Last summer, I ran a list of 12 Uncharted Tips for visiting Washington, D.C. with kids. We just returned from another visit to the city in which I lived and worked for ten years, and we were able to delve a bit deeper into its many offerings. Each trip back with the kids is a learning experience, so here I share my latest set of tips and ideas for visiting Washington D.C. with kids:
*If you can manage it, visit Washington, D.C. in the springtime. The emergence of the pink, cottony cherry blossoms that heralds the end of winter seems to lighten both the atmosphere and the spirits of the city’s residents (except for members of Congress, but that’s another story). Following the cherry blossoms, D.C.’s mild, not-yet-sweltering temperatures bring out tulips, lilacs, dogwoods and azaleas in rapid succession, everywhere you go. Especially if you’re traveling from a place like New England where the four seasons are sometimes known as winter, winter, winter and road construction, a spring visit to D.C. provides a welcome salve to the winter-chapped soul.
*Tourist food: Do as I say, not as I do. In my last set of tips, I advised you to bring your own food to tourist sites like the Air & Space Museum in order to avoid paying the absurd concession prices for junk food. This is solid advice you should follow. Ahem. I did not do this. Thus we paid $4.00 per slice of pizza at the National Zoo, which I found appalling until we paid $7.00 for a slice of pizza at Mount Vernon. Someone make me go to the grocery store before sightseeing next time, or at least to an off-premises Subway sandwich shop. Yikes.
*We were able to take in a few sights with our 11 and 8-year-old kids that we wouldn’t have tried in earlier years. When the kids were younger, they might have fussed too much and/or simply wouldn’t have appreciated a tour of the U.S. Capitol building–including a visit to the House of Representatives Gallery and the old Supreme Court Chamber or a trip to the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (and a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta). And yes, certain aspects of the history-filled Capitol were lost on them. But they are old enough to understand the building’s importance, they loved some of the stories they heard and eleven-year-old “Jack” was fascinated by the Whisper Chamber, where two people can stand in specific spots on opposite sides of the room and whisper a conversation to each other. Also, we were fortunate to be given a rare dome tour of the building, where we climbed the 300 or so steps to the top of the Capitol’s dome. When we stepped outside at the top–and I swear on my American heart I am not making this up–a bald eagle flew in front of us, circled for a bit, then soared off over the city’s horizon.
*The National Museum of American History was a sleeper hit. My husband and I decided to forego museums we’d done on a previous trip for this one, one of the Smithsonian’s many free museums on the Mall. The kids whined at us. “We don’t want to go to American History,” and, sadly, I knew that telling them they’d see Archie Bunker’s chair wouldn’t entice them. Instead, we simply insisted. We headed straight for “the real Star-Spangled Banner,” a.k.a. the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. The kids couldn’t help but be won over by this impressive display. From there, we explored other parts of the museum, with Jack reading an entire history book on what amounted to a giant tabletop iPad and eight-year-old “Emmie” finally getting her wish of seeing a typewriter in a museum. (At which point I took out my walker and my Geritol…) She also loved the oversize doll house and the first ladies’ dresses.
*Other points of interest we made it to on this trip: Mount Vernon, which is George Washington’s well-preserved estate near Alexandria, Virginia. This takes much of a day to tour and is well worth a visit. Wear comfortable shoes and bring a camera; the General had a fantastic view. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, also known as the place they print the money. It’s fun to see the process here, and kids and adults alike will take at least a few seconds to gawk at the huge stacks of uncut bills: “Wow, that’s really $64 million?” We walked through the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, which only takes a few minutes, is right on the Mall and has something to engage everyone. The famous Lincoln Memorial, and the new Korean War Memorial, both of which are very moving. If you walk from the Lincoln to the Korean War Memorial, then keep going toward the Tidal Basin (one of my favorite spots), you may come across a small patch of ground that many locals don’t even know about called the Tulip Library. (Apparently it may now also be called the Floral Library.) At the right time of year, this patch is planted with over eighty varieties of tulips, and the splashes of color are as beautiful as you’d imagine. Finally, after our time at Mount Vernon we stopped off along the George Washington Parkway and crossed on foot to Roosevelt Island. There’s an imposing memorial in the center of the wooded island, and though the fountains are turned off now due to damage from the 2011 earthquake, it’s still a pretty place for a little family hike. We even squeezed in a virtual geocache activity.
*Finally, of course, we had to return to The National Zoo. Because it’s The Zoo. Highlights from my kids: We heard a lion roar and we saw a panda poop. If that’s not a successful day at the zoo, I don’t know what is.