I’ve experienced DC both as a child and a dad for the past 40 years. Like many, I’ve found the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia) to be a great place to tour with kids. For one thing, DC has the highest concentration of National Parks and free museums in the nation. And because all those museums and parks get their funding based on foot traffic, they are endlessly grappling with each other to pull in their share of the more than 20 million tourists who visit Washington, DC every year.
In this post, I’ll start with the basics: how to get here and where to eat and stay. Next I’ll list the top attractions that should be on everyone’s itinerary. Finally, I’ll outline a rough calendar of the festivals and big events that draw crowds throughout the year.
Our museums and parks attract visitors in a number of ways, from constantly rotating exhibits to live demonstrations. The lesser-known attractions also contribute to the dozens of free events that happen each day in Washington, DC, many of which are unknown to tourists. These events are what make DC stand out from the crowd. If you’re willing to do a bit of research and go off the beaten path, you’ll be rewarded with an intimate glimpse of celebrities, politicians, scientists and even spies.
Traveling to Washington, DC
If you must bring your car, keep in mind that DC has some of the worst traffic in the nation. And if you’re lucky enough to miss rush hour, prepare to pay upwards of $30 a day to park. You should also be aware that speeding tickets from tourists constitute a significant source of revenue for DC, MD and VA, so pay special attention in those jurisdictions, particularly along 395 and on the 110 in Virginia.
Mornings are the one time when driving downtown is tolerable. Because most of the museums open at 10a on Saturday and Sunday, you can find street parking if you arrive before 9:50a.
Getting around without a car is easy: DC’s metro rail is cleaner, more kid-friendly and easier to navigate than most city subways. Because our first city planner envisioned a latticework of broad avenues, sidewalks and trails, DC is also a wonderfully walkable city. Finally, with the plethora of bikeshare options, you’ll have no trouble getting to even the doziest backwaters of the city without a car.
Arriving by train
If you’re within driving distance, consider taking the train. Residents of close-in cities like Baltimore and Frederick can get here on commuter rail (VRE or MARC) for less than $10. Further afield, you’ll need to book through Amtrak, which sometimes offers NY fares under $100 on the Northeast Regional.
Best of all, kids love trains! My son will never forget the time he was offered preferential boarding and got a young conductor’s kit (hat and coloring book) on a recent trip to New York. All trains come in to Union Station (see above), which is just steps from the US Capitol, National Mall, and Smithsonian Museums. The Union Station metro stop (Red Line) will get you to the rest of the city.
Flying into DCA, IAD and (eek!) BWI
Three airports service Washington, DC. The easiest is Raegan National Airport (DCA) which is directly across the river and connects to downtown on both the yellow and blue lines. Although Dulles International Airport (IAD) is not likely to have metro service until the Summer of 2020, Washington Flyer offers bus service to the silver line for about $5 each way. Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) is the least convenient option, but also offers the cheapest fares. Keep in mind, though, that an Uber from BWI to downtown will cost you $60 – $80, vs. $20 – $30 from IAD or DCA.
Where to stay in DC
We’re good with any hotel with a separate sleep area for our kids and a pool. There are two Embassy Suites in DC, the nicest one is in Georgetown, but the one by the Convention Center is closer to the museums. Expect to pay around $300 for a suite.
If you’re happy to share a room with your kids and don’t need a pool, consider The Tabard Inn. Located a few blocks from DuPont Circle Metro, The Tabard is convenient to downtown, but never feels like a tourist trap. It also features a charming restaurant and a cozy lounge that always has a roaring fire. Rooms are spacious, but have the sophisticated charm of a decent B&B, and they’ll only run you about $200 a night.
Dining: My Top Ten
The food options on the Mall are dismal. By far the best is the cafeteria at the American Indian Museum, but be prepared to pay $70 and up to feed a family of four. The restaurants are considerably better in nearby Chinatown, home of the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Beyond the many Asian restaurants (Daikaya, China Boy, Full Kee and Eat First), there are a number of kid-friendly options (Matchbox pizza and Fuddrucker’s burgers are both an easy walk from Chinatown metro).
Local Favorites: The real food adventures begin when you move beyond City Center. Although you can please the kids at tourist favorites like Clyde’s and Founding Farmers (which is so bad I’m not even going to put it in bold), you’re likely to feel ripped off when you see what they charged you for your mediocre meal. So this top ten list will look nothing like the recommendations from, say, TripAdvisor. Sorry to disappoint those who are looking for Ben’s Chili Bowl, but this foodie doesn’t eat hot dogs.
- Best Steakhouse – When President Obama made his first visit to Ray’s Hellburger, it became an overnight sensation. But the original Ray’s is the real favorite with locals. Ray’s the Steaks makes the best steaks in the area, and getting a reservation isn’t too hard if you call a week in advance.
- Best Seafood – Unless you’re willing to drive 40 minutes to get the real deal in Annapolis, Black Salt is the freshest seafood around. Kids will ignore the elegant surroundings if you remind them that it’s the only restaurant in town that lets you park on the roof.
- Best Pho – Eden Center, near the westerly point of the old DC diamond, is our Little Saigon. I’ll let you find your own favorite among the dozens of authentic Vietnamese eateries, but Rice Paper wins the popularity contest.
- Best Korean BBQ – Located in Annandale, the Seoul of Northern Virginia (sorry), Nak Won is the place to take your visiting Oma when she’s craving the real deal.
- Best Ethiopian – DC has a huge Ethiopian restaurant scene, but Meaza is the local favorite. It also lies along Columbia Pike, which is Northern Virginia’s culinary corridor. Columbia Pike is also known for its many Chinese and Central / South American eateries.
- Best “authentic comfort foods from Spain” – SER (near Ballston Metro) has the best Oysters in DC, but it is best known for its tiny plates of Spanish delicacies. Kids will enjoy the Sunday morning brunch, where the chef leads a kids cooking challenge.
- Best American – The Hamilton is great for kids because it’s huge and you can always find a seat. There’s also a snack plate with veggies and PB&J that will keep the little ones happy while you enjoy more adventurous options like Sushi.
- Best Food Court – Union Market is on the site of the old freight unloading yard, just northwest of Union Station (and not metro quite walking distance for little ones). Trains would unload their cargos of food from around the world and local restauranteurs would come to stock up. It remains the wholesale food center for DC, but Union Market has been converted to retail.
- Best Food Truck – My kids insist that Ninjas with Appetite is the best, but you may want to find your own favorite. Food trucks line up in Farragut Square every weekday at lunch time. The north side of Union Station is another popular place to find a wide selection of food trucks.
- All around kid favorite – It’s a toss-up between Dupont Circle’s Buca di Beppo (my favorite) and Sushi Zen (my kid’s favorite). Since they’re in charge of this post, I’ll cede the ground to Sushi Zen, but keep in mind that it’s weirdly closed on Sunday and unless you get there right at noon on Saturday, you won’t find a parking spot in the Lee Harrison shopping center. Buca, at least, is metro accessible.
Things to do in DC
With so many attractions, it’s no wonder that DC is the sixth most frequented tourist destination in the US. Below are the must-see places, as well as some quirky destinations that will make your visit different from all the rest:
- Natural History Museum – Free. Across the mall from the Smithsonian metro station. If you’ve never done the Smithsonian before, this is the place to begin. Don’t miss Q?rius (even if you don’t have kids, this is a must). There you’ll find a modern take on the 19th century concept of a Cabinet of Curiosities. All artifacts can be handled and explored by visitors (though some require staff assistance due to their fragility). Kids will also enjoy the IMAX shows and many immersive exhibits showcasing the greatest treasures ever amassed by the Smithsonian Institution.
- The Udvar-Hazy Center of the Air & Space Museum is well-worth the half-hour drive from DC. The original Air & Space on the mall is getting a bit long in the tooth (and is up for much-needed renovations this year)
- National Museum of African-American Culture and History – Because this is the Smithsonian’s newest museum, you need to secure an entry time by going online. The small exhibit on lynching is not appropriate for kids, but you can avoid it by sticking to the upper floors.
- National Zoo – Free. Not as good as the Baltimore Zoo, but did I mention that it’s free? Up Connecticut Avenue across from the Zoo metro stop, but locals take Beach Drive to the back lot.
- United States Botanical Garden – Free. Next to the US Capitol and owned by congress, this is one place in DC that always feels like a tropical paradise!
- National Postal Museum – Free. This is the closest thing DC has to a children’s museum. Kids can climb into giant trucks, trains and 19th century coaches. There are also a number of mail sorting games and an indian trail that helps you imagine what it must have been like to deliver mail in colonial times. Next to Union Station.
- Hirshhorn – Free. Kids love the videos in the basement, but look out for signs warning you of content not appropriate for all audiences. There are also a number of free programs for kids on weekends. On the mall.
- Sackler / Freer – Free. On the mall.
- National Art Gallery – Free. On the mall.
- National History Museum – Free. On the mall.
- Renwick – Free. Our mini MOMA is right next to the White House
- National Portrait Gallery / American Art Museum – Free. Doesn’t open until 11:30 on Sundays.
- Library of Congress – Also owned by congress, the library doesn’t close when politicians play games. The Jefferson room is a can’t miss, and there are also many fantastic artifacts on display in the main hall.
- National Geographic Society Museum – $15 for adult admission, $10 for kids.
- Folger Shakespeare Museum – Although many come to see the largest collection of First Folios in the world, the sumptuous architecture of the Folger gallery houses a shrine to antiquarian books of all stripes. Also of interest are the many free performances (with a special kids program some Saturday mornings)
- US Supreme Court hearings – You’ll want the kid-friendly “three minute” line, which will whisk you through the court with just three minutes to hear an argument. The court is only in session M-W from October through April. Arrive at 9:30 for the 10a seating and bring quarters so you can store your cellphone in a locker (you won’t be able to bring it into the court).
- Off-hours at the Zoo – Few people realize that the National Zoo opens MUCH earlier than the rest of DC. If you arrive at 8a, you can park at the best lot and have the zoo completely to yourself.
- Hillwood Museum – This is the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, owner of General Mills. The grounds are fabulous in the Spring, and well worth the $18pp admission.
- Franciscan Monastery – The Washington Post recently called this “the original biblical theme park” for it’s replicas of a number of important shrines in the Holy Land . When we visited it, our guide called it “the pregame show” for your pilgrimage.
Ongoing events: There are a number of regular free events that happen throughout the year, such as The Millennium Stage, which features free concerts at the Kennedy Center every Friday night at 6:30p. And at 9:30a Saturday, The National Theater offers a free kids performance back-stage.
Spring: The National Cherry Blossom Festival – Peak Bloom usually happens in late March or early April. But it’s packed down by the mall, so consider enjoying the blossoms along the Potomac, or in the many neighborhoods around DC. Speaking of blooms, April is also a good time to enjoy the bluebells along Riverbend Park in Virginia.
Summer: DC is hot and packed with tourists in the summer, so this is a good time to explore places beyond the mall (though the air-conditioned and often scarcely populated National Art Gallery is a rare sanctuary). If you’re there in late June, don’t miss the Lotus and Water Lily Festival at Kenilworth Gardens. Mid-late July is the time to enjoy the sunflower bloom at McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area. Summer is also when the sculpture garden opens up for free Jazz concerts every Friday night.
Autumn: The many fall festivals in the neighboring farms make DC a can’t miss destination in the Fall.
Winter: Ice Skating in the sculpture garden at The National Gallery of Art is a must, and because tourist season is over at this point, you can generally find parking right out front, even on weekends.
- Going Out Guide Staff, “14 spots in DC that are off the beaten path“, The Washington Post, October, 2019.