(This arti­cle may or may not con­tain affil­i­ate links. What does that mean?)

With free attrac­tions and some of the world’s top muse­ums, vis­it­ing Wash­ing­ton, D.C. with kids is one of the best vaca­tions for a fam­i­ly. But some­how, despite all the ben­e­fits of this kid-friend­ly vaca­tion spot, our fam­i­ly found our­selves wan­der­ing around the Nation­al Mall, two miles from our hotel, with no food in sight.

This is crazy because my fam­i­ly likes to plan. Whether we’re decid­ing what bath­room van­i­ty to buy, track­ing baby dia­pers, or — yes — plan­ning a vaca­tion, we drag out the spread­sheets and research and dive in. But some­times that’s not enough. Some­times it’s the cold, hard (hun­gry, grumpy) voice of expe­ri­ence that gives you the best tips for a great fam­i­ly vacation.

Expe­ri­enc­ing the things to do in D.C. with kids is a trip like no oth­er. The priv­i­lege of vis­it­ing the nation’s cap­i­tal and tour­ing count­less muse­ums and mon­u­ments is one that fam­i­lies will remem­ber for­ev­er. Plus, all the free things to do in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., help make it a vaca­tion that is acces­si­ble and afford­able. So if you’re ready to plan your fam­i­ly trip to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., use these trav­el ideas to make sure every­one has a great time.




Research, Research, Research


First of all, research real­ly is your friend when it comes to D.C. Did you know there’s a chil­dren’s library in the base­ment of the Library of Con­gress? That you can ask for a flag that has flown on the Capi­tol build­ing? That many muse­ums offer scav­enger hunts, col­or­ing pages, and activ­i­ty books for kids? Learn what’s avail­able by vis­it­ing the Smith­son­ian web­site or D.C.‘s offi­cial tourism site to start your vaca­tion planning.

Research­ing points of inter­est also can deter­mine the best strat­e­gy for your fam­i­ly. For exam­ple, fam­i­lies with young chil­dren may want some extra down­time if they are vis­it­ing the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um or the Nation­al Muse­um of African Amer­i­can His­to­ry and Cul­ture; the exhi­bi­tions are stir­ring and heart­break­ing and will feel heavy even to most adults. At times, cer­tain muse­ums or mon­u­ments will be closed for ren­o­va­tion. If you have a fam­i­ly mem­ber set on see­ing the orig­i­nal Star-Span­gled Ban­ner at the Nation­al Muse­um of Amer­i­can His­to­ry or trav­el­ing to the top of the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment, check to see if those activ­i­ties will be avail­able dur­ing your stay.


Our kids loved find­ing their favorite books in the Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture Cen­ter at the Library of Con­gress. We found Har­ry Pot­ter edi­tions in Ara­bic, Russ­ian, and Hebrew. Pho­to by Christy Nicholson.



Find All the Free Things


Of course, one of the great­est things about D.C. is how many things are FREE! The world-class Smith­son­ian muse­ums do not charge for admis­sion and offer a chance to see dinosaur bones, the Wright Broth­ers’ plane, Dorothy’s ruby slip­pers, and much more. This includes the Nation­al Zoo with its well-known pan­das and bee play­ground; the out­door fun of the zoo makes an excel­lent break day for lit­tle hands that are tired of muse­ums. Even though no admis­sion fee is required for Smith­son­ian attrac­tions, timed reser­va­tions often are need­ed to ensure entry.


Pro-Tip: Many Smith­son­ian muse­ums have chil­dren’s areas with activ­i­ties for all ages. My boys could have spent all day watch­ing sci­ence shows and doing exper­i­ments in the kid’s sec­tion of the Nation­al Air & Space Muse­um.


Tours of fed­er­al build­ings gen­er­al­ly are free, so your fam­i­ly can tour the Capi­tol, the Bureau of Engrav­ing and Print­ing, and even the White House at no extra cost.


White House tours need to be arranged weeks in advance through your local mem­ber of Con­gress; tours of the Capi­tol are avail­able on short notice, but with a quick phone call to your rep­re­sen­ta­tive or sen­a­tor you may be able to get a staff-led tour or even an office meeting. 


The Bureau of Engrav­ing and Print­ing was worth a reser­va­tion — our boys loved see­ing actu­al mon­ey being printed!


Don’t Miss! Free Yoga in the San­ta Mon­i­ca Mountains



The Nation­al Zoo was a great place to relax out­side while watch­ing fas­ci­nat­ing ani­mals. We were able to take the D.C. Metro from the Nation­al Mall and then walk a few blocks to arrive at the zoo. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.



Play Schedule Tetris


Clos­ing times vary great­ly for the sights around the Nation­al Mall. Plan to hit muse­ums ear­ly in the day, since most of them close by late after­noon. Many mon­u­ments are open 24 hours, which makes them a great stop after the muse­ums close (or first thing in the morn­ing if you have ear­ly ris­ers). If you tru­ly want to max­i­mize your time, watch for extend­ed hours offered at var­i­ous attrac­tions. In peak tourist sea­son, muse­ums will stag­ger their hours so that a dif­fer­ent loca­tion stays open late each night.

Does this sound a bit like man­ag­ing a Dis­ney vaca­tion with Extra Mag­ic Hours? We approached our D.C. trip the same way as plan­ning Dis­ney, decid­ing where to spend which days based on the var­ied clos­ing times. (This cul­mi­nat­ed in a spread­sheet of open­ing hours and sched­ules. Like I said, we’re plan­ners.) But this also allowed us to catch many of our buck­et list expe­ri­ences in Wash­ing­ton D.C.


Plan to see mon­u­ments before the muse­ums open or after they close each night. Our evening vis­its had the added bonus of spec­tac­u­lar sun­sets. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.



Book Your Favorites


The best and worst part of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., is the sheer amount of things to do. You won’t be able to hit every­thing in one trip. That means it’s impor­tant to pri­or­i­tize what your fam­i­ly will enjoy most before fill­ing your sched­ule with every­thing else.

Our fam­i­ly mem­bers are all fans of aero­nau­tics and space, so we made time to vis­it both parts of the Nation­al Air & Space Muse­um — the main muse­um locat­ed just off the Nation­al Mall as well as the Udvar-Hazy Cen­ter in Vir­ginia. Some days we found we had time left over to add a few stops; one night we raced through the pres­i­den­tial por­traits at the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery right before it closed. How­ev­er, as much as I longed to linger in the Nation­al Archives and research geneal­o­gy or write my next book (I haven’t writ­ten any books), that was­n’t a pri­or­i­ty for this par­tic­u­lar trip. I had to con­tent myself with wav­ing at the Con­sti­tu­tion and mov­ing on to the next thing on the list.


The Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Cen­ter, which is an addi­tion­al part of the Nation­al Air & Space Muse­um, is home to the Space Shut­tle Dis­cov­ery, mak­ing it a top pri­or­i­ty on our trip. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.



Go Off the Beaten Path


Some unex­pect­ed high­lights of D.C. are the less­er-known sites that tend to have few­er vis­i­tors. The Nation­al Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Indi­an proved to be a mean­ing­ful stop with a calm play area for young chil­dren. With an extra few min­utes one morn­ing, we ducked into Smith­son­ian Cas­tle when it opened at 8:30am. Both of these sites pro­vid­ed respite from the crowds in the more pop­u­lar museums.

While you can choose to stick with free muse­ums and mon­u­ments around the Nation­al Mall for your trip, your fam­i­ly may want to sched­ule some­thing extra spe­cial, like a vis­it to Mount Ver­non or Ford’s The­atre. We splurged for an after­noon at the Inter­na­tion­al Spy Muse­um and loved our adven­tures there.


We explored Smith­son­ian Cas­tle ear­ly one morn­ing. Yes, we pre­tend­ed we were in Hog­warts. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.


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Where to Eat


So back to that night when we were wan­der­ing around the Nation­al Mall, look­ing for food. Meals were one of the few things we did­n’t have com­plete­ly planned ahead of time. When we set out to explore the Mall, the area was cov­ered with food trucks. But by the time we were ready for din­ner, the trucks had van­ished for the day, and the con­ces­sion stands and muse­um cafes were closed. There were no food options avail­able near­by, leav­ing us to hike two miles back to our hotel restaurant.

Despite our expe­ri­ence, D.C. is known for its food scene (as I learned after­ward). Appar­ent­ly, I missed the best food ever by not vis­it­ing Ben’s Chili Bowl, so I’m adding it to my list for next time. Chains like Shake Shack are easy to find in the down­town and Mount Ver­non Square areas. For more upscale din­ing, try a sus­tain­able meal at Found­ing Farm­ers or head down to the Dis­trict Wharf to expe­ri­ence the fla­vors of Mi Vida.

When plan­ning for day­time meals, muse­um cafes are a good go-to. Once again, though, research ahead of time. There were sev­er­al instances when we found the cafes unavail­able due to ren­o­va­tions or extreme­ly long lines. How­ev­er, when the tim­ing worked, these cafes were con­ve­nient and afford­able. Plus, din­ing in the Nation­al Gallery’s Pavil­ion Cafe next to the Sculp­ture Gar­den and try­ing amaz­ing Native Amer­i­can food from Mit­si­tam Cafe in the Nation­al Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Indi­an def­i­nite­ly added to our muse­um expe­ri­ences. If you do plan to eat at muse­ums, con­sid­er buy­ing a Smith­son­ian Asso­ciates mem­ber­ship to save 10% off meals at sev­er­al muse­um restau­rants. (The cheap­est mem­ber­ship lev­el essen­tial­ly is a sub­scrip­tion to Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine, while oth­er lev­els offer access to exclu­sive events.)


While we were din­ing at the Nation­al Gallery of Art’s Pavil­ion Cafe, a fel­low trav­el­er point­ed out that the sculp­ture a few feet away was a mosa­ic by renowned artist Marc Cha­gall. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.





When You Go


Wash­ing­ton, D.C., has three air­ports served by air­lines includ­ing Amer­i­can, Unit­ed, South­west, and Delta. Fly­ing into Rea­gan Nation­al (DCA) will give you the best aer­i­al views of the mon­u­ments and offers easy Metro­Rail access to the city. Dulles Inter­na­tion­al (IAD) is fur­ther from the city, but its loca­tion near the Udvar-Hazy Cen­ter is con­ve­nient for trav­el­ers want­i­ng to spend time there. Dulles also has a num­ber of direct flights from inter­na­tion­al loca­tions. When trav­el­ing on a bud­get, be sure to check Baltimore/Washington Inter­na­tion­al (BWI), which has a ded­i­cat­ed South­west Air­lines ter­mi­nal that tends to keep fares low.


If you want to be with­in walk­ing dis­tance of things to do, choose a hotel near the Nation­al Mall. Our fam­i­ly enjoyed the Hol­i­day Inn Wash­ing­ton Capi­tol — Nation­al Mall, but Hilton, Hyatt, and Mar­riott also offer loca­tions nearby.


D.C.‘s Metro­Rail is a good way to trav­el from one part of the city to anoth­er. Our fam­i­ly was able to walk or take the train almost every­where with­in the city. If trav­el­ing to Mount Ver­non or the Udvar-Hazy Cen­ter, you’ll want to rent a car.


Christy Nichol­son is a writer, edi­tor, and recov­er­ing per­fec­tion­ist from Nashville, Ten­nessee. When not trav­el­ing with fam­i­ly, she enjoys cozy days at home read­ing, gar­den­ing, mak­ing music, and wran­gling two awe­some kids. Christy writes at Any-Worth.com about trav­el and sus­tain­able living. 


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