Things to Do in Washington, D.C.

Things to do in Washington, D.C.

America!  Yay!

Looking for things to do in Washington, D.C. with (or without) kids?  It’s incredibly hard to choose — I know because I just did it.  We saw about 30 Washington, D.C. attractions in 7 days, so I’m a semi-expert on things to do and things to skip.

When planning a good trip to D.C., think like a kid.  Choose Washington, D.C. attractions that are either mind-blowing (as in, “Oh my God, that’s the actual Declaration of Independence!”) or just plain fun (such as the interactive espionage experience at the International Spy Museum).

Top things to do in Washington, D.C.

1.  DC Bike and Roll: The Capital Sites at Nite Bike Tour was the highlight of our trip!  Most of the riding is flat and car-free, and the bikes are comfy.  In the summer, there are fireflies on the mall after sunset — it’s magical.  It’s worth doing this early in your trip, because you’ll see most of the monuments and get oriented.

A few days after our tour, we rented bikes again to get to the monuments around the Tidal Basin (Jefferson, MLK, FDR) which are too far to walk to and not on any public transportation lines.

Biking in Washington, D.C. with kids

In the summer, ride late to beat the heat.

2.  National Museum of Natural History:  We went twice!  Of all the Smithsonians, this was the best for our family.  The Hall of Mammals is amazing, as is the Gem and Mineral Hall and the fossils.  If you’re not bugophobic, check out the Butterfly Pavillion.

3.  Ford’s Theatre:  Absolutely great and short too — definitely go for the ranger talk and the audio tour.  The tour of the house across the street where Lincoln died is skippable if you’re short on time.

4.  International SPY Museum: I actually liked the gift store better than the museum, but that’s me.  Our whole family enjoyed doing Operation Spy, a 1-hour Hollywood-style interactive mission where you wiretap, interrogate, safe crack, and even make a hasty getaway in the back of a truck in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Khandar (best for kids 12 and older)

Other highlights included crawling through an airduct to eavesdrop, seeing historical spy paraphernalia, and simulating James Bond.

The Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

Get ready, get set, SPY!

5.  White House:  Sequestration while we were in town meant no tours, but it was still cool to look at through the South Lawn fence.

6.  Capitol Tour:  You’ll need pre-arranged congressional tickets.  After the tour, hike over to your congressperson’s office where staff can give you passes to the Senate and House Galleries — I think it’s worth going even if they aren’t in session.

An intern actually took us through the tunnels back into the Capitol.  It was cool.  Maybe you can ask them to do that for you?  Seeing Congress in session was awesome.  Totally a highlight.

7.  Supreme Court:  Need congressional tickets.  Awesome.  And you get to sit down!  Win-win.

Other things to do in Washington, D.C. (but really quickly)

1.  Newseum:  Really a good museum, but the kids only liked the Presidential Pets exhibit and the NBC Interactive Newsroom (where you get to be the reporter in front of a green screen).  There’s a great Berlin Wall exhibit and a 911 gallery and Pulitzer prize-winning photos.  The kids sprinted through most of it, but they had museum fatigue by that point.

Newseum is one of the fun things to do in Washington, D.C. with kids.

Kids can ham it up at the “Be a TV Reporter” interactive exhibit at Newseum.

2.  Museum of American History:  I loved it, but most of the collection went over the kids’ heads.  They have stuff like the radio microphone from FDR’s fireside chats, Dorothy’s red ruby slippers, Kermit the Frog, Julia Child’s kitchen, Muhammad Ali’s gloves, and (of course!) the Star Spangled Banner.

3.  National Air and Space Museum:  Most people love it.  I say, “meh”.  Kids did a flight simulator thing that can turn and roll, and they gave it 4 thumbs up.  I would have puked my toenails up.

4.  National Archives:  Get a timed entry online through the parks service.  Go straight to the room where they have the Charters of Freedom (Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights).  Look at them, and leave.

There is a lot of other good stuff here, but it will exhaust you and your kids.  The only thing you might want to look for are the letters kids have written to the Presidents, which are funny.  One 7th grader wrote to Reagan asking that his room be declared a federal disaster area so that he could qualify for clean up funds.

Things to skip in Washington, D.C., unless you have a week

1.  Library of Congress: Need Congressional tickets.  Not much to see.  Skip.

2.  Bureau of Engraving and Printing:  Need Congressional tickets, or else you have to line up early the day you want to take a tour.  Seeing money being made sounds better than it is.  Skip if you’re short on time, or at least leave until the end.

3.  National Gallery of Art:  Modern wing is awesome, but the kids won’t care about it.  Probably skip.  Unless it’s raining, then spend some time in the lower level (between the East and West wings) at the Cascade Cafe and in the wonderful, wonderful gift shops.

If you go to Washington, D.C., here’s some general advice:

1.  Contact your congressperson to line up your tours in advance (Supreme Court, Capitol Building, and National Bureau of Engraving).  Do this as soon as possible.  Tours of the White House are currently suspended because of the sequestration, which sucks.

Family hotels in Washington, D.C.

The kids ended each day with a swim in the One Washington Circle’s outdoor pool.

2.  When requesting tours, be very clear what hours you’ll be available.  Otherwise you might end up with an 8:30am tour time or three tours in one day!  This happened to us and it was a hassle to change.

3.  For a family of four, the metro isn’t always the best option.  DC is absolutely huge, and you are going to be walking your butts off.  Often the cost of a taxi is comparable to the metro.  Take the taxi and conserve your energy.

4.  Looking for a good family hotel?  Check out the Residence Inn Washington, DC/Capitol.  Want an outdoor pool?  We stayed at the One Washington Circle (in Foggy Bottom), and liked it.  I would also consider the Palomar in Dupont Circle which is a great area to hang out it.

Did I miss any great things to do in Washington, D.C.?  You bet.  We didn’t get to Mt. Vernon, the National Zoo, a Washington Nationals baseball game, the U.S. Botanic Garden, or Arlington National Cemetery.  We’ll just have to go back!

October 29th, 2013 | by Jamie Pearson 9 comments

9 Responses to “Things to Do in Washington, D.C.”

1. Tracey H on October 29th, 2013

Thanks for sharing! Been wanting to take my kids, ages 14, 11 and 6 there.

2. Seana on October 30th, 2013

This is definitely on my list of places to go. I’ve been kind of afraid of Washington in the summer (hot, miserable crowds, hot), but fireflies sound fun! The review is great with your tips and recommendations. Thank you!

3. Jenny Jensen on November 6th, 2013

We had fun at the Spy Museum and Natural History Museum too – my kids were much younger when we went. I’d like to get back there. So much to do!

4. Andrea Rose on March 5th, 2014

Thank you for all this great information, Jamie…especially on museums. We are going for Spring break next month, and I am not sure how many museums a 13yr. old can handle. This info helps a lot. We are taking a side trip to Williamsburg, and the Cherry Blossom Festival is going on, so we may check that out. Also getting a tour at the FBI from a friend. BTW, your article on Chincoteague was awesome! And crabbing is addicting..I spent a summer in Annapolis when I was 12, and we would spend the day crabbing off a bridge at the Naval Academy. I still have a scar from where a crab caught my hand! Great memories…thanks again!

5. lucy on April 5th, 2014

Thank you for this quick guide !! We’ll be in DC for 5 days (eek!) for 4th of July so we need all the tips we could get. We def want to your the White House too. The spy interaction thing sounds fun!

6. Chad on June 13th, 2014

You might want to consider adding the National Museum of Crime & Punishment to the list. It’s a great place for the whole family to visit while they are in D.C. They offer fun and exciting activities that keep you entertained for hours at a time. Consider taking a CSI class for those interested in crime scene investigation as a possible career choice.

7. Bobbi Shaftoe on June 29th, 2014

Great summary for visiting DC with kids. I’ve lived here since 2011 and haven’t done some of these things yet, but my kids are younger so there’s time.

Speaking of which, the National Crime Museum is NOT for young ones. I got a coupon and took mine last year (ages 5 and 7) and they were terrified. There are some pretty graphic exhibits that describe violent events in history, gangsters, famous executions and assassinations, etc. Cool for those already used to watching such fare on TV. We fled after about 20 minutes. To this day, when I say we’re going to a museum the kids want a guarantee it won’t be that one. Mom of the Year.

8. Jamie Pearson on June 29th, 2014

Ha Bobbi! I totally feel you. Having just accidentally dragged my kids through Amsterdam’s Red Light District, I feel like I could compete with you head to head for the MOTY title.

9. Bobbi Shaftoe on June 29th, 2014

I concede, you win. Plus you have the penis lamp.


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