Family Travel Survival Guide: Washington, DC

Activities & Attractions
Lobby of the National Museum of Natural History
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: The lobby of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (courtesy, the Smithsonian Institution)

Tours

Take a joy ride as you tour the town. Not only is a sightseeing tour a great way to get an overview of the city, the interesting modes of transport available will thrill the whole family. Ride high on an open-top double-decker bus that lets you hop on and off when you want to explore. Or, take to an amphibious vehicle on a boat tour with DC Ducks. These restored 1942 vessels cruise around the Mall then waddle into the Potomac for river ride. If you'd rather roll on two wheels, hop on a bike or the latest tourist fad, the City Segway Tours. While children must be 16 or older to ride a Segway, kids of all ages can join a bike trip with Bike the Sites (those under four-feet-six-inches need to ride behind a parent or in a trailer). Of course, if you want to keep both feet on the ground, you can opt for a walking tour. You'll cover a smaller area, but can linger at the stops a little longer. DC also has tours that cater to its own unique character like the Scandal Tour, which profiles places where dirty side politics went down, as well as self-guided heritage walks organized by the Cultural Tourism Office that cover less touristy neighborhoods in DC. Good for kids over the age of 13.

THE SMITHSONIAN
Without kids, it would be ambitious to attempt to visit all 18 museums and the National Zoo, which comprise the Smithsonian, in one trip. With kids, it would be downright ridiculous. Luckily, some venues cater more to the younger set, with interactive exhibits, Imax movies, and stuff that's just totally cool for kids. Even better: Admission everywhere is free.

National Air and Space Museum: This museum is nothing short of fascinating with a collection so vast they recently opened an annex out in Virginia. The site on the National Mall showcases aviation's stars; the main hall is adorned, literally, from floor to ceiling with notable artifacts of flight, including The Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, and lunar rocks that you're actually encouraged to touch. When your neck is sore from craning to look up at all of the air and space crafts, go airborne (virtually) on a simulated flight or get a 3D view as you take in an Imax film or planetarium show. And if all that doesn't fill your family's aeronautical fix there's that massive Virginia annex, the Steve F. Udvar-Hazy Center, with literally hundreds of items on display. The site is about 45 minutes from DC in Chantilly, VA, just minutes from Dulles Airport. A car or careful planning with a variety of public transport systems is necessary to get there. Refer to the National Air and Space Museum website for additional information.

National Museum of Natural History: From the moment your kids spy the enormous African elephant in the spacious rotunda, they'll be captivated—and that's just a small introduction to the museum's collections. Budding archaeologists will love the Dinosaur Hall, where reconstructed skeletons of the colossal beasts steal the show. If your kids prefer living exhibits, head to the Insect Zoo, where scads of bugs crawl behind glass cases and, sometimes, out in the open (handled by staff, of course). If you time it right, you may catch a tarantula feeding. And if your creature comforts don't include actual creatures, The Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals showcases some of the world's most precious stones, including the famous Hope Diamond. For a hands-on experience, don't miss The Discovery Room. Here, kids can view real fossils under a microscope, play dress-up in clothes from around the world, and touch the skin of an alligator, among other interactive activities.

National Museum of American History: Here's a chance for the kids to glimpse a few relics from your own childhood. Everything from iconic objects of the big and small screens (Dorothy's ruby red slippers, Archie and Edith Bunker's chairs, and Mister Rogers' sweater) to famous sports paraphernalia (Mohammed Ali's gloves, Bob Cousy's jersey, and Arthur Ashe's tennis racket) are housed here, along with plenty of other grand mementos from America's cultural past. Young fashionistas will enjoy the display of First Ladies' gowns, while music fanatics will gain a new appreciation for their iPods when they check out old phonographs. NOTE: The museum is currently undergoing extensive renovations and is slated to reopen in the fall of 2008.

U.S. Botanical Gardens: This amazing collection of over 4,000 plants may not seem like an obvious attraction for the kids, but parents visiting with young tots during the summer shouldn't miss it. The Children's Garden, located in the courtyard, lets little ones to flex their green thumbs by providing small plants and gardening tools and encouraging their use. A playhouse and water pump are also part of the agri-fun.

The National Zoo: DC is well known as an international city, and that doesn't stop with the wildlife. Animals from all parts of the world can be seen here—giant pandas, elephants, monkeys, tigers, and even aquatic mammals. The park covers a lot of ground, so be sure to bring a stroller for young tots. Special activities and events for kids are always taking place—check the National Zoo website for additional information. The zoo also rests a bit beyond the typical tourist radar, in the upper-Northwest neighborhood of Woodley Park; it can make a nice break from the Mall.

International Spy Museum
Young sleuths-in-training and anyone fascinated by history, conspiracy theories, and James Bond will thoroughly enjoy the International Spy Museum. This glimpse into the world of espionage includes a comprehensive history of famous spies and undercover operations, interactive games that test your own observational abilities, and displays of actual spy gadgetry (think pigeon cameras, recording bugs, and invisible ink). Fans of 007 will especially love the replica of James Bond's Aston Martin. Children 12 and older shouldn't miss the Operation Spy experience. This live-action adventure challenges participating "secret agents" to locate a missing nuclear trigger by using their new spy skills. Note: This is one of the few DC-area museums that charge an entry fee.

National Building Museum
Even if your kids don't marvel at the magnificent Great Hall as you certainly will, they will still find plenty to enjoy at this museum dedicated to architecture and development. Toddlers can dress up in construction gear and get to work in The Building Zone. Toy tool benches and trucks, a play rock quarry, building blocks, and large, soft Legos wait for little builders. There's plenty for children beyond the toddler stage, too—erect an arch out of big, soft blocks or pick up a $5 family tool kit for a variety of activities to entertain the whole family.

Washington Nationals
Cheer on the newest member of DC's sports roster—the Washington Nationals. The opening of an eco-friendly Nationals Park in early 2008 has put baseball on the must-do line-up. The state-of-the-art stadium offers more than just a view of the game; the U.S. Capitol and other parts of the city are also visible from the upper-deck seating. When young kids get antsy, take them to the huge playground on the north side of the stadium. Situate yourself just right, and you can watch your kids and the game at the same time. If you happen to go on a Sunday, be sure ask about Kids Run the Bases—at select games, kids ages four to 12 are encouraged to loop the infield after the last out of the game.


Linda Samuel is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Published: 13 Jun 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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