The nation’s capitol is filled with so many activities that it can seem daunting and down right impossible to fit them into one trip. Don’t let this discourage you from exploring the nation’s capital! A well planned visit to Washington DC will leave your family with a rich sense of history, a greater appreciation for our country, and memories to last a lifetime. Experience DC’s museums, memorials, government icons, and outdoor treasures with our top 10 things for families to do in Washington DC.
Lead photo by: Bigstock/orhan
Top 10 Washington, DC: Every Thing to do in DC with Kids
10. Stroll along the Streets of Georgetown
Georgetown, the most historic of Washington DC’s many neighborhoods, is a favorite of both locals and tourists mostly for its boutique and high end shops, but, of course, also for its famous cupcakes and charming cobblestone streets. When you’re ready to reward yourself for all the walking that you’ll inevitably be doing in the Nation’s Capital, stop by Georgetown Cupcake or Baked and Wired for some of the best treats in the city. While you’re in the neighborhood, go down to the Potomac River to the Georgetown Waterfront Park for views of the Kennedy Center and Theodore Roosevelt Island. In the summer time, the fountain in the park is perfect for splashing around and cooling off, and in the winter months there is an outdoor ice skating rink in the nearby Washington Harbor.
There are plenty of historic homes, a beautiful garden, the terminus of the historic C&O Canal, and a world-class university to check-out as you walk through the neighborhood. For a list of kid-friendly must-do’s in the neighborhood, read through Trekaroo’s guide to Kid-Friendly Georgetown.
9. Enjoy the Stained Glass Windows at Washington National Cathedral or the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
If you would take the time to walk through St Mark’s Basilica in Venice or Westminster Cathedral in London when you visit Europe, then you should consider a visit to the Washington National Cathedral or Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception when your family visits Washington DC. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, while relatively modern, is one of the most spectacular Catholic churches in the Americas with a particularly impressive architecture and a world-renowned collection of sacred art. The basilica is on the campus of the Catholic University of America and is only a short walk from the Brookland/CUA Metro stop and is easily accessible from Union Station downtown on the Metro’s Red Line.
The Washington National Cathedral is equally exquisite, though a bit more challenging to reach via public transportation from the touristy center of Washington DC. Many intriguing kid-friendly highlights can be discovered in the Washington National Cathedral including a moonstone seamlessly incorporated into a pane of stained glass and various animal creatures carved into the ornate woodwork of the choir chairs. The view from the top of the cathedral is also one of the city’s best.
8. See Money Being Printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and Remember the Holocaust at the Nearby US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Learn about US paper currency at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing through a film and gallery tour. Visitors walk the gallery overlooking the production floor, where they can see millions of dollars being printed. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing is conveniently located between the museums on the National Mall and the Tidal Basin right next to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Both the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Holocaust Memorial Museum require free tickets during the spring and summer months; the tickets are available first come first serve in the morning at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and online for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Even from the outside, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum speaks to the events during and surrounding the Holocaust and steeps guests in the terrible history of the Holocaust. Graphic photos and personal artifacts often elicit tears. While it is a sad part of our history, the museum encourages people to honor the victims of the Holocaust, and it calls us to halt and prevent genocide happening today. While viewing the exhibits of this museum is a truly invaluable experience for teens, the museum takes at least a few hours to visit, and it is a very emotional experience; parents should carefully decide if they have enough time and energy to give this museum when planning their family’s visit to Washington DC.
Read this article on teaching your kids about the Holocaust teaching your kids about the Holocaust before you visit any Holocaust site.
7. Watch the Pandas Play at the Smithsonian National Zoo
The 163 acres of the Smithsonian National Zoo are brimming with over 2,000 animals and 400 species that call it home. Of course, there are lions, tigers, and bears, but there are also sea lions, gorillas, elephants, pandas, and so much more. Children are sure to enjoy the Kids’ Farm and Carousel. There are a few places to grab a bite for lunch so you can stay practically all day. The free admission is icing on the cake!
If you visit Washington DC with younger children, it’s likely that your itinerary will be a bit different than if you only have teens that can walk around the city from sunup to sundown. Read my recommendations for a few places off the beaten path for Exploring Washington D.C. with Toddlers and Young Children.
6. Become a News Reporter at Newseum and a Spy at the International Spy Museum
Some of the most unique museums in Washington DC are found just off the National Mall. The Newseum and the International Spy Museum are both located in the touristy area of town, but not affiliated with the Smithsonian and thus have an admission fee. Newseum, is a seven story museum that tells the story of media and freedom of the press in the United States. While there are a few interactive exhibits that youngsters will enjoy, this museum is the perfect place to get your tweens and teens thinking about the role the media has played historically and continues to play in United States politics. As former high school teacher, I love how this museum challenges older kids to think critically about the news that they see and hear in order to assess its bias and legitimacy.
Another favorite museum for tweens and teens is the International Spy Museum. Upon entering the exhibit area of the International Spy Museum, each family member dons a secret identity, complete with name and discerning characteristics. Be sure to fully immerse yourself in your undercover persona; you’ll be tested at the end. During the tour visitors see authentic machines that were used to crack secret codes, real-life James Bond gadgets like cigarette cases and lipstick holders that morph into firearms, a replica of the Rosetta Stone, and pictures and stories of royal persons and celebrities that acted as spies.
There are a few Smithsonian Museums that are technically not on The Mall, but are still worth a visit for families with interest and time to spare. I would encourage every family visiting Washington DC to at least stroll through the National Portrait Gallery; the National Portrait Gallery also happens to share a building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which often offers activities for families and children. While not a must-see, the National Postal Museum is one of the most interesting places in the District for transportation loving little boys who love climbing in and out of the trucks and railroad cars used to deliver mail. Even on the busiest summer days, this museum is notorious for being crowd-free.
Aside from Newseum and the International Spy Museum, most of the museums are free in DC. But, there’s some freebies only the locals seem to know about. Here’s a helpful Trekaroo guide for budget travelers: Things you didn’t know are free in DC.
5. Appreciate Art and Learn about the Natural World at the Museums on the National Mall
Standing at the US Capitol Building and looking down the National Mall at the museums lining each side, it’s hard to know where to begin – or continue after you’ve already hit the highlights of the history museums. But, the good news for families is that the National Art Gallery, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Hirshorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and National Museum of African Art are all completely free for visitors. That means that you can walk into the museum, through the ever-present DC security, view the most notable exhibit or two and walk out of the museum ten minutes later — or you can spend all day if you’d like.
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is a favorite of many visitors to Washington DC. One half of the museum is dedicated to the history of airplanes and other side features United States space exploration. The most notable exhibits in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum include the 1903 Wright Flyer, The Spirit of St. Louis which is the airplane that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, and the Saturn V Launch Vehicle. (Visitors should be aware that the Stephen Udvar Hazy Center, a separate campus of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, is located by the Dulles Airport about 45 minutes away in Virginia.)
The Hope Diamond, the African Elephant located prominently in the first floor rotunda, and the Hall of Mammals are the must-see sights at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, but there is so much more to see if you have the time. Younger children often love seeing the bugs and insects up on the second floor and for children eleven and up, the hands on Q?rius education area on the ground floor is open to the public when school groups are not visiting.
The National Gallery of Art is an oft overlooked treasure for families on the National Mall. If you are visiting the National Gallery of Art with younger children and do not know where to begin, be sure to pick up a family guide featuring just one area of the museum’s humongous collection. Trekaroo families with tweens and teens also recommend the audio guide for families visiting with older children. Regardless the age of your children, you’re unlikely to see the entire museum unless you are true art connoisseurs. That’s fine; enjoy what you can and return on your next visit to Washington DC.
Yes, there are even more free art museums on the National Mall and a few outdoor sculptures gardens too. To find these museums, walk towards the historic Smithsonian Castle; nearby you’ll find the Hirshorn Museum, home to modern art and special exhibits, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries, which house several floors of Asian art including the magnificent Peacock Room. The nearby Enid A. Haupt Garden is especially lovely in the spring when the magnolias are in bloom.
Looking for more art and science museums in the Washington DC area? There’s plenty to see, and most are kid-friendly! Check out Trekaroo’s guide to Trains, Planes and Boats in the Washington DC Metro Area and Art Museums in Washington DC and Baltimore
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4. Tour the US Capitol Building
The United States Capitol Building is an impressive presence on the National Mall, and an iconic Washington DC building that every family should make the effort to tour on their visit to the city. It is important to arrange tours of the US Capitol in advance as they are very popular with both foreign and domestic tourists, but the tickets are not nearly as difficult to come by as those for the White House. Ideally, families should contact their representative to arrange a tour as they are sometimes able to organize smaller tour groups with extra perks; also many representatives are eager to provide extra information about traveling to Washington DC to their constituents. If you are not able to contact a representative and arrange a visit that way, there are tickets available online – which is how my family arranged for our tour. Prior to your tour, families must pass through one of the tighter tourist security checkpoints in Washington DC; after entering the building, families have an opportunity to walk through the new US Capitol Visitor Center, which has several interesting museum exhibits about the history of the building, and a large lobby area with statues representing many of the states in the union. The regular tour has one guide for a large group of tourists that follow along using a pair of headphones; the tour visits the rotunda and a few other rooms, but not the House and Senate chambers. Visitors in the upcoming years are quite fortunate; the Capitol rotunda underwent a thorough cleaning and rehabilitation in 2015 and 2016 so that it would be sparkling clean for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration and years to come.
After touring the US Capitol, families should take a few minutes to walk through the underground tunnel that connects the new US Capitol Visitor Center to the Library of Congress; The Library of Congress is easily one of the most beautiful buildings in the nation’s capital and easy to see in less than a half an hour; it is notably the home to part of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library which he gave to the Library of Congress after the library’s original collection was lost in the War of 1812. While you’re in the neighborhood, be sure also walk past the Supreme Court and possibly even pop inside for a few minutes to check out the judicial chamber.
3. Learn about Presidential History and Visit the White House
The most coveted ticket in all of Washington DC might just be the ticket for a White House tour or one of their annual events like the White House Easter Egg Roll (at least until Hamilton arrives at the Kennedy Center!). For United States citizens, these tickets must be requested well in advance from your congressional representative; for all other nationalities, tickets must be requested through an embassy. While most visitors are able to secure tickets provided they submit their requests well in advance and ensure that they have carefully followed all instructions, this is definitely a tour that you want to take seriously; visitors often dress up a bit and it seems that the security regulations are always in flux so check carefully just your before your visit for details. However, once you enter the White House, you’ll immediately know that all the lines and security was totally worth it. You’ll see several rooms including the East Room and the State Dining Room. Remember to have your kids to complete the junior ranger booklet and bring it to the White House Visitor Center after your tour to be presented with a badge.
The relatively new White House Visitor Center is also worth a short visit, especially if your family was not able to arrange tickets to see the White House itself. From favorite Presidential meals across the ages to a touch screen version of the White House Tour, this is the best place in Washington DC to get an overview of Presidential history. It’s also the perfect jumping off point for a walk around the White House to see both the view from President’s Park on the southern side of the White House and Lafayette Square on the northern side.
Of course, there is plenty of Presidential History throughout the nation’s capital, from the house that Woodrow Wilson lived in after his years as president to The Willard Hotel which hosted Presidents from time to time. Most notably and unforgettably, Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site where actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln should be on your family’s Washington DC itinerary. The museum begins with a chronicle of Lincoln’s life from his parents’ biographies to his White House term. Glimpse documents written in his own hand and personal photographs that give insight into his life and loves. From there, the museum provides a detailed account of his assassination, with additional artifacts on display. See the suit Lincoln wore the day he was killed, and the Deringer pistol used to shoot him.
There are opportunities for earning a junior ranger badge at the White House, President’s Park and Ford’s Theater. Look for more junior ranger programs? There’s plenty in this area! See Trekaroo’s guide of Where to Become a Junior Ranger Near Washington DC.
2. Reflect on American History at the Smithsonian American History Museum, National Archives, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and National Museum of the American Indian
For most parents, the reason why they choose to visit Washington DC with their kids is that they want their children to experience the American history lessons that this capital city has to offer. While the US Capitol and White House have a huge impact on every visitor, the city’s museums also play a large role in illustrating the nation’s history to visitors of Washington DC. It isn’t necessary to carefully consider each and every exhibit — especially with children, it’s often best to just hit the highlights because there are so many museums and visitors generally have so little time.
Your family’s top priority should be the National Archives; they house the original documents that cemented our country’s freedom. The Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution reside in the Rotunda, where they can be seen up close; visitors can feel the power of their influence on the way we live today. Documentary films rotate in the theater throughout the day, sharing the history of the Charters of Freedom and the significance of the archives. The Public Vaults interactive exhibit is a journey through history with such treasures as George Washington’s handwritten letters, Lincoln’s wartime telegrams, recordings from the Oval Office, draft cards, and immigration records.
The Smithsonian Museum of American History is unique to Washington DC and an important stop in any Washington DC itinerary; most notably it is home to the Star Spangled Banner, the American flag that inspired our national anthem. The American Stories exhibit on the second floor is a fun walk-through featuring a rotating mix from the museum’s collection often including at least a few pieces of media memorabilia that will be familiar to children, like C3PO from Star Wars or Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz. Finally, the gowns of the First Ladies on the third floor is always a favorite for my daughter and I.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest museum on the National Mall, opened in 2016; the museum requires at least a few hours to visit and fully appreciate. Visitors walk through the main exhibit hall from bottom to top, beginning in the depths of an African slave ship and walking up towards the modern day through the Civil Rights Movement and other pivotal historic moments in African American history. It is an emotional experience, definitely most educational for tweens and teens, but not totally inappropriate for younger children. As of January of 2017, timed tickets to this museum are required for entry, and based on the popularity of these tickets, I would expect that the museum will still require tickets well into 2018.
Finally, it is also important to note that the National Museum of the American Indian has an American history story to tell as well. If you’re stopping by its tasty cafeteria for a meal and have an extra half hour or so, take the elevator all the way up to the museum’s top floor. The media production there serves as an introduction to the exhibits in the museum and is the highlight of the collection.
For a complete list of Smithsonian Museums and parent reviews, check out Trekaroo’s guide to the Smithsonian Museums.
1. Honor the Heroes of America at the Memorials on the National Mall
My family has now lived in the Washington DC Metro area for almost three years, and we’ve visited the monuments and memorials in the city dozens of times. I’ve visited them by foot in the spring, on a bike in the fall, on a warm summer evening when they’re lit up brightly with lights and in January when they’re covered in snow. It never gets old; the view of the Tidal Basin filled with white puffy cherry blossoms in the spring, the Washington Monument towering over the Army Band playing at sunset, and standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking out over the National Mall and contemplating Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are uniquely DC experiences that my kids will remember for a lifetime.
It can take a long three or four hours to walk all of the memorials and monuments, especially if you take the time to complete junior ranger activity sheets, available at the ranger station of each memorial. My favorite path through the memorials is to begin at the Jefferson Memorial and walk along the Tidal Basin through the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. At that point, leave the Tidal Basin and walk towards the Lincoln Memorial, visiting the nearby Korean War Veteran’s Memorial and Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. After climbing the steps to the Lincoln Memorial and admiring the view, walk along the reflecting pool back towards the Washington Monument and World War II Memorial. (Note: As of winter 2017, the elevator in the Washington Memorial is currently undergoing repair and will be closed for an extended period of time.)
For more information on completing the National Mall junior ranger program, read Trekaroo’s guide to the Washington DC Memorials Junior Ranger Program.
A Guide to Eating with Your Family in Washington DC
Dining at the Smithsonian Museums
Walking the National Mall from museum to museum can work up quite an appetite! Thus, families will be relieved to know that most of the Smithsonian Museums have a restaurant or cafeteria available for hungry visitors. Some of these cafeterias, however, are far superior to others. A long time local favorite on the south side of the Mall between the US Capitol building and the National Air and Space Museum is the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe inside the National Museum of the American Indian. This cafeteria is a bit pricier than average, but quality of the food is excellent. There are several different stations featuring native foods from around the Americas. The Navajo fry bread served with honey and powdered sugar is a favorite for my kids; we also like the tacos from the Southwest. Beware that this cafeteria does get busy at lunch time and does not have many choices for pickier eaters who like bland foods.
On the other side of The Mall there are far more options. My favorite is the new Sweet Home Cafe at the Museum of African American History and Culture near the White House and Washington Monument. It is modeled after the Mitsitam Cafe in that it is a cafeteria style restaurant that serves traditional regional food. You’ll find many good barbecue options here, and it has more kid-friendly options than the Mitsitam Cafe. The only drawback to the Sweet Home Cafe that you must have a ticket to enter the Museum of African American History and Culture, and as of early 2107, those tickets are still in high demand.
If you are visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History or the National Art Gallery but don’t have a ticket to the Museum of African American History and Culture, I recommend the Pavilion Cafe in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden for quick service food; it is especially a favorite in the winter time when it serves hot drinks. The cafeteria at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the food court in the nearby Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center are busy, but convenient options as well.
Dining Around Town
Beyond the museums and The National Mall, there are two convenient neighborhoods where families can find a good dinner in Washington DC, the Capitol Hill neighborhood and the Penn Quarter area. Of course, there are other neighborhoods that feature more traditional ethic cuisine across the District, being that Washington DC is quite a cosmopolitan city, but these neighborhoods, like Adams Morgan, are a bit of a trek on the Metro from the major tourist sites for families who have spent an entire day sightseeing. Ted’s Bulletin has multiple locations in the DC Metro area, but the most easily accessible for tourists in Capitol Hill just a few blocks past the Eastern Market Metro Station on 8th Street SE. Ted’s Bulletin serves up American comfort food, which is sure to be kid-friendly. Ted’s signature pop tarts are always a hit with the kids — trust me, the seasonal ones are always the best!
Near the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery in Penn Quarter, District Pi Pizzeria and Zaytinya are two popular places to sit down, rest your tired feet, and have a good meal. Middle Eastern, especially Lebanese, cuisine is always a good bet in the DC Metro area; and Zaytinya is one of the places to go for food with a Mediterranean influence. There is no kids menu and you’ll likely have to make a reservation for dinner, but the waiter staff has always been a great help in finding something that my picky eaters will eat. If you’re not feeling so adventurous, yet still want to sit down and enjoy your food, District Pi Pizzeria is a good choice; it’s so good, that you’ll smell the pizza before you even see the restaurant. For a quicker meal in this area, the Shake Shack and District Taco are local favorites.
Places To Stay
There are many hotels options for families visiting Washington DC; however, the majority of the hotels do cater primarily to the business travelers that fill the city particularly during certain seasons. The availability and prices of hotels in the District are highly seasonal, more so than in most major United States metropolitan areas. Generally, it’s easiest to snag a good deal at a well located hotel in Washington DC from Thanksgiving till the beginning of March, with December seeing some of the lowest prices. In the summer months, many locals leave the District in August when the heat and humidity are most oppressive, so consequently there are less business travelers in town as well; early September and early June see fewer school groups visiting the city and less crowds at the major tourist sites.
For families traveling from a distance and visiting Washington DC for the first time, it is best to choose a hotel near the Smithsonian Museums and Metro Center if the budget allows. The Grand Hyatt Washington is a favorite location of Trekaroo families due to the fact that both the White House and Smithsonian Museums along Constitution Avenue are within a 10 minute walk of the hotel lobby; the lobby is also connected to Metro Center where families can catch the Metro to Arlington, Capitol Hill and the National Zoo. Two other options in this neighborhood are the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown DC and The Willard.
Families interested in experiencing the feel of Washington DC’s more residential neighborhoods, should consider one of the ten Kimpton Hotels in Washington DC, most of which are located to the northwest of the White House where many of the international embassies are found. Like the vast majority DC hotels, the Kimpton Hotels have a business feel; however, they also have various family-friendly amenities not found at the other brands in the city like bunk beds and kid-sized bikes. The new Kimpton Glover Park is even located right next to one of the city’s best playgrounds! Both Kimpton’s Madera Hotel, located near the Dupont Circle Metro Station, and Hotel Rogue (pictured), located about eight blocks north of the White House, offer bunk bed rooms with special family-friendly amenities like Keurig coffee makers and video game consoles. Kimpton Hotel Palomar Washington DC, is one of the few hotels in Washington DC with an outdoor pool that is open during the summer months; the pool is typically outfitted with pool toys in season and the hotel makes an effort to accommodate younger guests at wine hour with kid-friendly “mocktails.”
Few of the hotels in Washington DC offer economical overnight parking options, and most visitors will find having a car in Washington DC to be a hassle, rather than a help. Cars are only necessary for day trips outside the city. If you are arriving in Washington DC as part of a road trip, it is likely best to look outside the city for accommodation in Arlington or Alexandria.
For a more comprehensive look at Trekaroo’s favorite family-friendly hotel properties in Washington DC read our article on Top Washington DC Hotels for Families.
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Local Day Trips
Arlington National Cemetery – Spend an afternoon at this patriotic memorial, exploring different eras in US history. Watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Visit the eternal flame at the JFK gravesite. The Pentagon Group Memorial from 9/11 is heart-wrenching but rewarding, as is the memorial to the Challenger explosion. If you have the stamina for the hilly walk, you’ll find wonderful views of DC and northern Virginia from here as well. Be sure to pick up a map at the visitor center, and bring your own hydration.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens – Take in a movie about the Revolutionary War at the Ford Orientation Center. Tour the mansion that was the childhood home of George Washington, including the gardens and outbuildings. Visit his tomb and a memorial to the slaves that worked at Mt. Vernon. Visitors can also tour a pioneer farm or take a sightseeing cruise from Washington’s wharf. Plan to spend a full day exploring!
Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Vernon are only a small sample of the day trips just a short drive from Washington DC. For a more complete list, check out Trekaroo’s Top Ten Day Trips Within 90 Miles of the White House.
Special thanks to Lesli Peterson who wrote the first edition of this article. I found her original 2014 version of this article so helpful that in a few cases her selections and descriptions of activities still remain as she wrote them in this updated 2017 edition.
All Photos are by Melissa Moore unless otherwise noted.