National Harbor – The Potomac Alternative To DC Hotels

Author: Jeff and Stephanie Sylva

Tags : Cheap Vacation, City Break, DC, Food & Wine, Kids, Maryland, Multigen, Museums & Culture, North America, Teens, USA, Weekend & Short Break

­Families visiting Washington DC have a great new destination with lots of hotel choices, dining, shopping, recreation, and entertainment – all in one place. National Harbor (1-877-NATLHBR) is a still-evolving, urban waterfront community located along the scenic Potomac River in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Families looking for a getaway for a few days will find National Harbor a top value place to enjoy a lot of fun activities in a very scenic location.

A National Harbor Home Base for DC Attractions

Using National Harbor as a home base for a family vacation is perfect for a number of reasons:

  • Families will love the convenience of having so much to do right around National Harbor.
  • There's easy access by Metro and water taxi to all of the sites so families won't need a car
  • Most of them attractions are free in Washington, D.C. and the metropolitan areas of Georgetown and OldTown, Alexandria
  • There's a big selection of great family-friendly hotels in all price ranges.

National Harbor's Cultural Calendar has Free Festivals & Movies

A wide range of festivals are presented at National Harbor throughout the year. During the summer months, on Friday and Saturday evenings, free concerts take place on the harbor’s main stage with the scenic Potomac as a backdrop.

Be sure to check out the interesting J. Seward Johnson sculpture, “The Awakening,” embedded in the sand on the beach behind the stage. This will present a great photo-op, as kids love to climb on the different parts of the sculpture.

Friday and Sunday evenings are also movie night at National Harbor’s outdoor movie screen on the main stage. Fridays’ movie theme is “Date Night,” and Sunday is “Family Night.” Firework displays are presented on many nights throughout the summer months.

Shopping may not be first on the kids’ minds; but it will be when they learn of two of the harbor’s stores – The Peeps Store and Build-a-Bear Workshop. Mom and Dad will also find a variety of other unique and unusual shops that will interest them, including a tea purveyor, Godiva Chocolatier, and the interesting Art Whino. Much more is planned for the community, including the National Children’s Museum due to open in 2012; visit the National Harbor website for information about these and many other events.

Green Recreation & Family Activities near National Harbor

Once you've checked out what's avaiable at National Harbor, your family may want to plan a visit to Old Town, Alexandria, which is just across the river. Old Town has a lot of shops, restaurants, art galleries, and historical sites. Old Town is just a short drive across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, or 20 minutes by water taxi.

The more adventurous may want to travel to Old Town by bike or even by Segway – you know, that two-wheeled, stand-up scooter that is becoming very popular. Segway of National Harbor (571-289-5956) offers a variety of Segway tours including a Sunset Tour and a Morning Wake-Up Tour. We took a Let’s Ride Tour and had a lot of fun exploring the streets and walkways of National Harbor and the great views from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.  Our tour guide provided us with a wonderful introduction to the National Harbor area.
Bike rentals are available from Calleva (301-216-1248), a provider of outdoor adventure excursions and activities. A beachfront walking path with a connection to a bike path provides a great opportunity to ride bikes and take in some great views.

In addition to bike rentals and a guided bike tour to the Mt. Vernon Trail, Calleva also offers boat rentals:  canoe, kayak, and sailboats, lessons and excursions from the main pier at National Harbor. Calleva also offers ½-day, full-day and weekend charters on its 44-foot yacht. Kids will love to take the challenge of the exciting high ropes course with zip lines, climbing wall, and high ropes activities that Calleva operates at National Harbor.
Other sightseeing, scenic sunset, and dinner cruises, as well as various charter cruises are available from National Harbor’s main pier. 

New DC Crime & News Museums for Interesting Daytrips

If you do intend to visit Washington, D.C. while staying at National Harbor, we can suggest two newer museums which would be of interest to families with school-age kids looking for something more than the standard national monuments and memorials.

Newseum offers visitors an experience that blends five centuries of news history with up-to-the-second technology and hands-on exhibits. Children may not remember much of the news events that have shaped our world, but the abundance of interactive, hands-on exhibits and the more than 40 unique video productions will fascinate them for hours. We found the 9/11 exhibit and the exhibit featuring actual slabs of the Berlin Wall to be especially interesting.
The National Museum of Crime and Punishment is an interesting museum that explores the history of crime, law enforcement, forensic science, crime scene investigation (CSI) and the consequences of committing a crime. Although a lot of this museum’s information is presented by reading exhibits, a number of highlights are interactive and fun for kids. The CSI Lab, the simulated FBI shooting range, and the High Speed Police Simulator are fun. Kids will also enjoy taking part in a mock lineup scenario or trying to beat an actual lie detector. Fans of America’s Most Wanted will enjoy this TV show’s exhibit while learning more about host John Walsh’s personal story and the significant impact of the show.

National Harbor's Beautiful Restaurants

National Harbor is at its best on DC's warm, sticky summer evenings, when the Potomac provides a breeze and a backdrop for the many outdoor cafes. There are well-established national restaurants like McCormick & Schmick’s, Rosa Mexicano, Bond 45, and the New Jersey Shore icon McLoone’s Pier House presenting its concept of “upscale dining for the entire family.”  Also within a quick walk of the hotels is a variety of popular local and regional eateries, making dining at National Harbor a treat.

We enjoyed some wonderful seafood while dining al fresco at both McCormick & Schmick’s and McLoone’s. Many other venues offer al fresco dining with great water views as well.

Families will love the innovative, fun café Ketchup, where chefs place some gourmet, upscale twists on some of America’s childhood favorites. Try the three kinds of French fries with the medley of six different ketchups – we thought they were definitely something different.

Planning a National Harbor Vacation - New DC Family Hotels

The Gaylord National, the largest combined hotel and convention center on the East Coast is only one of National Harbor's fun for the family hotels. The stylish Westin, Hampton Inn and Suites, Residence Inn by Marriott, a Wyndham Vacation Ownership Resort and Aloft are the others.

Aloft , where we enjoyed a wonderful stay with a fabulous view of the Potomac, is a part of the W Hotels group and is a modern, chic boutique-style hotel. Aloft may be hip and stylish, but it is also kid-friendly, as it offers Camp Aloft for Kids which provides child-size air mattresses and kid’s bedding, kids’ games, and kid-friendly food options. Aloft is also pet-friendly, offering doggie beds and pet snacks.  

Easy connections for The Metro are available, but the family may enjoy getting to attractions by Water Taxi. Routes to Old Town, Georgetown, Mount Vernon and even to NationalsBaseball Park are available. Call 703/684-0580 or visit the Potomac River Boat Company web site for more information on the water taxi as well as a number of sightseeing cruises.

Chariots for Hire Tours (301-965-2045) offers daily shuttle service from the Gaylord Hotel to Union Station and the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington DC, as well as a variety of sightseeing tours.

Whether you’re planning to visit Washington, D.C., or looking for a great destination with lots of activities and great hotels, shopping, and dining, National Harbor’s 300-acre development on the shores of the Potomac River is definitely worth considering.

Note! This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.