Stately, impressive, full of world renouned museums and dignified embassies… Washington, D.C. does not always sound like a great place to visit with kids.
Truth be told, I have a friend whose husband refuses to take the kids to D.C. because he thinks they are too young (12, 9, and 6).
He could not be further from the truth.
Washington, D.C. may be a capitol city built to impress and humble visiting dignitaries, but it is also a family friendly city full of opportunities for even the fussiest of your young family members.
I spent five years working and living in D.C. as a young woman, and then another year as a young mother. Our little family has spent time in D.C. with a baby, a toddler, a rambunctious five year old, a hands-on eight year old, a homeschooling nine year old, a worldschooling ten year old and an inquisitive eleven year old. We also invite friends to come along whenever possible and thus have had the opportunity to care for several children at once during our trips into the city.
Do I recommend D.C. for families? YES.
With over 17 Smithsonian museums, local art galleries, enticing specialty museums, parks and outdoor spaces, International centers and activities, theatre and arts opportunities, and everything else that D.C. has to offer… how is a parent supposed to choose and plan an itinerary?
Here is our tried and tested personal favorites in an easy, family friendly itinerary:
Go ahead. Be a tourist. The draw to “do something different” or “discover the unknown” can be great, and good, but sometimes just following the beaten path also leads to wonderful adventures. After all, it’s a beaten path for a reason.
Chances are, day one is a Friday afternoon- or an arrival day. Either way, you have limited time and energy competing with a thirst to discover and explore. So today, head to the National Mall and walk amongst the monuments. You can start by taking the metro to Union Station, walking about and enjoying the grand architecture, and then walking outside for two blocks towards the United States Capitol.
From the United States Capitol you can see the grand expanse of the National Mall unfold before you. You see amazing museums and a great view of the Washington Monument. Your kids see grass! Lots of open space and grass to walk on, do summersaults on, and play on. You enjoy the sights and they enjoy the play- interrupted by mom and dad pointing out the Smithsonian Castle, the carrousel, the monument, and the house of the ruby slippers.
It is almost a one mile walk to the Washington Monument and then another mile from there to the Lincoln Memorial. The great news is that there is plenty to see along the way for both parents and kids.
Pass through the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, and climb the Lincoln Memorial steps. What an achievement! Your reward: a cab, or uber, back to Union Station (two miles away by foot remember) and a well deserved rest back at your hotel.
Enjoy your breakfast because day 2 is going to be amazing!
Start by making your way to the National Mall. If it is a weekday head straight to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing to take the first tour available. If it is a weekend the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is closed and you should head over to the National Gallery of Art.
The West building is traditional and lovely if that’s your thing. My recommendation: head down to the bottom level, cross into the East building via the magnificent “Multiverse” exhibit, and enjoy the more edgy and modern art on this wing. Don’t forget to find the blue rooster!
As an added bonus to the amazing art displayed at the National Gallery of Art, they have created fun, engaging, and educational tools to help you make the most of this family friendly museum. Families are free to pick one or two or three packets and delve a little deeper into French Paintings, Italian Art, or the Dutch holdings in the museum. The booklets come complete with information, question and answer sections, and guided options for the young members in your family. This is truly a museum that wants to help your family enjoy your visit.
The kids have been nice and happy so far, what with a walkway filled with lights and a giant blue rooster, but they deserve a beak. Cross the street and, in the winter, enjoy some outdoors Ice Skating time. If you visit D.C. when it is warmer, this same space houses a Sculpture Garden and fun fountain.
After an outdoor rest, head north (via taxi or on foot) to Chinatown. The bright Friendship Arch will welcome you to this little section of D.C. that is alive with energy and food. Yes, food. Whether it’s Dim Sum or Matchbox, there are plenty of options in this part of town to satisfy any appetite.
Walk a few blocks and you will find the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The majestic architecture on the outside does not do this museum justice- it feels twice as big once you enter the exhibit spaces! The fine folks here have even created a child friendly booklet of art they can search for and learn about. We like to think of it as a scavenger hunt. The reward? Stop #3.
This last stop depends a lot on time of year and/ or family stamina.
Let’s be honest: you’ve done a lot already! But if your family is still energized we recommend:
- In winter, head over to the ICE Exhibit and the fountain show at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at the National Harbor
- During the Christmas season, head over to the National Zoo (always free admission) and walk around the Christmas lights decorating the whole zoo
- In Spring/Summer, head over the National Harbor to enjoy a ride on the Capital Ferris Wheel.
Whether you enjoy option 3 or not, chances are you will sleep soundly tonight.
On your last day in Washington, D.C. I recommend you enjoy some of the local culture. There are two ways you can accomplish this: enjoy local favorites on the national mall or go beyond downtown and into the rest of this amazing city.
Option 1: At the National Mall
Start your day at Ted’s Bulletin in Eastern Market– a local favorite for breakfast. Afterwards, take a tour inside the United States Capitol (for best results make sure to contact you representative a few weeks in advance) and follow it with the child friendly exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian next door- their lunch is rumored to be the best on the National Mall. Finish your day with a taste of all things Americana at the National Museum of American History. Try to be there at sundown when you can have a chance to roll away the American flag for the night.
Option 2: Beyond Downtown and Into the City
If you’ve had enough of the National Mall area, check out Things To Do for events that are open to the public at the local embassies, learn about a foreign and beautiful culture at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, or travel around the world without ever leaving Washington, D.C.
Three days allows you to peak inside the amazing city that is Washington, D.C. and just enough to love it and start planning your return trip. Enjoy!
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