Home for the Holidays

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Home for the holidays? Whether you’re a local, or are here  on travel, look no further than the National Harbor in southern Maryland. Still a young neighborhood – opened in 2008 – it has quickly established itself as a destination for shopping, dining, and family fun.

With six hotels and dozens of restaurants and shops, it’s large enough to provide variety but small enough to navigate easily. Whether you’re enjoying a “staycation,” a day trip with family and kids, a date, or a girls’ night out, you’re bound to make good memories. Below are some ideas for fun, food, and finds to make the most of your
holiday visit to National Harbor.

ATTRACTIONS & SPECIAL EVENTS
National Harbor is easy to get to, and as you cross the Potomac from Virginia, you can’t miss it: the 180-foot Capital Wheel stands tall, beckoning you. The harbor’s newest attraction (since May 2014), the Capital Wheel offers views of Prince George’s County, Alexandria, and Washington, DC. This is not your typical Ferris wheel, but rather an “observation wheel” with climate-controlled gondolas and a very smooth, comfortable ride. Basic rides ($15 adults, $11.25 kids 3-11) last 12-15 minutes. The VIP gondola ($50 per rider) offers leather bucket seats, a glass floor, a photo, and a longer ride (20-25 minutes). Be sure to see the wheel at night when it’s all  decked out with lights!

If soaring high is not for you, look below: On the plaza is The Awakening, a five-piece cast-iron sculpture of a “giant” emerging from the ground. The sculpture, perched on a sand lot, has become a giant playground of sorts for kids and a spot for fun photos. There’s a kid’s playground nearby, right behind the beautiful carousel, which offers $5 ride-all-day tickets (parents ride free).

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For fun and learning, take a short walk up to the National Children’s Museum ($10 admission). Geared to kids (ages 8 and under), it focuses on civic engagement and multicultural exhibits and has a large Sesame Streetthemed tot room. Special events include theatre shows and a “Noon Year’s Eve” celebration on December 31. On December 19, the museum hosts its monthly Geico Free Family Night with complimentary admission for everyone.

Nightlife at National Harbor includes evening rides on the Capital Wheel, happy hours, and the dueling piano
show at Bobby McKey’s Piano Bar. Visitors of all ages can also enjoy holiday happenings at the Gaylord National Hotel. The yearly ICE show (through January 4) is a walk-through indoor exhibit with an ice slide and scenes carved from more than two million pounds of colorful ice; this year’s theme is Frosty the Snowman!

Tickets start at $20 for kids on nonpeak days. The Gaylord’s Christmas on the Potomac celebration also includes a free nightly show highlighting the hotel’s 60-foot-tall synthetic “candy” glass tree with music, lights, a dancing fountain, and an indoor “snowfall.” On December 24, get to the National Harbor waterfront by 1 pm to see the water-skiing Santa: the annual free “rain, snow, or shine” event has Santa on skis plus knee-boarding reindeer, flying elves, a jet-skiing Grinch, and Frosty the Snowman in a dinghy.

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DINING FOR EVERY PALATE AND BUDGET
Come hungry to the harbor. There are more than 30 dining options at various price points, and you don’t need to compromise style for budget. Starting along the water at the north end of the harbor is McLoone’s Pier House, the closest restaurant to the boats and – a plus for families – next to the carousel and playground. The comfortable and elegant interior is welcoming in winter, but you still may prefer the patio at sunset: You just can’t beat the stunning views from there when the lights of the Capital Wheel come on as the setting sun puts on its own multi-colored display, nature and engineering battling it out in hues. The menu is very reasonably priced and offers tasty seafood dishes, steaks, pastas, appetizers, and cocktails. Their kids’ menu has  standard kiddie fare with nicer options such as steak.

Another good choice is Cadillac Ranch, serving creative flatbread pizzas and all-American favorites made from scratch. The rock-n-roll décor and a mechanical bull add to the fun vibe. Other great restaurants nearby include Rosa Mexicano, Bond 45, McCormick & Schmick’s,  Grace’s Mandarin, Harrington’s Pub, and Fiorella Pizzeria. For a quick bite, there’s Elevation Burger, Subway, Nando’s Peri-Peri, Baja Fresh, and more.

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SPECIALTY SHOPS AND OUTLET STORES
National Harbor hosts more than 40 retailers in the main area. Art shops include Art Whino, Artcraft, Himalayan Art Gallery, Fire & Ice, and Zagros Photos. Clothing and accessories stores include Jos. A. Banks, South Moon Under, and Charming Charlie, and boutiques such as Cariloha Bamboo and Alex and Ani, featuring eco-friendly products.

For fun gifts and holiday finds, visit SPAGnVOLA Chocolatiers for handcrafted chocolates, Pepper Palace for hot sauces and jellies, and America! for political and Washington, DC-themed merchandise. And no trip to National Harbor is complete without visiting Peeps & Co. for unique marshmallow Peeps goodies and other surprises.

Shoppers seeking a full day of bargain hunting will enjoy Tanger Outlets just a few blocks away. The 340,000-square-foot center boasts 80 stores, including fashion favorites Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Elie Tahari, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Coach, plus children’s apparel outlets and specialty stores.