-level Belvedere Bar.
Saturday Across and on the Potomac
Morning in Alexandria
Get an early start and hop in the car and drive over to Alexandria (you can also take a river taxi if you don’t want to drive. It’s a fun ride but for a family the round-trip fare adds up). Walk down King Street, popping into shops, bookstores and cafes along the way, Make sure to visit the lively farmer’s market for amazing seasonal produce, prepared foods like jam and southern specialties like biscuits and ham.
Check into the tourist office across the way to see if any walking tours are happening. or make your way to the waterfront to explore the Torpedo Factory, a former industrial space where you can see an eclectic range of artists at work in their studios. The 3rd floor has small archeological museum where you can sometimes catch kids’ activities on weekends. Make time to watch the fellow who plays the water glasses out front.
Lunch in Old Town
You can find anything from Ethiopian to banh mi in Old Town. We like Eamonn’s for Irish fish ‘n’ chips (the kids’ portion comes with an ice cream cone) or Virtue Feed & Grain (good crab dip!) for a casual family lunch.
Afternoon on the water
After lunch head back to the National Harbor side of the river, where families that are sporty or who have tweens and teens can go kayaking or paddle-boarding with Boating in DC. A staff-member told me this is his favorite of the company’s several launch areas because of the opportunity to see local wildlife on the shore (just head to the far side the nearest bridge).
With younger kids give Urban Pirates a try. It looks cheesy, but we climbed aboard their Baltimore ship with Tiny Traveler when she as about 5 and had a blast (literally, the shooting of water canyons at other pirates and tourists is enthusiastically encouraged). Kids can dress up in their own costumes or those provided. You’ll sing pirate songs, play games, fight off duplicitous mariners and share some treasure. You’ll get some good views of the harbor, too, if you remember to look up now and then.
After an active day you’ll want something easy for dinner. We found Nando’s Peri Peri, a fast casual Portuguese chicken place a few blocks back from the water. We liked it because it a little different and not too expensive, the food was good and the grown-ups could share a pitcher of sangria or order a beer. The marinated chicken comes with your choice of spicy sauces and sides that range from mashed potatoes and pepper-flecked rice and peas to corn or mixed olives.
Skip dessert at Nando’s and head instead to the Peeps & Co. store, which your kids will have been begging to do all weekend. You’ll be astounded by the variety or colors, flavors and sizes these sugary marshmallow creatures now come in; your kids will just love all the sugar.
Splurge on the breakfast buffet at Pienza Marketplace in the Gaylord atrium. Everything is fresh, the service is friendly and the omelets and pastries are really good.
A Day With George Washington
Then head back across the Potomac to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, a 20-minutes from the harbor. Get tickets for a timed 30-minute house tour (the only way to see it) and then explore the small museum and extensive farm, gardens, and outbuildings. 9YO Tiny Traveler really enjoyed Agent 711, a spy app you can download will send kids on a scavenger hunt around the property in search of hidden messages. It’s a good way to make sure you see everything.
You can bring your own lunch and picnic on the grounds, grab something quick from a so-so food court or sit down to a more formal lunch at the Tavern, something we have yet to do but that I’d like to.
Visiting the estate can take two hours or a whole day depending on the ages and interests of your kids and the weather. I would say that spring or fall are the best times to visit. It’s hard to appreciate the ornate gardens and working farm in the dead of winter. In August we wilted in the humidity before we really saw as much as we wanted to, which we felt bad about.
But I guess we have a reason to go back, and we most likely will.
Pin it for later!
*We were guests of Gaylord National Resort and Brother Jimmy’s and of National Harbor for activities in the Harbor area during our stay.