Insider’s Guide: Visiting Washington, D.C. With The Family

Washington DC Austin Travel Mama

Sometimes it seems like just yesterday that I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, and sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. I was there for five years, and since that’s where my husband’s family lives, we now travel back once a year with my son. This has given us a chance to visit (and revisit) some great family-friendly spots, as well as get ideas from local friends and family for future adventures. If you find yourself taking a family trip to Washington, D.C. , here is our insider list of the best places to take the kids:

Arlington National Cemetery
The grounds of the Arlington National Cemetery serves as the final resting place for over 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and their families. The cemetery is active, with services taking place Monday through Saturday. National observances also take place here on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier includes the remains of unknown service members from World War I, World War II and the Korean War, and is guarded by soldiers from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. There are many monuments and memorials and notable graves, but many visitors see President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite. The easiest way to visit the cemetery is by Metro Rail.

Botanic Garden
The U.S. Botanic Garden is one of the oldest in North America, having been established by Congress in 1820. The Garden is just adjacent to the U.S. Capitol Building. Admission is free. Kids ages 9 and up can check out a Junior Botanist kid’s backpack to help in exploring the gardens and you can also pick up a Plant Explorer’s Field Journal at the Visitor Information Services Desk to record your observations. Make sure to stop and smell the organically-grown roses in the outdoor National Garden. The easiest way to visit the Garden is via Metro Rail.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Learn all about paper currency and see millions of dollars being printed as you overlook the production floor at the Department of the Treasury. Tours are 40 minutes, run every 15 minutes (from 9-10:45am and from 12:30-2pm) and are free. No tickets are required September through February. For information on spring and summer tours, click here. The Tour and Visitors Center are closed on weekends. The easiest way to visit is by Metro Rail.

The U.S. Capitol building is, of course, the meeting place of our legislative branch, as well as a historic building. Entrance into the Capitol is free, as is taking a tour. Tours are about 45 minutes, and you can make a reservation online here. Tours are probably best for elementary school aged kids and up, as the nuance of American history are unlikely to hold the attention of a preschooler. When Congress is in session, you can visit the House and Senate galleries, but you will need to obtain a gallery pass from your Senator or Representative in advance. The Capitol Visitor Center is less crowded on weekday mornings, right after opening at 9am. Make sure to budget in extra time to go through security. Younger kids like to see the Capitol Dome through the skylights atop the Emancipation Hall or exploring the grounds. No food or liquids are allowed inside, including fruit, unopened packaged food and water. There is a restaurant in the Capitol Visitor Center. Cameras and strollers are not allowed in the Senate and House Galleries, but you can store items securely at checkstands located outside each gallery. The subway is the easiest way to visit the Capitol.

Carousel on the National Mall
If you are going to museums downtown and the weather is nice, it’s fun to visit the carousel on the National Mall. This is the only carousel you will find in the nation’s capital. You can also use being a tourist as an excuse to take a silly photo looking like you are balancing the Washington Monument in the palm of your hand, pushing it, or squeezing it between your thumb and pointer finger (see here for ideas). The best way to visit the Carousel is the best way to reach the National Mall: by Metro Rail.

Ford’s Theatre
Teens and history buffs will learn a lot about President Abraham Lincoln at the location of his assassination, which is now a historical site. The Theatre continues to operate as a venue for plays and performances by night. During the day, you can visit and take a guided tour or a self-guided tour. Visitors who are ages 8 and up can take a two-hour walking tour from Ford’s Theatre to the White House that explores the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. Ford’s Theatre is located near three Metro Rail stops. Suggestions on parking can be found here.

Frying Pan Park
Younger kids may not appreciate the museums in D.C., but they tend to love animals, and Frying Pan Park and Kidwell Farm is a great place to go to see them. Admission is free, and visitors can see what life was like on a working farm in the 1920s through 1950s. For a nominal fee, you can take a wagon ride through the park. Meet draft horses, chickens, peacocks, rabbits, sheep, goats, cows and pigs and see a dairy, smokehouse, corn cribs, equipment sheds, a chicken house and even an outhouse. There is also a blacksmith shop that is sometimes staffed by volunteers and a garden. Access the park by car.

Great Falls
The Potomac River flows over a series of steep, jagged rocks through the Mather Gorge at a National Park that’s just 15 miles outside of Washington, D.C. in McLean. The overlook to see the falls is a short walk from the Visitor Center. There are also plenty of places to picnic. On nice weekend afternoons, there is usually a line to enter the park. Swimming and wading are not allowed in the park. There is an entrance fee to enter the park. You’ll need a car to visit Great Falls.

International Spy Museum
We had so much fun visiting this museum with my sister-in-law and her family. The three cousins, ages 8 to 12, had a great time checking out all the exhibits. Kids 10 and under (ours included) enjoy going on a secret mission and climbing through the duct work, testing spy skills on computers, diffusing an atomic bomb and cracking the code in Spy vs. Spy. The adults really enjoyed seeing Jaws’ teeth from Moonraker, the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger and George Washington’s spy letter. No eating, drinking or strollers are allowed in the museum. The gift shop was very popular with our kids. You can take the Metro Rail to the Museum and it’s a one block walk from Gallery Place/Chinatown. If you prefer to drive, the Museum encourages visitors to purchase parking in advance.

Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center is Washington’s main performing arts center which hosts music, dance and theater. Every day of the year at 6pm, the Millennium Stage hosts a free performance. No tickets are required, but seating is limited and is first-come, first-served. See the schedule of performers here. Make sure to spend time while you are there on the Center’s Roof Terrace for a spectacular view of downtown. A free shuttle leaves the Foggy Bottom Metro stop every 15 minutes to the Kennedy Center, starting at 9:45am Monday-Friday, 10am on Saturdays and at noon on Sundays (on Federal holidays, the shuttle starts running at 4pm).

Library of Congress
Chances are that you’ve never seen a library as beautiful as the Library of Congress, which is the largest library in the world with literally millions of items in its collections. Kids can use this scavenger hunt to find hidden animals all around the building, check out the Young Readers Center and take part in a free family walking tour (or, a regular tour, depending on availability). Kids can also participate in this counting activity around the library. Admission is free, but no food, drinks or gum are allowed inside (and visitors are asked to turn off their cell phones). The Capitol South Metro Rail stop is two blocks away.

Monuments Walking Tour
If you have older kids who are accustomed to walking or have a full day, you can see several of the monuments as the locals do: by foot. My niece had a walking tour of the monuments in third grade, which went by the FDR Memorial, the MLK, Jr. Memorial, the National World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Here’s one itinerary, although it’s would be hard to fit all of those stops into one day. My personal favorite is the FDR Memorial, because I like his quotes which are carved into the stones all around the memorial. If the weather’s nice, you can bring along a picnic to enjoy along the way. The Tidal Basin is quite picturesque, and you can rent paddleboats to get a different view of the Jefferson Memorial. It would probably be easiest to drive, although parking near the monuments is limited.
Mount Vernon
Visit George and Martha Washington’s historic mansion on the Potomac River and also see a collection of colonial era buildings, gardens, a working distillery and gristmill and a museum and education center. Kids enjoy exploring all of the period buildings, as well as the resident animals. We took the tour of the mansion, although there is so much else to do and see that it may not be necessary. Costumed interpreters are on the grounds throughout the year to help visitors understand more about what life during Washington’s life was like. Don’t forget to see George Washington’s false teeth! The easiest way to reach Mount Vernon is by car.

National Air & Space Museum
The Smithsonian’s tagline is “Seriously Amazing”, and it is a really amazing resource that is free and right in the heart of the Nation’s Capital. In addition, most of the museums are open every day of the year, with the exception of December 25. A favorite for many kids is the National Air & Space Museum, which has the 1903 Wright flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Hubble Space Telescope test vehicle, an IMAX theatre, a planetarium and much, much more. The best way to get to the museum is by Metro Rail. Keep in mind that visitors are screened through metal detectors, so the few items you have with you, the faster you will get inside.

National Building Museum
This museum focuses on architecture, engineering and design. The First Inaugural Ball was held at the Museum, which was once the U.S. Pension Bureau’s headquarters, by Grover Cleveland in 1885. The tradition has continued to the present. There is a lot to do at the museum for kids, from The Building Zone, a hands-on introduction to building for ages 2-6 to Family Tool Kits for three to 11-year-olds to an area to build soft-block arches in the Museum’s Great Hall. PLAY, WORK and BUILD is an ongoing exhibit which allows kids to see the connections between play, design and the work of building professionals. There is an admission charge to see the exhibits. The museum is located four blocks from the National Mall close to two Metro Rail stops. {Note: the Great Hall is closed until mid-February 2016.}

National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery is another free museum located close to the White House and the Capitol. The museum has a great scavenger hunt for kids that you can obtain from the information kiosk, and you can print out family guides in advance for kids ages 6 and up. Young art lovers can use the Gallery’s free app to learn more about more than 50 of the world’s greatest paintings. Kids can also learn more about art and art history at the NGAkids Art Zone. From mid-November through mid-March, the ice skating rink in the Sculpture Garden is open. As with other museums on the National Mall, Metro Rail is the easiest way to visit.

National Museum of Natural History
We’ve visited this museum countless times and have always found new areas to explore. It is one of the more crowded museums on the National Mall, so visit on a weekday (Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are best) or during September or February. The African Elephant in the rotunda is a favorite spot for photos, and head to the second floor to see the Hope Diamond. Our favorites are the Live Insect Zoo on the second floor and the dinosaurs exhibits. You can also enjoy a film at the IMAX theatre. Visit via Metro Rail.

National Zoo
As part of the Smithsonian Institution, The National Zoo is free to the public. Most of the Zoo is outside, so it’s better to plan to go when the weather is nice. The pandas are a big attraction, so crowds can be large when cubs make their debut. Parking is very limited, but you can take the Metro Rail, which is an adventure in and of itself! Outside food is allowed and there are food vendors on site. You can download the Zoo’s app to view maps and help plan your visit.

Rock Creek Park
You can see red and gray foxes, white-tailed deer, and if you are lucky, a beaver in Rock Creek Park, which is the oldest natural urban park in the National Park Service. In addition, it’s the only national park with its own planetarium. There are a few hikes which are under four miles and suitable for families, as well as the Woodland Trail, which is a quarter of a mile, behind the Nature Center. Park entrance and programs are free. You can even pay to take a guided tour via horseback! The horse stables are located next to the Nature Center and kids at least 30″ tall can tide. The best way to visit Rock Creek Park is by car.

Roosevelt Island
What better homage to an outdoorsman and conservationist than transforming a piece of farmland into a natural forest? Roosevelt Island is a living memorial to America’s 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Kids can complete activities to become a Junior Ranger, hike one of the three easy and kid-friendly trails and try to spot birds and other wildlife. It’s easiest to access the Island by car, although it is a 15 minute walk from the Rosslyn Metro Rail station.

Shenandoah National Park
Take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city with a day trip to the Shenandoah National Park. The park is 75 miles away through idyllic countryside. There are many hikes in the 200,000-acre park, and Old Rag is the most popular, but also dangerous. If you have younger children, you can also experience the park by car by driving part of the 105 miles of Skyline Drive, where you can see the Blue Ridge Mountains and the resident wildlife.

Udvar-Hazy Center
This facility is the companion to the Air & Space Museum in downtown Washington, D.C. and opened in Chantilly in 2003. The space is cavernous and contains the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird and Boeing Stratoliner, among other aviation and space artifacts. The Center is located very close to Dulles Airport, so you can watch planes take off and land from the Observation Tower. My son’s favorite exhibit was a collection of Transformers toys and props used in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which was partly filmed at the Museum. Although entrance to the museum is free, parking is $15, and you’ll probably need a car to get there.

Washington Monument
The Washington Monument might be one of the most recognizable buildings in our nation’s capital. The 555-foot tall obelisk was completed in 1884 as a tribute to our first president. Tickets to take a 70-second elevator ride to the top floor, 500 feet above ground, are available in advance online or by going to the Lodge the morning of your visit (free tickets are limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis). Children ages 2 and up need a ticket. From the top of the monument, you can see Washington, D.C., as well as Virginia and Maryland, including many of the monuments, the U.S. Capitol, the National Arboretum, the Pentagon and National Airport. The waiting area is outdoors, and there are no restrooms, food, water inside the monument, so plan accordingly. Strollers and other bulky items are prohibited on the tour. Tours are canceled if there are high winds or thunderstorms. You can visit the monument via Metro Rail.

Washington Nationals
DC’s newest sports team, known as the Nats, play in Southeast Washington from early April until late September. As with many other sporting events, there are many special events and promotions whichs appeal to kids, such as days when kids can run the bases and times that players sign autographs. There is also a Family Fun Area with a jungle gym and other activities. Plus, where else can you see presidential mascots – “George” Washington, “Tom” Jefferson, “Abe” Lincoln, “Teddy” Roosevelt” and “Bill” Taft – race during the middle of the fourth inning? (Presidents appear in a photo station afterwards for free photos with the fans). The best way to get to Nats games is on the Metro Rail.

The White House
If you’d like to tour the White House during your stay in Washington, D.C., you’ll need to submit a tour request at least 21 days in advance and no more than six months ahead of time through your member of Congress. Self-guided tours are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Tours are free of charge. Guests 18 years of age and older are required to present a valid, government-issued photo identification to participate in the tour. Strollers, purses, handbags, backpacks, food and beverages are not permitted. Smartphones are permitted for still photography, as long as they do not interfere with other guests’ enjoyment of the tour, but video cameras are not allowed. No texting or cell phone use is allowed. No storage facilities are available for items not allowed on the tour and there are no restrooms. There is no street parking available by the White House, so Metro Rail is your best bet.

What’s your favorite place to visit with your family in Washington, D.C.?

About Nicole Basham 793 Articles
A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 10-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau's words, her mission is to "suck out all the marrow of life", or in her son's words, to cultivate in him a love of "advenchers".