A visit to Washington, D.C. with kids is educational AND fun! These tips will make your trip to the Nation’s Capital a little easier!
We took a family trip to Washington, D.C. over Spring Break this year. It had been years since I had visited and no one else in my family had been there before! I am by no means an expert on Washington, D.C., so this article will not so much focus on the many, many things there are to do there, but on a few helpful tips that will take some of the guesswork out of your trip!
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Skip the Hotel
By FAR the best decision we made on our trip to Washington, D.C. was staying at an AirB&B. Our kids are early risers so we were out the door around 8:30 AM each morning, heading to the Metro!
By the time 2:00 PM or 3:00 PM rolled around, we were all pretty exhausted and the youngest member of our family, who will remain nameless, was at the end of his rope. Each day we ended up heading back to our apartment in Arlington to crash, play and watch TV for a little bit before dinner.
Hotel rooms can just become so small when you are staying in them for days. Even if you have a suite, it’s not as comfortable as crashing at an apartment or home. We were able to find an AirB&B in Arlington, just across the Potomac River, for about the same price as a hotel!
When visiting Washington, D.C. with kids, you definitely are going to want a place where you have room to come back and relax after all that walking!
Ride the Metro
D.C. has a great Metro system! There are quite a few options for paying for your metro rides. If you think you’re going to take public transportation A LOT, you could opt for an unlimited daily or weekly pass. Then you don’t have to think about it at all.
Using a SMARTRIP® Card with Kids
But what ended up working best for us was to get each of us a SMARTRIP® Card and add money as we went. We ended up spending about $5-8/day which was less than the cost of an unlimited card.
You can add your SMARTRIP® Card to your phone and not even have to worry about a physical card. HOWEVER, this won’t work for kids.
When you ride the Metro in Washington, D.C., you have to swipe your card when you enter and when you exit the station. Your fare is determined by how far you travel and by what time of day. So it’s not an easy, flat fare.
This also means that you can’t use the same SMARTRIP® Card for your whole family because it needs a beginning and an ending swipe for each person, if that makes sense. So if you’re littler kids don’t have smart phones (mine don’t) they’re going to need their own card.
I allowed my kids to swipe (actually, tap is the more accurate word) their own card and then I would gather them up and keep them for the rest of the time. My husband was on his own. 😉
Loading the SMARTRIP® card
Unlike other cities where subway fare is a set amount, your subway fare can really fluctuate in Washington, D.C. It can be kind of hard to keep track of how much is left on your card. But each time you tap your card, you can see the balance remaining on the fare box. Granted, this can be hard to check because it’s all happening so fast.
What I found worked best was to try to keep an eye on the balance as much as I could but to also create an account on the WMTA SMARTRIP® website where I could check our balance and add money to each of our cards every night.
Here’s a tip about doing that: What you add to your SMARTRIP® Card takes about 4 hours to get loaded and it’s not activated until you tap your card at a station. So it works well to do this at night when you have time to spare.
If you need your money available right away, it’s best to load your card at one of the machines at any of the Metro stations.
Using the Metro to get to Washington, D.C.
My kids LOVED riding the Metro! Our AirB&B was a 10 minute walk from the station and about 8 stops from the National Mall so it took around 30 minutes all together to get to the heart of D.C. depending on how long we had to wait for the train.
Once we were at the National Mall (we got off at the Smithsonian stop most often), we rarely took the Metro again until it was time to go back to our apartment for the day. Read on to find out what we did instead.
Take Advantage of the DC Circulator Bus
Once we were in the heart of Washington, D.C., we found it most convenient to transition to using the DC Circulator Bus. This route goes around the National Mall and Tidal Basin. It is definitely your best option for getting to the monuments by the Tidal Basin (see below).
How to Save on your DC Circulator Ride
Taking the Circulator Bus in Washington, D.C. is a great option because for starters it’s just $1 per ride. However, if you transfer from the Metro rail it’s just $.50. If you get back on the Circulator within 2 hours, your transfer is free. You must have a SMARTRIP® Card in order to qualify for these transfer prices.
It’s definitely worth having a SMARTRIP® Card for the transfer discount to the Circulator Bus. Every time you tap your card you can see the balance on the fare box. Keep the map up on your phone or pick up a paper map on one of the buses!
In a perfect world, the D.C. Circulator runs every 10 minutes though we did wait longer than that a few times. It’s still, I think, the best option for saving your feet and keeping kids from complaining about the long walks!
Eating in Washington, D.C. with Kids
One thing I tried to eliminate on this trip (with some success) was fights about food. My kids are notoriously picky eaters and they still eat like birds. Plus, like most kids, all they care about are the snacks!
On our trip to D.C. we never once ate at a sit down restaurant with a waiter or waitress! Instead, I employed some of these tactics:
I made my kids each carry a backpack and I let them bring as many snacks as they wanted. Did I let them eat 6 Oreos at 9:15 AM? Yes, I did. Did it bother me. Yes, it did. But I tried to let it slide this time because it meant they were not begging me to buy them something.
I actually don’t think they asked to buy many snacks at all on the trip thanks to their control over their own back pack of snacks and drinks!
I am someone who loves to research trendy restaurants and plan where we are going to eat when we visit somewhere new. There was none of that on this trip. (Okay, that’s a lie. You can read on to find out the ONE place I had to eat.)
We ate out of convenience. Our first lunch was in the cafeteria at the Natural History Museum which was where we were when we realized we were all hungry and there was no time for research and travel and waiting for a meal.
And, that cafeteria turned out to be not so bad! So check with each museum you want to visit because most of them have their own cafeteria!
Food Trucks on the National Mall
The other two days we had lunch from the food trucks that line up around the National Mall! You will not find many restaurants right around the Mall aside from the cafes inside museums. But what you will find is dozens of food trucks lined up on both ends of the Mall!
This ended up being a godsend for us for a couple of reasons. For the most part, these were not specialty food trucks, many of them were serving the same things. But, that meant that we could go to one food truck and order something for everyone, as opposed to going to 4 separate food trucks and waiting in line.
We had great weather on these days so we just sat on our coats in the grassy area of the mall along with all the other picnickers to eat our lunch! We ate everything from hot dogs, chicken fingers, chicken gryo on rice to Philly cheesesteak! It was easy and convenient and everyone was pretty happy.
What to Bring with you to Washington, D.C.
Here are a few tips as to what to expect when you go in and out of museums on the National Mall as well as the guidebook and map that helped us the most!
You Can Bring a Bag or Backpack
Lately, so many places I have been have only allowed wristlets, so I was nervous about what I could carry around in Washington, D.C.! I knew we would need at least water and all our snacks, for starters. Roaming around Washington, D.C. with kids was going to require more than a wristlet!
You CAN bring a bag into pretty much all of the museums and visitor’s centers, but expect for them to be searched. Be prepared to have your bag open as you go through security. You will also need to empty all of your pockets of change, watches, wallets and cell phones.
What to Bring on the Metro
Or maybe this should be titled what NOT to bring on the Metro! Namely, food and drinks! You CAN bring your backpack full of snacks, but eating and drinking are not allowed on the Metro and this is not really one of those rules that is bent.
For us coffee drinkers, this means do NOT pick up your Starbucks and plan to get on the Metro with it. I did not see anyone carrying drinks on the Metro. So plan your caffeine fix accordingly or get something bottled that you can stick in your bag while you ride!
Bring the Best Map of Washington, D.C.
I purchased two items to help us plan and execute our visit to D.C. and they both proved very helpful! I would recommend the DK Eyewitness Family Guide to Washington, D.C. for a specific family focus! There were a lot of great tips in that book!
My absolute FAVORITE maps to use when traveling are the Streetwise maps! These are laminated and foldable and they include a one page map of the metro system! The Washington, D.C. Map also includes an inset of the National Mall area. They are super handy and I love them!
How to Plan Your Day in Washington, D.C. with Kids
It may seem obvious, but it’s best to plan your day in clusters. For instance, don’t plan to see the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial back to back because they are at opposite ends of the Mall!
It’s reasonable to visit two or even three museums a day, depending on the stamina and interest level of your kids. We visited at least two museums a day and sprinkled in LOTS of monuments in between!
Visiting the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C. with Kids
One of the best things about visiting Washington, D.C. with kids is that there are SO MANY free things to do in Washington, D.C. thanks to the Smithsonian Institution!
If you get off at the Smithsonian Metro stop, follow the signs for the National Mall exit and you will come out in the middle of the Mall and in the middle of all the msueums!
The Smithsonian Museums line both sides of the National Mall and they are all free to visit! The fact that they are free is just a really incredible gift! It’s also an incredible gift to parents in particular because it means that you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg only to have your 7 year old ready to leave after 30 minutes!
For the most part, it is easy to pop in and out of the museums without much of a wait (if you are visiting on a weekday). There are only two Smithsonian museums where you will need timed tickets (as of April 2022) and those are the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Zoo.
Tips for Visiting the Smithsonian Institution
- Start at the Smithsonian Castle to get a good overview of how the Smithsonian Institution came to be
- Arrive early to avoid lines. Most (but not all) museums open at 10:00 AM.
- Double check days and times because a lot of the museums are not open on Mondays and some are not open on Tuesdays.
- Visit on a weekday to avoid crowds.
Visiting the Monuments in Washington, D.C. with Kids
As I mentioned above, it’s best to plan your visit in clusters. The National Mall is 2 miles in length so while it is technically walkable, I wouldn’t advise it! There is a lot of walking to be done in Washington, D.C. and I would save your steps by taking the DC Circulator mentioned above!
National Mall West/Lincoln Memorial
Monuments within walking distance of the Lincoln Memorial include the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Constitution Gardens, World War II Memorial and the Washington Monument.
It’s a decent walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument – about 20 minutes with kids. But I think it’s worth it.
National Mall East/U.S. Capitol
The day we visited the Capitol, we took the train to the Capitol South Metro Station and started on the east side of the Capitol Building. Nearby (and worth a visit) is the U.S. Botanic Garden, Bartholdi Park and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.
The Capitol Visitor Center is currently closed (as of April 2022).
The Tidal Basin
Definitely plan to take the DC Circulator to visit the monuments on the Tidal Basin! Based on the direction of the Circulator it works best to stop first at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, get back on the Circulator, and then stop at the Martin Luther King Jr./Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial stop.
You can walk (and in fact have to walk) between the FDR and MLK Memorials. I love both of these! These are must see stops in D.C.!
If you didn’t walk to the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial when seeing the Lincoln Memorial, you can get off on the next Circulator Stop to see that one after MLK.
The White House
My kid were obsessed with seeing the White House! You cannot get very close to the White House itself and when we visited they were doing construction that blocked even more of the view, but it was still great to see!
The White House is kind of off on it’s own but some other highlights in the area are the National Christmas Tree and Lafayette Square, a large city park where you could rest your feet!
I would definitely recommend seeing the White House Visitor Center! Inside there was an interesting, 20 minute film, models of the White House and lots of memorabilia. Here you can also get the annual White House Christmas ornament!
What My Kids Loved in Washington, D.C.
You guys, we saw a LOT in Washington, D.C. and in some senses it feels like we barely scratched the surface! I think we saw the main things you expect to see in D.C.: The Capitol, The White House and the major monuments around the National Mall. We saw just 4 of the 17 Smithsonian Museums!
The four that we visited were:
- Smithsonian Castle
- Arts and Industries Building
- National Museum of Natural History
- National Museum of American History
We also visited the National Gallery of Art and the National Gallery Sculpture Garden which are not part of the Smithsonian Institution.
So take this advice with a grain of salt! There is SO much to see that I can’t even begin to speak about things on the outskirts of the National Mall! It took us 3 full days to see what I’ve mentioned here and we only focused on the National Mall area!
National Museum of Natural History
In terms of being kid-friendly, our favorite museum was the National Museum of Natural History. This one is great for animal and dinosaur lovers! Other more kid friendly options would probably include the National Zoo (which we did not visit) and the National Air and Space Museum (the Mall location was closed for renovations until fall of 2022. But there is another location in Chantilly, VA that I heard good things about!)
U.S. Botanic Garden
My kids also enjoyed the U.S. Botanic Garden. It has an indoor Conservatory as well as outdoor gardens. Similar to our own Franklin Park Conservatory! What they enjoyed most was running through the Stickwork installation in the outdoor garden! (There is also one at The Holden Arboretum outside of Cleveland, Ohio if you can’t travel all the way to D.C.!)
Well Known Monuments in Washington, D.C.
Beyond that, my kids most enjoyed seeing the Lincoln Memorial, The Washington Monument, The White House and The Capitol. This would really depend on the interest level of your kids! Mine have really been into history and learning about the U.S. presidents so they had a lot of interest in seeing the monuments!
Things to do in Arlington, VA
I just wanted to add a small section here about Arlington, VA, where we stayed. As I mentioned above, we tended to peter out by 2:30 PM and we would head back to our apartment in Arlington. Sometimes we would think we might head back into D.C. but we never did.
We always ended up eating dinner in Arlington because it was easy! If you happen to stay in Arlington, here are some places you might enjoy!
Ballston Quarter is kind of an indoor shopping mall. There is a parking garage and they have a great food court on the bottom floor called Quarter Market. It’s not your typical mall food court! These are non-chain options where you can find something original, but have a more relaxed atmosphere than a sit-down restaurant!
As I mentioned above, there was just one place I really wanted to eat and that was Taco Bamba. I had seen the chef beat Bobby Flay on the show Beat Bobby Flay and since we were going to DC and it was in Arlington, it was my one foodie request! And guess what, my kids enjoyed it!
This restaurant is not in the Ballston Quarter shopping mall, but you can park in the garage and walk to Taco Bamba from there! Here you order at the counter and they bring out the food! They also have great happy hour drink specials!
If you’re looking for a place to let the kids run off some of that extra energy before bedtime, my kids enjoyed Mosaic Park, which was also within walking distance of Ballston Quarter!
Arlington National Cemetery
Last, but certainly not least, a visit to Arlington National Cemetery is a must in Arlignton, VA! We visited on one of our afternoons and didn’t even have enough time to walk it all the way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier because the cemetery closes at 5:00 PM!
We did get to see the eternal flame at the gravesite of John F. Kennedy Jr., which was pretty special. Just seeing the rows and rows of white gravestones is sobering.
US Marine Corps War Memorial
The US Marine Corps War Memorial is part of Arlington National Cemetery, but it is open past 5:00 PM and has its own parking lot! So if you’re running behind like we were, save this stop for after visiting the main part of the cemetery!
I hope this post helps you take some of the guesswork out of planning a trip to Washington, D.C. with kids! Just knowing a little bit about what to expect can make your trip go more smoothly! I hope you enjoy your trip!
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