Smart Family Travel tips for travelling our nation’s capital
Beautiful monuments, incredible museums, and more history than many western cities will ever be able to claim to await the traveler to the Washington DC area. This city is known the world over as the seat of power of the United States but most Americans come to see the sites and they are aplenty.
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Things to see and do
Washington DC offers many sites to satisfy even the pickiest of travelers. The Smithsonian Institute offers no fewer than 11 museums along the area known as the National Mall and 6 others within the capital area. Beautiful historic monuments are all around the mall area and throughout the city.
Now, just because it’s called the National Mall, don’t expect to spend any time browsing through Macy’s or the Sunglass Hut. The National Mall is a large park area that stretches all the way from the US Capital to the Lincoln Memorial. Beautiful museums and monuments line the mall and tourists flock here all year long. According to the National Park Service, which manages the mall, nearly 24 millions visitors come through the park every year! Parking in the area is nearly impossible!
Away from the mall, DC has plenty of other sites to offer.
The National Cathedral is a massive gothic cathedral that offers tours and is a welcome respite during the hot summer months. A stroll through the cobblestone streets of the Georgetown neighborhood is a great way to unwind after a long day of sightseeing.
The Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Chantilly is absolutely worth the trip! You’ll miss out on the downtown crowds, get up-close to a Space Shuttle, and even get to experience the air-traffic control operation at nearby Dulles International Airport!
Outdoor opportunities abound in the capital city. The Potomac River forms the border between the city and the state of Virginia and there is no shortage of trails to hike and parks to explore. Rock Creek Park offers visitors the opportunity to escape the bustle of the city and find a peaceful refuge and hours of recreation, fresh air, majestic trees, and wild animals. The city also plays host to major league sports teams playing every sport imaginable.
Just outside the city, one can tour Arlington National Cemetery and many other sites around Maryland and Virginia. Each time we visited the cemetery, it was a very moving experience. You can experience the Tomb Guards in their ever-vigilant watch, the Eternal Flame that watches over the grave of John F. Kennedy, and the visit the final resting places of thousands of Americans who’ve given their lives in service to the nation.
Smart Family Travel Tips
- Give yourself plenty of time. If you go to DC to see the monuments and museums, kids can quickly become overwhelmed. Just getting through the Museum of Natural History can be a major chore at the height of tourist time. These places are all free to the public and they get very crowded. Plan to arrive at the museums shortly after opening and give yourselves plenty of time at each on you plan to see. In order to truly experience the area, you should plan to spend several days there. Just getting through the museum displays could easily take a month or more! Be sure to give yourself plenty of time and expect crowds wherever you go.
- Don’t try to drive into the downtown area! Take the metro or ride a bus. It’s nearly impossible to find parking downtown and you’ll pay dearly for it if you do! We’re putting together a handy guide for using the metro and will link to it once it’s all together.
- Download the Washington DC Metro Route Map App. Available for both Android and iOS devices, this app can help you plan your route and give you step-by-step directions for getting around on the metro. You can even book an Uber ride through the app so you can load up the family and make the trip that much faster!
- Wear good shoes. Don’t try to take on DC in uncomfortable shoes! Just walking from the Capital on the east end of the National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial on the west end is a two-and-a-half-mile trek. If you decide to tour any of the museums, you can easily add lots of miles standing on granite and concrete floors.
- Pack a lunch! We learned the hard way that the National Mall area doesn’t have a lot of affordable options. We once spent over a hundred dollars feeding a family of six in the cafeteria of the Museum of American History. And we were only eating sandwiches! That was before we knew that the museums allow you to carry your own food and water into the facilities.
- These small backpacks are perfect and light enough to make the day enjoyable.
- Take your own water! Yes, you can easily find bottled water in the museum gift shops but you’re going to pay a premium for it. With all that walking, it’s a good idea for each person to haul their own water. Give everyone a small backpack and make sure they’ve got plenty to drink.
- Spend your nights outside the city. Unless you are dead set on spending your nights inside the downtown area, it’s best to grab a hotel outside the city. Rooms can be had in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and Maryland for very reasonable rates. We usually stay near Manassas and drive in to the Vienna Metro station when we’re in the area.
- Unless you are into monumental crowds, avoid the downtown area on national holidays. Tens of thousands of extra people flood into the downtown area to witness concerts and fireworks. Museums and monuments that are normally crowded on a typical summer day become unbearably hot and crowded quickly when there’s a holiday involved. Plan smart and avoid the crowds!
- Most importantly: REMEMBER TO HAVE FUN! This beautiful city offers plenty for everyone. Traveling with kids can sometimes leave you feeling overwhelmed or like they aren’t really enjoying it. Looking back on our many trips there, our kids all recall these trips with great fondness. After all, this place is famous and the sites you’ll see have lots of history and meaning behind them. Remember to slow down, enjoy the things you see, and perhaps plan to come back again sometime soon!
Washington DC is serviced by three major airports – Dulles International, Reagan National, and Baltimore-Washington International. Be aware that travel to and from Dulles International generally involves a toll road.
Amtrak services Washington DC with service from allover the country. Many tour operators also offer bus trips to the city with stops right in the heart of everything.
If you are coming in by car, Washington, DC is easily accessible along I-95 from both north and south.
Getting around on the DC Metro rail and bus lines is pretty easy and highly recommended. Metro fares are calculated by how many stops you travel and vary during peak and off-peak hours.
In order to ride the Metro, you must purchase a SmarTrip card. These are plastic, rechargeable fare cards that can be purchased by cash or credit at any Metro station or in advance onwmata.com.