If Washington DC with kids isn’t already on your list, add it today!
I love adventures, new places to explore, and fun experiences for my family. And I love when I don’t have to spend money on plane tickets to get to those adventures!
When I realized Washington DC was within a day’s drive, I immediately started researching and planning what turned out to be a super fun family vacation.
And because trip planning can be overwhelming, I’m passing what I learned over to you. Here’s everything you need to know before your first visit to Washington DC with kids!
*This article is a big one, so save it now and come back to it as your plans unfold.
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Build your itinerary from this list of fun things to do in DC with kids:
Best Things to do in Washington DC with Kids
There are so many things to do in Washington DC with kids that it can be hard to pick the best things to do and places to go. But that’s where we can help!
We visited over Spring Break and have great suggestions for your family’s visit to Washington DC.
To start, here are the top attractions every first-time visitor should experience.
Explore The National Mall and Memorial Parks
Grab a pair of comfy shoes and charge the Fitbit because you’ll get your steps in exploring The National Mall.
Home to some of the most iconic landmarks in the country, including the:
- Washington Monument
- Lincoln Memorial
- US Capitol Building
There is more to see on the National Mall than you could fit into a single day.
The distance between the US Capitol Building at one end of the Mall and the Lincoln Memorial at the other is two miles, which is quite a long walk for most kids. So pace yourself and make stops along the way at the various monuments and museums.
The National Mall is bigger than it looks on paper.
The National Mall is also a great place for a picnic or game of frisbee – just watch out for when the sprinklers turn on! We got a kick out of how many times we saw people get sprayed when they weren’t expecting it.
Strollers are permitted everywhere on The National Mall and the museums in Washington DC.
National Mall & Monuments Itinerary
Want a walking route that takes you to see all the best stuff? If I had known how close some of these monuments are to one another, I would’ve saved myself lots of back tracking. Follow this route to save yourself some extra steps:
Start at the Washington Monument, walk toward the reflecting pool to see the WWII Memorial.
Continue along the shore of Constitution Gardens Pond toward the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, then on to the Lincoln Memorial.
On your way up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, find the engraved marker that shows the exact spot where MLK gave his “I Have A Dream” speech.
Walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. This is a good place to decide whether your family is ready for a break from walking, or if you want to continue to the nearby Tidal Basin.
Side note: You can find cherry trees blooming throughout DC, but the Tidal Basin, famous for the large concentration of cherry trees that surround it, has become the main location for the Cherry Blossom Festival each Spring.
Here’s a closer look at these stops:
Stand in the Shadow of the Washington Monument
2 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20024
At 555 feet tall, the Washington Monument is visible from miles away.
Centrally located on the National Mall, this iconic tower is a great first stop upon your arrival to DC. We got there early in the morning when it wasn’t crowded. Stand with the your toes touching the base and look up!
Near the base of the Washington Monument you’ll find bathroom facilities and a small visitors center with a gift shop.
For the best 360º views of DC, get tickets ahead of time to ride the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument.
Tickets are free and can be booked 30 days in advance but they sell out quickly. We were hoping so badly to get to do this but even the same-day walk-up tickets were sold out before 6 AM. I guess that gives us a really good reason to plan another family vacation to Washington DC!
Get inspired at The Lincoln Memorial
2 Lincoln Memorial Cir NW, Washington, DC 20002
Get inspired at the Lincoln Memorial! You can see this magnificent statue during the day, or when it’s lit up at night. Take time to look at the ceiling, touch the cool marble columns, and look for an inscription of The Gettysburg Address on one of the walls.
As you descend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial toward the Reflecting Pool, walk down the middle to find the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Take in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool
Normally the reflecting pool is filled with four million gallons of water and is a serene stop on your tour.
(But also entertaining. We enjoyed regularly hearing Forrest Gump fans yelling out “FORREST” and “JENNY” in this general area.)
We happened to visit when the National Parks Service was doing its annual spring cleaning of the pool so we got to walk in the pool area.
It was pretty cool to walk where there would normally be so much water.
Check out this video of the NPS cleaning up a years worth of trash, algae, and goose poop from the floor of the Reflecting Pool.
Pay a Visit to The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500
Will you be one of the lucky visitors to get a tour of the White House during your trip to the Nation’s Capital?
With some planning ahead of time you can experience what is likely the most famous residence in the world.
Tours are free, but must be scheduled up to three months in advance. Contact your congressman to submit a tour request for your family.
If you’re unable to get a tour, view the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue at Lafayette Square, or at the Ellipse through the fence.
The outside of the White House is an impressive sight.
Live Like a Local on Capitol Hill
Capitol Hill is actually on a hill, which should not have delighted me as much as it did.
Capitol Hill is where laws get passed. It’s home to the U.S. Capitol building, Senate, and House of Representatives office buildings and the Library of Congress.
Contact your representative to book a tour of the US Capitol Building. You might even get to see a vote while you’re there!
Map from U.S. Capitol Visitor Center here
“The Hill” isn’t just known for its government buildings. A bustling Eastern Market, restaurant-filled blocks, and historic row houses make it one of the most popular neighborhoods for young staffers to live in.
If you’re looking for a boutique hotel during your stay, you’ll find one on Capitol Hill.
Go Wild at The National Zoo
3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008
When it’s time for a break from monuments and museums, check out The National Zoo. One of the oldest zoos in the United States, it has 2,700 animals and a children’s area where kids can pet and feed farm animals.
The National Zoo is just a 20 minute metro ride from the National Mall.
To get there, take the Metro red line to the Woodley Park station. The pedestrian entrance is a five minute walk from the station.
Free entry passes are required for all guests including infants and children. Reserve tickets online up to 4 weeks ahead of the date you plan to visit.
Take in the Views at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts
2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566
See a show or tour the campus at the Kennedy Center. Even if you’re not attending a performance, this world-class performance arts center is a venue you’ll want to visit! Check out the roof-top and terraces for sweeping views of the city.
Grab a snack or a drink at the KC Cafe and walk the grounds.
In addition to being the home of the National Symphony Orchestra, The Kennedy Center has multiple stages and theaters for shows, events, and workshops – presenting around 2,000 performances each year!
Stop and Smell the Tulips at the US Botanic Gardens
100 Maryland Ave SW, Washington, DC 20001
Why not add a museum that’s full of living plants to your itinerary? Kids are invited to see what’s in bloom and dig, plant, water, touch and smell the plants in The Children’s Garden from spring to fall.
More than 200 years ago, George Washington envisioned a capital city that included a botanic garden that would demonstrate and promote the importance of plants to a young country.
The US Botanic Gardens have been inspiring plant appreciation and conservation since 1934.
Take Flight at The National Air and Space Museum
600 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560
Washington DC is full of world class museums and the best news is THEY’RE FREE!!
There are 17 Smithsonian museums in DC, and 11 of them are on the National Mall.
The National Air and Space Museum is one of the most popular museums in the world.
It’s filled with all kinds of aircraft and spacecraft, including the Wright Brothers’ plane, and the Apollo 11 Command Module. Your kids will love the interactive exhibits including flight simulators and astronaut training stations.
Free timed-entry passes are required for all visitors, regardless of age. Reserve tickets online six weeks ahead, especially if you’re going during Spring Break.
Test your Pop-Culture Knowledge at the Museum of American History
1300 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560
One of the best free museums in DC for kids, the Museum of American History will get you up close to some amazing pieces of American History.
Check out pop-culture memorabilia including The Batmobile, Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, and Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves.
It also has dozens of iconic first lady gowns, the hat Abraham Lincoln was wearing on the night of his assassination, and Thomas Jefferson’s desk where he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
You can even stand beside the actual flag that inspired the writing of the National Anthem.
This museum is a must-do!
Rock On at The Museum of Natural History
10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560
One of the most kid-friendly museums we found was The Museum of Natural History.
From the mammoth skeleton to the mummies, there are 145 million specimens to explore on 4 floors of interactive exhibits.
Be one of the lucky (over 100 million) people who have seen the world-famous Hope Diamond. It’s on display on the 2nd floor as part of the National Gem Collection.
My kids love rocks, so seeing dazzling gemstones and minerals of every size, shape and color was a highlight for us.
This one was one of the busiest museums we visited our Washington DC family vacation – so be prepared to exercise patience as you navigate the crowds.
Relax at The National Gallery of Art
6th St & Constitution Ave NW Washington, DC 20001
They say viewing art relieves stress and leads to a happier, healthier life, so… don’t miss this one. The National Gallery of Art is filled with sculptures and paintings by some world-famous artists.
Expose your kids to fine art including iconic pieces by Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci, Monet, Rembrandt, and even Pablo Picasso.
Don’t forget to explore the outdoor sculpture garden while you’re there.
Journey through the Museum of African American History
1400 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560
The Museum of African American History and Culture is stunning from the start.
The exterior architecture and interior design represent the past, present and future of the African American experience.
The NMAAHC history exhibits start three levels underground beginning in the 1400’s and as you move through history you rise up through the levels to present day.
The ground level has the Contemplative Court, where a “fountain rains down calming waters,” and the three above-ground levels focus on cultural and historical achievements.
Note: If you’re visiting Washington DC with kids, know that some of the most sensitive exhibits are housed in the three underground history galleries. If you elect to skip these, know there is plenty to see on the above-ground floors.
Cool Down at the National Archives
700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20408
You’ll find the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution at the the National Archives.
They keep this museum chilly because cooler temperatures prolong the life of documents. Light fades ink and destroys parchment and paper, so light levels in the Rotunda are deliberately kept low.
No photos are allowed of these fragile documents, so instead, download free scans to help preserve the originals for many generations to come.
Reservations are not required, but strongly suggested based on the line that wrapped around the block while we were there.
Reserve free, timed-entry tickets up to 90 days in advance of your visit.
Go Undercover at The International Spy Museum
700 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20024
Find out which family member would make the best spy at the International Spy Museum.
After receiving a secret identity, make your way through three floors of interactive exhibits.
Test your spy skills, learn to think and act like a spy, practice stealing secrets, cracking codes, and complete your mission.
Learn how spying has shaped history and see the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever placed on public display.
NOTE: This is not a Smithsonian Museum, so there is an entry fee and you must book timed-entry passes ahead of time. Tickets typically range between $15-$30 depending on the season. Save up to 30% by buying general admission tickets in advance.
Witness the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, VA 22211
Just across the Potomac River from Washington DC, visitors to Arlington National Cemetery can pay their respects to thousands of servicemen and women who have given their lives in service to our country.
Some of the most famous sites include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, President John F. Kennedy’s grave, and the Challenger Memorial.
The Changing of the Guard happens every 30 minutes at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Be prepared for a 15-20 minute walk up a moderately steep hill to reach the tomb. Take water, bring your stroller, and take breaks along the way.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24/7, 365 days a year with zero exception.
Read that again! ZERO EXCEPTION! That means the guards have continued through blizzards, earthquakes, and hurricanes, during political unrest, and even on 9/11 when the plane that crashed into the Pentagon was visible from their post.
Overall, visiting Arlington National Cemetery is a moving experience that is sure to leave a lasting impression on visitors of all ages. This is a must-see destination for anyone visiting the DC area.
How to Get Around DC
Whether you’re walking, riding a bike, driving a car, or taking public transportation, traveling with kids through a big city is an adventure. So what are the best ways to get around (especially during busy times like Spring Break)?
Here’s what worked for us:
Ride the Metro
The Metro is convenient, affordable, and absolutely one of the best ways to get around Washington DC with kids.
It’s especially helpful when traveling with kids who might not want to walk long distances.
If your kids like riding escalators, DC has some of the longest in the world!
Washington DC’s Metro rail system is easy to navigate. It’s made up of six different lines, each with its own color, and every stop is labeled with a color and a name, which makes it easy to know which line to take to all the different attractions.
Stations are clean and clearly marked, and the Metro runs from early morning to late at night so you can make the most of your time in the city.
HOT TIP: Before you go, print off a hard copy of the DC Metro Map (in color if possible) – the Metro is easy to navigate if you know the names of the stations at the end of each line.
The trains say “Orange Line to New Carrollton” or “Orange Line to Vienna” instead of which direction the rail cars are heading.
If you plan to ride the Metro at all, consider a SmarTrip Card. It’s a rechargeable card used to pay for your Metro rides. You swipe it to get into each station and swipe it again to get out.
Our kids loved the responsibility of swiping their own cards before and after all of our metro rides.
You can also use the card to pay for bus rides and parking in some metro lots.
SmarTrip cards are available to purchase at any Metro Station – you can also get a SmarTrip card online ahead of time.
If you’re staying outside of downtown, consider the 3-day unlimited SmarTrip pass that allows you to ride as many times, and on as many lines as you want.
Riding the Metro into and out of the city each day will save you time and money because parking in the city is expensive and can be difficult to find – especially during busy seasons.
Ride the Metro and get ready to explore all that Washington D.C. has to offer.
See More Sights On a Bike Tour
There are many bus, bike, Segway, and walking tours. We booked two tours during our visit – a Fat Tire Bike tour of Capitol Hill, and a Big Bus Tour that took us on a double-decker bus to see the Monuments lit up at night.
Both tours were incredibly informative, fun and some of the favorite memories from our trip. If you ask us, these tours were absolutely worth the cost.
On the 2-hour Fat Tire Bike Tour, follow a friendly guide through busy sidewalks and intersections to see the Supreme Court and US Capitol Building. Cruise around Capitol Hill and along Pennsylvania Avenue’s protected bike lane all the way to the White House.
This tour is great for families with kids old enough to safely ride bikes on their own. Fat Tire Tours has electric bikes, beach cruisers, kid-sized mountain bikes, even tag-along bike trailers. Helmets are included with every rental, but bring water with you.
Hop on a Big Bus Tour
The Washington DC Big Bus Tour is a hop-on-hop-off bus service that allows you to explore the city at your own pace, making it an ideal option for families with children.
The Double-Decker Big Bus has open-air seating on the roof, which is fun when the weather is nice.
Choose from a variety of ticket options including 2 hour tours, 1-day, 2-day or 3-day hop-on, hop-off passes.
One of the most memorable ways to experience Washington DC is from the roof of a double-decker Big Bus Tour that passes some of DC’s most famous monuments and memorials at night.
Seeing these iconic landmarks illuminated in the evening gave us the opportunity to take some great photos against the night sky.
Big Bus Tour Review
Our Night Tour of the Monuments began before sunset and took us through Georgetown, past the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery.
As the sun was setting, we slowly rode past the US Marine Corps Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, which was impressive to see in real life.
The Big Bus Tour uses live guides as well as multi-language audio guides depending on when you take your tour.
We experienced the audio guide which provided a wealth of information and interesting facts about each monument, adding depth and context to our experience.
The Night Tour made a stop at the Lincoln Memorial where we got off the bus and explored this landmark up close.
It was so cool to be there at night, seeing some of the same sights we had seen during the day.
The Big Bus Tour was one of our absolute favorite things we did in Washington DC with kids. Whether you are visiting for the first time or not, this tour should be on your list!
Get out of the City and stretch your legs at a nearby park!
Both are run by the National Park Service, have miles of hiking trails, and visitor centers where you can get your NPS Passport Books stamped.
At Rock Creek Park you can rent a canoe or kayak to paddle the Potomac, or take a guided trail ride on horseback. If you’re looking for rainy day activities, check out the nature center or planetarium.
Just a short drive from DC, Great Falls Park has incredible waterfalls, scenic overlooks with views of the Potomac, and miles of hiking trails. It’s a convenient place to stretch your legs after a long drive.
Note: There is an entrance fee if you don’t have a National Parks Annual Pass.
HOT TIP: If you have a 4th Grader, go to everykidoutdoors.gov, fill out the adventure diary, and your whole family gains access to hundreds of National Parks, lands and waters for a year!
Map of Washington DC with Kids
Washington DC with Kids Map
Where to Stay
Your accommodations will depend on your budget and how big your family is.
If you stay closer to DC or in DC, it may be more expensive but you’ll have the benefit of heading back to the hotel for naps or snacks during the day. You may even be close enough to walk to some museums, attractions and restaurants.
Staybridge Suites in Tyson-McLean
Our family of five prefers a hotel with free breakfast and a pool, so we typically try to find the nearest Holiday Inn Express or Staybridge Suites when we travel. We wanted to save money by finding accommodations outside of the city but near a metro line.
I found this Staybridge Suites in Tyson-McLean (6845 Old Dominion Dr, McLean, VA 22101) near the Metro orange line. The West Falls Church Metro station is a 10 minute drive from the hotel.
All-day parking in their garage is only $3 so it was easy to catch the metro each morning and get back to the hotel in the evenings.
Our suite had one king room and bathroom connected to a room with two full beds and second bathroom. Since we road tripped from Michigan, throwing an airbed and sleeping bag in the van for our 3rd kid was no big deal.
The free breakfast was great, the hotel was clean, and the outdoor pool is open Memorial Day – Labor Day weekend.
We were pleasantly surprised to discover the Staybridge Suites hosted free happy hour drinks and snacks each evening in the hotel lobby.
If you stay here, you’ll also have an amazing restaurant option just across the street from the hotel.
The Italian Oven is owned by the nicest family and has the best pizza – absolutely delicious. Five thumbs up from the five people In our family.
More Lodging Options in Washington DC
Select from Washington DC hotels and vacation rentals on the map to get started:
What to Pack
If you’re staying farther out you’ll want to bring a backpack with everything you’ll need for the day. I considered having each of my kids carry their own backpack, but then decided it would be easier to have one backpack with everyone’s stuff.
Here’s what we packed in our day-pack:
- Peanut Butter & Honey Sandwiches
- First Aid Kit (Band-aids for blisters from walking a lot)
- Layers: Long-Sleeves/Fleece Jackets
- Rain Jackets
- Wet Wipes
- Phone Chargers
- Printed Tickets and Itinerary
- SmarTrip Cards
How many days does a family need in Washington DC?
I would suggest spending a minimum of three full days in DC.
We arrived on a Sunday evening, spent all day Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (three days) exploring, and then started our drive home to Michigan on Thursday. With more days I would’ve taken more time in museums, checked out more local areas like The Wharf, or booked tickets for a concert or a show.
What is Washington DC?
Washington DC is the capital of the United States. Named after the first US President, George Washington. DC stands for the “District of Columbia.” Its creation comes from the US Constitution which calls it the “Seat of the Government of the United States.”
Where is Washington DC located?
Washington DC is located between Virginia and Maryland on the northern edge of the Potomac River. Washington DC is not a state, it’s a federal district.
Do you need a car in Washington DC?
It’s easy to get around DC without a car, so forget about the hassle of renting one. The Metro is the most common way to get around the city, but tourists should also be aware of the DC Circulator Bus, the Hop-on, Hop-off Trolley, Segway and Bike Tours, and the option to get an Uber or Taxi. If you drive your own vehicle, consider parking at one of the Metro lots and taking the Metro Rail or a Metro Bus into the city.
How to get to Washington DC?
Driving from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Washington DC takes about 9-10 hours. You can make the drive more enjoyable for everyone in your family by breaking the long drive into smaller chunks.
Consider a quick stop at Cuyahoga National Park or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. You might consider getting an EZPass before your drive so you can save time on toll roads along the route.
How to Avoid Spring Break Crowds in Washington DC
Spring Break and other school breaks are a busy time to visit Washington DC with kids, but there are a few things you can do to make the most of your trip without feeling overwhelmed by the crowds.
- Plan Ahead. Especially when visiting Washington DC with kids, its important to plan ahead as much as possible. Book accommodations and tours in advance, research attractions and get your tickets ahead of time when possible.
- Avoid Peak Hours. To avoid the crowds, try to visit popular tourist attractions during off-peak hours. Earlier in the morning, later in the afternoon, or on weekdays instead of weekends they might be less crowded.
- Use Public Transportation. Washington DC can be a congested city, especially during peak tourism times. Using the Metro or bus system can help you avoid traffic. If you plan on driving, be aware that parking can be expensive and difficult to find in certain areas of the city.
- Take Breaks. Consider taking breaks throughout the day to avoid getting overwhelmed by crowds. The green space on the National Mall is a great place to give your kids a chance to rest and recharge. Just be ready to run when they turn on the sprinklers!
- Be Patient. Waiting in lines and being around crowds of people can be stressful, so try to stay flexible. Try to keep a positive attitude and you can still enjoy your trip to Washington DC during Spring Break.
What to wear for a day in Washington DC?
We visited in April, so my recommendations are based on spring weather in DC.
Most importantly you’ll want comfortable walking shoes, blister-free socks (these WrightSocks are my personal favorite), a refillable water bottle, sun protection (sunglasses, hat, SPF), and layered clothing that you can remove as temperatures get warmer through the day or cooler inside air conditioned museums.
And this is my go-to lightweight and packable rain jacket I stuff into the bottom of my bag if there’s any chance of rain.
What to pack in a backpack for a day in Washington DC?
We carried one backpack for our family (2 adults/3 kids).
We made sure to include snacks, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, first aid (bandaids/allergy meds), printed tickets for that days activities, phone charger, rain jackets, SmarTrip cards to ride the Metro, and a printed itinerary so we didn’t miss any timed-entry ticket museums or tours we had signed up for.
We wore sweatshirts in the mornings and when it got warmer in the afternoons I stuffed them into our bag.
Where to eat with a family in Washington DC?
- Most of the Smithsonian Museums have food courts, but be prepared for long lines.
- L’Enfante Plaza has a food court below the Spy Museum.
- The Plaza Food Court restaurants close at 8pm, which I wish I would have known when we got done with the Big Bus Night Tour and everyone in my family was hangry. Oops.
- There were restaurants along Maine Avenue at The Wharf, a mile stretch of shopping and dining along the Potomac River.
- We had lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe one day. The rest of the days we ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches and snacks from our backpacks.
When is the Cherry Blossom Festival?
The National Cherry Blossom Festival is held each spring in Washington D.C. Next year, it will be March 20 – April 14, 2024.
The lovely cherry trees throughout DC were a gift to the people of the United States from the people of Japan in 1912.
You can find Cherry Trees blooming throughout DC, but the Tidal Basin, famous for the large concentration of cherry trees that surround it, has become the main location for the Cherry Blossom Festival.
What is the Tidal Basin?
The Tidal Basin is a 107 acre pool that harnesses the power of the tides of the Potomac River. It helps maintain water levels in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and keeps the Washington Channel clear of debris and sediments. Walking along the paved Tidal Basin Loop Trail takes you past the MLK Jr., Thomas Jefferson, and FDR Memorials.
Where to get National Park Passport Cancellation Stamps in Washington DC?
If your family collects NPS Passport Book Stamps, Washington DC is a great place to find a lot in one place!
There are cancellation stations at the visitors center at the base of the Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery Visitors Center or in Arlington House. Great Falls Park and Glen Echo Park and the Clara Barton National Historic Site.
You can get all 31 parkway-related stamps at the Parkway Headquarters from 8-4 PM on Weekdays at 700 George Washington Memorial Pkwy.
Have you been to Washington DC?
What kid-friendly things would you add to this list?
Whether it’s a short weekend trip or a longer adventure, you won’t regret breaking your family away from the daily routine to explore a new place together.
Plan that trip, pack your bags, and start making memories with your loved ones today.