Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in National Harbor, MD

  • Published 2022/10/28

National Harbor is a census-designated place in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Situated along the Potomac River, it was developed as a waterfront convention center hub with 160 shops, 40 restaurants, and eight hotels catering to locals and tourists alike.

The 350-acre development is the former site of the Salubria Plantation, which burned down in 1981.

It was sold in 1984 and rezoned in 1994, giving way to the greenlighting of the development project.

Development began in 2008 when the Gaylord National Resort & Convention opened.

Other facilities, such as Tanger Outlets and the casino MGM National Harbor, was subsequently built in the following years.

In 2010, the waterfront resort was designated as a census-designated place.

Today, it’s home to 4,000 people and the thousands of tourists that flock in yearly.

Here are the best things to do in National Harbor, Maryland:

Book a Luxurious Stay at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center

Exterior of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center

Andrei Medvedev /

The Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center is a waterfront hotel and multi-use convention center that boasts 2,000 guest rooms and 95 event rooms.

Located on Waterfront Street, the four-star hotel opened in 2008 and was initially named Gaylord Potomac Resort & Convention Center.

The complex’s centerpiece is the 19-story glass atrium with scenic views of the Potomac River.

Within the property are seven restaurants, a 20,000-square-foot spa, and ample space for recreation.

Interior of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center

Gary C. Tognoni /

The convention center has hosted significant events, like meetings of the Republican National Committee, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the video games festival MAGFest, and the three-day anime convention Katsucon.

If you’re a fan of the 80s, an Instagram-worthy bar and grill called Replay at Pose Rooftop Lounge offer great drinks with river views.

Enjoy a luxurious staycation at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center and enjoy world-class service.

Modern hallway in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center

Jon Bilous /

Feast on Premium Beef at Old Hickory Steakhouse

Located on Waterfront Street, Old Hickory Steakhouse is an upscale steakhouse with river views.

It’s known for its wide selection of premium beef, artisanal cheeses, and handcrafted cocktails.

Wine Spectator magazine has even given it an award for its outstanding collection of wines.

Start your meal with the seafood bisque, then get a filet mignon with a side of vegetables and mashed potatoes.

The restaurant has its own glass-enclosed artisan cheese cave where cheeses from all over the world are stored and aged.

You can experience a tableside presentation of these cheeses and ask for the perfect wine pairing.

Get melt-in-your-mouth beef and flavorful cheeses at Old Hickory Steakhouse.

Experience Vegas Life at the MGM National Harbor

Exterior of the MGM National Harbor

John Roche /

If you’ve wanted to try your luck at Vegas’ iconic slot machines, the MGM National Harbor will give you the same experience on the East Coast.

Located on MGM National Avenue, the hotel and casino opened in 2016 with 308 rooms, 135,000 square feet of gaming space, and a 3,000-seat theater.

Throughout the casino are over 2,200 slot machines with the latest and most in-demand games.

On the casino’s 2nd floor are 45 poker tables with cash games and tournaments throughout the week, while 24/7 table games are available across the casino floor.

Sculpture on the grounds of MGM National Harbor

Ritu Manoj Jethani /

The theater has hosted acts like Cirque Du Soleil, Chaka Khan, and many more.

Several dining options are available within the resort, like Voltaggio Brothers Steak House and Osteria Costa National Harbor.

Experience Las Vegas on the East Coast at the MGM National Harbor.

Get Fresh Oysters at the Walrus Oyster & Ale House

The Walrus Oyster & Ale House is on Waterfront Street and serves fresh oysters and craft beers.

The Shucking Menu offers Virginia clams, local wild oysters, and the King Walrus.

For starters, get the cheesy Jumbo Lump Crab Dip served with grilled baguette and saltines.

You can have your oyster sweet, briny, or salty, but even more fun is their names: Sweet Jesus, Huckleberry’s, and Ass Smacks.

The lobster roll has earned the label “Maryland’s Best Lobster Roll,” but the Chesapeake Bay-inspired dishes like the crab cakes and creole jambalaya pot are also must-tries.

Choose from their wide selection of drafts to pair with your meals: “The Walrus” Brew, Jailbreak Righteous, and Left-Hand Nitro Milk Stout are just some of the more intriguing choices.

Get your seafood and beer fix at The Walrus Oyster & Ale House.

Take a Romantic Sunset Ride at the Capital Wheel

View of Capital Wheel's colorful lights during sunset

Steve Heap /

The Capital Wheel, located on American Way, is a 180-feet Ferris wheel offering the best views of the Potomac River and Virginia.

It has 42 climate-controlled gondolas that can accommodate up to eight passengers.

A VIP gondola is also available, accommodating up to four passengers with premium leather seats, glass floor, interior lighting, and souvenir photos.

Sitting on a 770-foot-long pier, the wheel was inspired by the Roue de Paris and had 1.6 million fully programmable LED lights.

Daytime view of Capital Wheel

Rob Crandall /

Each ride lasts 12-15 minutes, perfect for a romantic date night.

Get scenic views of the Potomac River, the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Masonic Temple of Alexandria.

Seasonal concessions line the base of the ride from the Wolfgang Puck restaurant.

Book your ride and have a romantic time at The Capital Wheel.

Gondolas of Capital Wheel

Rob Crandall /

Catch a Show at Bobby McKey’s Dueling Piano Bar

If you’re looking for a fun night out, go to Bobby McKey’s Dueling Piano Bar.

Located on Fleet Street, the bar combines comedy with live music and encourages audience participation in the shows.

Every night there are two to four pianists who take requests from audiences.

The talented musicians can play pop favorites from Beyoncé and classics from Mozart.

The bar also hosts Boozy Sundays with live music and a brunch buffet every Sunday.

Enjoy good food and great entertainment at Bobby McKey’s Dueling Piano Bar.

Admire the Awakening Sculpture

Daytime view of the Awakening Sculpture

Lissandra Melo /

You must’ve seen a mysterious object half-buried on the shores of the National Harbor during one of your walks.

The aluminum sculpture the Awakening depicts a man trying to pull himself out of the ground.

J. Seward Johnson, Jr. made the 72-foot statue in 1980 for the 11th annual Sculpture Conference, initially located at Hains Point in East Potomac Park, where it stayed for 27 years.

People admiring the Awakening Sculpture

Lissandra Melo /

It was supposed to be sold and shipped to Japan, but the developer of the National Harbor bought it and moved it to its present location.

The sculpture is hard to miss, especially with tourists curiously observing the big aluminum body parts.

On your walk along the beach, look for the Awakening and admire the work that went into it.

Giant arm of the Awakening Sculpture

Chad Zuber /

Try the Booze Cruises of Potomac Paddle Club

The Potomac Paddle Club hosts pontoon pedal boat cruises where you can bring drinks onboard and see the Potomac River and nearby sites.

The cruise starts from Slip A2 of the National Harbor Marina and sails past Jones Point Lighthouse, Gaylord Hotel, under the Wilson Bridge, and Old Town Alexandria Waterfront.

The 90-minute trip uses a boat that can accommodate eight to 20 people and has a private bathroom.

The best part is you can bring your beverage and food onboard!

Imagine sipping wine while passing under the Wilson Bridge.

Try the booze cruise at Potomac Paddle Club and see National Harbor sites differently.

See Movies under the Stars with Movies on the Potomac

Large screen of Movies on the Potomac

Ritu Manoj Jethani /

Movies on the Potomac is a seasonal event on the banks of the Potomac River where you can see movies on the Plaza’s big screen.

Bring your chairs, pack snacks, and enjoy family movies on a starry night.

Movies are shown twice a week from May through September.

Watch kids’ favorites like Ratatouille, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Nanny McPhee, romance classics Under the Tuscan Sun, and Singin’ in the Rain.

The best part is it’s free!

Enjoy classic movies under the stars with Movies on the Potomac.

Admire the Architecture of Oxon Hill Manor

Aerial view of Oxon Hill Manor

Duane Lempke, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Located on Ocon Hill Road, the Oxon Hill Manor is a two-story neo-Georgian mansion designed by Jules Henri de Sibour.

Situated on top of a hill, the mansion has scenic views of the Potomac River and National Harbor’s Waterfront District.

Built in 1929, the manor mainly comprises Flemish bond brick.

The estate includes a northern wing, a five-car garage, a greenhouse, and stables.

The manor has manicured English gardens, a pool surrounded by rose bushes, and a brick patio.

It’s a popular wedding venue because of its lush grounds and romantic architecture.

Also inside the Oxon Hill Manor are crystal chandeliers and a grand staircase.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Observe the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge

Daytime view of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge

Gary Riegel /

The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge in Fort Washington, Maryland, is just nine minutes from National Harbor.

The bridge also crosses the Potomac River.

Spanning 1,798 meters, the bridge connects the city of Alexandria in Virginia to the census-designated place of Oxon Hill in Maryland.

The double-leaf bascule bridge named after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson allows large ships access to port facilities in Washington, D.C.

View from underneath the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge

Gary Riegel /

The original bridge opened in 1961 but faced problems like excess traffic and frequent drawbridge openings due to its low clearance height.

A new bridge with higher clearance and two side-by-side drawbridges was constructed next to the old structure, doubling its capacity with 12 available lanes.

Admire the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge’s architecture from below or if you’re lucky, watch the drawbridges raised.

Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge at night

Christian Hinkle /

Unwind at River Farm

Located on East Boulevard Drive in Alexandria, River Farm is a 25-acre estate that serves as the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society.

Located 14 minutes from National Harbor, the farm gardens are filled with native grasses, wildflowers, and herbs.

The George Harding Memorial Azalea Garden has hundreds of azalea species, river birch, dove trees, and dogwood.

The Garden Calm is filled with shrubs, trees, and perennials, including the 200-year-old Osage orange.

See the White House Gates at the end of the Perennial Border initially installed at the northeast entrance of the White House in 1819.

Visit the River Farm and spend a day in its gardens.

Explore the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center

The Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center is in Mount Vernon, Virginia, 20 minutes from National Harbor.

It’s near George Washington’s estate and houses artifacts from the Washington family.

It has 23 galleries and theaters where you can learn more about Washington’s life through interactive displays and short films.

There are more than 700 pieces personally owned by the Washington family on display, including items from Washington’s presidency, a ledger used for the estate finances, and a replica of Martha Washington’s wedding gown.

Learn about the Washington family at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.

Visit the Jones Point Lighthouse

Exterior of Jones Point Lighthouse

Shelly Bychowski Shots /

The Jones Point Lighthouse is a small river lighthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, around 15 minutes from National Harbor.

Built in 1885, the one-story structure has a lantern on top to warn ships approaching the Washington Navy Yard.

The lighthouse was discontinued when a massive shipyard was constructed at Jones Point and obscured its light.

An automated light tower replaced it in 1926 to cut costs.

The structure is the only river lighthouse still standing in the Chesapeake Bay area.

The Jones Point Lighthouse has been restored by the Daughters of the American Revolution Foundation with the help of the National Park Service.

You can approach the building, but entering it is prohibited.

Spot the Bald Eagle at Piscataway Park

Piscataway Park is in Accokeek, Maryland, 27 minutes from National Harbor.

It opened in 1961 to protect parklands from urbanization.

The 5,000-acre park serves as a sanctuary for bald eagles, foxes, deer, and other wildlife.

It covers areas of meadow, woodlands, and woodlands that provide excellent habitats for beavers, ospreys, and many more.

Moreover, the park has fishing piers and boardwalks and houses the National Colonial Farm.

Drop by Piscataway Park and see the bald eagle in its natural habitat.

Final Thoughts

National Harbor is a one-stop shop for vacationers.

From recreational activities to food adventures and historical sites, there’s something for everyone within the convention complex.

Everything is conveniently located, so you won’t run out of things to do.

Pack your bags and try the best things to do in National Harbor, Maryland!

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