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Visitors’ Guide: Three Days in Washington, DC, with Kids

Trying to plan a fun-filled, kid-friendly long weekend? We have you covered.

The giant pandas are the biggest draw at the National Zoo, and kids love them, too. Photograph by Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian National Zoo.

Day 1: The Mall and the White House

Breakfast: Le Bon Café

Grab a seat at one of the outdoor tables at this small Capitol Hill cafe for a plate of French toast, a waffle, or a made-to-order egg sandwich; or pick up a croissant or bagel to enjoy on your walk to a day full of sights.

AM: Tour the Capitol Building

Touring the Capitol takes a little planning. Tour slots are free and can be booked online as late as the day before; a small number of same-day tickets are available at the information desks on Emancipation Hill.

The basic tour includes a short history lesson and an introduction to the building. The House and Senate galleries are also open to visitors, but you’ll need to arrange separate passes ahead of time through your senator or representative. The Visitor Center is also open 8:30 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday, and you can stop in to the exhibit hall, the cafeteria, and the gift shops any time.

Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian. Photograph by Leonda Levchuk/National Museum of the American Indian.

Lunch: Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian

We know, a museum cafeteria isn’t what you had in mind—but the stations here serve up dishes inspired by the ingredients and cooking of five Native American groups. Sample bison strip loin or mole-braised chicken prepared with herbs from the museum’s garden, or grab some chicken tenders for the kids. The full menu (including beer and wine) is available until 3 PM.

PM: The National Air and Space Museum

The most popular museum in the country, Air and Space holds the world’s largest collection of air and spacecraft along with interactive flight simulators, a planetarium, and an Imax theater. Just beyond the Mall entrance is the Milestones of Flight entry hall, which runs through the history of aviation with Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, and the North American X-15—the first aircraft to break Mach 4, 5, and 6—as well as the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia.

Don’t miss the Golden Age of Flight gallery, which includes Howard Hughes’s H-1 racer, or the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight wing on the second floor, which celebrates people who achieved significant “firsts” in flight.

If You Have Time: Ride the Smithsonian’s Carousel on the Mall

This oldest carousel in DC sits in front of the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall, and is open 10 AM to 5:30 PM daily. Rides on this beauty are a fun way to give your legs a rest.

Before Dinner: Walk Past the White House

Tours of the White House are hard to come by and must be planned well in advance, but anyone can walk by, marvel, and snap a photo in front of the famous home without prior arrangements. And across Pennsylvania from the northwest corner of the President’s lot, you’ll find the Blair House, which plays host to visiting dignitaries. Check for a foreign flag hanging by the door to figure out who might be staying inside, and maybe even catch a glimpse of his/her motorcade.

Dinner: Old Ebbitt Grill

This Washington institution provides a bit of history along with excellent oysters, a solid cocktail list, and a $7 kids’ menu. In business for 156 years, Old Ebbitt is famous in equal parts for having the best Bloody Mary in Washington and for hosting presidents Grant, Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The National Air and Space Museum offers a comprehensive look at the history and evolution of flight. Photograph by Randy Santos.

Day 2: Monuments, Museums, and the Tidal Basin

Breakfast: On the Move

Grab a light breakfast at or near your hotel before getting ready for some serious sightseeing. It’s worth packing some snacks, too, since you’ll be walking a fair amount.

AM: Monuments Tour

A 1.5-mile stroll from the paddle boat dock around the west side of the Tidal Basin will take you past the Jefferson, FDR, and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials. After that, choose from the following for pictures and glimpses of the country’s history:

DC War Memorial

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

World War II Memorial

Washington Monument

Tip: Though the monuments look close together on a map, the walk can turn from enjoyable to exhausting in a hurry. Consider stopping by the Washington Monument or the World War II Memorial during one of your other visits to the Mall to keep from making any particular sightseeing experience too long for the kids to handle without complaint.

Lunch: Paul

Casual French cafe and patisserie Paul opened its US flagship in Penn Quarter in May 2011. The order-then-sit-down eatery offers mostly sandwiches, soups, and salads along with a huge variety of house-made breads and pastries.

Museum of Natural History. Photograph by fstockfoto /

Next: Explore the National Museum of Natural History

Nearly as popular as the Air and Space Museum, Natural History sits on the Mall and houses more than 126 million items. Highlights include a 13-foot Fénykövi elephant from Angola that sits under the central dome of the rotunda, the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond in the Gems and Minerals gallery, and a Imax theater that shows nature movies on a six-story-high screen.

Admission, as with all Smithsonian museums, is free; for $6, you can also visit Butterfly Pavilion to view hundreds of live butterflies and moths.

If You Have Time: Head to the Museum of American History

For everything from Dorothy Gale’s ruby slippers to the original Star-Spangled Banner and Thomas Edison’s 1879 lightbulb, stop by this museum of all things American. The first floor focuses on transportation, technology, and innovation, and includes the first car ever driven across the country. On the second floor, don’t miss the original Greensboro lunch country from the 1960 sit-ins, and on the third floor, make sure to stop by the “American Stories” gallery.

Take a Break at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden

Give your weary feet a rest while taking in the art at this picturesque spot on the Mall. Vendors nearby sell water and ice creams, and adults can enjoy art by Joan Miró, Louise Bourgeois, and more.

Dinner: Hill Country

This buzzing barbecue spot offers child-friendly clamor, as well as juicy spareribs, baked beans, and crumbly cornbread. Kids can feast on Texas sheet cake for dessert, while adults can indulge in some of the spicy signature cocktails.

If You Have Time: Take in City Views at the Old Post Office Tower

The Old Post Office Pavilion was built on Pennsylvania Ave in 1899, and part of the structure is a 315-foot clock tower which offers 360 degree views of the city, including the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and others. National Park Service Rangers give free tours every day, and no reservations are necessary. The tower closes at 8 PM daily.

Take a stroll along the C&O Canal. Photograph by Skip Brown/Getty Images.

Day 3: Visit the Zoo and Spy Museum

Breakfast: Firehook

Begin your day with coffee and baked treats at this Washington mini chain by Cleveland Park Metro. More than ten different kinds of bread are baked fresh daily, and the menu includes everything from flaky cinnamon bear claws to blueberry-studded muffins. There’s even a spacious patio out back for breakfast al fresco in fine weather.

AM: Explore the National Zoo

Just down Connecticut Avenue from Firehook is the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, home to 2,000 different animals from 400 species. The indisputable stars are the two giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who are on loan from China through 2015. Other highlights include the Great Cats exhibit featuring Sumatran tigers and African lions, a Great Ape house, and Amazonia: a 15,000-square-foot rainforest exhibit with a 55,000-gallon aquarium. The Kids’ Farm also offers opportunities for little ones to touch and learn to care for animals.

Lunch: Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza

Take the Red Line to Gallery Place and visit this cozy spot, where the kids’ menu includes healthy options (red pepper and carrot strips with Parmesan dipping sauce) alongside miniature versions of the house specialty: cheese and pepperoni pizzas. On the grown-up menu: sliced melon with prosciutto, calzones with sausage and peppers, and pizzas with pesto, shrimp, and roasted pine nuts.

The International Spy Museum. Photograph courtesy of the museum.

PM: Visit the International Spy Museum

The International Spy Museum—founded by a Korean War codebreaker to provide some insight into the spy trade—includes an hour-long interactive experience called “Operation Spy,” during which visitors become US spies searching for a device that triggers a nuclear bomb. Tickets to the Spy Museum are available at and are $19.95 for adults and $14.95 for kids (though children six and under are admitted for free).

Dinner: Ping Pong Dim Sum or Rosa Mexicano

The sharing plates at Ping Pong Dim Sum mean kids can pick and choose as they please, sampling crispy duck spring rolls, fluffy potato cakes, and steamed pork buns. Rosa Mexicano’s Young Amigos menu offers child-friendly chicken fingers, shredded beef tacos, and quesadillas.

Dessert: Grab a Cupcake at Red Velvet or Gelato at Pitango

You’ve had three days of full-on activities, so you’ve earned a treat or two. Red Velvet’s signature cupcakes include cookies and cream, devil’s food, and peanut butter cup, while the gelato at Pitango can be souped up for adults with a shot of espresso.

  • Ginger

    Yes, we could use suggestions on where to stay. There will be 7 of us traveling together including a four yr. old little girl.

  • Tracy

    Any suggestions on where to stay in DC. We are a family of 4.

  • Lynda

    Thank you for these suggestions. This will be the upteenth time I've visited DC, but the first with three nieces in tow. You have really helped me to decide what to do!

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