Educational family fun is a guarantee in D.C.

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Washington D.C. is a vacation destination magnet for families. It’s a vibrant place, where history comes alive, and children can get an up close and personal view of the workings of our nation’s capital. Visiting D.C., however, should ideally be reserved for a time when kids are old enough to appreciate and understand the sights and experiences this city offers. They need to have patience to stand in lines and listen to tour guides, along with the stamina to walk the necessary distances that the city demands of its visitors. It’s also advantageous for children to have studied or to currently be learning something about U.S. history and government in order for such a trip to have maximum benefit. That being said, kids of all ages can have an enriching experience in D.C., approaching it from whatever perspectives they possess.

A vacation to this popular city tends to be very active and busy, as there is so much to see and do. The pace can be exhausting, though, as most families feel they need to accomplish everything during their limited stay. Knowing this, it’s important to carve out a bit of downtime each day to give everyone – kids and parents alike – the opportunity to chill or you’ll risk serious burn out. The other suggestion is to keep the number of sights and activities manageable with an eye towards the ages of your children and their levels of attention span.

Take the following list of ten to do in D.C. as simply a guideline, and then make it your own depending on your family’s interests:

1.    Monuments and memorials reign supreme in our nation’s capital. Rather than walk from one to another, view them on a Bike and Roll tour, where you’ll hear narration about each site, get to stop and spend time at the various highpoints and enjoy cruising around the National Mall and Potomac Tidal Basin on two wheels. The tour is suitable for all ages, as even the youngest tike can participate in a trailer tandem if they’re unable to safely operate their own bike. In 3-4 hours, you’ll see D.C.’s “greatest hits,” including the White House and Washington Monument, as well as the well-recognized memorials of Lincoln, Jefferson, Vietnam War Veterans, National WWII, Korean War Veterans and the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Guides are upbeat, entertaining and full of interesting trivia, while ensuring that the group stays together, following the trails, paths and sidewalks on the route. The evening tour is particularly special, as all the buildings are illuminated, emanating a glow that gives the scene a magical quality.

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2.    Head to the Smithsonian complex of museums, nearly twenty in total, and choose a few of these gems to explore. Kids love the National Air and Space Museum which covers the history of aviation, spaceflight, astronomy and planetary science. It has thousands of objects on display such as the 1903 Wright Flyer, Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis,” the Apollo 11 Command Module “Columbia,” and a lunar rock you can actually touch. There’s also the Albert Einstein Planetarium, Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater and the Public Observatory where you can view lunar craters, sunspots and the phases of Venus through state-of-the-art telescopes. Over at the American Museum of Natural History, the most visited natural history museum in the world, kids will love the many fascinating displays including dinosaur skeletons, artifacts of early man, an insect zoo, live coral reef, butterfly pavilion and enormous collection of gems and minerals.

Don’t miss Q’rius, an interactive and experimental learning lab that encourages all ages to connect science with everyday experiences. The American History Museum is another popular Smithsonian, with its extensive collections detailing the social, political, cultural, scientific and military history of the U.S. Of note is an original copy of the Gettysburg Address, the original Star-Spangled Banner, Julia Child’s kitchen, the Doll’s House, an enormous American flag made of Legos, the original Greensboro Lunch Counter, Clara Barton Red Cross ambulance, Archie Bunker’s chair, the ruby slippers from the “Wizard of Oz” and a collection of First Ladies’ gowns. A new exhibit dedicated to American innovation and a test kitchen with daily food demos are also popular with families.

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3.    For all things media, check out the Newseum, a museum that champions the five freedoms of the First Amendment through a series of dynamic and engaging exhibits that detail the stories of the past and the present through the eyes of the media. Kids will particularly enjoy the Interactive Newsroom, where they have the chance to play the role of reporter or photographer. Other galleries focus on such events as the Civil War, President Lincoln’s assassination, 9/11, the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the Vietnam War, focusing on how these momentous happenings were portrayed in the news. The Ethics Center will challenge your family to a fast-paced game on media ethics, while a 36-foot-wide map will show you the different levels of press freedoms in countries around the world, while describing the perils that journalists often face in their work. This is truly one of the most captivating museums in D.C., and visitors often spend several hours exploring its many galleries. Before leaving, make sure you step out on the museum’s terrace for a panoramic view of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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4.    Espionage is the name of the game at the International Spy Museum, another not-to-be-missed attraction. This is the only public museum in the U.S. solely dedicated to the tradecraft, history and contemporary role of espionage. It features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts on public display, from a 1777 letter by George Washington authorizing a New York spy network to a 1980s coat with a camera concealed in a button. Visitors learn about the different skills and tools essential to a spy, as well as the different motivations that lead people into the clandestine world, how they are recruited and trained, and how they operate. A series of galleries chronicles the history of spying from biblical times to the early 20th century, while a group of exhibits examines espionage through WWII, showcasing real-life spy stories and code-making and code-breaking operations. A fun highlight of the museum is the special exhibit, “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains,” which explores how the evildoers in the Bond movies and their plots have changed over the past half century and the ways in which James Bond has influenced the public’s perception of real espionage. Classic Bond film clips and historical artifacts and documents help complement the movie props on display. If time, opt to do “Spy in the City, an interactive GPS-based outdoor walking mission, which allows you to solve a spy case on your own using your spy skills of observation, evasion and code-breaking. It’s fun for the whole family!

5.    For a different perspective of D.C., take a fully narrated Potomac Riverboat cruise past Washington’s historic monuments, landmarks, buildings and bridges. From the water, you’ll see the Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, JFK Center for the Performing Arts, Watergate Complex, Lincoln Memorial and U.S. Capitol Building. Dock locations include Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia and Georgetown in D.C., with roundtrip or one-way ticket options available. Roundtrip fares allow guests to disembark at either location to shop, sightsee or dine and return to an original point on a later cruise. The river is a busy and exciting place, with boats and water taxis plying the water, along with the constant sight and sounds of planes and helicopters landing and taking off from nearby Reagan National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base.

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6.    Explore the historic United States Capitol (tour passes required) on a guided tour, with visits to the Crypt, the Rotunda and National Statuary Hall. This symbol of the American people and our government is the meeting place of the nation’s legislature. It also houses an important collection of American art, and is an architectural achievement in its own right. Dating back to its initial construction in 1793, the Capitol and its stately dome have become international symbols of our representative democracy. Prior to your tour, stop in at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center for a thorough introduction and background information. At 580,000 square feet, the Visitor Center is approximately three quarters the size of the Capitol itself and the entire facility is located underground so as not to detract from the appearance of the Capitol and the grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1874.

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7.    See where the President makes his home with a tour of the White House (advance tickets necessary). On this coveted experience, you’ll visit rooms in the East Wing and main White House Residence, with access to the Old Family Dining Room and State Dining Room, Red, Blue and Green Rooms, East Garden Room, China Room and Library. Don’t despair, however, if you don’t have tickets to this exclusive activity, as you can always stop at the White House Visitor Center for a window into the president’s iconic home. There’s an interactive touchscreen tour and plenty of artifacts from the White House collection, along with an informative film.

8.    Find out how money is made with a visit to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. During the free 40-minute tour, you’ll learn about the development and production process of U.S. currency notes and see millions of dollars being printed. It’s a fascinating eye-opening experience with exhibits that explain the history of currency in the U.S. and when greenbacks were born (1861), the ongoing design of the notes and counterfeit protection measures. Kids will like the display showing what a million dollars looks like in $10 bills as well as seeing how tall they are in $100 notes. Souvenirs abound in the gift shop with a host of items filled with shredded dollars.

9.    Step back in time with a trip to Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s quintessentially Southern plantation home. This American landmark is a tribute to the Father of Our Country and is a beloved historic site. It’s a glimpse into 18th century plantation life through beautiful gardens and grounds, museum exhibits and immersive programs honoring George Washington’s life and legacy. Interpreters share information about the 21-room mansion and its residences as you stroll through rooms decorated with vibrant wall colors, elegant furnishings and unique architectural features. A series of outbuildings pays tribute to the essential operations of the place, including a working blacksmith shop with daily demonstrations. There’s also George Washington’s tomb, a slave memorial and burial ground and a nearby four-acre pioneer farm.

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10.    Visit the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, where over 2,000 animals make their home, including the famed Giant Panda. The zoo is a kid-friendly urban park, which offers an opportunity to see creatures up close, ranging from Asian elephants and American Bison to the Great Apes and Great Cats. There’s even a Kid’s Farm, where children can participate in hands-on activities and learn that most of the food we eat every day comes from farms. At the Caring Corral, they’ll have a chance to help groom goats and donkeys, under staff supervision, while at the Pizza Garden, they’ll discover how pizza ingredients go from the farm to the pizza.

If you have older kids, additional activity options abound from watching a session in the Supreme Court to paying your respects at Arlington National Cemetery, where such famous people as President JFK, General Omar Bradley, civil rights activist Medgar Evers and astronauts Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom are buried, among others. The 600 plus acre cemetery also contains the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has been perpetually guarded by the U.S. Army since 1937, along with the USS Maine Mast and Space Shuttle Challenger Memorials. And then there’s the very sobering Holocaust Memorial Museum, which offers a highly moving and educational experience. Dedicated to the millions who died during the Nazi regime in Germany, the museum contains more than 900 artifacts, videos and film footage, as well as eyewitness testimonies of Nazi concentration camp survivors.

As for places to stay during your visit, there are numerous options ranging from chain hotels to charming inns and full service resorts. Though it might seem most convenient to be situated in D.C. proper, know there are plenty of accommodation choices right outside the city that may offer more reasonable rates. Old Town Alexandria is an example. This colorful and historical city is chockfull of restaurants, shops and pocket parks, and has a lovely wharf with access to water taxis and riverboat cruise boats. And with the Metro, D.C.’s excellent transportation system, you’ll be able to get to all of D.C.’s attractions quickly and easily. Kids usually find it fun to ride the Metro, and parents can use this opportunity as a teachable moment when it comes to directional and mathematical skills.

For everything you need to know about visiting D.C.:

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