We travel to Washington, DC multiple times a year to visit my sister and her family and have been doing so since long before the boys were born. Over the years, I’ve learned some tricks and tips that will make visiting the capital city more enjoyable and efficient, especially if you have small children in tow. If you’re traveling to Washington, DC with kids, you are going to have an amazing time. This city has so much fun and culture to offer every member of the family. Enjoy!
1). Take advantage of FREE fun: A number of tourist attractions and other fun experiences in Washington, DC are completely free including the National Zoo, all of the Smithsonian museums, and viewing the monuments. Also, DC and surrounding areas have a number of city parks. Sometimes when I ask the boys what they want to do once we arrive in DC, they say, “Go to a park!”One summer, my mom, sister and I spent the entire day taking Brooks and my older niece to four different parks all around the DC area. We all had so much fun. Wherever you are staying, ask the front desk or someone from the realty company about local parks. Parks are also great when you have younger children who are napping and older children who need to burn off some energy.
2). Have cash handy (but not too much): Be sure to have a little cash for bottled waters and to buy an ice cream from a street vendor (which our boys love!), but don’t have to much on you because it may tempt you to buy unnecessary keepsakes and souvenirs that are over-priced.
3). Pack plenty of snacks and bottles for water: Even if you are flying, pack some snacks in your suitcase or once you arrive, find a Target, Harris Teeter or Trader Joe’s and load up on snacks. A day traipsing around Washington, DC results in significant thirst and hunger, and if you don’t have snacks, you will end up spending entirely too much money buying food in the District or outlying areas. If you’re driving, you can pack bottled waters and juice boxes. If you’re flying, pack reusable water bottles that can be refilled at water fountains or at the hotel.
4). Utilize the Metro: We love using the Metro! After utilizing subway systems in other cities, I’ve realized that the DC Metro is extraordinarily clean. You can’t eat or drink on the Metro so don’t make the mistake of buying a $6 Starbucks drink expecting to enjoy it on a long Metro ride. The attendants don’t always notice when you food or drinks, but if they make you throw it away, that would be really frustrating. Buying your SmarTrip card the first time and figuring out which line to use can be overwhelming, so ask questions if you’re confused. In fact, if you’re not with a local person or if you’ve never used the DC Metro, have one of the attendants do it all for you the first time. There are always plenty of Metro employees around the ticket station. It’s better to ask questions than end up going the wrong way and wasting precious time. Prior to arriving in DC you can take a look at the Metro system map and plan out your routes. You can find information on fares and a downloadable transit guide by clicking HERE. One tidbit of info is that two children four and under ride free with one paying adult.
5). Split the National Mall/Smithsonian experience between two days: I think when most families envision traveling to DC, they imagine the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and all of the Smithsonian museums. These historical treasures and attractions need to be on your list of things to do, but I caution you that one day is not enough time. I would recommend looking at the weather and choosing a beautiful day to explore all of the outdoor monuments and enjoying a picnic lunch. There is a lot of walking involved when seeing all of the monuments on the National Mall. I would suggest visiting one end then walking to the middle and enjoying either a picnic lunch or a snack, throwing a Frisbee, people watching, etc. for about an hour then walking to the other end. If you have very small children, I would definitely urge you to split this into two days. If your kids meltdown around noon, get up early and enjoy the outdoor monuments one day then get up early another day and enjoy the museums. We’ve had a child completely meltdown several times smack in the middle of the National Mall or a quiet museum and believe me, it’s not fun. On the second day, select the museums you want to see and spend quality time in each. If you have older children who are really into history, you may even need part of another day to see absolutely everything. The Smithsonian website offers a wealth of information about specific museums, the National Zoo (also a Smithsonian entity), and more.
6). Accommodations: This is an area I don’t a ton about because we typically stay with my sister; however, now that their family is growing, they don’t have as much room. The last time my entire family visited, we stayed in a hotel, so I do have a little personal experience with this. My recommendation for a hotel is to spend time looking around and visit sites like hotel.com and kayak.com. Also, you will save money staying in nearby Arlington as opposed to staying right in the District. You could also stay in Old Town Alexandria or Georgetown those these locations would probably be more expensive than Arlington. When reserving your hotel, ask if they have a shuttle to the nearest Metro station. If so, don’t try and drive around the National Mall or the zoo. It’s a nightmare driving and parking, so avoid it if you can. I’ve also had a couple of friends use Airbnb and love it. They compared prices of hotels with those of Airbnb and found the latter to be less expensive and much more accommodating.
7). Do some research and plan tours long before your trip: Depending on how many days you will be in Washington, DC, sit down and tentatively plan out your trip. Do this several months in advance so you can be sure you do everything you want. Some of the tour tickets for the Capitol Building and the White House need to be bought months in advance. Washington Monument tickets are sold first come first serve on the day of or you can buy them in advance but there is a surcharge. The Newseum is a really fun attraction about the history of journalism and the press but is really only interesting for older kids. We took the boys last year along with our ten-year old niece. The two older children had fun, but three-year old Case was a bit bored. The Holocaust Memorial Museum is another awe-inspiring yet heartbreaking attraction but again, I wouldn’t recommend this for young children. I would wait until they were upper elementary or even middle school and had some knowledge of the Holocuast.
8). Do something unique: While the monuments, museums, the White House and all of that are of course priority when you visit Washington, DC, there are a number of other fun and unique experiences as well. We like to ride a water taxi to get from one section of the Potomac River to another. You can ride a water taxi from Old Town Alexandria to the National Harbor or the National Mall. The Potomac Riverboat Company’s website offers great information. If your kids are a little older, I would suggest a Washington Nationals game. DC locals love their Nats, so the games are always festive and exciting. We haven’t taken Case quite yet because he’s just now old enough to really enjoy it, but Brooks went a couple of summers ago and loved it. Arlington Cemetery is another amazing historic site, but we still haven’t done this with our boys because I’ve been worried one of them would make too much noise during the Changing of the Guard. Brooks is definitely old enough now and Case may be as well. We hope to do this during our next trip. Other options are visiting Mt. Vernon and driving/walking through the monuments at night which is entirely different than seeing them during the day!
9). Other tips: Wear comfortable shoes for the days you will be visiting museums and the National Mall. There is so much walking. Also be sure to pack small backpacks that can be used on daily outings. You will need these to tote around snacks, drinks, cameras and souvenirs. Also bring layers of clothes, including light jackets and rain gear. If you only have a few days in DC, you still want to get out there and have fun, even if the weather isn’t cooperating. Use Google Maps (the ‘Walk’ setting) if you are wondering around aimlessly. Use a taxi or Uber if the Metro seems cumbersome. While the Metro can be less expensive and sometimes quicker, it may not be the best bet, depending on where you’re going. Lastly, don’t be scared to ask questions. The folks in DC are so nice and knowledgeable. If you are unsure about anything, ask someone.
10). Take plenty of pictures/videos and have so much fun: One thing is a guarantee. No matter what, there will be plenty of photographic moments. Take a lot of pictures and videos. Remember that regardless of how much planning takes place, there will be some hiccups. Just embrace the chaos and have an amazing time. There’s truly something special about Washington, DC and the surrounding areas. Enjoy! I look forward to hearing all about it.
*Also, if you read this post and have additional tips for families traveling to DC with kids, be sure to leave a comment so readers can learn additional info. Thank you!
Julie Wunder says
Great tips! Washington DC is such a cool place and a perfect place for kids to learn and have fun.
When they are available, we always opt for the Hop On Hop Off buses our first time in new cities. If time allows, we ride the full route first to determine our game plan and to make sure that we at least “see” all the major sites even if we don’t get to visit them all. Although some may feel it is expensive, we have always found it to be well worth the money especially if you do the multi-day tickets. The kids loved riding on the top of the open air buses.