Are you planning a trip to Washington DC with your family? KAG’s Kristina has some tips about what you should see, where you should stay and even some restaurant recommendations. You can use this information to help you plan your trip!
Washington, DC is a fascinating place, especially for history buffs. There are so many places that make the pages of our nation’s history come alive, which can help when soaking up that information for kids. It’s a lot more interesting to see Ford’s Theatre and see the actual pistol that killed President Lincoln than to read about it in a book. Or to walk through the White House and see where all the action happens than listen to a teacher discuss it in class.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in our nation’s capital, having received my undergraduate degree from American University, which is located in the Northwest part of the city, and then living right across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia for almost ten years. I also spent time there on a family vacation – it was brutally hot – as well as a week during high school for some kind of academic program that I can’t even remember. I do remember learning that the laws of each individual country apply to that embassy in DC. That was cool.
DC can be fun for families but you have to plan out where you want to go, especially if you have limited time and short attention spans. So here are my best recommendations for visiting our nation’s capitol with your family.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
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Woodley Park is a fantastic area of town to set up your home base. It’s on the Red Line metro, which means you can get anywhere fast, it’s safe, there are lots of diverse restaurants you can walk to, and it’s very close to the National Zoo. There is a Marriott and Omni Shoreham hotel there.
Old Town Alexandria across the river is another good spot because it’s not right in the middle of DC but still has lots of history to explore, restaurants to dine at, and is rumored to be haunted. I totally think it is. It’s truly beautiful and you can take a boat or the metro – or even better, a bike – into DC. Embassy Suites is right near the King Street metro and within walking distance to Old Town. The Kimpton Lorien Hotel is right on King Street and puts you in the middle of the action.
AirBnB and VRBO are great options as well so if you’re looking through those services, zone in on the areas above. And as much fun as Adams Morgan is, staying overnight there can get a little dicey – it’s loud and crime is higher, especially at night.
The newest accommodations are on the Maryland side of the Potomac River at National Harbor. There is a Westin, the Gaylord Hotel and the MGM. Restaurants line the main street area and a giant Ferris wheel and small carousel are favorite attractions.
What to Do in Washington DC: Museums
While you’ll spend money eating out and in accommodations during your trip, one awesome thing about DC is that many of the bigger attractions are free.
Talk to anyone about heading to Washington and they will tell you to visit the Air & Space Museum. I’m not one of them. I never liked it and I’ve went several times. I love space but it just doesn’t do it for me. Our readers have suggested the Udvar-Hazy Center out near Dulles Airport (about 30-45 minute drive from DC) in Chantilly, Virginia as a place they love. I have not been but I do know people who love it and recommend it to visitors. It’s the companion museum to the Air & Space Museum in DC and has an IMAX Theater, a Blackbird, and the space shuttle Discovery. Admission is free but parking is $15 before 4 pm.
What I do love is the Museum of Natural History because they have dinosaur bones, the Hope Diamond, and creepy crawly insects. I’ve also spent hours in the National Gallery of Art (not the modern art one, the other one), enjoying the Renaissance paintings. And the National Zoo is a must-do. It’s free and they have pandas (parking is a separate charge). It’s a huge zoo so be prepared to walk – and if you enter from the Connecticut Avenue entrance, you’ll have a downhill walk for most of the zoo but an uphill walk getting out. During the summer months, there is a small splash pad near the sea lions.
Readers recommend the National Museum of African American History, also on the National Mall. And the Holocaust Museum is a must-see as well but I’d recommend saving that for older kids. It’s not an easy experience. Be sure to reserve tickets ahead of time.
What to Do in Washington DC: History
If you like history, Ford’s Theatre is fascinating. I loved it, but not untilI was older and understood what happened. A tween would probably like it if he knows the history of the place. Be sure to go downstairs to the museum since that is where all artifacts of the assassination are. There is an admission charge and you must get timed tickets.
Arlington National Cemetery is breath-taking, but I think it’s better for older kids who understand the significance of it. The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is beautiful and reverent. They change every hour on the hour from October 1 through March 31 and then every half hour from April 1 – September 30.
And Mount Vernon, where George Washington lived, is a neat place to explore. We have a review and all you need about visiting linked here.
What to Do in Washington DC: Festivals, Secrets, & Unique Activities
One of my favorite activities in DC was to rent a kayak at the Key Bridge Boathouse in Georgetown. It’s a great way to see the sights without the crowds.
Speaking of crowds, if you go during the cherry blossoms, be prepared to stand with thousands of other people gawking at the beauty of the pink and white flowers. The trees were a gift from Japan and it’s estimated that a million people flood the city during peak bloom, which usually happens in early April but is very dependent on the weather. My secret to enjoying the cherry blossoms is to get up before sunrise and go see them just as the morning sun hits. The only other people out there will be photographers and joggers.
If you’re staying in Alexandria, a stroll through Old Town is beautiful. There are cobblestone streets and a big waterfront, where you’ll likely catch some street performers down by the docks. Pop’s Ice Cream Parlor on King Street is where I usually went to get a cone while wandering around. Don’t miss the ghost tour – it is so creepy and cool. The tour company suggests ages 9+ would like it.
A secret place that hardly any tourists know about is Gravelly Point park on the George Washington Parkway heading from Alexandria into DC. It’s a great place to throw a ball around, have a picnic, or take a ride the Mount Vernon bike trail. But the coolest part is that the park sits on the path of almost all airplanes flying in and out of Reagan National Airport, which means that if the wind is right, you’ll get to see a plane landing right over your head. Take a blanket, lay on your back, and get ready to be wow’d
Other neat things are tours of the U.S. Capitol and tickets to the White House. This is where your Member of Congress comes in handy. You have to request the White House through your Congressional representative and can also ask for a tour of the U.S. Capitol. Or you can go through the Capitol Visitors Center. Reservations are recommended.
While you’re at the National Mall, be sure to stop into the U.S. Botanic Gardens. They are gorgeous and really fun to explore with kids as the rooms mimic different climates and environments. And it’s free!
If you’re traveling with older kids, the International Spy Museum is super cool. It’s pricey but has so many neat displays and exhibits that it’s probably worth the admission fee.
Lastly, I’d recommend seeing the city at night, especially the monuments. There is something eerily peaceful about sitting with Abe Lincoln and looking out over the National Mall and into the reflecting pool, while mirrors the Washington Monument. You can see JFK’s eternal flame from the back of the Lincoln Memorial as well. Walk through the war memorials or up to the Iwo Jima memorial near Arlington National Cemetery or head to the Air Force Memorial in Pentagon City. Experiencing the city at night is well worth the time. You can do a self-guided tour or do a Monuments at Night bus tour.
Getting Around Washington DC
The easiest way to get around is by using the Metro system. DC is not terribly walkable and if you’re visiting in the summer, it’s unbearable to walk everywhere because of the swamp-like heat. The Metro is an okay way to get around unless you’d rather rent a bike or take an Uber. Parking is fairly expensive. You have to buy a SmarTrip® card in order to ride the metro. Two kids under age five can travel for free with each paying passenger. If you are going to use the metro as your means of transport, consider getting an unlimited day pass. You can order the cards online or buy them at most metro rails.
You could also see all the sights with a Potomac River Boat Cruise. Just grab your camera and get ready to experience DC from the water.
Another good way of seeing the monuments is with a bus tour. People love these because they drop you off at all the sites and you can get back on whenever you want. DC is crazy hot and sticky in the summer so keep walking to a minimum or it’s no fun.
A favorite of locals and tourists alike are the paddle boats at the Tidal Basin, which is the small lake that sits in front of the Jefferson Memorial. These are super popular especially during the cherry blossom season in mid-spring when the trees around the basin all showcase their pink and white flowers. Prices start at $27/hour for a two-person paddle boat.
Where To Eat in Washington DC
In DC, you can’t really go wrong with most restaurants. It’s so competitive that food is delicious anywhere. For any kind of tasty ethnic cuisine, Adams Morgan near Woodley Park is fantastic. You can get Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, Ethopian, or anything else you want there.
Pizza Paradiso is excellent and they have locations in Old Town Alexandria, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown, among others. In Alexandria, Rustico was a favorite of mine because of the fresh ingredients and brick oven pizza. They have an excellent beer menu as well.
My mom and I did a dinner cruise on The Odyssey and it’s still one of my favorite memories of our time together. It’s a three-hour dinner cruise on the Potomac River with music and dancing if you want. It’s fun for kids too. Prices vary depending on which cruise you choose.
Lastly, there are food trucks everywhere around DC so you’ll be able to find pretty much whatever you want, especially in the more touristy areas.
What’s your favorite part of visiting Washington, DC?