Visiting Washington, D.C. with kids can be an intimidating prospect. When to go? Where to stay? What to see? The nation’s capital is replete with history and full of family-friendly activities, but it can be hard to know where to start when you begin planning your family’s D.C. vacation.
Growing up in the D.C. suburbs, I was fortunate to experience all the city has to offer. Now in Oklahoma, and with a new baby at home, I love having the opportunity to take my son back to my hometown. I look forward to watching him grow and seeing the sights anew through his eyes.
If Washington, D.C. is on your family’s bucket list, here are a few of my favorite attractions and recommendations for your itinerary. Happy travels!
Editor’s note: While the COVID-19 pandemic means traditional vacations may not be viable for all families or destinations, dreaming of family fun is never off limits! If planning a trip to the nation’s capital in the near future, double check with all locations to determine availability, hours and current restrictions.
Day 1 – National Mall
Start off on the National Mall, taking in the various museums of the Smithsonian. Options include the Air & Space Museum, National Archives, American History Museum, National Gallery of Art and more. There is something for everyone, and all offer free admission!
At the Air & Space Museum, kids will love seeing Charles Lindbergh’s plane Spirit of St. Louis and Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit. Break up exhibit viewing with interactive experiences and demonstrations, the IMAX theater and the planetarium.
The National Archives is home to our nation’s most important documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, all impressive to view in person. At the American History Museum, check out the American flag that inspired our national anthem and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
The National Gallery features many great art works and rotating exhibits. The museum also offers family activities geared to every age level, including tours, workshops, story times and films.
Just a few blocks from the National Mall, the White House is within easy walking distance. Don’t miss the chance to stop by for an obligatory photo opp!
While in town, consider touring the Capitol building. Requests for tours can be made by contacting your local representative’s office prior to your trip. Same-day passes are limited in availability, so you will want to plan ahead.
At meal time, check out local favorite Ben’s Chili Bowl, or for more adventurous palates, fine French cuisine can be found at the Le Diplomate (reservations required). For a quick meal, a number of fast-food eateries are located in nearby Union Station.
Day 2 – Monuments & Memorials
D.C.’s famous monuments and memorials can occupy a full day of family fun and learning. If you prefer not to walk, consider a bus tour. Hop on, hop off tours are readily available to save your legs but also allow you to check out stops in more detail.
Highlights include the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, World War II Memorial and the Korean War Memorial. If you visit in springtime, keep an eye out for the gorgeous cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, near the Jefferson Memorial!
Depending on when you visit, check the local sports team schedules to experience D.C.’s hometown spirit. The World Series champion Washington Nationals play home games through late September.
For dining options, find locally-sourced fare at the farmer-owned Founding Farmers, or try the iconic Old Ebbitt Grill, founded in 1856 and branded as America’s oldest saloon.
Day 3 – Georgetown
On your third day, take time to enjoy the waterfront and shopping available in Georgetown. While there, satisfy your sweet tooth at Georgetown Cupcake, made popular by the TLC show D.C. Cupcakes or try locally-acclaimed Baked and Wired.
If your crew is more into museums than shopping, definitely put the International Spy Museum on your list. This local favorite for kids includes an interactive tour that sends you on your own undercover mission. Tickets are $24.95 for adults and $14.95 for youth (7-12); children under 6 are free.
The Holocaust Museum narrates the story of the Holocaust through artifacts, photographs and film. The experience is incredibly moving, though best reserved for older kids who will grasp the historical significance. Tickets are free but must be reserved online or picked up same-day at the museum for timed entry.
To close out the evening, catch a show at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, which frequently hosts off-Broadway performances. For history buffs, Ford’s Theatre, the site of President Lincoln’s assassination, features a variety of live performances in addition to tours of the historic space.
Days 4 & 5 – Visit Virginia
If you have extra time (and a rental car!), consider spending a day or two in D.C.’s neighbor to the south. Virginia is full of history and family-friendly attractions. Close to D.C., the Udvar-Hazy Center supplements the downtown Air & Space Museum. Find various marvels of aviation and flight, including a Concorde airplane and the space shuttle Discovery.
For a taste of presidential history, George Washington’s Mount Vernon sits just across the Potomac River from our nation’s capital. Kids will love exploring the home and grounds, with various demonstrations and farm animals to pique their interest.
If you like history and are able to venture a little further, Charlottesville is home to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Monroe’s Ash Lawn. James Madison’s Montpelier is also nearby.
The ever-popular Colonial Williamsburg, along with Jamestown and Yorktown historic sites, are also excellent choices for family fun. In Williamsburg, explore the world’s largest living history museum. Re-enactors give families a glimpse into early American life as you tour impressive historical sites. Take a ride through town on a horse-drawn carriage and whisk yourself back to the 1700s!
The Jamestown Settlement was home to the first English colonists, who arrived in 1607. Explore re-creations of the three ships that brought settlers to Virginia and a life-size colonial fort. The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown presents exhibits, film and living history to tell the story of our nation’s founding. Learn about life in the Revolutionary period and follow in the footsteps of a Continental soldier.
For overnight stays, check out Kingsmill Resort and Williamsburg Inn. If you have extra time (and a rental car!), consider spending a day or two in D.C.’s neighbor to the south. Virginia is full of history and family-friendly attractions.
There are three major airports serving the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area: Reagan National (DCA), Washington-Dulles International (IAD) and Baltimore-Washington International (BWI). United Airlines offers a direct flight from OKC to IAD and Southwest flies directly to DCA and BWI.
All three options are accessible to the downtown area via D.C.’s Metro system. DCA is located close to downtown and is a quick Metro train ride away, from BWI you can ride the train and IAD is in the Northern Virginia suburbs and will require connections on a Metro bus and Metrorail. Metro maps and ticket information are available at wmata.com. A 3-day unlimited pass is $28.
Where to Stay
For a kid-friendly, high-end experience, try the Willard Intercontinental. This historic hotel is a popular spot located just two blocks from the White House. Their kid’s concierge offers amenities tailored specifically for families, including a children’s library, hotel history tours, toys and games.
Less expensive options abound in the nearby Virginia and Maryland suburbs, notably Crystal City and Silver Spring, if extra travel suits your plans. Double Tree, Westin and Hilton Garden Inn all have properties in Crystal City. In Silver Spring, Courtyard by Marriott and Homewood Suites are highly recommended.
When to Visit
Any time of year is magical in Washington, D.C. Spring is popular for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Summertime can be crowded, particularly around the Fourth of July. A long weekend over fall break can be ideal for an initial taste of what the city has to offer. Pack wisely, as temperatures can get chilly in October!