A Washington, DC family vacation ensures that you will find activities to suit everyone's interests. While DC offers incredible opportunities to learn about our nation's history and governance, it is also a city that has a vibrant arts scene, diverse cultural experiences, and plentiful opportunities to enjoy the outdoors (the Trust for Public Land recently named DC as being the best city in the nation for parks).
I've lived in DC for over 20 years. I enjoyed it as a young, childless professional, but I have to admit that since having kids I've gotten to know it even better. I have schlepped my twins all over DC and the surrounding areas and I absolutely encourage families to visit. There are tons of family-friendly activities to enjoy, many of which are free. I have put together a list of some of my top recommendations for how to spend your days in DC with kids. As a side note, I encourage all visitors to venture away from the National Mall and Smithsonian museums a bit to experience the energy and vibe of this great city. A great way to do that is to check out festivals and events that may be going on during your trip (the Official Tourism Site of Washington, DC and DC Area Moms are great resources). There are so many things to see and do, you may have to come visit more than once!
Photo credit: Julie Hart
Table of Contents:
The Smithsonian Institution is a national treasure. I'm kind of cheating by listing this as one thing to do when, in fact, it has 18 museums in DC. With so much history, art, and science to take in, you will need to make some difficult choices in how you spend your Smithsonian time. Many visitors end up exhausting themselves at the museums and end up missing many of the other fun things to do in DC. Highlights include:
The National Museum of Natural History: Home to a truly impressive collection of dinosaur fossils in Fossil Hall, mummies, an Insect Zoo, the Hope Diamond, and so much more. Kids can connect science with the every day in its hands-on Q?rious Lab.
The National Museum of American History: My son was obsessed with cars, trucks, and all things that go for several years. He refused to leave the museum's transportation exhibit, "America on the Move," during every visit. This museum also recently opened a new exhibit called “Entertainment Nation,” which has objects and interactive exhibits exploring our nation's pop culture. It includes things like Dorothy’s ruby red slippers and Prince’s Yellow Cloud Electric Guitar.
The National Air and Space Museum: Explore the history of flight and man's exploration of space at the museum on the National Mall. If you can get there, the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA is phenomenal. There, two hangars house a jaw-dropping variety of aviation and space artifacts, including the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay, a Concorde, and more.
The National American Indian Museum: The ImagiNations Activity Center has many interesting and fun hands-on kids' activities. Parents, beware, kids can work together to build an igloo with big, foam "ice blocks," however it can sometimes turn into a Thunderdome situation. Another cool thing about this museum is that has a delicious restaurant that is unique in that it offers foods from Native Americans from different regions of North and South America. The fry bread tacos are not to be missed!
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the only museum requiring timed-entry reserved tickets. It explores African American history and culture and how it has shaped our nation through interactive exhibits and more than 40,000 artifacts.
Pro Tip: When planning your days, look at the Smithsonian Events Calendar (https://www.si.edu/events). There are often special events that may coincide with your vacation dates. Also, in the summer, some museums are open later.
Photo credit: Julie Hart
One could spend a whole day enjoying the National Mall and the monuments that call it home, including the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the Washington Monument. A short walk to the nearby Tidal Basin will take you to the Jefferson Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. While at the Tidal Basin, you can rent paddle boats to see the monuments from a different perspective. My family opted to do this fun activity on a particularly windy day. The current created by the wind was really strong and lots of pedal boats, including ours, were forced to one side of the Tidal Basin. It took A LOT of sweat and effort fighting the wind and water to get the boat back to the other side of the basin. The monuments are impressive during the day, but there is something extra special about seeing them at night. A number of tour companies operate night tours, making it easy to get around and saving your feet after a long day of sightseeing. When you need a break from the monuments, check out the the Carousel in front of the Arts and Industries Building or the sculpture gardens at the Hirshhorn Museum and at the National Gallery of Art.
Pro Tip: The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden hosts an ice skating rink in the winter and a Jazz Concert Series in the summer. The Pavilion Café there has light lunch fare, yummy baked goods, and wine and beer (in case parents need a little break).
Photo credit: Julie Hart
3. National Zoo
In 2022, the zoo celebrated 50 years of Giant Pandas, which are a huge draw. Families will also enjoy the Amazonia exhibit (especially the Electric Fishes Demonstration Lab), the Kids Farm, and the Reptile Discovery Center. The Me and the Bee Playground gives kids a chance to run around like maniacs while parents rest their feet. And don't miss a ride on the carousel! The National Zoo is free and open 364 days a year. Currently, you are required to have a timed entry pass to enter. It is conveniently located between two Metro stops. If you choose to drive, there is parking available for $30. You must reserve a paid parking pass online before your visit. If live near a good zoo, you may want to skip the National Zoo so you can spend your time doing something you can’t do at home.
Pro Tip: The zoo’s main path is a giant hill. Try to plan your route and your transportation so you start at the top and end the day at the bottom. I have trudged up that hill with a double stroller and, later, kids with tired feet at the end of a long day. It isn't fun.
This spectacular building is often overlooked by visitors, but it is well worth your time. The structure and reading rooms are beautiful, and it has a number of interesting exhibits. Right now, you can visit a recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s library, learn about Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words, and view a collection of maps of the early exploration of America, including a 1507 map of the world on which the word "America" first appears. Check out the Library's website for a calendar of events. In the past, the Library of Congress has hosted free concerts, outdoor movie screenings, after hours events, and more. Timed-entry passes are required and can be reserved online prior to your visit. It is free.
Pro Tip: If you can't make it DC, you can still enjoy this collection of national treasures through at-home kids activities and author programs.
This building is home to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In addition to seeing our nation's founding documents in person, there are engaging exhibits to enjoy. Families with school-age kids are encouraged to visit the Boeing Resource Center before viewing the exhibits. There, you can check out Gallery Packs which include kids activities related to the museum exhibits. It even includes as archivist's stack coat that will complete your child's hands-on experience as they explore the Museum. Entry to the Archives is free.
Pro Tip: Reserve timed-entry tickets online in order to avoid what can be a very long line.
Photo credit: Julie Hart
6. Spy Museum
This interactive museum is so much fun. Visitors are assigned a spy name at the beginning of their experience and will encounter interactive exhibits throughout the museum to test their spy skills. Visitors learn about famous spies throughout history and there's lots of spy gadgets on display, like a camera hidden in the heel of a shoe. You can try your hand at cracking codes with an enigma machine, take a look at the Aston Martin made famous by James Bond in "Goldfinger", and view a letter written by George Washington in 1777 securing the services of a spy. Advanced ticket purchase is suggested as this museum can get very busy.
Pro Tip: This is one of the DC museums that you must pay to enjoy, however kids 6 and under are free. Please note that it may not be very interesting for younger kids.
If your kids would delight in creating clouds, learning about science through sports, designing and building a vehicle, or exploring a three-story climber and slide, then they will love the National Children's Museum. This museum opened in February 2020, right before the pandemic hit. The Museum worked hard to provide virtual STEAM-focused programming at a time when families really needed ways to educate and entertain kids at home. Now, it is open and offering hands-on exhibits to spark kids' imaginations and encouraging them to dream big. Kids of all ages will enjoy the exhibits, but they are geared specifically for infants through 12 year olds.
Pro Tip: The Museum has two safe, enclosed play spaces for toddlers: Little Dreamers and Little Movers.
8. Planet Word
Words matter. This new museum explores the beauty and power of words through a number of interactive exhibits. In addition to learning about the evolution of words and the diversity of languages from all over the world, visitors can deliver famous speeches using a teleprompter, sing karaoke and learn how songwriters come up with enduring lyrics, test out jokes, develop an advertisement, or even cozy up with a book to read. Admission to this museum is free, however, a $15 donation is suggested.
Pro Tip: If your family enjoys puzzles, riddles, and mysteries, visit Lexicon Lane on the 3rd Floor. There, your family will receive a puzzle case filled with five to eight puzzles to solve using clues found around the room. It takes about an hour to complete. Reserve a puzzle case before your visit.
Travel back in time to the 18th century at the estate of President George Washington. A family could easily spend an entire day exploring this bucolic, riverside farm and home. Families will enjoy touring the mansion of our first President, but exploring its grounds is where kids can really become engaged.
There is a working farm where visitors can see animals and demonstrations of 18th century farm life. Many kid-friendly activities are available including a scavenger hunt, numerous Discovery Stations, pretending you are one of George Washington's spies using an app and a map, and more. If you are lucky, your trip to DC will coincide with a special event such at the Estate's 4th of July celebration (complete with fireworks), the Colonial Market and Fair, Fall Harvest, or one of many other annual events.
Pro Tip: Mount Vernon is easiest to get to by car, but consider taking a boat! City Experiences runs a tour to Mount Vernon from DC, Alexandria, or National Harbor.
Speaking of boats, there are many options to explore DC from the river. Special excursions are centered around events such as the Cherry Blossom Festival and the 4th of July. There are also daily trips for local commuters and tourists alike. The Potomac Water Taxi offers routes between the Georgetown neighborhood, the Wharf in DC, Old Town Alexandria, VA, and National Harbor, MD.
The boat ride is fun in and of itself, but there is also a lot to do at each stop. You go past the Watergate, the Kennedy Center, and the Lincoln Memorial from Georgetown. National Harbor has tons of good restaurants, a giant Ferris wheel, a carousel, a pier, outdoor summer movies, and other events throughout the year. Old Town Alexandria is a designated historic district predating the American Revolution. Take some time to explore the waterfront and the numerous boutiques and eateries along brick-lined King Street. If you want to have a more active river experience, check out one of the Boathouses on the Potomac for rentals of kayaks, canoes, or standup paddle boards, or for guided river tours.
Pro Tip: Pre-COVID, Boomerang Boat Tours ran a family pirate adventure with music, fun, and water cannons! Grown-ups can enjoy a cocktail while the kids sing sea chanteys and shoot water cannons at scallywags on jet skis. Check before your trip to see if this boat tour is once again offered.
11. Yards Park
If you want to experience DC like a local, head over to Yards Park. There is always something going on, from free Friday night concerts by the water to Friday Night Fishing with Anacostia Riverkeeper (they provide the gear and a quick demo). In the summer, your kids can enjoy the wading pool with its water features. The eating options are endless for in-house dining or takeaway for a picnic beside the river. Catch a baseball game at Nationals Park or head to Audi Field to cheer on the Washington Spirit (NWSL champions) or the Washington United.
Pro Tip: The exterior shots used on "NCIS" are of the Navy Yard, where you will find the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, which many locals don't even know about. Entrance is free, but make sure you review entry requirements.
The sixth largest cathedral in the world is a gorgeous structure that is open to the public for worship, a variety of programming, and sightseeing (through a self-guided brochure tour or through a purchased audio tour). Since this is an active place of worship, days and times of sightseeing hours vary, so make sure you check the schedule ahead of your visit. Sightseeing tickets can be purchased online, kids under 5 are free. The grounds and the gardens are spectacular and are free to explore anytime.
Pro Tip: While at the National Cathedral, families may want to stop by Beauvoir Elementary School's super cool playground. The school is adjacent to the Cathedral and is kind enough to open its playground to the public when school is not in session. This playground offers kids the opportunity to play and explore on structures made of natural materials. Please note that the restroom facilities at the playground are closed when the school is closed, so plan accordingly. We have used the restrooms at the Cathedral in a pinch, but it is quite a hike back and forth, especially with a little kid trying not to wet their pants.
13. The Wharf
This waterfront area has so many to fun tings to do. There are lots of food options and free events and activities are scheduled throughout the year. Your family will enjoy free concerts and outdoor movies on the pier in warmer weather. A roller rink was installed last summer (there is ice skating in winter). Large porch swings on the pier and yard size games like Connect Four will entertain the kids. You can also look at one of DC’s most unique neighborhoods, a neighborhood of houseboats! The Wharf is walkable from the Tidal Basin, but you can also get there by free shuttle from the National Mall or as a water taxi stop.
Pro Tip: In the summer, take a free ride on the Wharf Jitney across the water to East Potomac Park where there is miniature golf, a playground, and a public golf course.
There is always something going on at The Kennedy Center: ballet, opera, the National Symphony Orchestra, stand-up comedy, Broadway shows, and more. Kids programming is available year-round. My favorite offering is the Center’s Millennium Stage which hosts free performances at 6pm Wednesdays through Sundays every week. You can snag free tickets online or day-of at the box office. Visitors can see a variety of musical performances, film screenings, and special events like Lunar New Year celebrations or the recent tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the days before COVID, we really enjoyed the Center's Open House event wherein visitors could try on costumes from the Opera, try out different instruments at the instrument petting zoo, complete hands-on crafts and much, much more.
Pro Tip: Most events at the Kennedy Center are casual affairs, so visitors don’t need to worry about packing anything super fancy to enjoy a performance there.
There are just too many fun things to do on a family vacation to Washington, DC. Below, I've listed other activities to consider when visiting this great city.
National Building Museum: Interesting exhibits and a kids area called Play Work Build. Also, it hosts an annual family-friendly summer exhibition that usually includes interactive activities, outdoor entertainment, and more.
Arlington National Cemetery: The changing of the guard should not be missed. The Cemetery is particularly gorgeous in the fall.
Great Falls National Park: Visitors need a vehicle to reach either the Maryland or Virginia entrances to this park. The views of the dramatic falls are well worth the effort in any season. Enjoy a hike, a picnic, the nature center, and more.
Eastern Market: Spend some time like locals do at this landmark that has served the Capitol Hill community for over 136 years. On weekdays, vendors in the Hall offer baked goods, veggies, cuts of meat, and fresh seafood. Don’t miss lunch or breakfast at the Market Lunch counter. On weekends, the area becomes a vast market with vendors selling everything from soap to jewelry to vintage clothes to art. Enjoy food vendors offering yumminess from a wide variety of cuisines.
Holocaust Museum: This is not a comfortable experience, but facing our ugly past should not be comfortable. This museum offers an insightful, moving education that will hopefully keep us from repeating history.
U.S. Capitol Visitor Center: Tours can be booked online. However, you can contact your Member of Congress to see if they offer a private tour of the Capitol for constituents.
Julie is a native Texan who has called the DC area home since 2001. She has a need to explore, even if it’s just a neighborhood across town. Since having twins in DC, she has gotten a kick out of exploring the world with her kids, whether spending their days off from school on a day trip hunting for prehistoric shark teeth in the Potomac River or using the summer break to take a month long cross-country road trip. Julie believes there are invaluable benefits from learning more about the world and the people in it, so she wants to encourage families to get out there and explore it together.