This is going to sound strange:
Washington D.C. is an underrated vacation destination.
Say that out loud. Weird, right? Weird but true.
Washington D.C. is the nation’s capital (duh) and as such is home to rich bounty of U.S. history (double duh), oodles of amazing museums, stunning monuments, and several panda bears (including a new cub who was just born last week!), but being at the bottom of the Boston to NYC to Philly NE Corridor sometimes means the District is overlooked. This is true, at the very least, for us East Coasters. But Washington D.C. shouldn’t be overlooked or taken for granted. By anyone.
Every American citizen should have the opportunity to spend a few days in the District. And when you do, this post will help your family maximize your time traveling about our nation’s capital.
That said, a weekend is simply not enough time to take in everything on offer in D.C. But you can still accomplish and see a lot in 48+ hours. Much of what your family can and should see and do in the nation’s capital is free of charge, including The Smithsonian Museums that dot the perimeter of the National Mall. They are probably too obvious to mention in a family travel story, but mention them I shall, lest you even consider skipping them.
- The National Museum of Natural History is one of the greatest museums you’ll ever step foot inside. It is a treasure trove of curiosity, excitement, science, and spectacle — plan to spend hours in there!
- Speaking of spending a few hours, don’t even enter the National Museum of American History without blocking out 1/2 a day or so. There, in a single room, you will see Kermit, Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, Roberto Clemente’s jersey and SO. MUCH. MORE.
- The National Gallery of Art is a gorgeous place and features an expansive Degas exhibit which includes his darling Little Dancer sculpture.
- The National Air and Space Museum, with its rockets and spaceships, is heaven on Earth for little kids (and their wide-eyed dads).
- And the International Spy Museum, one of the few D.C. museums that charges admission, is packed to the gills with WWII espionage nicknacks and James Bond movie goodies.
- The American Art Museum, located just across the street from Spy central, is also worthy of your time. We saw a temporary video game exhibit there last year and enjoy it along with the permanent art on display.
When your family takes its D.C. adventure, you’ll need a hotel that puts you smack dab in the middle of the attractions you will be visiting. You’ll be walking A LOT in D.C. (bring your good sneakers!) so you don’t want to walk for miles before you even get to something worth seeing. My girls and I were recently put up at the centrally located Hilton Garden Inn Downtown (remember to sign up for the HHonors rewards program!) and found our room cool and comfortable, the pool relaxing, and, most importantly, the location primo! Big time! I mean, The White House is steps away, the National Mall an easy downhill stroll, and the Orange Line Metro stop is literally just outside the revolving front door. That orange line will take you out of the city, towards Falls Church.
Why would you want to head there when there is so much to do inside the District? Two Words: Wolf Trap. The performing arts center has a brilliant calendar of family friendly events, including a theater-in-the-woods program of kindie rock shows in the summer. My girls were there twice last year, to see Brandi Carlile, Lumineers, and Josh Ritter on the big stage, and Nashville’s kindie jazz outfit Coal Train Railroad in the woods. Check out what is on stage there and consider a quick and easy metro ride for some live music, movies, or dance. Hello Lord of the Rings with live orchestra!
Also worth noting: Sirius/XM’s studio is in D.C. and their Kids Place Live channel frequently plays host to free on-air concerts in what they call their Rumpus Room. Get on the invite list by sending an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org and you may get treated to some very cool (great music + wickedly good a/c) fun with Absolutely Mindy next summer during your trip to Washington!
I recommend taking in a Nationals game too should they be in the midst of a homestand, to see Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg (maybe), my boy Ian Desmond, and the gang. The ballpark is simply terrific. The same cannot be said, however, for D.C. United, the MLS team in town. They still play in old RFK stadium which is a dump and a half.
Back to the HGI Downtown for a moment, because this is too brilliant not to talk about: the hotel has a family scavenger hunt every weekend for their guests, that not only is a load of fun to complete but is also well worth your time because the two prizes up for grabs are a free night during your current stay (that could be worth over $200 depending on what rate you booked!) and $50 to use in their restaurant/bar — hello free breakfast! The challenge isn’t easy but doing it from start to finish will take you on a journey that you and your kids will be talking about for months afterwards. The girls and I did it, with the help of Christ Routly and his son Tucker of Daddy Doctrines fame, and won the free night! Holla! The brilliant scavenger hunt location rotates between several Smithsonian Museums and involves collecting numbers from ten different exhibits to solve a massive math equation. The result gives you a 4 digit code to the safe in the lobby. Be the first (or second) to solve it and you will win one of those prizes. So damn ingenious!
We found the breakfast in the HGI’s Grist Mill lobby level restaurant to be comfortable and tasty. Kids will love the pancakes, design your own omelet station, funky sofas and, especially, that Nick Jr. and Disney Junior are playing on two TVs, as well as the Etch A Sketches available to borrow during your meal. Old school. Awesome.
As far as food in the District. The Capital City Brewing Company is close-by and serves up high quality bar food. Try the Fish and Chips — delish. Our favorite place to grab an affordable bite as a family is The District of Pi Pizzeria. They’ve got good salads too, and vegan options that are super tasty. Pi is 4 doors down from the Spy Museum and American Art Museum…so plan accordingly!
When you visit D.C., do me a favor and spend a few quiet moments inside the Lincoln Memorial. ‘Tis one of my favorite places on Earth — I wish so badly that I could have it all to myself for even just 90 seconds. That would be epic. Also, after bidding Abe farewell, wander through the haunting Korean War Memorial statues nearby. Doing this in early evening will take your breath away.
Have a great time in D.C. on your next American Family Adventure!
*The HGI Downtown generously brought my girls and I down to D.C. on an Amtrak train, put us up, and fed us well, as part of a Dad Blogger DC Adventure. They also provided a bit of spending money for us three to enjoy the district on our own. The opinions expressed above are honest and unbiased, as always.