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Things to Do in Washington, D.C. With Kids

After working as a chemist at a biotechnology company, I enjoy writing about pet care, science, travel, and gardening.

The author's five-year-old son in front of the Capitol building on the National Mall.

The author's five-year-old son in front of the Capitol building on the National Mall.

Visiting Washington, D.C. With Kids

Touring the nation's capital with children takes a great deal of stamina, but it is extremely rewarding for kids and adults alike. The majority of the museums and exhibits in D.C. are free or low-cost, which makes the city an extremely affordable option for families.

Most of the museums in the area even offer hands-on experiences for young children, and seeing all of the monuments and sites in the local area makes history more relevant to kids. As an added bonus, riding the metro system is a fun and efficient way to get around the city.

There are so many things to see that most families cannot fit the entire city into a week-long vacation, so slow down and take the time to see your chosen attractions in their entirety.

Riding the metro is a fun—and efficient—way to get around Washington, D.C. with kids.

Riding the metro is a fun—and efficient—way to get around Washington, D.C. with kids.

Transportation Around D.C.

Washington, D.C. is a wonderful city with regard to transportation. There are lots of different options to choose from; in fact, the only one I wouldn't recommend is driving!

Hop on the Metro

The metro is an extremely efficient—and clean—subway system and will allow families to navigate their way around all of the major attractions without needing a car. No food or drink is allowed on the metro system, which helps to keep the trains clean. Maps are available at each metro station to assist families with navigating the various lines.

Money is placed on a reusable card; placing $10 on each card will allow many rides on the metro without having to "top up" the card for at least 2–3 days.

Take the Bus or Rent a Bike

The bus system is also fantastic and is readily available. Families with older children may rent bicycles at several bike-rental stations throughout the city, though these bikes tend to be sized for adults. It is possible to drive in the Capital, but not recommended. Parking fees are hefty and the traffic can be extreme.

Travel on Foot

There is a lot of walking required on a visit to D.C., and while the metro stations are plentiful, there is still a hefty amount of foot power required to tour the Mall, the Smithsonians, and to get to the White House. Children under the age of six will probably require a stroller or a great deal of rest stops to rebuild energy supplies.

Try a Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour

A hop-on, hop-off bus tour is available and makes sense for families with young children who may not be able to withstand a great deal of walking.

The 3 Best Smithsonian Institutions With Kids

All of the Smithsonian Institutions offer a fabulous education and are worth a visit with children. If time is limited, my top three recommendations for the Smithsonian Institutions are as follows.

1. The Air and Space Museum

Filled with planes from the first forays into flight to space exploration, this museum offers hands-on exhibits for kids of all ages. Children can touch a real moon rock, climb inside a 747 to see the cockpit, walk through a mock-up of Skylab, and experiment with the physics of flight with hands-on exhibits.

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The Imax films are a bit pricey, but considering the cost to attend the museum is free, well worth the price. Subsequent films purchased over the next day or two are discounted. The author's sons are ages five and six, and greatly enjoyed a 3-D presentation of a "Sky Racers" film on the giant Imax screen. Viewing a film in the planetarium is also highly recommended, as the dome provides a unique movie experience for kids.

2. The Natural History Museum

This museum could easily take more than one day to view. Fossils of dinosaurs, early mammals, gems (including the Hope Diamond) and a butterfly forest captivate the imaginations of children.

The author's six-year-old son particularly liked the gem and mineral exhibit. He was amazed to peer the world upside-down through a spherical crystal, attach paper clips to a giant magnetic rock, and see rocks fluoresce under black light.

Orangutans on a "Skyway" at the National Zoo

3. The National Zoo

The National Zoo is not on the Mall, but is an easy metro ride from the city center. As with the other Smithsonians, the zoo's admission is entirely free. Special exhibits include the Giant Pandas (on loan from China) and the Think Tank—a research-oriented facility where zookeepers and the public can interact with Orangutans.

Orangutan interaction times are posted daily, though the animals may not decide to arrive as scheduled! The children's area of the zoo has a playground shaped like a large pizza, allowing little ones to let off some steam. The zoo offers a nice change of pace from museums for small children.

The author and her two sons in front of the White House.

The author and her two sons in front of the White House.

Visiting the White House With Kids

The White House is easily accessible from either the Farragut West Station or from the McPherson Square Station on the metro. Both stops are on the blue and orange lines and require a short walk to see the residence of the President of the United States.

Tours of the White House must be arranged in advance. Send a request to your member of congress at least 21 days in advance of your trip. Requests may be made as far as six months from the intended tour time. Tours are offered from:

  • Tuesday through Thursday from 7:30 to 11:00 am.
  • Fridays from 7:30 am to 12:00 pm on Fridays.
  • Saturdays from 7:30 am to 1:00 pm.

Tours are self-guided and photo ID is required for all guests who are 18 years of age or older. All tours are free of charge.

The White House Visitor Center is located away from the White House and is a great location to pick up the annual Christmas Tree ornament or other souvenirs.

Touring Monuments and the National Mall

Washington, D.C. is filled with war memorials, monuments, historical markers, and government buildings. Read books about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln before a trip to the Capital, and point out the George Washington monument when you arrive on the Mall. At 555 feet tall, the monument is visible from many places in the city.

Reading picture books about our nation's capital and watching videos before the trip will help children understand the city and will increase their appreciation for what they are seeing. The author's two young sons were excited to point out the Washington Monument whenever they could see it, and the six-year-old was quite enamored of Abraham Lincoln's memorial since he had read about the president in school.

Touring the monuments at night is another great way to see the sights. The fountains and lights are beautiful at night, and the Mall is much less crowded than during the day. This also lets kids run off extra energy before heading to the hotel room at bedtime!

The "Spy in the City" Experience

Other Great Museums for Kids in D.C.

In addition to the Smithsonians, there are many great museums around the Washington, D.C. area. The following museums are fantastic for families with preschoolers or children in elementary school grades:

The National Building Museum

This museum highlights architectural design and engineering. There are many hands-on exhibits for children, including a "building zone" for children 2–6 years of age. This building offers an air-conditioned respite from the summer sun and has many activities for young children to encourage an interest in engineering and building.

Tool kits may be checked out from the museum and enhance the museum experience: kits include understanding patterns (ages 3–7), building houses (ages 7–10) and more.

The US Bureau of Engraving and Printing

A free tour of this building will interest kids as they watch millions of dollars being printed. This tour takes 40 minutes and includes a movie and tour of the gallery where money is printed. Check out the visitor's center and gift shop for a few unique souvenirs.

The International Spy Museum

This museum won't interest preschoolers, but elementary-school-aged children (and teens) will love the interactive exhibits about spy techniques and history. For older kids and teens, a program called "Spy in the City" allows families to use a GPS to navigate the city to complete a mission. The museum recommends its experience for children ages 7 and up.

The National Children's Museum

With a grand opening on December 14, 2012, the National Children's Museum is the perfect place for families with young kids. This museum offers educational exhibits to all children, including areas for toddlers under the age of three.

The Griffin Discovery Room at Monticello

Visiting Mount Vernon and Monticello

Mount Vernon is the site of George Washington's home and is a very interesting tour for children who are in the elementary-school age range and up. Touring the first president's house is a fascinating experience for kids, who can put a real location and a real house to the facts in their history books.

A sobering trip through the slave cabins opens a dialogue about the antebellum south. A free "adventure map" is available to families who purchase a youth ticket at the Ford Orientation Center.

Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's home and gardens) is another great tour option for families with kids ages 5 and up. Kids will be enchanted by Jefferson's inventions, and can even try out a few of his designs in the hands-on Griffin Discovery Room. Kids can try on period clothing, touch a mastodon bone, and create secret codes. At the mountaintop hands-on activity center, kids can write with a quill and try games from the 18th century.

Great Activities for Kids in D.C.: A Map

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Leah Lefler

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