My husband and I were fortunate enough to live in Washington DC for a summer (yeah, we did that summer sales thing). It was by far my favorite place to live during the summer. We only had one baby at the time (it was six years ago, man how time flies!). We were able to get around easily and see most of the museums and sites in the area.
If you’ve never been to DC, it can be a bit challenging to navigate the area. Forget about renting a car. You couldn’t afford the deductible associated with the fender benders, and break-ins that would most likely ensue. No, not really, but the drivers are pretty crazy (think about all those foreign nationals driving around, sheesh!) And the first week we were there our car was broken into. But that was in a subdivision, while my husband was selling (of all things alarm systems), and we never had problems in downtown DC.
Everything is so close, and the public transportation is very efficient and affordable, and parking is so expensive, I would recommend sticking with metro and buses or shuttles. Especially when you are travelling with kids.
Beyond the hassle of transporting car seats and strollers, and luggage, and all that is involved when travelling with children, public transportation is the way to go.
If you fly into Reagan International Airport, the Metro (underground, subway, trax, whatever you want to call it), will pick you up right at the airport. Dulles International is also very close, but the Metro hasn’t been built out there yet. They are working on building the Metro out there. Until it is completed you can take a taxi, a shuttle, or bus. Or get a friend in the area to come pick you up.
Typically we flew in and out of Baltimore (BWI), it’s about 45 minutes away from downtown DC, but usually had the cheapest fares. There are Amtrak options from Baltimore, and some shuttle services. The National Aquarium is also in Baltimore, and we enjoyed time on the pier. My recommendation is checking out all three because different airlines have sales from one airport or another. Don’t forget to figure in transportation in the equation.
When thinking about a hotel, think about location. The closer you are to downtown, the pricier it will get. Look for a hotel that is close to a metro station and has access to other amenities like restaurants. The metro ride is not very long, and it’s worth saving a buck or two hundred staying 15 minutes away from downtown.
Once you get to DC, what should you do? Especially when you have kids with you. From my experience, pack the stroller, and they’ll be along for the ride. A ten-month-old doesn’t complain too much if you let them walk around a little bit and have their binky available when they get tired.
If I were to take my oldest back, we would do things very differently.
Check out the tour options available. These options will provide shuttle services and make sure all the highlights are visited. We never did one, but we had all summer to hit the sites. You don’t have to go with it, but plan ahead so you know if it will be an option. Having a shuttle will help keep the kids on schedule and help prevent you from getting lost.
Start with the National Mall.
There is actually an app you can download that will provide you with your own “tour” of the national mall. Here’s a link for an android or iPhone (it’s free). From the mall (2 miles from one end to the other) you can access many of the highlights. You must spend at least one day on the mall. You can typically view some great kite flying skills around the Washington Monument, and you will be able to scope out what Smithsonian Museums you will want to hit in the following days.
Spending time on the mall can keep kids entertained because there are great people watching opportunities and a slew of monuments and memorials to talk about. You can also view the White House from the Mall. When we were there we found out about a special tour of the White House Grounds, but I’ve heard they aren’t doing tours any more. Check with your local elected officials for more information about White House tours.
The Smithsonian Museums are basically right off the National Mall. There is a museum for just about any interest. Pick up a brochure once you get there, or check out this website before you go, so you can pick and choose which ones you will see. You will not be able to see them all, especially with kids.
- Air and Space
- American History
- Natural History
Once you look through the different museums online you can decide what would interest your children most. The museums rotate through exhibits and are occasionally closed, so check the schedule before you put it in the plan.
Technically the National Zoo is considered part of the Smithsonian Institute.
In all actuality, it was just okay. The St. Louis Zoo is the best zoo I have ever visited (not that I’m extremely well-versed on zoos). Our favorite part about the National Zoo visit was the escalator ride from the metro station to the sidewalk. It is the Loooonggesttt escalator you will ever see! It took at least 10 minutes to ride from the bottom to the top. If I thought it was cool, your kids are sure to have fun racing on it!
The zoo rotates through construction and improvements, so make sure you know what exhibits will be available when you go. We enjoyed the Red Panda the most.
Some of the other sites just outside the National Mall, but still within walking distance include:
- The Holocaust Museum.
I think everyone needs to see this place to remember what happened during this dreadful era. Check out Rachael’s post about Auschwitz to understand the gravity of these events.
- The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Come learn about how they print money! It really was a fun tour and a free visit. You do need to stand in line to get tickets for a specific tour time, but worth it. Check out more information about tickets from their site. It’s also very close to the Holocaust Museum.
- Ford’s Theater, and the House Where Lincoln Died.
There isn’t much to see at these places, but important historical sites and they can be seen quickly so children don’t lose interest too fast.
A little further away there are more sites to be seen.
- Arlington National Cemetery.
You will need to take the Metro out here, but it’s not a bad ride, and there is a stop right across the street from the cemetery. It is a large cemetery, lots of walking. They do have tours, for a fee. There are plenty of sidewalks for walking and several interesting sites located here.
- Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s Home.
You cannot take a metro ride straight to Mt. Vernon, you would have to make a connecting bus, but they do exist. The home closes fairly early, but is open 365 days. Plan some time if this site is on your list. They have kept the home decorated for the time period. Not many items are original. There is a fee to tour the home. Check out their site for more information, and to determine if it is worth your time.
Other sites to keep in mind include:
- National Archives
- National Arboretum (botanical gardens)
- Library of Congress
- US Supreme Court (there’s always an interesting protest going on here)
- House of Representatives
In researching (and acquainting myself with the current events), I read about the National Children’s Museum. This was built in 2012, so it wasn’t around when I was there, and I can’t offer my opinions, but check it out, it may be a lot of fun!
Other than the few places I mentioned that charge a fee, I wouldn’t spend money on another museum. We went to a few of these, and they paled in comparison to what you can see for free. All the Smithsonian museums are free, the National Mall, Archives, botanical gardens, sculpture gardens, etc. are free.
Remember when travelling anywhere with kids to set a schedule that won’t overwhelm them or stress you out. If you don’t see everything this trip, plan another one in a few more years. Enjoy what you do see so you can create lasting memories. Help your children understand the importance of these historical sites and allow them to commit their feelings to memory. That is what DC is about, the feelings you experience as you witness where so much of our nation’s history occurred.
Do you have any other questions about DC travel? Did I forget your favorite spot? Did I mention something you didn’t enjoy? What other tips do you have for travelling with kids?