Our nation’s capital is the perfect family destination—it’s a city full of sights of historic and modern significance, educational and fun activities, and a wide variety of family-friendly options.
And, as many of the attractions are free, it’s a vacation spot that won’t break the bank. Below are a few of our favorite attractions to help you get an idea of what is available.
Finding a Great Place for the Family
As for finding accommodations in D.C., we reached out to Jeff Howard an expert on the Metro and Hotels near it. He has written many extensively about planning a vacation to Washington, DC and has a few suggestions for hotels which offer free parking, are in comfortable suburban areas with metro access, and are under 15,000 points.
Families driving in from I-66 will like the Courtyard Dunn Loring Fairfax off I-66 for its free underground parking, short walk to the metro and consistent appeal. It’s a Category 3 that costs between 10,000 and 15,000 points per night.
Families driving in from the South off I-95 will want to consider either the Holiday Inn Express: Washington Dc East-Andrews Afb (near the Branch Ave. Metro station), or the Courtyard Alexandria Old Town/Southwest (in order to be closer to tourist destinations). The Holiday Inn is a Category 2 that costs 15,000 points, while the Courtyard is a Category 3 and runs between 10,000-15,000 points
If you are coming to DC from Baltimore and taking the MARC, check out the Courtyard New Carrollton Landover. It’s a Category 2 that’s convenient to the metro and goes for between 7,500 and 10,000 points.
Staying in and getting around DC
Fortunately, Washington is a city that’s very well connected to its suburbs via the metro and bus system, so you’ll save some money by staying at a metro-accessible hotel in Maryland or Virginia. Many of the area hotels offer free breakfast, so take advantage of this perk before heading into the city.
Traveling on the metro during rush hour will cost up to $5.90 a trip while off peak fares top out at $3.60. Kids under four travel free. TIP: The metro car doors are not like elevator doors—you cannot hold the doors. So be sure to keep your group together, and board/depart the train quickly.
Day One: The National Mall
After grabbing breakfast at your hotel, take the metro into the city to the National Mall. The National Mall has something to offer for all ages. One thing to keep in mind: the Mall is big! It’s a 2.5 mile walk from the Capitol building down to the Lincoln Memorial, which can be a long walk for little ones and adults alike. Be sure to pack water regardless of the season and don’t be afraid to take advantage of the many benches located along the Mall. If your group isn’t up for the walk, there are opportunities to rent bicycles or take Segway tours, or there are the ubiquitous hop-on, hop-off buses. For a cheaper transportation option, take the Circulator bus—it’s only $1!
Many of DC’s most popular attractions lie either on or very near the National Mall, including the Smithsonian, the Capitol building, the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, and monuments including the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the Washington Monument. Entrance to these are free, though some do require advance planning, particularly tours of the Capitol and visits to the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The offerings on the Mall can be overwhelming so it’s worth developing a plan.
Best options for kids under 6: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History offers one of the only dedicated experiences for children under 6 on the National Mall. Wonderplace is an interactive exhibition place where kids can engage with hands-on activities, exercise their imaginations and have opportunities to touch, climb, and build. Wonderplace is closed on Tuesdays and free, timed tickets are required on weekends.
The American History museum also offers the Muppets and a giant dollhouse that are always a big hit with this age group. Other Smithsonian hot spots for the littlest tourists are the butterfly garden and the bug zoo at the National Museum of Natural History and the carousel outside the Smithsonian castle.
Best options for kids 6-12: From October to June, elementary school aged kids will enjoy Q?rius, Jr. at the National Museum of Natural History, a discovery room where kids can interact with natural history artifacts and specimens. Head next door to the American History museum and visit Spark!Lab, a hands-on invention workshop, or walk up the Mall to the National Air and Space Museum to explore flight and space travel.
Best for kids 12+: Visit the National Archives, just off the Mall, with your teen and view the United States’s founding documents as well as rotating exhibitions. Q?rius at the Natural History museum is an interactive learning space where visitors can use microscopes, handle almost 6,000 collection objects, solve science puzzles, and meet science experts. Teens will also enjoy the various art galleries and can better appreciate the significance behind memorials like the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials.
Tips: During peak tourist times—late March through Labor Day—lines at these attractions can be long so be prepared with water, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and perhaps some distractions for the kids. Arrive at popular destinations like the Captiol and the National Archives early and visit the museums a little on the later side. Dining options on the National Mall are limited, and the Smithsonian cafeterias are expensive, so take advantage of the food carts and trucks that flock to the Mall, especially on weekends, or bring a picnic lunch.
After you’ve exhausted the kids, and maybe the adults, on the Mall, it’s time to grab dinner. Many of DC’s restaurants are family friendly. Good options include Open City in Adams Morgan or Ted’s Bulletin in either Logan Circle or Barracks Row. Clyde’s is a local chain with locations in downtown DC and out in the suburbs and are always a great option for families. If you can, visit the location in Chevy Chase, MD, where kids will have fun with the transportation team, especially the toy train that runs around the restaurant.
Day Two and Beyond: Exploring the City
Now that you’ve visited the National Mall, take your remaining day(s) to explore other sections of the city and the surrounding area.
If the weather is good: The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is home to pandas, monkeys and apes, elephants, and a wide variety of other animals. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so be prepared for a lot of walking. You should also check out Eastern Market, especially on the weekends, for a chance to check out local vendors selling artwork, crafts, and food. It’s a great breakfast or lunch spot.
And you won’t have to look far to find other great family options. There is so much to explore in D.C. and it’s the perfect destination for families. Enjoy!