A must-visit city for families, Washington, DC offers virtually limitless (and free!) museums and historic sites to explore. Prioritizing what would interest the kids most, and then planning a manageable day around those things was the key to our 48 hour visit to the nations capital. The White House, Capitol Hill, the Air & Space Museum, and the Museum of Natural History were our top priorities, and we managed to sneak in a few memorials along the National Mall too. The itinerary worked out perfectly…we experienced just enough to get a good feel for the city, but will definitely need to plan a return trip.
Day One: The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum & Capitol Hill
After breakfast at our hotel, we walked over to the National Mall and headed toward the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The beautiful thing about DC is that everywhere you go there are awe-inspiring monuments. Our walk took us around the front of the Capitol building and the reflecting pool, with a beautiful view of the Washington Monument—pretty incredible buildings to behold for our Vermont boys. Of course, there was some confusion about the “mall” not having any stores, but the majesty of the sites quickly quelled that initial disappointment.
The Air and Space Museum is truly phenomenal for all ages. With thousands of objects on display, including nuclear missiles, a 1903 Wright Flyer, and Felix Baumgartner’s space suit, you could easily spend a full day just on this one museum alone. We decided to let the boys set the pace, so only spent a little over an hour. The Amelia Earhart exhibit captured my ten year olds interest, but the number one attraction for both boys was the Flight Simulator ride. The F-18 Experience gave them virtual control of a Super Hornet and sent them spinning upside down, firing missiles and making dramatic dives.
After a quick picnic lunch on the mall, we walked back to the hotel to wash up before heading over to “the hill.” We had arranged a visit to Senator Leahy’s office, which proved a highlight of our trip. After a quick visit to his office in the Russell Senate Office Building, we were taken over to the Capitol where we were able to visit the Senator’s President Pro Tempore office. I’m not sure who was most awe struck, me and my husband or the kids, but it was pretty amazing. One of the Senator’s lovely staffers offered the boys mints and told them that Senator Leahy is 4th in line for the Presidency, so he is tracked by Secret Service at all times. If the gilded ceilings and incredible history of the Capitol didn’t duly impress the kids, free mints and the presence of Secret Service agents certainly did.
Day Two: White House Tour, Monuments & Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
After a good night’s sleep and another big breakfast at the hotel, we headed to our scheduled White House Tour. Tickets for the White House tour are hard to come by, especially in the spring. We requested our months in advance (you can request them through your Senator or Congressman). There are no cameras allowed on the self-guided tour, but Secret Service agents are stationed in every room to answer questions and offer bits of historical information. The Presidential portraits were among my favorite parts of the tour; my son liked the photos of Presidents with their pets. You can’t actually go into the main rooms, but just walking through them was pretty incredible.
From the White House, it’s a short walk over to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. It was a nice morning so we decided to spend a little time exploring the monuments on the lower part of the mall. Starting just below the Washington Monument, we walked through the WWII and Vietnam Memorials, past the Reflecting Pool, and up the steps to the Jefferson Memorial. For my 8 and ten year old boys, this was just enough walking and just enough memorials. It’s tempting to try and do more– to squeeze in just one more site– but calling it quits before the kids become exhausted was a very intentional strategy on our part.
After a morning of walking, presidential history, and war monuments, we were all ready for lunch and a little break. The Museum of Natural History has an excellent cafeteria-style restaurant (lots of organic, healthy options) so we headed straight there to refuel, and followed lunch with a wonderful 45-minute IMAX movie about the Lemurs of Madagascar. We practically has to put blinders on the kids to get them straight to lunch, but it was a well laid plan, as we were all then fortified to explore the museum.
Once again, we let the kids set the pace. My third grader is studying rocks and minerals in school and really wanted to see the Hope Diamond and the Gems & Minerals exhibit, while my fifth grader was more interested in the Mammals Exhibit and Ocean Hall. Again, you could easily spend all day at the Museum of Natural History, so planning our the top exhibits really helps to make sure the kids see what they’re most interested in before they crash. The entire Museum was fantastic…and free.
By the time we were finished up at the museum, the relatively short walk back to the hotel was prompting some serious protest from the boys, so our entire family jumped into a pedi-cab, which turned out to be the perfect end to our tour. Our driver (pedaler?) took us right up Pennsylvania Avenue, pointing out sites along the way, and delivered us to the hotel.
It was a whirlwind 48 hours, but just enough for our family. The two things we did not do that I wish we had were the Smithsonian National Zoo, and the Monuments by Night Moonlight Tour, which my friend Dana Freeman recommended on this excellent post about her family’s recent visit to DC.
Where to Stay
There are a lot of excellent hotels near the National Mall and Capitol Hill. We stayed at The Liaison Capitol Hill, which is just a stone’s throw from Union Station and the Capitol building. The hotel restaurant, Art & Soul, was excellent with southern inspired food and lots of healthy, local options. But the best part (for families) is the roof top pool. Although the roof deck did not open until the last day of our stay, it was absolutely heavenly to escape the pace of the city and relax with a cool drink for a few hours before our flight.