Plan It: Four Days With the Kids in Washington, DC

Visiting DC with kids can be a cinch. With tons of museums, outdoor activities, and great kid-friendly restaurants, there’s something to suit almost every taste—from children to adults and everything in between.

By: Sara Levine, Emily Leaman


View Larger MapDAY ONE: TOURING WITH KIDS
Spend the day toting the tots to some of DC’s most popular sites and attractions, then it’s off to Bethesda, Maryland, for a night of food and fun.

9 AM: Breakfast at Pete’s
Start your day with a hearty breakfast at Pete’s (212 Second St., SE; 202-544-7335), a busy diner on Capitol Hill that’s a favorite with locals. Pete’s serves breakfast basics—omelets, pancakes, and French toast—at wallet-friendly prices. It’s across the street from the Library of Congress and just a block from the Capitol, so it’s a great place for watching iPhone-laden Hill staffers shuffle off to work. In warm weather, try to snag a seat outside for the best people watching.

9:45 AM: Mini Walking Tour

En route to your next stop, the National Postal Museum, enjoy a quick walking tour of some of DC’s don’t-miss sights. You’ll see the Library of Congress, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the House and Senate office buildings. Here’s the route to take: Walk west on Independence Avenue for one block and turn right at First Street, Southeast. Follow First Street for about 4½ blocks; the road dead ends at Columbus Circle in front of Union Station. The National Postal Museum is the building to the left of Union Station between First Street, Northeast, and North Capitol Street.

10 AM: National Postal Museum
The first stop is the National Postal Museum (2 Massachusetts Ave., NE; 202-633-8181), which, believe it or not, is a great place for kids. It traces the history of mail in the United States from Colonial times to the present. The place is loaded with interactive exhibits—there’s even a spot to make postcards and have them addressed, stamped, and mailed for free. Documenting how mail used to be carried across the country, the museum is home two airplanes that hang from the ceiling, two stagecoaches (including one you can sit in), plus a big rig and an old train car, both of which you can sit in. Who knew mail could be so much fun?
11:45 AM: Tour and Lunch at Union Station
Head next door to Union Station (50 Massachusetts Ave., NE), one of the city’s most popular destinations. This Beaux Arts-style train station is a bustling transportation hub, with the Red Line Metro, Amtrak, and Virginia and Maryland commuter trains making stops daily. It features three concourses: The top two house more than 100 shops and eateries, and the lower one features a food court and movie theater. In the marble foyer at the front of the station—a cavernous space with 96-foot vaulted ceilings—art and science exhibits and other public events take place throughout the year. Pick up a brochure at the visitors’ desk and take some time to explore the building. Then, head downstairs to the food court and grab lunch. With more than 30 vendors, there’s bound to be something for every taste.

1 PM: US Botanic Garden
Just a short walk from Union Station is the US Botanic Garden (245 First St., SW), one of the Smithsonian’s treasures. It’s a year-round greenhouse and conservatory that can make the darkest day of winter feel like a trip to Fiji. Inside, you’ll see 26,000 plants organized in collections throughout ten climate-controlled rooms. In the center is the largest room, which houses the jungle. It includes a second-story catwalk for viewing the canopy from above.

If the weather’s nice, meander through the two outside gardens: Bartholdi Park (just south of the conservatory, across Independence Avenue), which is anchored by a large fountain, and the National Garden (just west of the conservatory), which includes rose and butterfly gardens, the First Ladies’ Water Garden, and an outdoor amphitheater.

2:30 PM: Tour the Capitol
You’re just steps from the US Capitol, so it’s time for a tour! You’ll walk through the Hall of Columns, the rotunda, and the old Supreme Court chambers, then head upstairs to where the real action is: the House and Senate chambers. From the visitors’ gallery, you can watch history as it happens—see bills being debated, votes being counted, and speeches being given. But a word to the wise: Congress is on recess for the month of August, so if watching a bill become a law is important to you, don’t plan a visit that month.

Tickets are free but available only on a first-come, first-served basis at the Capitol Guide Service kiosk on the sidewalk on the Capitol’s southwest side (near the intersection of First Street and Independence Avenue, Southwest). Ticket distribution starts at 9 AM.

• Insider tip: Lines for the ticket kiosk can be long, especially in summer. If you’re a US citizen, you might try to arrange a tour with someone from your Congress member’s or senators’ office. It’s recommended that you call in advance of your trip to secure a tour time, but even if you don’t, it’s a worth a try just popping in and seeing if they’ll give you a tour on the spot. Often, they’re more than willing to accommodate—you might be a voter, after all.

4 PM: City Views at the Old Post Office Pavilion and Clock Tower
Skip the lines at the Washington Monument and take in a view of the city from downtown DC’s second-highest point: the clock tower at the Old Post Office Pavilion (1100 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-289-4224). This free tour is one of DC’s best-kept secrets. The observation deck provides 360-degree views of the city. The tower is home to the Congressional Bells, a gift from Britain for our country’s 200th birthday; they ring on Thursday evenings and special occasions.
4:45 PM: White House or Bust
It’s off to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, for a look at the President’s home sweet home. Because tours of the inside of the White House are hard to come by—they must be booked months in advance, they’re reserved for groups of ten or more, and they’re available only during certain hours—you and the kids will have to take in the sights from behind the fence. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to see.

The White House complex consists of the main building, which is the executive residence, and the East and West Wings. The East Wing, visible from Pennsylvania Avenue to the left of the executive residence, houses office space for the First Lady and her staff and the White House Social Office. Below it is a secure underground bunker, where the President goes in the event of an emergency. The West Wing is where the business of the White House happens. From the Pennsylvania Avenue side, it extends to the right of the executive residence and houses the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, the White House Situation Room, and the Press Briefing Room. Outside the West Wing on the White House lawn, you’ll might see camera, sound, and lighting equipment—this is the area from which White House correspondents videotape their reports.

Snap a few photos, and you’re off.

5:30 PM: Spend an Evening in Bethesda, Maryland
Get on a Red Line subway train at Metro Center (607 13th St., NW) and head to the hopping “urban suburb” of Bethesda. The center of activity is at Woodmont and Bethesda avenues, just a few blocks from the Bethesda Metro stop. Enjoy a dinner of Spanish tapas at the colorful Bethesda branch of Jaleo (7271 Woodmont Ave.; 301-913-0003). Parents will love the fruity sangría, and kids can’t get enough of the sizzling garlic shrimp and patatas bravas (Spanish fried potatoes).
7 PM: Ice-Cream for Dessert!
Stroll down the street to Gifford’s (7237 Woodmont Ave.; 301-907-3436), the Washington area’s oldest ice cream parlor. (The original location, founded in 1938, was just a few blocks down Woodmont.) There are dozens of house-made flavors, including a killer Swiss chocolate and a roster of sorbets made from fresh fruit. Even the sugar-free, fat-free yogurt is surprisingly creamy and delicious.

Want more to do in Bethesda? Check out guide to the neighborhood for ideas on shopping, dining, arts, and more.

DAY TWO: FISH, MONEY, AND A MERRY-GO-ROUND
Today you’ll catch some of the lesser-known attractions DC has to offer—such as the aquarium and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing—and spend some time outside on the National Mall, at the Tidal Basin, and in West Potomac Park.

8 AM: Breakfast
Start your day off bright and early at Teaism (800 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-835-2233), an Asian-inspired teahouse near the White House and Lafayette Square, for cilantro scrambled eggs (or tofu) and hearty Irish oatmeal with fruit. Be sure to grab one of the hefty salty oat cookies for the road—they have something of a cult following among Washingtonians. Open Monday through Friday only.
8:45 AM: Plan Ahead! Grab a Picnic Lunch
You’ll be spending the day on the southwest side of the National Mall, where the pickings for lunch are slim. We suggest hitting Breadline (1751 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-822-8900), a short walk from Teaism, and packing a lunch for later. The lunch rush at this popular spot can be chaotic, but because you’re going in the morning you’ll find no lines and will have your pick of fresh salads and sandwiches on excellent bread. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the prosciutto with watercress, mascarpone, and fig jam on walnut-raisin bread. We also like the egg salad on olive bread.

9:15 AM: National Aquarium at the Commerce Department
Yes, you read that right—there is an aquarium at the Commerce Department. The entrance is on 14th Street between Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues, Northwest. It’s home to more than 50 tanks and 1,000 creatures. Exhibits include piranhas, sea turtles, sharks, and alligators. DC’s aquarium is not as big or fancy as the one in Baltimore, but kids still enjoy it. Plus, at $2.50 for kids and $5 for adults, it’s about a quarter of what you’d pay in Baltimore.

10:30 AM: Learn Where Money Comes From
At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (14th and C sts., SW), you can watch paper money being printed, stacked, and cut. If you’re lucky, you might also see White House invitations to special events or naturalization certificates, as these and other federal documents frequently run through the presses here. Tours are offered every 15 minutes and last about 45. During the off-peak season (September through February), tickets are not required; just line up at the entrance on 14th Street when you want a tour. Tickets, which are free, are required during peak season (March through August) and can be picked up at the ticket booth on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 8 AM on the day you wish you visit. We suggest sending one person in the morning to get tickets for the family to avoid a snafu. Tickets go fast, so plan to get there early.

Unfortunately, the building is closed on weekends and holidays. If you visit DC then, don’t worry—there are plenty of other museums just steps away on the National Mall. The closest are the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave., SW) and the Freer Gallery of Art (Jefferson Dr. at 12th St., SW), which together make up the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art. The castlelike Smithsonian Institution Building (1000 Jefferson Dr., SW)—sometimes called simply the Castle—is next to the Freer Gallery; you can take a tour of the building on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30 or just enjoy the architecture and gardens at your own pace.
11:30 AM: Take a Ride on a Merry-Go-Round
In front of the Smithsonian Castle is on old-fashioned carousel that runs year-round (weather permitting). It costs only $2, so let the kids take a spin—or two or three.

Noon: Lunch at the Washington Monument
Pull out your picnic lunch and, in nice weather, enjoy it on the grass in front of the Washington Monument. Sit back and relax, or toss a Frisbee with Junior. Aren’t you happy you planned ahead?

1 PM: Paddle Boats
Rent a paddle boat for an hour and work out your legs on the Tidal Basin. Two- and four-person boats are available for $8 and $16. Paddle boats operate daily March 15 through Labor Day and Wednesday through Sunday until Columbus Day weekend. Closed after Columbus Day weekend through March 14.

2 PM: Walking Tour of the Monuments
Take the afternoon to explore some of DC’s memorials. Starting at the Washington Monument, head south and walk the path around the Tidal Basin. Then walk west to the Lincoln Memorial, then back east past the Reflecting Pool, and end at the World War II Memorial. Here’s what you’ll see along the way (in order):
• Washington Monument
• Thomas Jefferson Memorial
• Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
• Korean War Veterans Memorial
• Lincoln Memorial
• Vietnam Veterans Memorial
• World War II Memorial

The loop is about 3½ miles long, so wear comfortable shoes and bring bottled water, especially in the summer. You have plenty of time to complete the tour, so feel free to sit, reflect, and rest at each monument.
5:30 PM: Dinner at Tonic
Your walking tour ends the World War II Memorial, then it’s off to Tonic (2036 G St., NW; 202-296-0211), a great spot for dinner with the kids. Hop in a cab or walk the few blocks to this the casual restaurant and bar that serves up kid-favorite bites such as mac and cheese, tater tots, pizza, and nachos with Cheez-Whiz. Parents—or kids with great appetites—can choose from a selection of specialty burgers, including one topped with guacamole and cheddar, or build their own turkey, veggie, or beef burger from a list of ingredients including smoked Gouda, Brie, and olives.

7 PM: Climb on Einstein
Before you call it a night, there’s one more thing you and the kids should see: the Albert Einstein Memorial. The bronze statue, showing a seated Einstein reading a manuscript, is located on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences on Constitution Avenue, just across the street from Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At 21 feet high, the statue makes a great jungle gym. Three of Einstein’s famous equations are written on his manuscript—including E=mc2—so if you’re feeling up to it, this could be a great time for a science lesson!

DAY THREE: LIONS AND TIGERS AND BOATS—OH, MY!
Your day starts at the National Zoo in DC’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, then it’s off to Georgetown for shopping, a ride on a mule-pulled canal boat, and a spin in a canoe.

9 AM: Breakfast at Open City
Hop on the Metro and head to the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan stop on the Red Line. Just steps from the station door is Open City (2331 Calvert St., NW; 202-332-2331), a sunny diner and coffeehouse. There’s something for everyone—even the pickiest of eaters—on the all-day breakfast menu. For parents gearing up for a day at the zoo, the coffee is good and strong.

10 AM: National Zoo
Your next stop is the National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Ave., NW), which houses more than 2,000 animals. The giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian and their cub, Tai Shan, are probably the biggest draws, but the reptile center, cheetah station, elephant and ape houses, and the new Asia Trail—with sloth bears, clouded leopards, fishing cats, red pandas, and more—are all top-notch. The best part? Everything is free.

Noon: Lunch
Your next stop is Georgetown, where you’ll spend the rest of the day. The fastest and easiest way to get there is by taxi, but if you choose to use public transportation, the best way is to take two buses. At the zoo’s Connecticut Avenue entrance, hop on the L4 bus going toward Dupont Circle and get off at the Dupont Circle Metro station stop. Be sure to get a bus transfer from the driver for each person in your group before getting off. From there, walk one block south on 20th Street to the intersection of 20th and P, Northwest. Get on the G2 bus heading toward Georgetown University and get off at the Wisconsin Avenue stop. This puts you in the middle of Georgetown. Total bus fare per person is $1.35; a cab will cost about $8 for a single passenger, plus $1.50 for each additional passenger.

To kick off an afternoon exploring Georgetown, grab a casual lunch at Sweetgreen (3333 M St., NW; 202-337-9338), a salad and frozen-yogurt spot just a couple blocks southwest of the Wisconsin and P bus stop. If the kids don’t like greens, they can order any of the designer salads made into a deceptively healthy grab-and-go wrap sandwich. And the all-natural “sweetflow” frozen yogurt—it’s the sweet-tart kind that actually tastes like yogurt—won’t induce a crash-and-burn sugar rush.

1 PM: Explore Georgetown
If the kids are up to it, there’s plenty of shopping this neighborhood. Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, Georgetown’s two main arteries, are home to many shops and boutiques. Retail chains such as H&M, Urban Outfitters, and J. Crew have found homes here along with smaller boutiques such as A Mano (for leather goods) and Wink (known for carrying designer jeans). Kids might like Piccolo Piggies (1533 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-0123), a children’s clothing and toy store.

If shopping doesn’t appeal to the little ones, the Georgetown Visitor Center (1057 Thomas Jefferson St., NW; 202-653-5190) might. At 11, 1:30, and 3 Wednesday through Sunday, you can hop aboard a mule-pulled canal boat for an hourlong tour of the C&O Canal. A tour guide in period dress gives you the history of the canal and explains what life was like for the people who lived and worked here in the 1800s. Tickets are $5 for ages four and up; under age four is free. Plan to get there 20 minutes before the boat takes off to get tickets. Reservations are required for groups often or more. The tour runs April 30 through October 31.

Can’t get enough of the open water? Rent a canoe on the Georgetown waterfront and to explore Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac. The 88-acre park, a tribute to the nature-loving president, includes a statue of Roosevelt surrounded by a memorial plaza. The rest of the island features a 2½-mile wooded walking trail and boardwalk over a swamp. Boathouses along the Georgetown waterfront, including Thompson Boat Center and Jack’s Boathouse, rent canoes by the hour and day. Thompson charges $8 an hour or $22 for the day; canoes must be returned by 6 PM. Jack’s charges $10 for each of the first and second hours or $35 for a full day; canoes must be back by sunset.

For more ideas of fun, food, and shopping in Georgetown, check out our neighborhood guide.
6 PM: Dinner at Westend Bistro
Treat yourselves to an early dinner at one of Washington’s newest hot spots—Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert (1190 22nd St., NW; 202-974-2900), from the New York chef behind Manhattan’s famed Le Bernardin. It’s in the West End Ritz-Carlton but doesn’t feel formal or stuffy; the fun, swanky vibe matches the bistro fare. At 6 PM, the place will just be filling up. Ask for a booth by the window where the fire station across the street will distract the youngest set as they share one of the city’s best burgers or a very grown-up crock of mac and cheese laced with ham. Parents who have never made it to Le Bernardin can get a taste of it in the pristine fish dishes and a salmon rillettes to spread on toast. Prices for appetizers range from $9 to $16, sandwiches from $14 to $18, and entrées from $18 to $24. Kids might want to order from the sides menu, where prices range from $7 to $10.

7:30 PM: End the Night With Family Fun
Head to the Foggy Bottom neighborhood and try your luck on the bowling lanes. The George Washington University’s Hippodrome, on the fifth floor of the Marvin Center (800 21st St., NW; 202-994-3866), features 12 bowling lanes, six pool tables, air hockey, and foosball. Billiards and air hockey cost $8 an hour per table; foosball is $6 an hour; and bowling is $5 a person per game plus $2 for shoe rental. The Hippodrome is open during the academic year only, from the end of August to mid-May.

In the summer and fall, you could also head down to the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art (700 Constitution Ave., NW) for free Friday-night jazz concerts. Take a blanket and find a perch among the dozens of sculptures or near the fountain. Refreshments, including wine and dessert, are available at the Pavilion Cafe. Concerts run from about 5 to 8:30 PM from late May to early October. Check out the Web site for more details and this year’s program.
Another nighttime option is a sports game. In the spring and summer, catch a baseball game at the new Washington Nationals Ballpark (1500 South Capitol St., SE; near the Navy Yard Metro stop on the Green Line). Evening games usually get under way between 7 and 7:30. Tickets start at $10; purchase tickets in advance here.

The DC United, Washington’s Major League soccer team, plays from the spring through the fall at RFK Stadium (2400 E. Capitol St., SE, near the Stadium-Armory Metro stop on the Orange and Blue lines). Evening games usually start between 7:30 and 8. Tickets start at $20; purchase here.

Fall through spring, Washington’s professional basketball and ice hockey teams, the Wizards and Capitals, play at the Verizon Center (601 F St., NW). Evening Capitals games usually start between 7 and 7:30, with tickets starting around $30; Wizards games between 7 and 8, with tickets starting at $40. Get tickets for the Capitals here and for the Wizards here.

DAY FOUR: EXPLORE PENN QUARTER
Spend the morning in DC’s Penn Quarter neighborhood, home to the International Spy Museum, then head to the National Mall to check out butterflies and dinosaurs. For dinner, it’s back to Penn Quarter for food and fun at ESPN Zone.

9 AM: Breakfast at Poste
Enjoy a filling breakfast that will fend off hunger pangs and requests for ice cream as you walk around all morning. Poste Moderne Brasserie (555 Eighth St., NW; 202.783.6060) is a sunny space in the stylish Hotel Monaco. Watch the open kitchen as cooks turn out your fluffy omelets and brioche French toast with berries. While most restaurants in the area are open only for weekend brunch, Poste opens at 7 Monday through Friday and at 8 on weekends. Prices for breakfast entrées range from $8 to $14.50, and for sides—like grapefruit and a bagel—from $3.25 to $5. A continental breakfast that includes coffee, juice, a fresh fruit plate, a croissant, and a muffin costs $13.95.  

9:45: Photo Ops
Before the museums open, take the chance to snap some photos with the family. Don’t miss Ford’s Theatre (511 Tenth St., NW), the site where John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Across the street is Petersen’s Boarding House, where Lincoln died the next day. A few blocks away at Seventh and H streets, you’ll find one of the last remnants of a once-bustling Chinatown: the Friendship Archway. The Chinese gate, designed by local architect Alfred H. Liu, features seven roofs, 7,000 tiles, and 272 painted dragons. It stands 60 feet high.

10 AM: Go Undercover at the Spy Museum
Head to the International Spy Museum (800 F St., NW; 202-393-7798) for a taste of espionage—real and Hollywood style. The museum requires a good amount of reading—a lengthy placard accompanies almost every exhibit and item on display—but you’ll get to see some real-life spy gadgetry, such as a pistol disguised as a tube of lipstick, alongside some of Hollywood’s renditions, like the 1964 Aston Martin outfitted for James Bond. The best part: Kids (and curious adults) can spy on museumgoers from above while crawling through the duct work in the ceiling. Tickets range from $15 to $18 depending on age; children under age five are free.

Noon: Lunch on the Fly
For lunch, give your wallet a break with something cheap and casual, such as the new ecofriendly On the Fly cart (southwest corner of Eighth and H sts., NW). Choose from sandwiches, salads, wraps, parfaits, and more. You can’t miss it—it’s big and green. Or try a salad or sandwich at Chop’t (730 Seventh St., NW; 202-347-3445) for something fresh and healthy (or not—if you go for the smoky bacon dressing).

12:45 PM: Art in the Garden
If you didn’t check out a jazz concert here last night, take some time to wander around the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden (700 Constitution Ave., NW), which features 17 works from the gallery’s permanent collection, including Claes Oldenburg’s giant typewriter eraser, standing 19 feet high, and the larger-than-life bronze-and-silver spider by Louise Bourgeois. The fountain in the center is a great place to take a rest if you just want to sit and relax for a few minutes.

1:15 PM: Dinosaurs and Butterflies
The building to the west of the sculpture garden is the National Museum of Natural History, a favorite stop for kids. It houses thousands of specimens in exhibits, including gems, fossils, birds, mammals, ocean life, and more. In the rotunda on the first floor is a life-size African male elephant, and upstairs is the famous Hope Diamond—both of which shouldn’t be missed. The butterfly exhibit, one of the museum’s newest attractions, features a live butterfly pavilion that you can stroll through and see and touch the butterflies up close and personal. Admission to the museum is free, but the butterfly pavilion costs $6 for adults, $5 for ages 2 though 12, and $5.50 for 60 and older; under two is free.

3:30 PM: National Air and Space Museum
If you can tear the kids away from the butterflies, you have time for one more museum. Across the Mall, on the south side between Fourth and Seventh streets, is the National Air and Space Museum. Within its 22 exhibition galleries are items such as the 1903 Wright Brothers plane, a V2 ballistic missile from the Cold War, a full-size Hubble Space Telescope vehicle, and the space suits worn by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on their visit to the moon. If you have time, you might also want to check out one of the Imax movies or a show at the Albert Einstein Planetarium. Admission to the museum is free, but tickets to the Imax theater and planetarium are $7 for ages 2 through 12, and $8.50 for 13 and older.

6 PM: ESPN Zone

Your visit to DC ends with a night at Penn Quarter’s ESPN Zone (555 12th St., NW; 202-783-3776). If you’re feeling up to it, you can walk there from the Air and Space Museum; it’s about a mile away. Just walk west to 12th Street and then head north. The restaurant is on 12th between E and F streets, Northwest. Or you can take a taxi or hop on a Yellow or Blue Line Metro train from L’Enfant Plaza to Metro Center. If you haven’t been to an ESPN Zone restaurant in another city, be prepared for a night of sports, big-screen TVs, and arcade games. The menu includes large entrée salads, sandwiches, burgers, and other predictable big-chain dishes, such as barbecue ribs and fettuccine Alfredo. But the food, though fine enough, isn’t really why people go. The biggest draw is the games, including table hockey, shootout basketball, and car racing. The kids will stay busy for hours.

Looking for more great things to do? Check out our other itineraries in our Plan a Visit section.

This article is part of Washingtonian.com’s Visitors’ Guide. For more articles like it, click here.