When considering Washington, DC for your next family vacation, you might think of the White House, government buildings, and droves of tourists but DC is so much more than that. With its historic monuments, eccentric art culture, and great food Washington, DC has a lot to offer vacationing families.
Why Visit DC with your Family
Washington, DC (DC to locals) is the capital of the United States. Everyone is encouraged to visit DC at least once in their life because not only is it home to America’s politics, but it’s also cultural, diverse, and a beautiful city. DC is full of great international food street festivals, and so much more.
How to get to DC
DC has three airports, making it very accessible to get into the city from anywhere in the country and at any time of day. The three airports include Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA), Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), and Dulles International Airport (IAD). DCA is the closest to the city. It’s only a 20-minute metro ride or 15-minute car ride, whereas the other two airports are a bit further away. Regardless of which airport you choose, Skyscanner is our go-to resource for finding the best airfare!
Another option is to take a train or bus to Union Station and then ride the metro to your desired destination. Almost all major bus operations stop at Union Station so this is option is easy if you don’t live too far from DC. Some options include the Greyhound bus system or the Amtrak train.
Getting Around DC
If you’d like to rent a car to get around, we love finding deals on rentalcars.com. But if you’re staying in the city, you really don’t need to rent a car. Most of the most popular monuments are easily accessible by foot but pack comfortable shoes because there will be a lot of walking involved. Besides walking, the second-best option to get around the city is to take public transportation. It’s easy to navigate the DC Metro (WMATA) system of trains and buses. There are Metro maps in every station to help you figure out where to get on and off. A fun option is to partake in a bike-share service. There are metro stations located throughout the city where you can grab a bike for the day and return it to another location for cheap.
Pro-Tip: If you’re planning to stand (and not walk) on DC Metro escalators, always stand to the right in order to allow people to pass you on the left.
Here are our top 10 Things to do in DC for families:
1.) Spend a Day at the Smithsonian Museums
All of the Smithsonian museums and the zoo in DC were closed during most of the pandemic. Seven of the museums and the National Zoo are slated to reopen on Friday, May 21, 2021. The Smithsonian Institution has more than 19 museums and a zoo in DC. Millions of people from across the globe visit these iconic museums that line the National Mall each year.
Once everything is open, many of the museums will require that visitors secure free timed-entry passes. It’s best to decide which museums are at the top of your list and then hop online to get your passes. There are some amazing museums to choose from. Our favorites are the Blacksonian, also known as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Air and Space Museum, and the National Zoo. There are many other great options.
Pro-Tip: Since it’s easy to lose track of time while enjoying the many exhibits housed in the museums, visit them in the morning to avoid crowds and to preserve the rest of your day.
2. DC Monuments
Like the museums in DC, monuments are a major draw to visitors. There are hop-on, hop-off bus, and trolley tours you can take during the day. These services allow you to spend as much or as little time at each monument before jumping on the next bus. To beat the crowds, visit the monuments at night when there are much fewer crowds. There’s something magical about viewing these historical structures when they’ve been illuminated by spotlights against the night sky is a sight to behold. There are electric car tours that you can book that will take you to see the major monuments at night. There are many popular monuments to experience but some great ones include the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Pro-Tip: For a truly spectacular monument experience, get up early (really early) and watch the sunrise over the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
3. Visit a Local DC Park
Rock Creek Park is a 1,754-acre national park located in the heart of DC. This verdant space is an oasis for anyone seeking to escape from the city and enjoy nature. It’s perfect for some light hiking and to wind down for a bit outside of the hustle and bustle. The U.S. National Arboretum, in northeast DC, is a 400-plus-acre garden filled with beautiful trees, plants, and flowers. This park has lovely walking paths that you can meander while
Finally, Meridian Hill Park (Malcolm X Park to locals) located in the Columbia Heights neighborhood is another great spot to have a picnic, toss a frisbee around or enjoy its beautiful cascading fountains.
Pro-tip: Every Sunday at 3 pm (during the warm months), Malcolm X Park Drum Circle gathers in the park and plays their percussion instrument of choice. The area fills with people who sit and listen to the music while artists dance, juggle, hula hoop, and more.
4. Watch a Performance at the Kennedy Center
The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts is a live memorial to honor the late president. Its mission is to share the passion for music, opera, dance, and other art forms. The Kennedy Center aims to represent art from all over the U.S. as well as other countries in an exquisite building with amazing shows.
Pro-tip: Get to the Kennedy Center early and head to the terrace to treat yourself to breathtakingly beautiful views of the Potomac River.
5. Enjoy a Day Along the Potomac River
Another great activity is to grab lunch or dinner near the Potomac River in Georgetown. You can spend some time wandering around the oldest neighborhood in DC. The District Wharf is another spot to get some much-needed by-the-water time. You can stroll along the pier, rent a kayak, or attend a show at The Anthem. There are great boat tour options that provide a unique perspective and viewpoint of DC. Some of these boat tours even serve have food on deck.
Pro-tip: Although, it’s technically located in nearby Maryland, the National Harbor is also a great spot to hang out along the Potomac River. It’s a 350-acre waterfront strip with loads of stores and restaurants. It’s also home to the Capital Wheel, a 180-foot Ferris wheel that provides a wonderful view of the city.
6. Explore the DC National Mall
At the center of most DC attractions in DC is the National Mall. It’s a long grassy area, great for hanging out and enjoying the surrounding scenery. It’s flanked by museums and monuments as well as the U.S. Capitol Building on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other. You could easily spend an entire day in this area and not even see everything.
7. Take a Walking Tour Through the City
DC is filled with cool and eclectic neighborhoods filled with history. There are a number of walking tours that provide insight into what made DC the cultural melting pot it is and how being the seat of the federal government has shaped the area.
Pro-Tip: If you’re interested in learning how DC’s long-time moniker, Chocolate City came about, take the African American Heritage Walking Tour of the U Street neighborhood.
8. Enjoy a Scrumptious Meal at Union Market
Eat your way around Union Market, a food hall in northeast DC that’s teeming with flavor. The indoor market is brimming with street-food-style stalls from all over the globe. The food I’ve sampled was mouthwateringly delicious but also pricey. So, bring your appetite and your wallet.
Pro-tip: If the weather permits head to Hi-Lawn, a sitting area on the rooftop to eat your meal while enjoying panoramic views of the city.
9. Walk or Kayak along the C&O Canal
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O Canal) is 184 miles of trails and pathways that stretch from DC to Cumberland, Maryland. The 100-year-old canal was used to transport coal. Today, the canal is a national park that’s as popular for its history as it is for its meandering trails great for jogging and cycling.
Pro-tip: If you pick up the C&O Canal in Georgetown and have time to spare, go on a self-guided walking tour of the neighborhood. The Georgetown African American Heritage Tour is a great way to learn about the neighborhood and early DC.
10. Become a Spy for a Day
Spend a day learning all about espionage at the International Spy Museum. The museum boasts of having the largest collection of spy artifacts on public display. At the start of the museum experience, visitors will get an undercover identity and covert mission that will be completed by collecting information during their visit. At the end of the self-guided tour, participants will receive feedback on how they did on their mission. Some of the concepts can be a bit difficult for small children but there are a few hands-on displays that my young children loved. This museum is not part of the Smithsonian which means there’s an entrance fee but I think it’s worth it.
Pro-Tip: If you’re visiting with little ones, you might want to skip the Interrogation exhibit which covers topics such as torture. The exhibit is marked with yellow “caution” tape.
Best Places for Families to Stay in Washington, DC
There are many hotels, Airbnb, and hostel accommodations throughout DC depending on your lifestyle and budget. Here are some of the best places to stay in the city.
- Hilton, Capitol Hill compare prices on booking.com. See reviews on tripadvisor.
- Hyatt Place, White House – compare prices on booking.com. See reviews on tripadvisor.
- Ritz Carlton, Georgetown – compare prices on booking.com.
If you don’t mind being further out of the city to save some money, public transportation makes it quick and easy to get in and out.
Washington, DC is a beautiful city filled with museums, artifacts, and monuments but there’s of the US but it’s so much more than that. It’s a lively city that’ll leave families with great memories. It’s well worth the visit.
I really liked what you said about walking the C&O canal with kids in DC. I’m taking my kids to DC on a history trip for their homeschool. I’m hoping we can take a few scheduled tours as well.
Thank you! Georgetown is really a fun neighborhood for families. If you’re near the C&O Canal, be sure to take the kiddos to Georgetown Waterfront Park. My kids love to run through the water sprinkler and sit along the River stairs.