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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!