We recently got back from our family’s summer vacation: a week in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. Our boys are 8 and 9 years old, so we are finally at the age where they can start appreciating a visit like this. If you have considered taking your school-age kids to visit D.C., I would definitely encourage you to make it happen.
There is so much to do in Washington D.C. Although we spent 6 days in D.C. and 2 in Philadelphia, we could have easily spent the whole time in D.C. – and then some.
I hope this rundown of what we saw and did will help you with your plans.
How We Chose Washington D.C.
This trip originally started several months ago as an idea to do an “American history” vacation which would include taking a train between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. I loved the idea of walking the footsteps of our nation’s creation with each stop. However, once we started sketching out the timeline of how long this trip was going to take, reality set in. It was adding up to about 3 weeks and a very large budget. So, we decided to narrow it down to just Washington D.C. & Philadelphia (for now). We will have to save the New York and Boston parts of the trip for the near future.
Here’s how our 7 nights broke down: Our first 3 nights were in Washington D.C. Then we took an Amtrak train to Philadelphia for 2 nights. I will do a separate post on Philadelphia soon. Our final 2 nights were back in D.C. So we spent a good 6 solid days in Washington D.C. We all left grateful for the experience, but craving to come back again soon.
How We Prepared:
One of the things I feel strongly about before taking our kids to a popular destinations is to make sure they have a context for what they will be experiencing & seeing. For us, we hoped this trip to be a living American history experience in addition to some fun downtime as a family.
I wanted the kids to go into our visit to Washington D.C. (and Philadelphia) with a good primer in American history. In the months leading up to our visit, I did a bunch of searches to get tips on books we could read and movies we could watch that in some way tied in with historic America. Before you envision these kids sitting in a chair listening to a lecture, you can go ahead and erase that from your mind. I’m talking things like watching Night at the Museum 2 and listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. I will do a separate post on what we found and liked in case you are interested.
I also kept a handy dandy “Let’s Go To DC” board on Pinterest with any interesting tidbits of information I came across on the web. Most articles about DC seemed to cover a lot of the same sights and information. I think it’s because there is so much to do on the beaten path, that unless you live there or plan on visiting for at least a month, you will unlikely be getting off of it.
What We Did (+ Tips):
Ford’s Theatre – Ford’s Theatre lives in infamy as the place our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was shot. The theatre is run by the National Park Service and does not charge and admission fee, but you do need to reserve a timeslot to go in. Once you are seated in the theatre, the Ranger gives a quick talk about the events of that evening. After that, you can walk across the street and visit the house where Lincoln died the next morning. Being so used to the “untouchability” of our current presidents, it is so hard to fathom a time when president’s just showed up to a theatre of 1,000+ people with just one random bodyguard.
Tip: There are tons of great dining options in this area. Plan to eat at one of the great restuarants in the area before or after your Ford’s Theatre visit.
Lincoln’s Assassination Tour – Upon my sister’s recommendation, we booked this free (gratuity-only) walking tour the same evening we visited Ford’s Theatre. I would highly recommend it to you as well. On the tour, we followed the footsteps of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, on the day of he killed the president. Over the 75 minute walk, our tour guide painted a vivid picture of the events of that fateful day.
Tip: Sign up for the tour on the same day as your visit to Ford’s theatre to get the full “Lincoln” experience.
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum – Despite there being 19 different Smithsonian Galleries, we knew we would have to select just a couple to visit on this trip and leave the rest for future visits. The Air and Space Museum was top on our list. It was our first stop on our first full day. We got there right before it opened and there was a big ol’ line. However, once they opened the doors, we got in quickly. Brian and I split up to follow each boy as they wandered through whatever interested them. We joined forces an hour later to watch a movie at the planeturium. We actually came back to Air and Space Museum again on our last day to catch another planetarium movie.
Tip: The IMAX and planetarium movies are really good and serve as a relaxing for weary kids (and their parents).
Smithsonian National Museum of American History – Being that we were in such an American history kick, the National Museum of American History was our second museum stop of the first day in Washington D.C. We spent a majority of time in the Presidents and First Ladies exhibits. We were all curious about the presidential china which was all on display. Each first lady is responsible for picking a pattern for the the term of her husband’s presidency. What do you think will happen when there is a woman as president? Do you think the First Gentleman will be picking the new china pattern?? That will be interesting to see.
Tip: Keep an eye out for the TV screens showing short films from the History Channel throughout the exhibits. The boys really seemed to “get” what they were looking at after watching the videos.
Monuments Night Bike Tour – Visiting the monuments around the National Mall is pretty much a “must” when visiting DC. Problem is, the monuments are quite a bit of a trek from each other. So we knew a bike tour would be a perfect way to see them in one fell swoop. A night bike tour? Even better! The boys appreciated getting to ride bikes to each monument and learning a little about each one. And we appreciated not listening to any whining about walking to each one 🙂 Win-win.
Tip: Do this instead of walking to each monument. No tired legs and lots of great info from the tour guides.
Cruise to Mount Vernon – Our visit to Mount Vernon is definitely a highlight from the trip. We took the 1.5 hour ride on the Spirit Cruise down the Potomac River. The boat arrived at the dock in Mount Vernon and we walked up from the opposite side of the property from all the tour buses. Instead of walking the grounds and going to see the house, we headed to the museum first. If you visit Mount Vernon, please do not miss this museum. Between this one and the American Revolution Museum we visited in Philly, they were the pinnacle of our museum experiences on this trip.
The organizers at Mount Vernon have done an exquisite job of bringing George Washington to life for us at the museum. If you go, stop and watch the films they show. They made all the difference for us in humanizing this great man. We actually had to rush through and leave the museum with about an hour left on our visit because we hadn’t even been to the house or explored the property. I wish we could have stayed longer.
On a different note, I am undecided on whether I would do the cruise again. It’s not that it was unpleasant. It’s just that the trip to Mount Vernon took 1.5 hours each way. Versus a 20 minute drive from DC. And when I think back on why we loved our visit to Mount Vernon, it was the museum and property we loved. Not necessarily the boat ride. I guess you would just need to weigh the time you had to spend on getting there.
Tip: Do not miss the museum! Apparently most people skip this in exchange for walking around the property. I am now a George Washington super-fan thanks to this museum (and the one in Philadelphia).
Smithsonian’s National Zoo – If you are visiting Washington D.C. with kids, I would highly recommend breaking up the museums and monuments with a visit to the National Zoo. The wide open paths for walking and the large variety of animals makes it a perfect place for your children to run around and explore. We arrived shortly after it opened and had the whole place practically to ourselves. Until the buses of school kids and visitors arrived around 10am. Then it got a bit more hectic.
Tip: Go to the zoo as soon as it opens (8am) and you will have the whole place to yourselves for a few hours.
Tour of the Capitol – We arranged the tour of the Capitol a couple months before we went. One of the Senate office interns took us around for a private tour. She had enough juicy gossip and stories to keep us captivated the whole time. We loved seeing the spot where George Washington was supposed to be buried (before they saw his will which insisted on Mount Vernon). The boys will never forget that little detail in the John Trumbull painting in the rotunda which shows Thomas Jefferson stepping on John Adams’ foot. On the day we were there, the Capitol was packed with people there for tours and there were no tour options for people walking up that day. So plan ahead! It’s definitely worth it.
Tip: Make sure to contact your state representative’s office well in advance of your visit to secure a private tour.
National Archives – We almost didnt make it to the National Archives. You can reserve a timeslot to get in on their website, but we were too late for that by the time we looked into it. All the timeslots were taken. When we attempted a visit on the first leg of the trip, the line wrapped around the block. Luckily, when we came back to DC, we walked by and the line was not too bad so we jumped in. We headed straight for the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. I’m pretty sure having just come from Philadelphia where these documents were written plus listening to the backstory behind them made all the difference. It was truly inspiring. These barely-legible, 240-year old pieces of paper created a nation.
Tip: Go online way in advance to reserve your visiting time so you do not have to wait!
Jazz at National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden – The National Archives building happens to be right across the street from the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Since it happened to be Friday and almost 5pm, we headed right over to check out the Jazz concert. A friend of mine recommended this and even though we didn’t have it scheduled as a hard itinerary item, we stumbled across it on just the right day at just the right time. This could not have been a more enjoyable experience. People gather all around the fountain and the surrounding grass to listen to the live jazz band. All while soaking in the sunshine and the refreshments available. We took off our shoes, and just relaxed for about 2 hours. If you can make it, I would highly recommend you try to catch this.
Tip: Come around 4:30pm to find the perfect spot to settle down. Whether it be a shady patch of grass or a primo fountain spot.
Arlington National Cemetery – We visited Arlington on our last day. With only a few hours left before we needed to catch our flight, we were debating between the Newseum (which everyone says is INCREDIBLE) and Arlington National Cemetery. It was a tough decision, but we ended up choosing Arlington. We knew that the boys would never have experienced anything like this and that the visit would help them see the magnitude of the sacrifice earlier generations have paid for our way of life.
The night before, we went on the website and realized that they open at 8am. We decided to get there are early as possible. This is our M.O. if you haven’t noticed yet 🙂 I am so glad that we did. Similar to the National Zoo, the throngs of people seemed to arrive around 10am. We stayed about an hour and half. Walking through the shady paths that led to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we were surrounded by the iconic white headstones that seemed to go on infinitely. We stayed a while to watch the changing of the guard (which happens every half hour). After stopping by John F Kennedy’s gravesite, we started walking back towards the exit. That is when we realized how many tour buses had arrived. It was a good time to be finishing up.
Tip: Get there as soon as it opens to benefit from the peace and tranquility of the property.
White House Tour – One other reservation we made through our Congressman was a visit to the White House. They notify you via email about a week before the date you requested if you got in or not. We were happy that we did. This description will be the shortest of all our site visits, because I didn’t get in 🙁 Apparently, when they warned not to bring any bags with you, they were serious. When the security guard saw that I had a (teeny tiny) purse, my expectations of going in were dashed. Brian went in with the boys and we met up about 20 minutes later. When I asked them what they thought, everyone seemed a little “meh” about it. I think it is because they were seeing rooms that were mainly there for tour purposes and not rooms that actually get used. Or maybe that’s just what they told me to make me feel better.
Tip: Do NOT bring any bags or purses to your scheduled visit or you will not get in.
Top 3 Washington DC Highlights:
It is very difficult to narrow down our favorites, but I will try for the sake of helping you decide if your time is limited. These are the first three places I would tell you to not miss if you are visiting Washington DC
- Monuments Nighttime Bike Tour
- Mount Vernon
- Lincoln Assassination Walking Tour
Where We Ate:
While DC certainly has a thriving food scene, I can’t really say we were able to take advantage of all the great restaurants as much as I would have liked to. With so much to see, we prioritized visiting the sights over the restaurants. With that being said, the following were the places we dined during our visit. Several of them are fast casual chains that are ubiquitous in the Northeast, but for us are exciting. I will put an asterisk next to our favorite 3.
Where We Stayed:
We booked two different Kimpton hotel properties for our stay. With as much walking and sightseeing as we were doing, staying in a comfortable & welcoming hotel was key. We definitely liked one better than the other, so I will give you the scoop.
For the first leg of the trip we stayed at the Kimpton Mason and Rook hotel. Mason and Rook is in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington D/C. We loved the location of the hotel. There was a Whole Foods one street over, which was super convenient for picking up a cup of tea and stocking up up on healthy food. The Mason and Rook was only a 10-minute Uber ride from the National Mall which was very convenient. Our room was comfortable. While I am sure there are dozens of great hotel options when visiting D.C., I would definitely return to Mason and Rook.
On our second leg of the trip we stayed at the Kimpton Glover Park Hotel. While it was still a clean and stylish property (and had the most comfortable beds ever), we were not crazy about the location. It was by the Naval Observatory and the National Zoo, which meant the Uber ride to the National Mall area was more like 20 minutes.
So there you have it. Our itinerary and thoughts on Washington D.C. with kids. If you have been thinking about visiting our nation’s capital anytime soon, I would definitely go for it. Make sure your kids are up for walking – a lot. And try to prep them a bit before going (without them noticing, of course). Everyone will enjoy it so much more.
Have you been to Washington D.C. recently? What were your favorite sites?
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