Discover the best of National Harbor, DC’s glitzy playground

National Harbor, Maryland, is only about 10 miles south of Washington, DC, but it feels like a world away. This glitzy, buzzy enclave on the Potomac River is bursting with hotels, restaurants and shops, not to mention a giant Ferris wheel and a casino. A popular accommodation choice for visitors, and a top staycation spot for locals, it’s practically the Mid-Atlantic’s Vegas – with plenty of family-friendly fun thrown in.

Close-up of white Ferris wheel, the Capital Wheel in National Harbor, against a bright blue skyThe Capital Wheel offers views of DC © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Ride the Capital Wheel

Sitting right beside the Potomac River, this giant, state-of-the-art Ferris wheel swoops you 180 feet into the air, where you can pick out such famous sights as the far-off Washington Monument and US Capitoldome. For something extra special, splurge for a VIP gondola, complete with wine chillers, a DVD player, leather bucket seats and a glass floor. It’s especially stunning as night sets in, with the wheel’s 1.6 million LED lights offering a spectrum of 16,387,064 colors – changed according to the season or occasion.

Explore the Potomac River by kayak

Jump into a kayak – or canoe, stand-up paddleboard (SUP), or swan pedal boat – and see National Harbor from a watery point of view. From the well-equipped boathouse, you can head up the Potomac toward Alexandria and the Wilson Bridge, or downstream along the river’s edge. Twilight tours are spectacular, as the bridge, National Harbor and the Capital Wheel light up with thousands of lights in a rainbow of colors. Boats in DC, open May through September, offers rentals and classes, including SUP yoga.

An aluminum sculpture of a man buried under the sand J Seward Johnson Jr’s astonishing sculpture, ‘The Awakening,’ is just one of the public art features in National Harbor © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

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View public art

Right in front of National Harbor’s dock, a cast-aluminum giant emerges from the sand, his face contorted as he struggles to free himself. Sculpted by J Seward Johnson Jr, for the International Sculpture Conference Exhibition in 1980, “The Awakening” comprises five pieces – two hands, two feet and the tortured head – and it’s just one of many interesting public artworks on display throughout National Harbor. Keep an eye out for “The Beckoning,” a colorful, 85-foot-tall abstract steel sculpture symbolizing the excitement of a new destination evolving along the Potomac; two enormous stainless-steel eagles, which seem to soar over the river; and the cast-stone “Five in the Wind,” depicting five wind-blown people leaning against each other. Kids especially enjoy the statues of American icons, including Marilyn Monroe, Frederick Douglass and Rosie the Riveter, standing on various street corners.

Large yellow Peep chick sits atop a display of mugs and other goods that feature the iconic marshmallow candies, in a store dedicated to Peeps merchandiseSugary treats and more await visitors to the Peeps Store © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Peek into unique shops

National Harbor may have its fair selection of exclusive shops, ranging from furniture (Coco Blanca) to art galleries (Art Whino) to specialty gifts (Dandelion Patch) to clothing (Periwinkle, Life is Good). But one of the most unexpected – and a definite child-pleaser – is Peeps & Company. This is one of only two places in the States where you can buy all varieties and branded merchandise related to the company that created the ubiquitous sparkly marshmallow candies known as Peeps. You can’t miss it – it’s the shop with the oversized Peep chick out front … driving a Peep-mobile. Oh, and if that’s not enough, there are also Tanger Outlets, a discount shopper’s delight.

View of the interior of Gaylord National Resort, with brick buildings and tree- and bush-lined pathways under a glass atrium and a few people sitting at wrought-iron tablesGet lost in the expansive Gaylord National Resort’s web of shops, spas and restaurants, all under one roof © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

See what’s going on at the Gaylord

Gaylord National Resort is the centerpiece of National Harbor, a $854 million facility boasting the largest number of guest rooms in the entire DC area (2,000). It’s a destination unto itself, with seven restaurants, a nightclub, shops, a full-service spa and a whole slate of events including outdoor concerts, an upscale farmers market, a food and wine festival – you get the idea. The 19-story glass atrium offers stunning Potomac views by day, and a nightly fountain show with 60ft spouts of colorful water shooting in the air. One of the biggest events of the year is ICE!, a winter extravaganza featuring colorful ice sculptures, each year with a different theme.

Catch a seasonal festival

Want to beat the cherry blossom crowds? National Harbor planted its own cherry trees along the Potomac, making for an intimate springtime experience. A longtime Sakura festival in April includes a Japanese market, sake and beer garden, cultural performances and fireworks. And if you must see the famous Tidal Basin trees, jump aboard the Potomac Water Taxi and whisk upriver without having to worry about parking. National Harbor hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year, including a Water Lantern Festival in August, Chesapeake Oyster and Wine in September – the list goes on. Check the website for what’s on tap.

aerial view of a large-scale, copper spiral art piece, placed within a garden of orange, green and red plants The massive conservatory in the MGM Casino features striking seasonal floral displays © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Walk among flowers

Sitting on a hill above the harbor, MGM National Harbor isn’t just a casino. It’s a family-friendly destination with restaurants, shops … and a 15,000 sq ft conservatory. Larger than the popular conservatory at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, this beautiful space beneath a soaring glass-topped atrium celebrates seasons and festivals throughout the year – from autumn splendor to Chinese New Year to nautical summertime – with stunning botanical installations. After wandering among the floral displays, be sure to climb the stairs to view them from above, an altogether different experience. And if you feel inspired to stay longer, take a seat at the ringside Osteria Costa, offering casual Italian fare (and fresh limoncello).

Watch the sunset

National Harbor offers the rare (for DC) experience of a watery sunset as the sun dips behind the Potomac. You can watch it from Redstone American Grill sipping happy-hour cocktails, high atop the Capital Wheel, or from a bench along the Harbor Walk, snaking along the waterfront. Armed Forces bands play patriotic tunes at sunset between May and September on the Plaza stage. Or for the truly intrepid, join an open-water sunset swim on Wednesday evenings between May and September.

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