National Harbor is an all-ages attraction near D.C.
By Joan Tupponce
Driving north on Interstate 95 around Washington, I always glance at National Harbor as I cross the Potomac River into Maryland via the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but I never knew what that area had to offer until recently.
Opened in 2008, National Harbor (nationalharbor.com) is a micro-city that has become a tourist destination for all ages, with everything from water activities to gaming. It stands beside its most valuable asset, the river, and that’s where you’ll find the crowds.
The development is anchored by two huge hotels — the MGM National Harbor, which opened last December, and the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. You can park your car and walk or get around via the Circulator (bus) for an all-day fee of $5.
The harbor boasts five additional hotels, 40 restaurants and 160 stores. You’ll find lots of local shops near the waterfront, including Betty, a high-end — think Christian Louboutin, Ferragamo, Chanel and Louis Vuitton — consignment shop for accessories. If you’re a shoe fanatic and loved “Sex and the City,” wander through The District at MGM National Harbor and slip into Sarah Jessica Parker’s shoe store, SJP. It’s her first shop outside of her flagship in New York.
The National Harbor Waterfront Plaza is home to the Capital Wheel, a Ferris wheel with air-conditioned and heated glass-enclosed gondolas that provides 180-foot-high views of the riverfront and on clear days, of the city. For a real treat, take a ride at sunset when the sky is ablaze with color.
Nearby is a 36-foot Americana-themed carousel, playground and picnic tables. You’ll also find a big waterfront screen for showing movies and sporting events as well as an area for concerts. Salute the Sunset, a concert series featuring military bands, continues Saturdays through Sept. 23.
The waterfront area is also the place to rent a kayak, pedal boat or a stand-up paddleboard. Other activities include trips on a pirate ship or on the glass-enclosed Odyssey, with live entertainment, dining and dancing.
For a nice day trip, take a water taxi to Washington (40 minutes), Old Town Alexandria (20 minutes) or Mount Vernon (50 minutes). Fees start at $16.
MGM’s 125,000-square-foot casino is a great place to cool off and people watch. Always buzzing with folks testing out their luck, it offers everything from slots to poker.
National Harbor probably doesn’t come to mind when you think of art, but it should. There’s public art everywhere. As you drive in, you pass Albert Paley’s 85-foot sculpture “The Beckoning.” The waterfront is home to the sculpture “The Awakening” by J. Seward Johnson. Its huge arms — more than 70 feet across — reach out of the sand.
American Way, a cozy street in the heart of the shopping and restaurant district, has a variety of sculptures, including Ivan Schwartz’s depictions of George Washington, Rosie the Riveter and Winston Churchill, and one of Marilyn Monroe by J. Seward Johnson. MGM National Harbor’s Heritage Collection features 68 pieces, including works from local artists. One of the entrances to the casino is framed by Bob Dylan’s (yes he is a visual artist as well as a singer) “Portal,” made from worn junkyard finds. Look down as you’re walking through The District in MGM and you’ll see Chul Hyun Ahn’s “The Wells.” You’ll swear his art has an endless reach. That sense of limitless depth is an optical illusion created with mirrors and light.
The harbor has 40 restaurants that range from seafood to Thai. Ginger, in the MGM National Harbor, is a charming restaurant featuring a menu that includes Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean selections. Portions are large, so plan on sharing.
Old Hickory at the Gaylord specializes in artisanal cheeses and steaks and offers great views of the water. Local restaurants include Succotash from five-time James Beard Award nominee Edward Lee. The down-home décor hints that you’ll have Southern cuisine, but the Korean touches are a surprise. Grace’s Mandarin on the waterfront has a large selection of sakes to complement its Pan-Asian menu.
The main entertainment district in the harbor runs along Fleet Street — you’ll recognize it by its red-painted roadway. Here you’ll find the Brass Tap craft beer bar, Bobby McKee’s Dueling Piano Bar and Cadillac Ranch, where you can cowboy it up on the mechanical bull. Other offerings include the Public House restaurant and the Irish Whisper pub.
For top-name entertainment, check out the intimate, state-of-the-art theater at MGM National Harbor. Keith Sweat is set for Oct. 1, and Chris Rock is booked from Oct. 18-21.