Traveling with family: Washington, D.C.

Taking in the view on the balcony of the capitol.

Taking in the view on the balcony of the capitol.

Impressive monuments, loads of museums (many of them free!), wide open spaces, good food and the potential for a presidential siting  — Washington, DC has all the makings of a great kid-friendly holiday for kids (of all ages) and adults. 

Having family and friends located in the nation’s capitol, my husband, now 5 year-old son and I have headed to DC multiple times — and never had the same trip twice. When our son was age 3 we did the zoo and viewed cherry blossoms (while he napped in his stroller). At age four, we toured the monuments and hit the Air & Space Museum. At 5 we explored the International Spy Museum and the Capitol.

What has worked for us: keeping our son on Arizona time (so we, the parents, can go out to dinners) and tackling only one major destination or area a day. We like to have a general game plan, but with erratic weather, traffic, etc., we’re also open to keeping things easy and breezy.  

So if you’re thinking about planning a family trip to DC — here are a few tips to navigate:

When to go:

January through early March is cold, rainy and maybe snowy. It’s probably the cheapest time with the least traffic, but probably the most unpleasant for traversing the city.

The weather turns in mid-late March. Weather can be erratic. Our last trip in late March began snow-y and turned four days later to sunny skies and 70 degrees.  Late March or early April is cherry blossom season — which is delightful…and popular. Spring breaks and school trips are also spring so expect to encounter crowds, tour buses and long lines.

In summer, expect the usual summer holiday travelers (see above) along with some high humidity.

My sources recommend visiting September through December when the weather is mild and the crowds are thin.

Transportation:

By air: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is the closest airport to the city.  Dulles is located in Virginia about a half hour out of town. Baltimore/Washington International is about a 45 minute drive to DC. 

Should you rent a car? If you’re sticking to Washington DC proper, the metro and buses are great and Uber/Lyft cars are plentiful. Download the Uber app; You can request cars with carseats. That said, there are some cool sites out of town. Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum is 30 minute drive from the city near Dulles Airport. Mount Vernon is a 45 minute drive toward Richmond, Virginia.

Do you need a stroller? There’s a lot of ground to cover in DC, much by foot. We brought a stroller when our son was 3 and 4. At age 5 he was able to walk on his own, with sporadic breaks, a little carrying, and some iPad bribery.

Note: New York City and Philadelphia are an easy Amtrak trip away if you want to make DC a part of a larger east coast tour.

Where to stay: 

For families, I think home rentals like airbnb and VRBO are the way to go. Look at Dupont Circle (like here and here), Columbia Heights (here and here) or Adams Morgan (like here, here and here) if close proximity to trendy restaurants and shopping is a priority.

For a more historic experience closer to the sites, try a place in Foggy Bottom or near George Washington University.

Where to eat:

We used Yelp to navigate through the loads of ethnic restaurants scattered around the city.  Many restaurants take, and even recommend, reservations — the Open Table website or app makes it easy.  

A few suggestions;

Matchbox, located between Logan Circle and Adams Morgan, has American a kid menu and unpretentious atmosphere. Ask for a bit of dough for kids to play with. When the kids are done, they’ll fire it — and give it back.

Artisanal markets, interesting food stands and pop-up shops, Union Market has a bunch of cool dining spots (especially for varying tastes) — and if the weather is nice, an outdoor eating space.

For a quick meal, fast food Peruvian chicken is what my DC dreams are made of. Get extra chimichurri and “white sauce” (I have no idea what it is — but it’s yummy) they offer along with some rice and plantains. You’ll be happy you did.

Some things to do:

There’s something for everyone. If you’ve got inquisitive kids who love learning, the Smithsonian museums are endless wonders. For art-lovers, try the new Renwick Gallery. For kids who can’t sit still, visit the zoo and walking the monuments.

For really young kids

National Zoo
Price: Free
The zoo is meandering and beautiful, 163 acres of wooded loveliness with all of the usual animals plus giant pandas! The grounds are expansive and it’s about a 15-20 minute hike from the metro; I’d recommend a stroller.  
Rating — Kids ****  Adults ****

The Smithsonian Museums (any age)
Price: Free
Air & Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, American History Museum…there are a bunch (see list)
Giant airplanes and spacecrafts, dinosaurs, cool American memorabilia housed in majestic old buildings…for free. They can be crowded and overwhelming. If you have an antsy kid and the lines are long you can retire to the mall for some running and a carousel ride (located between the Smithsonian Castle and theAir & Space Museum) to let off some steam.

Mount Vernon (any age)
Price: $20 for adults, $9 for children 6-11, children 5 and under are free
A 45-minute drive from the city, Mount Vernon can easily be a whole day of activity for the family — especially on a nice day since most of the sites are outdoors. The tour of the main mansion is quick and informative, it probably takes 20 minutes tops and covers some interesting facts/events (see the room where Washington died, view an AC chair). There are also other tours available of the gardens and audio tours additional fees. Take in the views of the Potomac on the back lawns.  Traverse the farms (we saw 2 week-old baby sheep), walk the sprawling fields and down to the Potomac.  Leave time for the interactive education center at the end. It has models and — breaks down Washington’s life into easily-digestible vignettes. Pick up an adventure map at the orientation center. Solve the puzzles, win a prize. 
Food: The Mount Vernon Inn has period decor but modern , think fried green tomato sandwiches and turkey pot pie. There’s a food court, or you could opt to bring in your own sandwich and eat on the lawn overlooking the Potomac (check).
Rating: Kids ****    Adults *****

For 5 and over

International Spy Museum (5 and up)
Price: Basic entrance is $21.95 for adults, 6 and under are free
Adopt a new identity and check out the extensive collection of spy memorabilia and historical paraphernalia. Kids will love the spy gadgets, like button cameras and cigarette guns, and enjoy a crawl through the duct system. Adults will like those things too, plus learn how espionage has affected our country’s history from American Revolution to atom bomb.  There’s a family For kids 12+ there’s Operation Spy (which sounds awesome) which is an hour-long spy mission. I left wanting to watch James Bond movies and read spy books.
Rating: Kids ***** Adults *****

Note: If you need a snack or a rest afterward, head across the street to the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery and find their atrium where you can buy a pricey snack and rest in a magical room with an open ceiling, modern splash pad/ fountains, and rainforest vibe.

Art appreciation at the Renwick

Art appreciation at the Renwick

Renwick Gallery
Price: Free
Recently refurbished and re-invented, this small well-located museum (across from the White House) offers a bite-sized sample of modern fine art. The two floors house nine rotating installation pieces from artists around the country. On our visit we saw a giant rainbow made of string, a room decorated entirely with bugs, multiple “nests” made with sticks, and a suspended hollow tree.  Adults will find this cooler than the kids, though even kids should find something they like (room of bugs!), and even if they don’t, they’ll be through it before they know it.
Rating:  Kids ***    Adults *****

Make it a game. Mission Washington, DC challenges kids to find clues in the major museums and monuments around town.

For 10+

This is out of my wheel house at the moment, but from the looks of things, there were some pretty cool things for older kids as well. First, there's all of the typical things you do with the little ones, which would probably be way more interesting with bigger kids who actually might give a shit beyond the outfits. Some other things that looked good:

  • Amazing bike trails along the Potomac. 
  • International Spy Museum (see above). Older kids can go on spy adventures around the museum -- or around the city.

Other sites:

The White House
Price: Free
My son announced his desire to visit the White House and spend some quality time with President Obama two weeks before our April trip to Washington, DC. He did not see the President. If you (or your child) have designs on touring the White House, book it now. Seriously, stop reading this right now and start booking. Tours are booked through your state congress person (if in AZ, click here) and take some time to set up. Think 2-6 months ahead of schedule. 

Oak Springs Cemetery
Price: Free
My zombie-obsessed son wanted to see a graveyard, so we took him to this sprawling one in Georgetown perched on a picturesque hillside with loads of cool headstones.

Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum
Price: Free (but $15 for parking)
A truly awe-inducing expanse filled with air and space giants like the space shuttle rocket, a Concord plane, the Enola Gay aircraft that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, plus tons of other notable aircraft like home-made helicopters, record breaking gliders and historic hot air balloons. 

Note: The only thing to eat at the museum is McDonalds. If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous, try the Megabytes Eatery a couple of miles down the freeway for fare ranging from banh mi to tacos to paninis.

US National Arboretum
Price: Free
The arboretum is a couple miles of grassy plains dotted with flowers, trees and the occasional example of cool architecture. On a recent visit. We visited the children’s garden, where we sampled Stevia leaves (sweet!) Off to the side was a small stage, some makeshift balancing apparatus, sandboxes and a trail to what looked to be a cool hike.

For the kids, a lot of wide open spaces to run around. For adults, the Bonzai exhibit is super cool.

Parks

Traditional parks are few and far between in DC — but there are a couple.

Kennedy Recreation Center
P Street & 7th Street
A newly remodeled public playground with dual play areas. The first for smaller kids (toddler - 5) has a play house, teeter totters, climbing apparati, swings, spinning seats, etc. The area for older kids (4+) includes an amazingly scary looking slide (think vertical tube that spits out kids like a salad shooter), more advanced climbing equipment and a merry-go-round. 

Kalorama Park
18th Street & Columbia in Adams Morga
A neighborhood park with a separate gated area for smaller kids (toddler - 4).

Resources:

For more in-depth suggestions, check out mom blog http://kidfriendlydc.com/