My husband recently had the opportunity to present at a conference in Washington, D.C. So, on a whim, we decided to take the whole family. We had never before considered Washington, D.C. as a vacation destination – a mistake on our part. Beyond its aesthetic beauty, Washington, D.C. offers a number of sightseeing opportunities to visit with kids, especially on a travel budget, because the city offers so many worthwhile free attractions.
We only had three days to spend in the city and we packed in as much as we could. Cheap accommodations in Washington, D.C. may be hard to come by, but the cost for a hotel is mitigated by the many free attractions for children and adults.
Consider seeing some of the following attractions, which are free (or extremely cheap) to visit.
Visit government buildings in Washington, D.C. to learn more about our country. These government buildings inspire awe in children and adults:
1. The White House
You can tour the White House, but you must first seek permission from your local member of Congress, preferably six months in advance, and no later than 21 days in advance. The White House offers tickets on a first-come, first-served basis, so do not delay your plans. The White House denies most requests during the busy spring and summer seasons. They only offer a limited number of passes, and there is a high demand to tour the White House during these months. In addition, the White House sometimes closes for certain events.
The self-guided tour typically takes about 30 minutes. For information including contact info, time schedules, security screening details, and a list of prohibited items, check out the National Park Service’s webpage. This tour is recommended for anyone age 5 and older.
2. Supreme Court of the United States
When court is not in session, you can take a tour of the Supreme Court and learn about the building’s history and architecture, and about the judicial responsibilities of the Court. In addition, you can watch a film that includes interviews with current and former Supreme Court Justices and check out the rotating exhibitions. During our trip, the court featured a comprehensive exhibit on Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Tickets are not required, but visitors are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis.
3. Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Kids and adults alike will enjoy watching a blank sheet of paper transforming into paper currency during a factory tour at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). You can also watch employees examine, cut, and stack the money. The BEP offers tickets on a first-come, first-served basis from March through August. You can get free same-day tickets at Raoul Wallenberg Place. This popular attraction often runs out of tickets by 8:30 or 9 a.m., so make sure to arrive early. From September to the end of February, you do not have to get tickets to visit the BEP.
4. U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol tour allows visitors to walk through the building where representatives and senators work and vote on bills, nominations, resolutions, and treaties. The free tour of the U.S. Capitol begins in the underground Visitor’s Center. You will watch a 13-minute video about the history of the Capitol before being led upstairs to the Rotunda, the connecting area between the House and Senate.
In addition to its architectural significance, many deceased presidents’ bodies have laid in state in the Rotunda. While visiting, make sure to stop by the United States Botanic Garden, which is also free of charge. To go beyond the Visitor’s Center at the U.S. Capitol, you must make arrangements through your local Congressman’s office. Visit the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center website to make arrangements for a comprehensive tour.
5. Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building)
Take a free one-hour tour of the Thomas Jefferson Building, which houses magnificent architecture and art. Inside, you will find fascinating artifacts including the $5 bill that was in Lincoln’s pocket when he was assassinated, a collection of Bibles, and books from Jefferson’s library. This collection may not sound very exciting, but our family really enjoyed the tour.
6. National Archives
When you visit the National Archives, you can see important documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Seeing the signatures of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Hancock, among others, is awe-inspiring. While you can wait in line for the free first-come, first-served tickets, you can also reserve your tickets online for a convenience fee of $1.50 per ticket. You may want to reserve tickets for this popular attraction, especially during the busy season.
National Monuments, Memorials, and Landmarks
Some people recommend viewing the memorials and monuments at night when they are lit up. During the day, you will still find majesty in these national monuments, memorials, and landmarks:
7. D.C. by Foot
If you want the inside scoop on the memorials at the National Mall, take the free D.C. by Foot tour. The expert guides’ tips are highly recommended. Some of the tours include More than Just Monuments, the Lincoln Assassination Tour, and the Arlington National Cemetery Tour.
8. Lincoln Memorial
The famous 19-foot tall Lincoln Memorial sitting in a chair is a powerful display. Walls inscribed with The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address flank Lincoln’s statue. Just the sheer size of this display conveys the importance of Lincoln as the president who kept the nation together during one of its most volatile times in history. I had a much deeper appreciation for Lincoln and the near impossible task he had of keeping a feuding nation together after visiting the memorial.
Take note, the marble steps can be slippery for little feet. While kids of any age can visit, my 7-year-old son soaked in some of the quotes on the walls and asked questions about Lincoln and his presidency. Kids aged 6 and older appreciate this memorial more than smaller children.
9. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Just walking beside the impressive, awe-inspiring Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and seeing all of the names in section after section, gives one true appreciation for all those who gave their lives in that war. Off to the side of the memorial is a tattered book that lists the names in alphabetical order, and gives their ages, hometowns, and where to find their names on the wall. Sadly, you’ll find that many were very young men, in their teens and early twenties.
Additionally, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial website lists the birthdays of those memorialized on the wall, as well as the names of the soldiers who died on the anniversary of the day you visit the site. You can also discover other interesting details, such as the name of the first soldier killed in the war, and, unfortunately, that his son also died in the war nine years later.
This memorial wall is best for those seven and older because they can better grasp its significance. Keep in mind that for many people, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is akin to visiting a cemetery where a loved one is interred. Caution children about making too much noise during your visit; you will likely see a number of people using graphite pencils and paper to collect images of names from the wall.
10. Arlington National Cemetery
The Arlington National Cemetery is another stirring landmark, with white headstone after white headstone aligned in perfect order. President Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and world champion boxer Joe Louis are buried here.
While visiting the cemetery, make sure to visit the Tomb of the Unknowns. You may want to schedule your visit during the Changing of the Guard, which takes place every hour between October 1st and March 31st, and every half-hour between April 1st and September 30th in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns. This elaborate ritual takes about 10 minutes; the precision in the ritual changing of the guard made us more deeply appreciate the sacrifice made by these unknown soldiers.
This hallowed place is revered by visitors. Even though this cemetery bustles with people, most quietly and respectfully walk amongst the graves. Nearly 100 funerals take place at the cemetery each week, so please ask children to respect the mourners. Also, you cannot drive through the cemetery. Parking costs $1.75 for up to three hours.
11. National World War II Memorial
This National World War II Memorial has 56 pillars, one for each state or territory of the U.S. in existence during World War II. Most touching is the wall of 4,000 stars – each star represents 100 U.S. soldiers who died during World War II. Take the opportunity to walk down into the center of the monument to see a pool with water fountains. From here, the pillars tower overhead.
My children loved this memorial, and the little ones wanted to go in the pool! While they couldn’t appreciate the history of the memorial, they could appreciate the beauty and peacefulness of the setting. My aunt and uncle visited on Memorial Day and were touched by all of the World War II veterans who congregated at the memorial.
12. The Washington Monument
The George Washington Monument is 555 feet tall and offers a view of 30 miles. In addition to tours, kids can run off some energy on the lush, grassy grounds. Tickets are free and required for everyone two and older. Tickets are offered on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 8:30 a.m. and can quickly run out for the day during the busy summer and spring seasons. Sometimes the line for tickets begins as early as 7 a.m.
You can reserve tickets online at the National Park Service ticket website for a fee of $1.50 per ticket. Your tickets will be available to pick up at the will call window of the Washington Monument Lodge.
13. Thomas Jefferson Memorial
An iconic memorial, this one features a large statue of Thomas Jefferson. The walls surrounding him showcase four of his most important writings, including an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial mirrors the architectural style of his home, Monticello. While children of any age can see this monument, it would be of particular interest to students learning about American history and the Revolutionary War in school.
14. Korean War Veterans Memorial
The Korean War Veterans Memorial features 19 statues of soldiers armed for combat and in various poses of action, in addition to a 164-foot wall engraved with the saying, “Freedom Is Not Free.” The wall features photos of hundreds of soldiers who served in the war.
This exhibit really brings focus to who the people who served, and their great sacrifice. The memorial is great for kids age 4 and older.
15. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
As the United States of America’s longest-serving president, FDR holds a unique and important place in history. The 7.5-acre Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial was dedicated in 1997 by President Clinton. The memorial has several sculptures in four outdoor gallery rooms to represent each of his terms as president. The sculptures represent issues FDR had to handle during his presidency, including the Great Depression and World War II.
In addition, this is the only memorial that includes a first lady, and is also the first memorial that is completely wheelchair accessible. The memorial is immersed in the natural beauty of the city and filled with cherry blossom trees. If possible, visit in the spring when the trees are in bloom.
16. Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial)
This impressive sculpture, the Marine Corps War Memorial, is the largest bronze sculpture in the world and is situated outside Arlington National Cemetery. It stands in memory of all U.S. Marine Corps soldiers who have died in battle since November 10th, 1775. It is one of the few memorials required to fly an American flag 24 hours a day.
17. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial
A new memorial dedicated in October 2011, this is the first memorial dedicated to a person of color and presents Martin Luther King, Jr. in a 32-foot granite stone. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument is the only memorial at the National Mall that is not dedicated to a former president. The display is surrounded by newly planted cherry blossom trees and a wall engraved with some of his most famous quotes.
To keep your kids engaged during your trip, the National Park Service offers children the chance to become a junior ranger. Print off this booklet and have your child fill it out during your trip to the National Mall and surrounding areas. When it is completed, he or she can take it to a ranger station and get a badge to become a junior ranger.
Washington, D.C. is a haven for museum buffs. The museums offer some of the most comprehensive collections in the world, and include:
18. National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History was one of our favorite stops on our vacation. We spent two hours in the museum, but it was not enough time. My seven-year-old son loved the array of cars and trains from different eras, and enjoyed learning about the history of the steam engine in the Ford Transportation area. He also enjoyed the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, as he recently learned about the War of 1812 and learned the words to the song at school.
I enjoyed the display of the inaugural gowns of many of the first ladies. Other items on display include the chair Archie Bunker sat in, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. With two hands-on play areas, this museum is fun for children of all ages.
19. African American Civil War Memorial and Museum
The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum is dedicated to the African-American soldiers who served in the Civil War, and documents their role. Another nice feature is the Descendant Registry, which helps people find relatives who served in the Civil War.
20. National Museum of the American Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian is one of the newer Smithsonian museums, and offers a printable guide for families to help their children make the most of the experience. An exhibit that opened at the end of October 2011 documents the way Native American lives were altered by the introduction of the horse. This exhibit runs through January 2013.
21. National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery displays portraits of the 43 former presidents and provided details about their presidencies. For example, you can learn more about the three presidents who died before serving a full year in office.
My son liked the portraits, and he was intrigued by the brief stories about each president’s time in office. However, there was a large collage picture of President Clinton that actually scared my 2-year-old and made her cry! While my two smaller children enjoyed looking at some of the portraits, they quickly became bored. My 7-year-old, on the other hand, stayed interested and engaged during our entire visit. There are many other displays, so plan to spend up to two hours in this museum.
22. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a section for smaller children, but a woman I spoke with took her 7-year-old son through that area and he was still deeply affected and troubled by the exhibits. The museum suggests the Permanent Exhibition area is best for children 11 and older. For children 8 and older, they have a family guide that suggests activities you may want to do with your child when visiting.
Free passes are required during the busy months of March through August. During that time you can wait in line for first-come, first-served passes, or you can reserve tickets online for a fee of $1 per ticket. On the scheduled day and time of your visit, simply bring the tickets with you and avoid the line.
23. National Air and Space Museum
Before we left for our trip to D.C., several people suggested we visit the National Air and Space Museum. You can walk through the Wright Brothers exhibit, complete with the original Wright Flyer, or take turns touching a lunar rock. There are plenty of hands-on activities for kids. Admission to the museum is free, but there are fees for the IMAX movies, planetarium shows, simulators, and some other programs.
24. National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History caters to young visitors. There is a butterfly garden, as well as dinosaurs and elephants to view. There are also Discover Stations, which provide hands-on activities for kids including the “Tooth Fairy,” which lets kids compare and contrast the teeth of ancient and modern sharks. Adults will be impressed with the Hope Diamond on display, among many other attractions.
25. National Postal Museum
The National Postal Museum tracks the history of the U.S. Postal Service from its very beginning to today. Kids enjoy plenty of hands-on exhibits, including getting into a stage coach and delivery truck, and using a computer game to simulate mail sorting. In addition, stamp collectors will appreciate the large display of postal stamps.
26. National Children’s Museum (coming soon)
The National Children’s Museum is slated to open in 2013 and anticipates 600,000 visitors annually.
Historical Sites and Attractions
Steeped in history, these historical sites and attraction offer something for everyone in your family:
27. Ford’s Theater
Ford’s Theater is the site of President Lincoln’s assassination. This is still a working theater, so check the schedule carefully, as the theater sometimes closes for performances and rehearsals. In the basement there is an impressive museum that documents Lincoln’s presidency. Topics covered include the Civil War, the death of his child Willie – which happened while Lincoln was president – and details about life in the White House. You could easily spend 30 to 60 minutes reading the information in the exhibits.
When you leave the basement, head upstairs to the Ford Theater and look through plexi-glass at the theater box seats where Lincoln and his wife were sitting when he was shot. My son and I both liked this tour, and afterward, we read more about Lincoln’s assassination.
Tickets for both the Ford’s Theater and Petersen House are free and offered on a first-come, first-served basis. However, during the busy spring and summer months, you may want to book your tickets in advance. Ticketmaster is the ticketing agent, and there is a fee of $2.50 per reserved ticket.
28. Petersen House
Located right next to the Ford’s Theater, the Petersen House is where Lincoln was taken after he was shot and where he died nine hours later. The house is now maintained by the National Park Service, and they have the room set up to look exactly the way it did when Lincoln died. It is quite an experience to stand in this location and imagine the drama and tragedy of that night.
29. Frederick Douglass Home
Frederick Douglass spent his life as an abolitionist and civil rights activist after he escaped from slavery. Douglass’s 21-room house is a bit off the beaten path, but it offers spectacular views of Washington, D.C., and the house is furnished exactly the way it was more than a century ago. Touring the grounds and Visitor Center is free, but if you want to tour the inside of the house, tickets must be purchased in advance for $1.50 each. You can purchase the tickets online or by calling 1-877-444-6777.
30. Washington National Cathedral
This church is beautiful and steeped in history. It was the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last sermon and the funeral services or memorials for 15 presidents since 1893. See the interesting timeline on the cathedral’s website.
31. St. Matthew’s Cathedral
This Roman Catholic Church was the site of President Kennedy’s funeral. In addition, St. Matthew’s Cathedral has been cited as having one of the most beautiful church interiors of modern times.
32. The Kennedy Center
Deemed a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy, this building was being built under Kennedy’s watchful eye in the years before he was assassinated. After his death, the building’s name was changed to The Kennedy Center in respect to Kennedy and his lifelong support of the arts. You can tour the building and see magnificent views of the Potomac. In addition, there is a free performance on the Millennium Stage every day at 6 p.m.
33. National Zoo
The National Zoo is one of the few zoos in the United States to have giant pandas, which are rare. Some people visit the zoo just to see the pandas. In addition, the zoo offers a glass-enclosed gorilla exhibit that lets your family stand just steps away from the gorillas. There are also several other exhibits that let people get close to the animals. Public transportation is recommended – parking for three hours or less is $16, but parking for more than three hours is $22.
34. Rock Creek Park
At Rock Creek Park you can find a free planetarium with shows that cater to children age 5 and older. Additionally, the park features daily activities specifically designed for kids: children can assist feeding animals (including turtles and snakes), learn to make corn husk dolls, or go on a hike with rangers who explain what life was like for Civil War soldiers.
The Rock Creek Park is free to visit. Be advised that the planetarium and nature center are only open Wednesday through Sunday.
35. National Theater
On Saturday mornings at 9:30 and 11 a.m., catch a free show for children age 4 and older at the National Theater. There is a different show scheduled every week. The shows vary, but have included magic shows and puppet shows.
Ways to Get Around Washington, D.C.
Like many cities, Washington, D.C. offers a variety of ways to get around. One mode of transport not recommended for use during your visit is a vehicle. Parking seems nonexistent in the city, so take advantage of these other ways to get around:
- Walk. Washington, D.C. is a very accessible by foot, so I highly recommend walking. You get plenty of exercise seeing all of the sights, and most attractions are completely accessible for strollers or wheelchairs. Be advised that the city has many hills, which may represent a challenge for some pedestrians, as well as for those pushing strollers or wheelchairs.
- Bike. A company called Bike and Roll offers bike rentals. On average, these cost $10 to $15 for two hours, with an additional $5 to $7 charge for each additional hour, or $30 to $35 for the entire day. The cost of a bike rental includes a helmet, lock, bike rack, and map.
- D.C. Circulator. If you stay outside of downtown Washington, D.C., use the D.C. Circulator to take you downtown for only $1 per person per ride.
- Metrorail and Metrobus. The base fare for the subway and bus is $1.95. The buses and subway trains are clean and easy to use.
Best Times to Visit
Any time is a good time to visit Washington, D.C., but you will find smaller crowds if you visit from September to February. Also, the weekend hotel rates are more reasonable than the rates for Monday through Wednesday.
There are some unique features about visiting Washington, D.C. during the off-season:
Enjoy the beauty of the cherry blossoms when you visit in springtime. The National Cherry Blossom Festival begins in mid-March and runs through the end of April. In addition, temperatures are still fairly mild, so you can enjoy strolls around town. Be advised that this season does have a fair amount of rain.
The temperatures are comfortable in the 70s, and because Washington, D.C. is a city with plenty of trees and green land, you can enjoy the beautiful sight of the leaves changing color.
Winter and Holiday Season
Be prepared for beauty if you visit Washington, D.C. in December. True, the days are colder, though they rarely go below 30 degrees, and the sky may be cloudy. But you can enjoy sights like the lighting of the National Christmas tree, and take in the free performances in the park south of the White House.
There is no wrong time to visit the nation’s capital. However, if you go in the summer, be prepared for longer waits – many people recommend visiting in the fall and spring when most of the tourists have gone home and it is easier to get into the attractions.
Regardless of when you decide to visit, Washington, D.C. is a city steeped in history, and the perfect place to take a family group vacation. Your entire family will find dry textbook history lessons coming to life as you spend each day visiting the many historic sites – the majority of which are free.
Have you visited Washington, D.C. with your family? What historic sites do you recommend?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)