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.
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.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing was worth a reservation — our boys loved seeing actual money being printed!
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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.)
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.
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.
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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.)
Research is your friend when it comes to planning a great family trip to Washington, D.C. If you’re ready to plan a trip to D.C. with your kids, use these travel ideas to make sure everyone has a great time.
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.
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