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).

If you’re in the very early stages of planning a trip to Washington D.C. with kids, there’s no substitute for a really good, hard copy guidebook.  Here are our top three picks to get you started:

Fodor’s Washington, D.C. 2015
Frommer’s Easy Guide to Washington, D.C. 2015
Family Guide Washington, DC

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!



  1. Seana says

    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!

  2. says

    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!

  3. Andrea Rose says

    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!

  4. lucy says

    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!

  5. says

    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.

  6. Bobbi Shaftoe says

    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.

  7. says

    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.

  8. Elizabeth says

    I’ve lived in DC for nearly 20 years and have 2 kids. You’ve left off my favorite museum: The National Building Museum. You can take a tour and hear about how it was used in the Civil war and since. It has an indoor playspace for younger kids if weather is bad and almost always has some great exhibit happening. For the last 2 summers they have had an indoor golf course designed by local design firms. Not to mention it has one of the best gift shops in DC. Also I disagree completely on the National Gallery of Art. My kids love wandering through, esp. on the lower level. I pick something that they have been studying and we try and find a postcard or 2 in the gift shop for them to find in the gallery.

  9. Kari says

    I grew up in the DC area and worked at the Smithsonian for a few years after college. A few things that are wonderful for kids…
    The Museum of the American Indian is awesome and quite interactive. The food is amazing there too. The Museum of African Art also has some incredible opportunities for kids to make things and enjoy the cultural beauty of the art which kids tend to relate to quite well, also has an incredible gift shop.
    Union Station is incredible, you feel like you are in Europe when in the main hall and it makes for a great lunch stop. The American Cafe is wonderful.
    Old Ebbitt Grill is a must as well. Just on the side of the White House it is a historical grill where you will see and hear politics in action. It oozes DC. I love Mt. Vernon, a beautiful and educational opportunity, but it is a very rich plantation. To see what life was like for the common people, directly across the river is the Accokeek foundation Colonial Museum. It is a working farm with heritage breed animals, you can enjoy johnny cakes and watch them being cooled in a historical kitchen. I love this place.

  10. Dannielle says

    the national air and space museum has a satellite in Virginia called Udvar-Haze,[] this is where they keep the first airplane by the Wright brothers, the Enola gay, awesome space suits and the concorde. there is a parking charge but the museum itself is free. A must see.

  11. Texas Mama says

    Love the site and all your experience but I’m still left wondering the costs of all these things to do. A round about figure would be really helpful in choosing for those of us on a budget or those of us who also travel a lot and want to spend the money on things that matter. Maybe even some “special needs” tips and I’m a reader 100%. How much does an average day cost for you on vacation?

  12. says

    Hi Texas Mama: I wish I could include ALL that information, but the problem with giving you all the costs and operating hours is that they change too often. As for how much it all cost us, I remember thinking it was really expensive when we factored in hotel, transportation, activities, and meals. Probably $500/day for a family of four, not including airfare?

  13. Barbara says

    We love the Portrait Gallery. We went on a Friday afternoon for their open studio where an artist teachers you about how to do a self portrait using a type of medium (changes weekly). We used charcoal and stayed over an hour. You can also get a character (we chose Pocahontas) with clues which take you around the gallery. My 7 year old loved this. We live a couple hours away so get to go rather frequently. This is always the place she wants to visit. Hoping to go back next week.

  14. says

    Hi Jamie,

    Thanks for an awesome post !!!
    I’m going with my family this Saturday all the way from Denmark, so we are looking forward to it (not the 8 hour flight, but defiantly the rest!) :-)

    Shared it on Twitter!

  15. Karen says

    I totally took your advice and did the bike and roll. I read it here on your blog :-) That was sooooo fun! It was the highlight of our trip. We have a 7 y/o girl and a 9 y/o boy. We rented the tandem bikes. We visited all the major monuments and war memorials on the bikes. Just to let your readers know, I bought vouchers on Travelzoo. It was 50% off. I understand LivingSocial and Groupon sometimes have this offer too.

  16. says

    I’ve grew up just outside DC and have lived in the city for more than 30 years. I was surprised to see you wrote that congressional tickets are required for the Library of Congress. They are not. Aside from the stunning beauty of the building, there are always interesting exhibits in the hallways and exhibit spaces off the main atrium. Naturally this is a matter of personal taste, but I think it’s well worth visiting the main Jefferson Building. And depending on the length of your stay and your movie preferences, try seeing a free movie in the beautiful and intimate Mary Pickford Theater ( in the Madison Building across the street. The zoo is definitely worth a trip. A short trip en route to the National Mall is visiting the the Albert Einstein memorial adjacent to the National Academy of Sciences ( – kids can climb on him and sit in his lap and adults can read the placards and the beautiful quotes.

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