TREKAROO’S TOP 10 THINGS FOR FAMILIES TO DO IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
The nation’scapitol is filled with so many activities that it can seem daunting and down right impossible to fit them into one trip. Don’t let this discourage you from exploring the nation’s capital! The trick A well planned visit to Washington DC will leave your family with a rich sense of history, a greater appreciation for our country, and memories to last a lifetime. Experience DC’s museums, memorials, government icons, and outdoor treasures with their top 10 things for families to do in Washington DC.
10. Smithsonian’s National Zoo
The 163 acres of the Smithsonian National Zoo are brimming with over 2,000 animals and 400 species calling it home. Of course, there are lions, tigers, and bears but there are also sea lions, gorillas, elephants, pandas, and so much more. Children are sure to enjoy the Kids’ Farm and Carousel. Five restaurants ensure you can stay all day. The free admission is icing on the cake.
Here are three things to do before you go that will make the visit easier and more enjoyable. Check the calendar so you don’t miss programs like fish or lemur feedings, an elephant training demo, or armadillo and reptile encounters. Download the zoo’s mobile app, which has a map, live video cams, and more. Finally, hit the website to print scavenger hunts for the kids and a Family Zoo Crew Training Guide to learn more about the animals.
9. Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site
Tour Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site where actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln. The museum begins with a chronicle of Lincoln’s life from his parents’ biographies to his White House term. Glimpse documents written in his own hand and personal photographs that give insight into his life and loves. From there, the museum provides a detailed account of his assassination, with additional artifacts on display. See the suit Lincoln wore the day he was killed, and the Deringer pistol used to shoot him.
Visitors can sit in the theater imagining what it was like to hear the deadly shot. Watch a park ranger’s presentation or even a short play recounting details of that evening. Across the street is Petersen House where Lincoln died from his injuries. Visit the room Mrs. Lincoln waited in while doctors attended his wounds, and the bedroom where Lincoln passed away. There are also three additional floors of museum exhibits highlighting Lincoln and his assassin.
8. Outdoor Excursions
Washington DC is known for its museums and monuments, but there is also a litany of outdoor excursions for families. Rent a paddle boat and tour the Tidal Basin, with terrific views of Jefferson Memorial. Paddle boating is a must-do during cherry blossom season, but you’ll need to reserve a boat in advance. Visit Gravelly Point Park with a blanket and picnic. This park sits 400 feet from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and it provides a supreme view of the planes coming and going from the runways. Shaded spots are a premium, but the breeze off the river keeps the temperature just right.
The National Arboretum spans over 400 acres, with enough pockets of beauty and nature to fill several days. For the best kid-friendly exploration, park at the Administration Building and tour the Aquatic Center, Koi Pond, Friendship Garden, Herb Garden, and Asian Gardens. These exotic gardens are adjacent to each other and provide a spectacular view of the cherry blossoms, when in season. Bus and tram tours, as well as guided hikes, are also available. You’ll find another outdoor escape along the 2.5-mile trail at Theodore Roosevelt Island National Park. Celebrate President Roosevelt’s contribution to wilderness conservation while enjoying a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
7. Books and Papers
The National Archives house the original documents that cemented our country’s freedom. The Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution reside in the Rotunda, where they can be seen up close; visitors can feel the power of their influence on the way we live today. Documentary films rotate in the theater throughout the day, sharing the history of the Charters of Freedom and the significance of the archives. The Public Vaults interactive exhibit is a journey through history with such treasures as George Washington’s handwritten letters, Lincoln’s wartime telegrams, recordings from the Oval Office, draft cards, and immigration records.
The Library of Congress occupies three buildings, the most popular of which is the Jefferson Building. Take a guided tour of this building and see its grand and magnificent architecture, intricate carvings, and colorful ceilings. This building also houses a series of exhibits and installations that bring to life the collections within. The Bibles Collection allows you to explore the Giant Bible of Mainz, the Gutenberg Bible, and 16 additional selections. Exploring the Early Americans examines the encounters between Native Americans and the early Europeans and features a map from 1507, the first map annotated with the word “America.” Visitors can also explore Thomas Jefferson’s recreated library, with all 6,487 volumes, as well as numerous additional exhibitions. Enter the Library through the tunnel from the Capitol’s Visitor Center to avoid a second security check.
6. International Spy Museum
Upon entering the exhibit area of the International Spy Museum, each family member dons a secret identity, complete with name and discerning characteristics. Be sure to fully immerse yourself in your undercover persona; you’ll be tested at the end. During the tour visitors see authentic machines that were used to crack secret codes, real-life James Bond gadgets like cigarette cases and lipstick holders that morph into firearms, a replica of the Rosetta Stone, and pictures and stories of royal persons and celebrities that acted as spies.
While there have been stories of younger children with passions for espionage who enjoyed this museum, it tends to be geared for kids 10 years and older. The museum exhibits are packed close together (as is the crowd) so leave your stroller at home and purchase tickets in advance. Don’t skip the gift shop. It is filled with myriad spy tricks and games for kids, like disappearing ink and code breaking games.
5. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Even from the outside, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum speaks to the events during and surrounding the Holocaust and steeps guests in the terrible history of the Holocaust. Upon entering, visitors receive an identity, which unfolds before them as they meander the exhibits. Graphic photos and personal artifacts often elicit tears. It is a solemn museum, and painfully emotional for many visitors. While it is a sad part of our history, the museum encourages people to honor the victims of the holocaust, and it calls us to halt and prevent genocide happening today.
Age appropriateness is the most asked question regarding visitation. The Museum recommends that visiting children be in “double digits,” but our Trekaroo family of reviewers suggests waiting until the teen years for this memorial. There is much to read and somber depictions of this time period abound. Trekaroo reviewers encourage families to prepare children beforehand and stay with them as they learn. For example, the videos about the medical experiments performed on prisoners can often cause nightmares for sensitive children. One Trekaroo mother who took her teens indicated that it was much like a funeral – disturbing but necessary. Another mom suggests following this tour with something low key and quiet.
Elementary-aged children can experience the Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story exhibit without passes and without going into the permanent exhibit.
4. Money and Mail
Learn about US paper currency at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing through a film and gallery tour. Visitors walk the gallery overlooking the production floor, where they can see millions of dollars being printed. The production of coinage occurs in Philadelphia and Denver, but the US Mint headquarters in DC is also a fun place to visit. Coin machines will change your dollar into the newest released quarter or dollar coin, with no service charge. It’s a great place to purchase presidential dollar coins or other collectibles.
The National Postal Museum teaches visitors about the postal system from the time of the Pony Express until present day. Learn about the first stamp ever produced, see Owney, the Postal Service mascot, climb aboard an old railroad postal car, or take a turn behind the wheel of a mail truck. Kids can make their own stamp, send a postcard, scan packages, or try their hand at old-fashioned mail sorting. This free Smithsonian museum is rarely busy, full of hands-on activities, and a secret favorite of those that have visited.
3. Three Branches of Government
Make arrangement in advance in order to tour the US Capitol. This can be done through your state representative or on the US Capitol website. Walk-up options are available certain times of the year, but require a long wait. Tours hosted by a staff member or your representative offer added perks like a walk through the secret tunnels from Congressional office buildings around the city or a climb to the top of the dome. Tours begin with a short movie, and then move around the rotunda and through the artfully crafted building.
As with the US Capitol tour, when visiting The White House, tickets can be secured through your congressman or by braving the lines for a day pass. The tour goes through various rooms of the Mansion and the East Wing. West Wing tours are not available to the public. Touring the Supreme Court is much easier, with no advanced preparation required. Watch a short film about the building as well as current and past justices. Exhibits are on the ground floor, and sessions are open to the public on a limited basis from October through April.
2. National Mall Memorials and Junior Ranger Program
The National Mall is the name of the national park in downtown Washington DC that sprawls between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. Along the mall are a myriad of memorials and monuments dedicated to the people that helped America become the strong country she is today.
One of the best ways to ensure you see these memorials, and that your kids stay engaged, is with the National Mall Junior Ranger Activity Booklet. Learn why it is so important for the Washington Monument to stand so tall. Understand the story behind the Fredrick Hart statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and about the many jobs and interests of Thomas Jefferson at the Jefferson Memorial. When kids turn in their booklet for a badge, they will be surprised at the wealth of American history they encountered along the park.
1. Museums on the National Mall
In addition to the memorials lining the National Mall, there are museums to meet the taste and whimsy of visitors from around the globe. Our favorite selections include the National Museum of Natural History, which is the most visited history museum in the world. In it you’ll find Egyptian mummies, Paleolithic dinosaur bones, and more. There are also regular interactive programs for young historians, like cockroach feedings in the Insect Zoo, soaring with butterflies in the Butterfly Pavilion, or shaking hands with a real skeleton in the Q?rius jr. Discovery Room.
Make time for the National Museum of American History to see everything from Julia Child’s kitchen to Dorothy’s ruby slippers to Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. The National Air and Space Museum houses the world’s largest collection of aircraft and spacecraft. See Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis or the Wright brother’s original aircraft from 1903. Touch a space rock or compare space suits from different manned missions. Make time for an IMAX show, the planetarium, the Public Observatory, and a ride on several flight simulators.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens – Take in a movie about the Revolutionary War at the Ford Orientation Center. Tour the mansion that was the childhood home of George Washington, including the gardens and outbuildings. Visit his tomb and a memorial to the slaves that worked at Mt. Vernon. Visitors can also tour a pioneer farm or take a sightseeing cruise from Washington’s wharf. Plan to spend a full day exploring!
Arlington National Cemetery – Spend an afternoon at this patriotic memorial, exploring different eras in US history. Watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Visit the eternal flame at the JFK gravesite. The Pentagon Group Memorial from 9/11 is heart wrenching, but rewarding, as is the memorial to the Challenger explosion. If you have the stamina for the hilly walk, you’ll find wonderful views of DC and northern Virginia from here as well. Be sure to pick up a map at the visitor center, and bring your own hydration.
C&O Canal National Historic Park – With over 184 miles of trails along the Potomac, there is much to explore. Be sure to read the trail descriptions before setting out, as terrain ranges from easy (like the Gold Mine Loop) to difficult (like section A of the Billy Goat Trail). See remains from the mines, views of the Falls and Mather Gap, and much more. Remember that the water is treacherous and swimming in the Potomac is illegal, so enjoy but don’t get wet!