Things To Do in D.C. with Kids
Daniel Emberley, May 2000
BEFORE YOU ARRIVE
Show the kids the money in your wallet. Talk about the buildings on the back of the bills, why they were built, and that you will see them in D.C. Talk about why we put their pictures on our money. If you are lucky enough to have a $100, explain that Independence Hall is in Philadelphia, not D.C., which is a good chance to explain why the capital was moved to D.C. in 1793.
Get out a map of downtown D.C.. Talk about where you will be staying, where you might want to visit, and how you might get there.
Look through tourist brochures or library books about D.C. Make a list of places you want to go and things you want to see and do. You might have some disagreement on the list; this is a good chance to negotiate the priorities while youíre still in the comfort of your own home.
Talk about the logistics of lines, subways, bathrooms, and eating in restaurants. Kidsí lives are usually pretty controlled environments, and visiting a new city throws that control out the window. They (and you) will deal better with the lack of familiar rules and expectations if you talk about them first. If your kids rarely see people of a different race; better to discuss that at home than on a city bus.
Write your congressman. Many places tourists used to be able to go into routinely, like the White House and Capitol, now require advance tickets and pre-screening, if you are allowed in at all. Your congressmanís office will know the rules, and can negotiate some access for you. A visit to a congressmanís office is a nice consolation prize if you canít get into the Capitol proper, and heíll probably give you some souvenirs and pose for a photo.
U.S. CAPITOL: A very cool building just to walk around in. The Capitol is an enormous building, in a very large park. You will not be allowed to park a car nearby due to security issues. Expect a 15 minute walk from either Metro station, with no stores or restaurants on the way. Itís also on a hill, so donít be surprised by the long flights of steps. If food/bathrooms are an issue, Union Station is the better entry point. Small children will not be allowed in the visitorsí galleries if Congress is in session.
Only very senior congressmen have offices in the Capitol proper. Most are in office buildings north or south of the Capitol. Call ahead to find your congressmanís office, they are fun to visit, and should have freebie brochures for the kids. Congressmen love to have their photos taken with constituents. Senators are harder to get a hold of, but have better office space.
If you walk up from Union Station, there is a cool fountain on the North Capitol Street approach.
Capitol South (Blue/Orange) or Union Station
WHITE HOUSE: Ask your congressmanís office in advance for a tour, they may be able to get you in, thatís one of their perks. What you will get is a standard walk through the public rooms in the basement and first floor. Second floor and private quarters are off limits. Because it is impossible to backtrack, you will want to prep the kids first with a book about the White House. No parking near the building, and a hassle to find the visitorsí entrance (on the alley between Treasury and White House, enter from Lafayette Park or the Ellipse). You will need to go through a security check/metal detector. This is another building in a big park, no food or shopping convenient. In emergencies, use the hot dog carts on 15th Street or the McDonaldís at 17th and G.
MacPherson Square (Blue/Orange), or catch any S bus south on 16th Street.
SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION: This is a
series of buildings stretching along the Mall, with satellite locations around
the city. While you can get to most with a 20 minute walk from Smithsonian
Metro, there are usually closer stops. The first three listed below are very
large buildings, donít push yourself to see everything in each one.
1. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY: If you can only see one Smithsonian Museum, do this one. TV memorabilia, exhibits on inventions and social history, Judy Garlandís ruby slippers, the Star Spangled Banner. Ice cream parlor, acceptable cafeteria. The biggest gift shop in the Smithsonian. There is little food available near the Mall museums, I would plan on using the cafeterias in NMAH, NMNH, or NASM and getting to the entrances by 11:30. If you see a bus tour ahead of you, see if there isnít another line open. Food will be burgers, hot dogs, and fries, and will cost less than $10/person.
Federal Triangle (Blue/Orange), or catch an S2 or S4 that says Federal Triangle, ride to the end of the line.
2. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY: Great gem collection, plus the Insect Zoo. Lots of galleries of stuffed animals and people in dioramas. Mammal Hall and Africa Hall recently renovated. Hooker Hall of Gems includes great crystal displays and jewelry, including the Hope Diamond. Cafeteria and gift shop newly opened, as is IMAX theater.
Federal Triangle (Blue/Orange), or catch an S2 or S4 that says Federal Triangle, ride to the end of the line.
3. NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM: Planes and space ships. The most popular museum in the city, I donít get it. Lots of walking around big things hung from the ceiling. Gift shop has great kite selection, if you want to try flying them on the Monument grounds. Cafeteria has excellent view of the Capitol. They also run a shuttle bus out to the new addition at Dulles Airport; that alone is usually a day trip.
LíEnfant Plaza (Blue/Orange/Green/Yellow)
4. THE CASTLE: This was once where everything was, but hasnít been for 100 years. Is basically an orientation center to the other museums. Has a good model of downtown, if you need orientation, and videos of the Smithsonian collections. The carousel out front can be fun if the line is not too long. The food vendors in back, on Independence Avenue, are less expensive than the Park Service kiosks on the Mall. The Discovery Theater, in the Arts and Industries Building next door, is a theater group that puts on special programs for kids.
5. HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN: Not sure if I would take kids here to see the art, but maybe to ride the escalators and walk around the building. Each floor is essentially a big donut, with an inner ring of sculpture and outer ring of paintings. A good kid thing is to walk around the sculpture garden at the base of the building, especially when the big fountain in the middle is on.
LíEnfant Plaza (Blue/Orange/Green/Yellow)
NATIONAL BUILDING MUSEUM: The exhibits arenít usually kid friendly, theyíre pretty wordy. Worth seeing, though, is the Great Hall, which is big enough that kids can run around. One adult can supervise kids in the Hall while having a coffee in the cafe while the other adult sees exhibits. Is worth taking kids to the model of the Lincoln Memorial on the second floor.
Judiciary Square (Red)
FBI TOUR: Doesnít exist anymore. Got tired, then defunded.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES: Youíll need to get in the long line to see the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights. The line moves quickly. Try to explain what these documents are before you get there, as itís a little hard for kids to see the point of the wait for what you get. New gift shop and cafť have just been opened as part of the experience.
MONUMENTS AT NIGHT: You could see Washington, WWII, Vietnam, Lincoln, Jefferson, and FDR by day, but theyíre more beautiful at night, and the heat is less. All are well lit. All are pretty far apart, I donít recommend walking from one to the other, and especially not to Jefferson and FDR. Youíre likely to be able to park reasonably close to each at night. Bathrooms at each, but no food. No Metro stations are really convenient to these, but if you take the Yellow Line between LíEnfant Plaza and Pentagon, watch for the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial on the upriver side as you cross the Potomac.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART: Although the main galleries are treasure houses of the worldís great art, how much of that are your kids going to really enjoy? Instead, you might want to use the buildings as air-conditioned pass-throughs. Start in the East Building, admire the Calder mobile, go downstairs and take the moving sidewalk to the cafeteria and the fountain. East Building also has funky-shaped elevators, if youíre into that, and escalators to ride. Continue to the West Building, go upstairs and straight through (its three city blocks long) to the 7th Street entrance. That puts you across the street from the sculpture garden, directly in front of the Archives. Thereís a big fountain in the middle that guards sometimes let kids play in. The sculpture can be fun for kids, but they will not be allowed to touch or climb on the pieces, which kills some of the fun.
TOUR MOBILE: Tired of trying to park, and want to let someone else show you the city? Tour mobiles travel the Mall regularly, with unlimited stops allowed at specific points close to the monuments and Smithsonian museums. I think theyíre expensive and a rip-off, but it beats having to read about what youíre seeing. Get tickets by the Washington Monument.
30/32/34/36 BUS: The poor manís alternative to the Tour mobile. This route travels Pennsylvania Avenue almost from beginning to end. Pick up at Eastern Market (Blue/Orange), ride past Library of Congress, Capitol, Air and Space, across the Mall, past Federal Triangle, downtown, and into Georgetown. If you stay on, it will go up past the Cathedral, and the driver will let you off at Tenleytown, on the Red Line, to return home. Takes about an hour to cover that route, longer during rush hour, for $1.35/person. The Cathedral is a cool thing to see, but definitely a second-string sight. You should take a cab back if you get off there, hail one on Wisconsin Avenue.
NEWSEUM: Opening soon on Pennsylvania, near the Canadian Embassy.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: The magazine headquarters has a well-curated visitorsí center, with the worldís largest free-standing globe. Lots of photo exhibits and computer-interactive stuff. If you get the magazine, bring your membership card for a discount in the shop.
Farragut North (Red), or a twenty minute walk down 17th Street from the house.
CHILDRENíS MUSEUM: Closed, moving to LíEnfant Plaza in 2007?
NATIONAL AQUARIUM: This is in the Commerce Building. Amazing to find this little aquarium in the basement of a federal office building, but we did things differently in the 1930ís, when this was built. If youíve been to Moody Gardens or Baltimore Aquarium, this is no competition, but is not bad for its day.
Metro Center (Blue/Orange/Red) or Federal Triangle (Blue/Orange)
PLACES TO LET THE KIDS RELAX
Touring any city can be intense and exhausting, especially for kids, who are not used to the routine and may be nervous about getting food/rest/bathrooms. I recommend doing only one or two of the above each day, interspersed with some quality time when the kids can run around and be kids. Some more low-key activities that could help kids get centered and less whiny follow.
NATIONAL ZOO: Okay, this is really a pretty big thing, but itís outside, with lots of room for running and shouting and popcorn sold at regular intervals. Be aware that the zoo is built on the slope of a hill: you enter uphill, wander downhill, and to get home have to trudge back uphill. There are two paths, the Olmstead Trail and the Valley Trail. Better to enter on Olmstead and return on Valley, as Valley is shaded and the uphill return does not seem as intense. Is located between two Metro stops, Woodley Park and Cleveland Park. If you get off at Cleveland Park your walk to the entrance will be downhill. You can actually walk from the rear entrance of the Zoo to the house, but the route is very hilly and confusing without a guide.
MERIDIAN HILL FOUNTAIN: Thereís a city park about five blocks from the house that has an enormous fountain and waterfall that the kids can play in.
SIDEWALK CAFES: There are outdoor cafes in all of the trendy neighborhoods around the house: Dupont, Georgetown, Adams Morgan, U Street. You can sit and chill while the kids eat a dessert.
MILLENNIUM STAGE: The Kennedy Center has free performances every day at 6PM at what they call the Millennium Stage. Schedule at http://www.kennedy-center.org/. You can drive, or thereís a free shuttle bus from the Foggy Bottom Metro.
RIDE METRO: Sometimes just riding the subway is a cool thing, especially if your kids have spent their lives in the back seat of an SUV. Viewing is best above ground. Try the Red Line north of Bethesda or at the other end north of Union Station, or the Yellow and Blue lines south of Crystal City. There are great views from National Airport and King Street on Blue and Yellow.
ARLINGTON CEMETERY: You could go and do the Custis Lee Mansion, changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, visit John and Jackie Kennedyís graves, etc. Or you could just walk around on the grass under the trees. The Women in Military Service memorial at the entrance is very cool and not heavily visited. The Metro lets you off at the visitorís center, at Arlington Cemetery on the Blue Line. Food and drink are difficult to find, so bring a picnic lunch, or at least a bottle of water and some snacks. If itís really bright, umbrellas are helpful in the areas without shade trees, like the entrance drive. There are buses that take you around the Cemetery, and if you do want to hit all the tourist sites, take one, but then donít consider this a relaxing thing for kids.
PENTAGON CITY: A great big luxury shopping mall with a nice food court. Sometimes it can be reassuring to be in a place so familiar. Pentagon City Metro, Blue and Yellow Lines.
ROOSEVELT ISLAND: Park on the Virginia
side of the Potomac and take the nature trails around this island bird sanctuary
between Georgetown and Rosslyn. No food or bathroom facilities.
NATIONAL ARBORETUM and KENILWORTH AQUATIC
GARDENS: These are national parks on opposite sides of the Anacostia
River in NE D.C. Youíd never know it getting there, as driving directions take
you in from opposite sides. Both need to be driven to, but parking is easy,
admission free, and both are big spaces kids can run around in nature without
restraint. Bring a picnic, as food options are minimal, although both have
decent restroom facilities. The open field in front of the Capitol columns at
the Arboretum is a wonder (but hot in summer). Also check out the bonsai
collection. The Aquatic Gardens are a former commercial waterlilly nursery,
where a lot of the plants youíve seen in the fountains downtown are raised.
Great lotus fields, always something in bloom.
GREAT FALLS: This is about a 45 minute drive west of downtown, where the Potomac River comes crashing down over big glacial boulders. Very pretty, and a good picnic day. The Virginia side has an old canal developed by George Washington and an historic inn, the Maryland side has better views of the river. At least, I think thatís what I remember. Do either, or both. Neither side has tremendous food, although I think Virginia sells hot dogs and Cokes.
MOUNT VERNON: About an hour drive south of the city. The house is a crowded tour, but you can easily go and just tour the grounds and restored farm buildings. The restaurants at the entrance serve good food thatís a little pricey for kids. Thereís fast food on Route 1 north of the plantation.
COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG & BUSCH GARDENS:
About three hours southeast. Both expensive, but packed with stuff. A colonial
restoration, and a big amusement park.
POTOMAC MILLS: The largest tourist attraction in Virginia is this mall of discount outlets about an hour south on Route 95
KINGíS DOMINION: Another theme park, between Richmond and D.C. Noted for its roller coasters.