Should you arrive at National Harbor via water taxi as the sun bursts over the Potomac, it's possible to imagine the 180-foot Capital Wheel and the colorful carousel as a welcome to Neverland.
Though National Harbor is located less than 10 miles from Capitol Hill, the 350-acre waterfront community feels worlds away from national turmoil. During its 10 years on the shores of the Potomac, National Harbor has become a family-friendly destination with more than 12 million annual visitors.
Apart from National Harbor's observation wheel with its 42 climate-controlled gondolas, what visitors notice almost immediately is the 19-story glass atrium of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center that fronts the river with terraced gardens and fountains. During the holidays, the entire resort becomes the equivalent of Santa's workshop, with more than 2 million lights illuminating an annual ice sculpture exhibition, a Christmas village, ice slides and live entertainment from Cirque Dreams.
Opened in 2008, the 1,996-room hotel features five restaurants, an indoor pool and the Relache Spa as well as a 600,000-square-foot convention center. Rooms and suites feature views of the river and the garden atrium, where a laser light show flickers across the fountains' dancing water jets. Teenagers can partake in silent discos, dancing to music listened to on wireless headphones, and watch Hollywood films projected on screens under the stars.
Beyond the grounds of the Gaylord, visitors mingle with locals at more than 160 stores and 40 dining options, including restaurants such as the award-winning Succotash, where the James Beard-nominated chef Edward Lee tweaks Southern comfort food with his own Korean culinary heritage.
Tree-lined promenades feature works from artists such as J. Seward Johnson, whose 70-foot aluminum sculpture "The Awakening" spans the beach, serving as a playground and photo opportunity for children of all ages.
Built in 2014, the Capital Wheel attracts nearly 1 million annual passengers to the waterfront, where two 700-foot piers provide access to kayaks, pedal boats, water taxis and dinner cruises. The waterfront also is home to the Flight Deck outdoor bar and lounge. And yacht rentals are available at the 62-boat marina.
For a taste of Vegas on the Potomac, the MGM National Harbor is a $1.4 billion luxury casino that opened in December 2016. The 308-room hotel features a 3,000-seat theater where entertainers such as Cher, Stevie Wonder and Bruno Mars have performed. National Harbor's seven hotels combined offer 3,300 rooms.
MGM's various chef-driven restaurants include Fish by Jose Andres, where the acclaimed Michelin-starred chef celebrates the best of Maryland's maritime cuisine in a spectacular nautical setting overlooking the Potomac.
National Harbor is but a short water taxi ride away from the nation's capital. Yet a wander down to the waterfront serves as a reminder that when you get away with the family, distance from the world affords the best perspective.
Rooms at the Gaylord National Resort start at $169, while those at the MGM National Harbor start at $199.