I’m a firm believer that every American should see the sights and museums of Washington DC before he or she is grown. What came as a surprise: when I took my three children to the capital, I had just as good a time as they did, and learned just as much. Planning a Washington DC trip with kids can be intimidating by the sheer amount of things to do, the fact that many sites require advance ticket reservations, security checks, and letters to your Congressman.
But it doesn’t have to be stressful if you follow our tips and tricks!
See the Monuments of the National Mall and Tidal Basin
A tour of the national monuments is a must, and I recommend seeing them as one of your first stops in Washington. They give kids a great overview of American history and highlights, and help orient parents to the Mall and Tidal Basin area. However, the major monuments, including MLK Jr, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington are all spread out, which could cause tired feet and short tempers quickly. Instead of trying to walk them or taking a crowded bus tour, check out Bike ‘n Roll DC. We took their Monuments at Night tour, which turned out to be one of the best experiences of the trip. You can buy tickets online or from any Bike ‘n Roll kiosk in the city.
Tour the White House
If the White House is open to the public during your DC stay, you gotta do it! Be advised, though, a trip to the President’s house requires massive amounts of pre-planning. Six months out, check their website to see which days the building is open for visitors. Next, go to the homepage of one of your Congress members where there will be the option to ‘request a White House tour’. Email the Congressman or woman, listing the date you want. A staff member will contact you with further instructions. You’ll need to submit the Social Security numbers and full names of everyone in your party and you won’t know whether you’ve been accepted or not until two weeks before the tour date. When you get notice you’ve been approved, print the attached form with your reservation number.
On the day of your tour, expect to go through several security checkpoints (it is the White House, after all). Don’t bring anything with you except your confirmation number as not even small purses are permitted inside, and there’s nowhere to store them. Is the hassle worth it? We think so! It’s inspiring to be inside the most important building in the free world, and though the tour is self-guided, Secret Service personnel are on-hand in every room, ready to answer questions.
Explore the Capitol Building
Touring the capitol requires timed tickets, which are free. You can reserve these online in advance (recommended to avoid lines), or pick them up day-of at the ticket booth. I’m not going to lie: our tour of the US Capitol building was our least favorite part of DC. While the building, especially the Rotunda, is beautiful, we found the guided tour to be uninspired. However, it only takes about an hour to do, and if you’re lucky, you’ll snag tickets to visit the Senate floor, as well (ask your guide the day-of whether this is available). While waiting for your tour to begin, you can visit the Capitol museum, which is included.
Get Cultured at the National Mall Smithsonian museums
How to pick which of the many free Smithsonian museums to visit can be one of the hardest choices of your Washington DC trip. We made it a family decision: I created a list of 5-6 museums I knew would interest the kids, and let them decide. Here are our top picks:
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History: you can’t go wrong with animals, dinosaurs, bugs, and environment studies! The Hall of Human Origins was our favorite for both the school-aged kids and teens. The museum is free; just plan to arrive 20 minutes before opening to get through security swiftly.
National Museum of American History: this museum has something for everyone, from a preschool-friendly exhibits on transportation to Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. Don’t miss the American Presidency exhibit for your older ones. As with the Museum of Natural History, you’ll want to arrive early, and admission is free.
National Air and Space Museum: a must-do if you have an aspiring astronaut or pilot in your family, this museum also offers what we consider the best IMAX movies of the Smithsonian museums plus great hands-on exhibits where kids can climb in cockpits and tour space satellites. Like the others, this museum is free.
International Spy Museum: excellent for older children and teens, this interactive museum lets kids play spy, giving them secret identities and missions, all while teaching everyone about covert spy techniques from the early days of the CIA to the present. It’s fascinating, but over the heads of young kids. Not part of the Smithsonian family, it costs $21 for adults and $14 for kids. Is it worth it? Yes, if you have at least two hours to devote to exploration.
Don’t forget to allow time to walk through the National Mall while en route to museums as often, a festival will be hosted on the lawn and it’s fun to stop by the Washington monument and WWII monument as you go. Don’t try to do more than two museums in a day or you’ll burn the kids out.
Have extra time? Make a pit stop at Arlington National Cemetery or take a day trip to Mount Vernon, Virginia, the home of George Washington. There’s so much to see and do in DC it’s impossible to fit it all into one trip.