A couple of years ago our family went on one of the best vacations of our lives. We traveled to Washington DC as a combination work/fun/educational trip, and we are still talking about how much we want to go back. One of the best surprises we discovered is that there is plenty of free family fun in Washington DC. My girls were 13 and 7 at the time, and there was so much to see and do that we had a hard time fitting it all into one trip. We were blessed to be able to stay six days, but there was still so much we didn’t get to that we want to make another trip soon.
One tip that wasn’t free but made a world of difference for us is the DC Metro. We walked as much as we could, and DC is a terrific walking town, but when we got tired or it got to be too dark we rode the Metro. It was easy to navigate and we felt very safe the whole time. People were friendly and the Metro staff is very helpful.
We didn’t have clearance for a White House tour, but we did walk by it. It is just as moving as you’d think. It is hard to wrap your mind around the fact that one of the most powerful men in the world is just inside that gate and that so many decisions are made there that influence the entire world. It really is breathtaking.
Just down the street from the White House is the White House Visitor Center. It is an information center that has tons of exhibits and displays about life in the White House. You can see a 15 minute film about life in the White House. It holds lots of artifacts and memorablila that we enjoyed seeing as much as we enjoyed the Smithsonians. They also have a shop that sells the official White House Christmas ornaments and lots of other fun souvenirs. Don’t miss it, even if you don’t go to the White House. Note that the hours are 7:30am-4:00pm, so this one closes a little earlier than other sites.
The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is tops on our list. It holds a historic collection of aircraft and spacecraft. My girls have always enjoyed studying about the solar system and space travel, so this was a fun tour for them. We spent about 3 hours in this museum, which was plenty of time for us to see it all.
If you are an art lover, you will not want to miss out on the National Portrait Gallery. Honestly, this was one of my favorite of the Smithsonian museums. The NPG is home to portraits of our nation’s presidents, historical figures, and many notable Americans of modern times. You will see such famous and notable pieces as Alexander Gardner’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln, John Trumbell’s portrait of Alexander Hamilton, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Henry Cabot Lodge, self-portraits of Mary Cassatt and Paul Cezanne, and the Gilbert Stewart portraits of George and Martha Washington. If you are touring with kiddos ages 4-14, stop by the info desk and ask for a portrait discovery kit to make their trip more interactive. The NPG stays open the latest of all the Smithsonians, closing at 7:30 pm.
We were pleasantly surprised by how much fun we had at the National Postal Museum. If you, like us, might be thinking, “How much fun can a museum dedicated to mail be?” you are in for a treat. It really is intriguing to see the history and development of our nation’s postal service. We were especially enthralled with the stamp collections and postal delivery vehicles. Until March 2018, they have a special exhibit entitled “Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks.”
By far the most beautiful interior we saw in DC was at the Library of Congress. As a homeschooling family, we have long been fans of any library, but this one tops them all. I really wasn’t prepared for how breathtaking the architecture was.
And of you don’t see anything else in the Library, you can’t miss the Thomas Jefferson collection of books. President Jefferson is said to have had one of the largest personal libraries in the entire country, and much of it is on display at the Library of Congress. It really is something to see!
The one place I wish we’d planned on spending more time was Arlington National Cemetery. To let the heaviness of the experience fall on you, you really need to spend several hours there. You will want to talk around and look at the grave sites, but also plan to do the tour at Arlington House. My only regret about Arlington is that we didn’t make time to attend a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. That is tops on our list when we return to DC.
No visit to our nation’s capital would be complete without seeing where our laws are made. If you want to see the US Capitol, I highly recommend booking a tour through your senator’s or representative’s office. These tours book up early, so you are really taking a risk by not booking ahead of time.
The National Archives houses an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the US Constitution, as well as many other documents with national significance. While it is all interesting to see, you don’t want to miss the Rotundas for the Charters of Freedom.
The monuments are among the most iconic sites in DC. Most of these are view-it-yourself type experiences, except for the Washington Monument, which is a guided tour. They are bigger and more grandiose than you can imagine. And though they look like they are really close together, it takes time to walk around to all of them. Like, half a day.
I saved the best for last… The National Museum of American History. This is where you will see Dorothy’s red ruby slippers, Julia Child’s kitchen, a fragment of Plymouth Rock, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, Archie Bunker’s chair, Kermit the Frog, Alexander Graham Bell’s big box telephone, and Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick. Plan to spend the better part of a day in this museum, as you will want plenty of time to see all of the fun artifacts.
If you are traveling to Washington DC soon, take a look at our list of Best Washington DC Restaurants for Foodies.