Trip Overview: When it comes to decking the halls for the holidays, few local destinations do it better than the National Harbor. Located in Oxen Hill, Maryland, the 300 acre-development features hotels, restaurants, shops and the sleek, eye-catching Capital Wheel ferris wheel. But from late November through December is when the Harbor shines the brightest, with spectacular decorations, attractions and event for holiday-lovers of all ages during the Christmas on the Potomac event.
Time needed: 4 hours
(TIP: Plan to be there in the evening… there are some spectacular nightly events you won’t want to miss!)
Distance from DC: Around 20 miles, roundtrip
Best suited for: Families with children, though people of all ages will enjoy this itinerary.
A Holiday Day Trip to the National Harbor
1.) Experience ICE! at the Gaylord National
Start your day at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, at ICE!, a 9-degree ice sculpture display featuring 2 million pounds of hand-carved ice. Upon arriving, each guest is given a warm parka– a good thing since the pavilion featuring the sculptures are kept at a chilly 9 degrees!
This year’s ICE! features scenes from the classic television special, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” This was one of my favorite things to watch during the holidays when I was a child, and I loved seeing how the ice artists interpreted scenes from the show– complete with a town square with the no-fun Burgermeister Meisterburger, the moment when the Winter Warlock became a good guy, and when Kris Kringle married Jessica in the woods.
Also not to be missed is a chance to slide down one of ICE’s 2-story ice slides… believe me when I say it is SO much fun!
2.) Explore the Gaylord’s “Village of the North Pole”
After ICE!, warm up with a cup of hot chocolate as you explore the Gaylord’s “Village of the North Pole.” Here you can shop for holiday-themed gifts, take a ride on a carousel, begin an Elf on a Shelf Scavenger Hunt that takes you throughout the Gaylord’s expansive property, get your photo taken with Santa and even decorate a gingerbread house that you can take home with you!
3.) Take a ride on the Capital Wheel
One of National Harbor’s most popular attractions is the Capital Wheel, a 180′ observation wheel offering beautiful views of neighboring DC and Alexandria, VA. During the holidays, the private, enclosed gondolas (which accommodate parties up to 8 people each) had popular Christmas tunes playing and staff that would wave as you’d pass by during the 12-ish minute-long ride… a merry time, indeed!
4.) Enjoy holiday merriment throughout the National Harbor shopping area
During the Christmas season, you’ll find holiday-themed activities throughout the National Harbor shopping area. On the afternoon of my visit, a giant screen broadcast the movie “Frozen,” entertaining families on a particularly warm December day. A peek at the Harbor’s calendar shows that every Saturday from Thanksgiving to Christmas is full with the following events:
- 12-2pm: Santa Claus at The Carousel
- 12-5pm: Holiday Market (Saturday & Sunday)
- 1pm: Live Holiday Music
- 2pm: Holiday Movies on the Plaza
- 2-4pm: Santa Claus on The Capital Wheel
Also not to be missed is the Harbor’s 64-foot Christmas tree — a picture-perfect photo op… especially if you get the Capital Wheel behind it!
5.) Head back to the Gaylord National for Happy Hour
The Gaylord National has several restaurants on property, including Pienza Marketplace and the National Pastime Sports Bar. But for happy hour, do yourself a favor and snag a seat at the Belvedere Lobby Bar. Not only does the bar have deliciously boozy cocktails and a good wine list, but it also allows for a spectacular view of the Gaylord’s giant 55-food suspended Christmas Tree and the marketplace below.
And the best part? A seat here puts you in prime position for the nightly holiday show, featuring lights, music and falling indoor snow. Yes, “snow” that falls indoors. Every night. At 6, 7, 8 and 9 on the hour. Don’t miss it!
6.) Dinner at the Gaylord National’s Old Hickory Steakhouse
For those looking to keep the fun going (and who have a little money to spare), don’t miss a chance to eat at the Gaylord’s fanciest restaurant, the Old Hickory Steakhouse. I was severely underdressed, but the kind staff didn’t even bat an eye. Which is good, because it was here that I had one of the best meals I’ve had all year!
Our table was by the window, overlooking the now-illuminated Capital Wheel. Before we could even blink an eye, our amazing server Lily came over to explain some of restaurant’s best features, which included premium steak and seafood, an extensive wine list, handcrafted cocktails…. and the restaurant’s own Maître d’ Fromage, an expert in all things cheese that helps you craft an epic cheese plate that’s suited to your particular palate.
From the cheese plate, to the attentive service, to the steaks, to the view, a meal here is a surefire way to have an incredible end to an incredible day.
And for my last parting shot, here is a little video I created about my visit– enjoy!