Tips for Family Travel to Washington DC

Categories: Explore, Travel

Planning a family trip to Washington, DC?  On the long list of bucket list family trips, a trip to the Nation’s capital is a no-brainer. With so much history, wonderful museums, and learning opportunities a trip to DC is an ideal family trip but what should you put on the “must see” list.  I enlisted the help of my friend and fellow journalist Tara Dix Osborne to tell me all about her recent trip to DC with her three kids (she drove from Chicago). What an adventure!  Here goes….

Why did you choose the first place?

First, I am a political junkie, and when I’m in Washington, I feel like I’m a part of it all, like I’m a mover or a shaker or maybe even both. There is an energy of influence and power. Big things are happening there that affect people all over our country and world. While we were there, a dramatic showdown unfolded in Congress over the healthcare bill in which the Senate was in session into the wee hours of the morning, and I could not get enough of the drama! 20 years ago, I was actually (briefly) a part of the political system when I spent a summer as an intern for U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. I was a junior in college, it was Durbin’s first term, and I loved every minute of that job. This summer, I wanted to show my kids where I worked, the apartment building I lived in, and all that nostalgic stuff. 

Second, Washington, D.C. is one of the most beautiful cities in the whole world. The architecture and greenspace are integrated so beautifully. And at night, I challenge anyone to find a scene more majestic than standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream’ speech, you can look west, up into the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, east to the Reflecting Pool, Washington Monument, and Capitol building, and southwest to the Tidal basin and Thomas Jefferson Memorial. I love places with rich history. I love imagining what took place in the past on the very spot that I’m standing.  IMG_3169

The Osbornes take DC!!

The Osbornes take DC!!

  How did you get there and any tips for getting there easier and cheaper?

We drove. For this particular trip, having our own car worked best because we incorporated visits to several other family and friends in Ohio and Virginia. If we were exclusively visiting Washington, D.C., I think flying would have been slightly more expensive, but the public transportation in D.C. is so easy that we could have done without a car while in the city. Since we did have a car, parking in the city was a concern. Like most cities, parking in D.C. is extremely expensive. The hotel we stayed at would have charged $69 per night just to park our car there, so instead I booked parking on the Parking Panda app, bringing the cost down to $21 per night at a garage one block away from our hotel. Because I knew we’d be using public transportation or our own legs to get to most of our destinations, it worked well to just leave the car in the garage all day.

 What was your itinerary? And how did you have to change it while traveling?

We had four days in the city, and there is so much to see. So I narrowed down the list to sites that would be easy to get to and age-appropriate for my 5, 7, and 9 year old. I knew we needed to incorporate a lot of time for running free and letting off steam, so I purposefully kept our days light on lengthy planned activities. The must-see list for us included: 1) seeing the many beautiful memorials at night, 2) Ford’s Theatre (we are Lincoln fanatics), 3) National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence, 4) National Zoo to see the pandas, and 5) Capitol building to see where Mom used to work. For all of these except the memorials and zoo, you can reserve a visit time online in advance for a small fee, which is totally worth it to skip waiting in a long line with kids in the heat.

For the memorials, we booked a “Monuments by Moonlight” tour on a double-decker Old Town Trolley, which made it so much easier than driving ourselves. It was about 3 hours total, and made 3 stops for about 20 minutes each. And for the Capitol building, you can arrange a tour through your Congressperson or Senator. Just go to his/her website and find the link. You can also request White House tours this way.

When traveling with kids, you have to be flexible, so I basically had loose outlines of each day, centered around one or two scheduled activities. It can be hard to predict which places your kids will really love and which ones they’ll say, “Meh.” For example, I was not sure how our visit to Ford’s Theatre would go, but we ended up spending a solid three hours there, because the kids were really into it. We even asked permission to go back to the lower-level museum section when our tour time was up because we hadn’t seen everything yet. On the other hand, I thought they would be totally jazzed to see the real life Declaration of Independence, but they were like, “You can’t read it,” and “I thought it would be bigger.” [Insert fizzle sound-effect here.]

Moonlight Monument Tour

Moonlight Monument Tour

What is the best advice you can offer for traveling to D.C. with kids?

1)      Number one rule of traveling with kids is: You have to know when to call it a day. It might be tempting to push through and see everything there is to see, but you’ll pay for it later in bad behavior. One afternoon I had planned a stop at the National Museum of Natural History to see the Hope Diamond, but the kids were getting cranky, so we cancelled that, went back to our hotel, and told the kids if they wanted to go to the pool they had to sit quietly and rest for 30 minutes. My kids will do anything to go swimming, so they rested like little champs and then hit the pool.

2)      One of the most spectacular things about D.C. is that all the Smithsonian Museums and most of the federal and historical sites are free! This makes a huge difference when traveling with kids, not only for the financial savings, but in the freedom to pop in for just 20 minutes to see one thing if you want, instead of spending a whole day in one museum. I find that when I have paid $25 per person for us to visit a museum, I often feel obligated to “get our money’s worth” and stay for hours. “You will look at this art and you will have fun!” I scream at my children as they melt into pools of boredom on the museum floor. “Learning is fun! And anyone who says it’s not will go to timeout!”

3)      After a visit to a museum or learning experience, find a green space where the kids can just run and be silly and loud. This is also a great time for a snack break or even a popsicle or ice cream.

Favorite part of the trip?

The moonlight monuments tour was the best of the tourist attractions we experienced. But the real best moment, the one I’ll never forget, is when we got caught in a torrential downpour outside the Capitol Building, nearly drown in a sunken garden building, and then made a mad dash to our car in a parking garage four blocks away. We were laughing so hard!

As we finished our tour of the Capitol Building, our plan was to stroll up and down the east end of the National Mall. It was drizzling, but we were not afraid. So we started walking and made it to the west front of the Capitol, where you can see all the way down the National Mall, when it really started to pour. There is a gorgeous little spot called the Summer House on the West Lawn that is a small hexagonal building with a partial roof, a beautiful fountain in the middle and sunken gardens all around with benches to sit on. We ran in there to sit under the covered portion and wait out the rain. Well, this particular building is at a lower elevation than its surrounding lawn, with steps leading down on all sides, and we quickly realized that all the rain water pouring from the sky was draining down the hill right into the Summer House. Water started to pool around the fountain. The kids were still having fun, dashing from the protection of the roof into the middle where they would sing and dance and then run back under the roof. I noticed that when Addie ran to the middle, the water was up to her ankles. “It’s not draining,” I said to my husband, “We gotta get out of here!” Just then our phones’ alarms went off with a Flash Flood Warning for the area.

As we turned to start running out of the building we saw that rain water was coming down the steps like a waterfall. It was the rain-pocalyse! Our jaws dropped. I was wearing shoes entirely impractical for running through ankle-high water, particularly up and down hills! They were wedge sandals and I didn’t have a prayer of going anywhere fast unless I removed my shoes, but then I would risk cutting open my foot on any number of objects on the sidewalk and the thought of that nasty water on my barefeet was just too much. Of course, a logical person would have realized that the sandals were not giving me much protection from the yucky water anyway, but they provided a false sense of bacterial barrier that was just enough to keep me moving in the direction in the car. I kept the sandals on and tried to just shuffle my feet through the flood. My husband and kids were way ahead of me and kept shouting, “Come on, Mom! You can do it!” I yelled back, “I’m a goner! Save yourselves!”

We were running down a hill on the last block to the car, and the water was literally rushing over my feet like a river. It was so crazy. But we all made it to the parking garage, laughing uncontrollably, and attempted to squeeze out our clothing before getting in the car. It took us a good 30 minutes to settle down from the excitement and absurdity of it all.


The Hamilton

The Hamilton

Best meal you had?

The Hamilton! First of all, we are, as a family, obsessed with Hamilton: The Musical, Alexander and Eliza Hamilton, and the history of the American Revolution in general. So, when we saw a restaurant called The Hamilton with a swanky interior, it was hard to pass up. Checking TripAdvisor, I came to find out it was not only one of the trendiest spots in D.C., but it had a kids’ menu. Sold!

We were not disappointed. I started with a cleverly-named vodka cocktail called the “Hamilton’s Mule,” and moved on to a delicious appetizer of fried green tomatoes. For my entrée, I had a Maryland crab cake, and it was perfect—crispy on the outside, tons of flavor on the inside. We all had ice cream at the end—all kids’ meals come with it—that had some kind of crazy-delicious-chocolate-rice-krispie-type creation stuck on the top of it. Wow.

Overall, would you go again?

We will definitely go back as a family in the next five years to see more sights. This time around we limited our visits to the attractions for the 9 and under crowd. Our oldest really wanted to go to the Newseum (and so did I!) but I knew that for our younger kids much of it would be over their heads. There is so much more to see that they will appreciate when they are older, such as the Holocaust Museum, the new Museum of African-American History, and the International Spy Museum.

 What did you learn about your family on this trip?

I found it interesting how being out of our routine and exhausted affected each of my children differently. Rowan, 5, got sad. Everything made him cry and each time we had to endure at least two minutes of silent sobbing before he would say what was wrong. Evie, 7, became alternately clingy and a refuse-nik. Addie, 9, released a snarling bear from her inner person that attacked at the smallest provocation. And then only moments later she would be smiling and happy again. Despite the struggles of travel, we all persevered and came out with awesome memories.




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