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There’s something special about the greater DC area that makes history feel as if it’s living and breathing. As my kids put it after our recent East Coast road trip: “This is where history is still happening!”
As a mom, I thrilled at these words. When I planned our summer East Coast road trip itinerary through the Mid-Atlantic states, my goal was to help history come alive for my school-aged kids.
During the week we spent on our American History road trip, we made clay bricks in the Colonial fashion, saw George Washington’s death bed, looked out portholes of pilgrim ships, ate Revolutionary era foods, and stepped inside the White House. Then we saw fireworks burst behind the Washington Monument and laid eyes on the original Declaration of Independence.
Heading north from Gettysburg on your East Coast road trip? Explore American History in Philadelphia and Boston with Kids
American History Road Trip from Gettysburg to Washington DC to Williamsburg
History finally felt current and relevant for the kids because we were able to tour George Washington’s estate in the same weekend we visited the White House. Moreover, we saw Ford’s Theater just as we were learning about contemporary secret service details. Pretty cool!
The following short trips from DC can be done independently, or as one big East Coast road trip. Wondering when to go on an American history road trip? Families can always seek out historical lessons during any vacation, of course.
However, before planning a trip focused specifically on historical events from Gettysburg to Washington DC to Williamsburg, I recommend waiting until kids are school-aged. In fact, kids in 3rd grade and up are better able to spend significant time in museums and on tours. Luckily, the best historical destinations make learning fun for everyone on an American history road trip.
Looking to make the most of your stay in Washington DC? Check out Trekaroo’s Top 10 Things to Do in Washington DC with Kids.
Civil War History in Gettysburg
Located in Pennsylvania, it’s easy to forget Gettysburg is one of the best short trips from DC for families on an East Coast road trip. While interpreters may not be in costume in Gettysburg (except for during reenactments), it’s very much a living history location. The events of this fateful three-day Civil War battle still feel very much alive. It’s a sobering, significant, and almost hallowed location. Therefore, we will never forget our visit here.
Best for older kids, the Gettysburg National Military Park includes an amazing museum, guided battlefield tours, and on-site expert talks and programs. First, families will want to budget at least one full day at the Gettysburg Battlefield on an East Coast road trip. After that you’ll want to spend another full day walking the town of Gettysburg and learning about life for the civilians during the war at places like the Shriver House.
Recommendations for Touring Gettysburg
We highly recommending hiring a Licensed Battlefield Guide to take you on a three-hour tour. These guides are true experts. In fact, they will get in your car with you and drive you through the three-day battle on the field. Plus if you have a family of four or more, the cost is less than that of the group tours!
Because the events of the battle of Gettysburg were so gruesome, I recommend waiting to do this tour until kids are at least in the middle grades. Our 4th, 8th, and 10th graders got a lot out of the trip. In fact, my teen says it was the highlight of our American history road trip.
Where to stay: We stayed in the heart of town at the Quality Inn Gettysburg on our trip from Gettysburg to Washington DC. This hotel has many rooms with three double beds, perfect for bigger families on an East Coast road trip. It also features free breakfast and a refreshing outdoor pool.
Spending more time in Pennsylvania? Check out Trekaroo’s Top 10 Things to Do in Pennsylvania with Kids
Educational resources for Gettysburg living history:
Check out our Pinterest Board on Learning about Civil War History Follow Trekaroo Family Travel’s board Road School: American History – Civil War on Pinterest.
- History for Kids: The Battle of Gettysburg by Charles River Editors
- I Survived the Battle of Gettsyburg (I Survived history series)
- Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln, Jean Fritz
Middle and High School Grades:
Live and Breathe U.S. Government History in Washington DC
By now, you will have experienced some American history in Gettysburg. However, if your kids, like mine, are still not very interested in political history, that’s about to change after a few days in DC. While we toured Washington DC with history in mind, we were given ample lessons in current politics and government practices as well.
Plan at least four days in the city on your East Coast road trip, but make peace with the fact that you still won’t see it all. On the must-do list: a day or more to tour Smithsonian museums, such as the National Museum of American History and National Museum of African American History and Culture. Take a tour of the Capitol Building, and make sure to apply early to get a self-guided White House tour.
Kids who want to see the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution will want to visit the National Archives. It is best toured early before security lines lengthen. A tour of the monuments along the Mall is also a must-do. We toured them via bike to save our tired feet, and recommend Bike ’n Roll.
Looking for a full itinerary for your Washington DC family vacation? Check out this Washington DC Family Vacation Itinerary – 4 Days in DC.
Where to stay in Washington DC
We loved the Grand Hyatt Washington, located within walking distance of just about everything. Upgrade your room to gain access to the Grand Club, and have meals, snacks, and cold drinks always at your disposal. For more of Trekaroo’s favorite Washington DC hotels, check out Best Kid-Friendly Hotels in Washington DC for Your Family.
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Educational Resources for DC travel:
Check out our Pinterest Board on Learning about US Government History
Follow Trekaroo Family Travel’s board Road School: US Government History on Pinterest.
- We the Kids by David Catrow (book)
- The New Big Book of US Presidents: Fascinating Facts about Each and Every President by Todd Davis (book)
- This is Washington DC by Miroslav Sasek
- Three Rings of Government by Schoolhouse Rock (YouTube Video)
For all Middle School and Up
- 25 Bicycle Tours in and Around Washington DC, Anne Oman (guide book)
- The White House Revealed (DVD Documentary)
- Kids Guide to Washington DC by Eileen Ognitz (guide book)
- What Does the President Do? Amanda Miller (book)
- How the US Government Works, Syl Sobel (book)
Explore our First President’s Estate in Mount Vernon, VA
After learning about civics in Washington DC, we recommend making a stop in Virginia at Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate. During the summer months, it is best to arrive early in day, as it gets crowded and hot. Start with a tour of Washington’s home, which is run on a timed ticket. Buy online to select your time beforehand, or you may be waiting upon arrival. After the house tour, opt for the self-guided tour of the outbuildings, slave quarters, and grave sites before the heat of the day. Then retreat to the modern indoor museum, located near the entrance. In addition, for families with younger kids, there’s a nice interactive art room in the museum just for kids under age 10. It’s staffed by museum historians and offers a different craft or project each day.
Looking for more day trips from Washington DC? Check out Trekaroo’s Top 10 Day Trips from Washington DC for Families.
Continue your East Coast Road Trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia
Located three hours from Washington DC, Williamsburg is perhaps the best place to see history come alive for kids . Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City is the most comprehensive living history center we’ve ever seen. The interpreters are in period costume and stay in character all day. As you walk the streets, your kids may be drawn into a heated conversation about taxation in the colonies or hear a hushed whisper about a runaway slave.
Every day, historic reenactments take place in Revolutionary City, and artisans show their trades. Above all, be sure to take kids to visit the brick maker, who just might need help in his clay yards, and to the Governor’s Palace, where a mob of angry colonial citizens could break out at any time.
Where to stay: In historic Colonial Williamsburg, we recommend staying within walking and shuttle distance to Revolutionary City. The Williamsburg Woodlands is located next door to the visitor’s center, and hosts evening children’s programs of its own. The included breakfast is the best we’ve experienced while traveling, and there’s a free mini golf course on site!
Want to plan a fun family vacation to Williamsburg, Virginia? Check out Trekaroo’s Historic Williamsburg Family Vacation.
Become a Soldier in Jamestown
A ten minute drive from Williamsburg, Jamestown offers both a second living history center with a re-created Jamestown fort, native American village, and harbor. The excavation of the national parks site in the original settlement continues today. The re-created fort and village has a separate entry than the national park site, but families will want to do both. First, start at the fort to see the living history section, which will give kids a visual of what was there. Then, head out to the village. Furthermore, Trekaroo families found Historic Jamestown to be more accessible for younger children who can easily be overwhelmed by Colonial Williamsburg.
The Historic Triangle is a destination in itself! Check out Trekaroo’s Top 10 Things to Do in Williamsburg, VA with Kids.
Educational resources for colonial living history:
Check out our Pinterest Board on Learning about American Colonial History
Follow Trekaroo Family Travel’s board Road School: American History – Columbus and Colonial History on Pinterest.
- Who was Christopher Columbus? Bonnie Bader
- Colonial Kids: An Activity Guide to Life in the New World, Laurie Carlson
- Colonial Days: Discover the Past with Fun projects, Games, and Recipes
Middle and upper grades:
- Making Thirteen Colonies Resource Book, Susan Dangel
- Williamsburg RevQuest living history scavenger hunt game (free with admission)
Looking for more Road School Guides? Check out our landing page where we keep all our latest tips, tricks, and educationally approved guides.
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