Arts & Culture, Museums, Weekend Away

Washington D.C. Family Vacation Guide


washington dc

Washington D.C. is a great family destination. There’s something to do and enjoy for all ages, and with most attractions free, it offers an affordable vacation.

Planning on visiting Washington D.C. with the kids?  Here’s our guide:

Plan Ahead

Do some research and include the kids. Washington D.C. has a wealth of information. Reading about the monuments and history of our Nation’s Capital will give you and the kids a foundation once you get there. We purchased children’s guide books for our kids, which we read before our trip. When we visited monuments, they were so excited to already know the names and history.

You’ll also have to plan if you want to visit the U.S. Capitol. Tours are free, but tour passes are required and can be reserved directly through the offices of your Representative or Senators. You fill out a form with the dates you’ll be visiting and if a tour is available, you’ll get an email back with a specific time. You should do it as far in advance as possible and you’ll need to be flexible with your plans. NOTE: You won’t be able to tour The White House until further notice due to staffing reductions resulting from sequestration.

Book a Place to Stay

washington dc

It happened to be my husband’s and my 11th wedding anniversary when we visited D.C., so we splurged a bit on a hotel. We chose Mandarin Oriental and are so glad we did. On top of the luxurious accommodations (I wanted to live in the large marble bathroom), incredible service, a pool perfect for young kids, and a very welcoming staff, the location was great. It also has on site restaurants, offering a quick, convenient breakfast before sightseeing.  Sou’Wester offers breakfast (buffet or off the menu) on a beautiful patio overlooking a garden and the Potomac River. My girls favorite part was the individual pots of hot cocoa.

washington dc

You’ll be doing tons of walking and using transportation a lot in D.C., so staying near attractions is key. The Mandarin Oriental is just a 10 minute walk to many of the Smithsonian Museums and right near the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument side of the National Mall. In fact, we could see both from our window—the views are gorgeous.

There are family-friendly hotels for all budgets in D.C. We like‘s suggestions.

Getting Around

D.C.’s street plan is a bit confusing and parking can be a challenge. Your best bet is to keep your car at the hotel and walk, use the Metro or hail a cab—which we did often. The price of cab fair was often cheaper than parking in lots, especially if you are near attractions, and was super convenient with kids. Plus, the kids got such a thrill out of hailing and riding in a cab.

The National Mall & Memorial Parks

washington dc


The 2 mile long National Mall is home to the U.S. Capitol at one end and the Lincoln Memorial at the other. In between are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, the Washington Monument, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial—to name just a few. All of the sites on the National Mall are free to visit and are open 365 days, 24 hours a day.

washington dc


The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoo, and nine research facilities. There are 15 in D.C. The best part about them are almost all of them are free!

Depending on how long you stay and the age of your kids, you’ll have to choose which museums you’ll have time to visit. You can’t do them all in one trip. My girls are 9 and 6, so we chose places that they both would be happy visiting:

National Air and Space Museum

National Air and Space MuseumNo matter what your age, you’ll enjoy this museum of all things aviation and spaceflight. It’s the largest of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and has 21 exhibition galleries. You’ll learn the history of astronomy, about the Apollo space program, great detail about the Wright brothers and the aerial age, and you’ll even touch a real moon rock!

There are great planetarium and IMAX shows, but here’s where you have to pay for tickets. There are also Flight Simulator rides which cost extra.

There’s a cafeteria that serves three fast food options: McDonald’s, Boston Market and Donato’s Pizza.

National Museum of American History

dc 152This museum was our overall favorite. Where else can you see a fragment of Plymouth Rock, the hat President Abraham Lincoln wore at Ford’s Theater the night he was killed, Julia Child’s kitchen, the Star-Spangled Banner—the flag that inspired the national anthem, a section of the lunch counter from the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth, Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers and Kermit the Frog all in one place?

The museum has three exhibit floors, and one floor for the  “Stars and Stripes” cafeteria which has surprisingly good food.

National Museum of Natural History

washington dc

The huge African elephant in the rotunda is breathtaking and what excited my kids most at this museum. It has your usual dinosaurs, early human origins, animal and insect exhibits, but we loved the Geology, Gems and Minerals exhibit most. The Hope Diamond is displayed! There’s a Discovery Room for younger children, but it was closed when we visited. It’s a must see with kids, but to be honest, I think we’re spoiled by the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, because this was a bit underwhelming.

There are three restaurants at the museum serving a large selection of food.

Museums and places we didn’t get to visit, but will on our next trip: 

  1. National Museum of African American History and Culture: Won’t be completed until 2015, but we’re excited to visit when it does.
  2. National Museum of the American Indian: One of the largest and most diverse collections of Native art and historical and cultural objects. We hear they have an exceptionally good restaurant.
  3. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: Great collection by Modern masters and a beautiful sculpture garden
  4. Newseum: A seven-level  interactive museum of news and journalism. Newseum is not part of Smithsonian, so admission will cost you over $20 for adults and $13 for kids ages 7 and older.
  5. International Spy Museum: Shows you a world of international espionage! Not part of Smithsonian, so admission will cost you $20 for adults and $15 for kids ages 7 and older.
  6. Ford’s Theater Museum: A working theatre, historical monument, world-class museum and learning center. Admission is free, but you need to get tickets in order to get in.

Dining Out

The number of restaurants in D.C. can make your head spin. You’ll kind find any cuisine and price range. I’m not even going to attempt to review all the places we ate at, except one—2 Amy’s.

2 amy's pizza


2 Amy’s Pizzeria has a D.O.C (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) status, which specifies the legally permitted ingredients and methods of preparation necessary to produce authentic Neapolitan Pizza. It’s truly authentic and so damn good. Located in the Cleveland Park area of D.C., which was about a 20  minute drive for us (but so worth it) the pizzeria is in a great location, that was a mix of young families and hipsters.

I loved everything about the place. The kids loved the 2 Amy’ pie, which was like a traditional cheese pie, but better, and we loved the Margherita made with fresh tomato, mozzarella di bufala, and basil. The chocolate homemade ice cream (safe for my peanut allergic daughter!) was really good and I enjoyed a really, really good espresso. 2 Amy’s also has a great wine bar, which serves up snacks like crostini, sliced meats, olives, nuts and cheese.


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