We spent five fabulous days in Washington, DC without any real idea of what to expect. We thought we’d write a post that helps you know about how long to spend in some of the places we were able to visit, and what you ned to know before visiting Washington DC with kids. We felt like we only scratched the surface of all the amazing things to see in Washington D.C. and we can’t wait to visit our country’s capitol another time.
Here are a few tips on how to make the most of your stay and how to prepare before you arrive. Just click on the links to be taken to more in depth information on each venue. We also included our itinerary at the bottom, so you can see how we divided up our days. If you have any questions, send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
First of all, we didn’t use the metro, we rented a car. There are plenty of places to park in Washington, DC, but none of them are free. There are also limited street parking spots, so we plan on parking in a garage. Just think about how all the museums and sites are free and paying for the parking seems like a bargain! Many of the parking garages allow you to reserve a spot ahead of time so you are guaranteed a place for your vehicle.
We chose to park at the Ronald Reagan building, which had plenty of spots and was in a good location. Luckily, the National Mall is pretty compact, and it isn’t difficult to walk to most of the sites while leaving the car in one place. A car also allows you a place to leave lunch, jackets, and other items locked up. Expect to go through security including opening the trunk to park.
Most people who visit Washington D.C. use the Metro. It is very accessible and takes you to all the places that you need to go. If you stay downtown, then we would recommend using public transportation instead of spending the expense on a car. This is obviously personal preference, but everyone told us how safe and easy the Metro was to use.
Expect to go through security a lot! Virtually every building has airport-like security. Your bag will be probed and you’ll walk through a metal detector. Leave anything resembling a weapon at home. When we were in DC, the waits weren’t too bad for security, but plan ten minutes to get into any building, much more if you are visiting in the peak season.
Before you visit, check each site’s visitor policies. Some places don’t allow cameras or strollers. Others don’t allow any food or drink. Some sites have lockers where you can store items, but most don’t, so you wouldn’t want to have to throw away any prohibited items. We looked on all the websites beforehand so we were prepared with the appropriate things.
Some places require tickets beforehand, namely the White House and the Capitol Tour. These tickets need to be requested through your Senator or your Congressman. All of the sites run by the government or the Smithsonian along the National Mall are FREE, and most don’t require tickets ahead of time.
We are big hikers, but our feet were so tired after each of our long days spent in Washington DC. Come prepared with good shoes, a stroller if you have young ones, and a plan of when to take breaks. I had to remind my husband a few times that we had to plan things for the children to enjoy, too! The zoo or a park were good children friendly stops.
What to See
Sights on the National Mall
Our favorite site in DC was Ford’s Theater. You’ll spend around two hours walking through the amazing museum, visiting the theater, and crossing the street to where Abraham Lincoln died. This site is close to the White House and the Reagan parking area described above. Make sure to do the Junior Ranger program, too.
We may have spent a lot longer in the National Archives if we hadn’t had little kids. An hour is plenty, because they don’t understand much of the historical significance of the items. That said, make sure to see the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence with your children. Then view the Emancipation Proclamation. You can see these things in about an hour. Anything you can say beforehand to help your kids undersand these documents will make the trip a little better. They are great conversation starters, too.
Our kids weren’t as interested in the guided tour of the Capitol Building as we had hoped. It was a little too long for them. We booked a tour through our Congresswoman’s office, but there are also tours run by the Capitol Building. Either way, you see about the same stuff. The tour from security to the end is about two hours. It’s a great way to see the Capitol, but it is long and footsore. We loved this building, but it was busy and there were lots of people, which discouraged our kids.
The US Supreme Court can be seen in an hour. It also opens earlier than most things, so it’s a good place to start the day. Pair it with the Capitol as they are just across the street from one another. Hopefully the court will be in session when you are there so you can peek in for a few minutes.
The White House Tour requires a ticket that you must get before you arrive. The tour is go at your own pace, but plan to take an hour and a half to two hours. Most of this time will be spent in line outside the building, even though you have timed tickets. The tour is totally worth it, even for little ones. Our youngest understood that this was where the President lived and worked.
Two hours in the Air and Space Museum is a whirlwind tour, so you may plan more time, particularly if you’d like to let your kids play in the kids zone. In any of the Smithsonian Museums, you have to be choosy and know you’re not going to see everything.
You could wander in the Natural History Museum for weeks and not see everything. Two to three hours won’t be enough time. Make sure to see the giant squid and the rock collection including the Hope Diamond. Kids love this museum for the animals and science.
If I had my way, I’d spend three hours a day in the National Gallery for a month. That might be enough time to see everything. Kids will probably do around two hours depending on your love and enthusiasm for art. Be sure to talk about naked people before you go in, because it will definitely come up! We picked our favorite artists and visited their areas and this helped our kids enjoy the National Gallery of Art.
Visit the monuments on the west end of the Mall in the evening. This gives two advantages. First, the monuments are lit, which is really beautiful. Second, everything closes down in DC at around 5 pm, so you can’t visit most places anyway. But the monuments are open 24 hours a day. After dinner is the perfect time to take a walking tour of the National Monuments. Be sure to click the link for a perfect walking route!
Arlington sits across the river from the National Mall but is fairly close. You could walk or take public transportation. Depending on what you want to see, two to three hours is enough in Arlington. Don’t miss the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Be early! The Kennedy gravesite and the Marine Corp Memorial take up more time than you think, particularly if you are walking.
Sights outside of the National Mall
The National Zoo is close to downtown, but you won’t want to walk from the White House to the National Zoo. Take public transportation or drive. Surprisingly, the National Zoo won’t take more than three hours unless you go at a snail’s pace. We decided that we’d take an hour to see the pandas because they are a rare sighting. This zoo has a lot of fun animals, and the kids will love it. If you have a great zoo near you at home, then don’t spend too much time when you could spend it visiting something you don’t have back home.
This was one spot that we ran out of time for. We stopped by on our way out of town, but the cathedral was already closed for the evening. There was a church service going on, so we could look around a little bit, but it wasn’t the same if we had arrived with enough time to take a tour. This cathedral is beautiful, so we think it’s worth at least a drive by. Many Presidents have had their funerals conducted in the National Cathedral.
Mount Vernon is a minimum of a half day, and we’d recommend a full day. There is a museum, sprawling grounds, the gravesite, and the mansion to visit. Bring your good walking shoes on this one. The grounds are beautiful and worth all the time spent exploring them. Mount Vernon is about 30 minutes from the National Mall. Tickets in advance are a good idea on a busy day.
We liked the Air and Space Museum near the airport better than the one downtown. Two and a half to three hours gives you enough time to see most of the museum, which kids will love! There are so many different aircraft in this huge museum! Make sure to pick up the scavenger hunt for kids at the Welcome Desk. The National Air and Space Museum at Dulles (Udvar-Hazy Center) is about an hour outside of downtown Washington D.C.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has a beautiful temple outside of DC in Maryland. The temple is not open for everyone, but they the amazing Visitor Center is. You’ll find fun exhibits and great information about the temple. We enjoyed talking with the workers in the Visitor Center and they gave us tips on fun places to go, too.
Way out of Downtown DC
We spent one day outside of the city and visited Shenandoah National Park and Luray Caverns. We loved every second of the beauty that was in these two spots, and we recommend visiting if you can squeeze it into your schedule (and if you have access to a car.) They are about 2 hours outside of the city. We also visited the Air and Space Museum that is out by the Dulles airport (Udvar-Hazy Center) this day since we were on that side of DC.
Remember to click the links for full info on the above sites, and enjoy your time exploring the Nation’s Capital!