Plan a trip to Washington DC your kids will love!
I spent every summer in Washington DC visiting my grandparents with my mom and sister. I remember walking millions of miles every trip and I remember whining about all that walking. After college, I moved to DC for work and loved living in a place the whole world wanted to visit! More than 20 years later, I brought my husband and kids to the city I love, planning a trip to Washington DC that would allow them to experience the beauty and significance of DC without endless walking and endless whining. I knew I could make it more manageable because I knew the city. Before I share our Washington DC itinerary, let me first share a little more of my history with DC and why this beautiful city is such a part of me.
My History with Washington DC
My Grandpa owned Star Vending, one of the ice cream and food vendors on the Washington Mall. Summer was his busy season, so my Mom, sister and I came to visit with my Grandma, sightsee, and shop. I wish a Grandma Yellow Hair and Grandpa Pick for everyone. Grandma was a five-foot-tall firecracker who always had a smile on her face, laughter at the ready, and dancing as part of the conversation. Grandpa was more behind the scenes because he worked so hard. He pretended to be a crotchedy old man who would get mad when you stole his favorite chair, but he had a soft heart and liked to tease me and call me “Heathen”. Grandpa had to be at work in the wee hours of the morning, so he’d get up and tiptoe around us strewn about the floor of their tiny one-bedroom apartment. In the evenings, he’d come home with brown lunch bags full of money for us to count and leftover ice cream treats for us to eat. My sister and I couldn’t decide which to be more excited about – the bags full of cash or the ice cream!
Our trips to DC revolved around Grandma and my Mom talking and laughing up a storm and getting lost every time we got in the car to go shopping or sightseeing. My overwhelming memory of DC is walking – all over the Mall, all through what seemed liked hundreds of Smithsonian Museums, and through every single cultural festival my mother could find. We were going to be cultured even if it killed us! DC was cool, but man was it exhausting.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina, I followed a close friend to DC. I found my first real job and rented a crazy cool basement studio I couldn’t afford in a beautiful Georgetown brownstone. Grandma and Grandpa were still in DC six months out of the year, but their time was dwindling as my Grandpa was ready to retire and move to Florida full-time. I had a year or so with them before they left – what I would realize later was priceless time having Sunday dinners alone with my Grandparents. As a grownup. Not as a kid listening to my mom and grandparents talking. But as a grownup learning about Grandma and Grandpa as people and them learning about me. I even drove my Grandma to North Carolina to see my mom once and listened to all the stories of my grandparents’ partying days. It was like they were part of the "Rat Pack" with glamorous parties and late nights dancing and drinking. It’s pretty unusual to find out your grandparents were out-partying you!
My annual summer visits to DC and having my grandparents close by made it easy moving on my own to such a big city. I worked out by Dulles Airport and lived in the heart of Georgetown. Running hep me learn my little part of the city. I ran along the Potomac, on the Mall, around Georgetown University, in Rock Creek Park. I ran in awe of all the history, beauty, and significance around me. But then my grandparents retired and left. And my best friend left. And after two years, I realized I needed a plan for my life and decided to go to grad school. I left DC in 1995 to get my MBA at Indiana University. I came back to DC 23 years later with my husband and kids.
Playing tourist on the Washington Mall, my BF Mandy, my college friend Rhonda on the front stoop of my Georgetown apartment.
We planned our first family trip to DC over Fall Break (mid-October).We thought the weather and the crowds would be easy in October - not too hot and not too crowded - and we were right! We drove to DC from our home outside Indianapolis (about a 9½ hour drive) so we could take the kids’ bikes and so we’d have a car when we needed to see sites outside the city. Out of our five days there, we used the car for two of them, so it was worth it for us. But you can definitely see DC without a car. We stayed at The George, a Kimpton Hotel, because we like boutique hotels, and because The George is in a prime location - walking distance to the Capitol, the Washington Mall, and Union Station.
Here's our itinerary!
Day 1: Eastern Market shopping, Udvar-Hazy Center (Air & Space Museum by Dulles Airport), Arlington Cemetery, Grandma Yellow Hair’s apartment, Georgetown
Our first day started out rainy, so we made it a car day. Eastern Market in Adams Morgan was our first stop as I had always wanted to shop there but never did. On weekends, Eastern Market is a foodie’s dream and art festival all-in-one. We bought fresh, piping hot homemade doughnuts for breakfast and walked around looking at all the art and jewelry.
When we were shopped out, we drove out to the new Air & Space Museum by Dulles Airport (officially called Udvar-Hazy Center, although no one calls it that). My husband is a pilot for Fedex, so we had to do both Air & Space Museums. I had never been to this new one, but I think I like it better than the one on the Mall. The Museum is actually two large hangars displaying thousands of aviation and space artifacts, including a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a Concorde, the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the first Fedex airplane. The sheer scale of it all is awe-inducing. We pretended to humor Daddy with our “oohs and ahhs,” but it really was cool. We also watched an IMAX movie about D-Day and participated in a competition for kids. You only need a couple hours here, but we thought it was well worth the drive. If you're going to do lunch here, McDonald’s is the only option.
We then headed back toward the city, stopping at Arlington National Cemetery for a mostly solemn walk through the grounds. The sheer magnitude of all those tombstones was sobering for us all. We sat by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a while and tried to explain how so many soldiers are never identified and forever lost.
Afterward, we hopped over to my Grandparents’ old apartment building in Arlington – 2121 Columbia Pike. I will forever remember that address. When Grandma and Grandpa lived there, they had a greeter at the front desk who would call me “Buttercup” before she buzzed us in. Sadly, now there’s no greeter; just a keypad entry. I told the kids about how Grandma would always have balloons taped to the door of her apartment to greet us as well as Froot Loops and Oreos, food we weren’t allowed at home. I pointed to the pool on the rooftop deck where we would swim every summer and where we watched the bicentennial fireworks in 1976 when I was almost six years old. I was a little weepy remembering it all and lamenting the fact that I have no living grandparents anymore. Oh how I wish I realized how important they were when they were still on this Earth.
Next stop: Georgetown! Ava took her second nap of the day in the car while I showed hubs and Brady my old stomping grounds. We got out near 30th and P where my first apartment was – a basement studio in a beautiful Georgetown brownstone. The new upstairs owners were out decorating for Halloween, so we chatted for a bit and asked them to take some pictures for us. We completed our day of sightseeing and reminiscing at Washington Harbor on the Potomac at the “bottom” of Georgetown. I have many memories of single girl nights out at the Harbor as well as many runs along the Potomac. We had an amazing dinner outside at Farmers Fishers Bakers, a place we would return to for lunch on our last day, because it was that good.
Day 2: International Spy Museum and downtime
The Spy Museum wasn’t around when I lived there, but I had heard it was a “must-see” now for kids, so we walked over after breakfast. Tickets are around $25 per person, so this is one of the few things you'll do in DC that costs money. We thought it was worth it! Because we had just seen the D-Day IMAX movie the day before, all the WWII spy exhibits were even more compelling. We spent a couple hours exploring, reading, and playing in the museum and even lost each other for a while. Daddy loved the James Bond exhibits best, me WWII, and the kids loved the tunnels they got to crawl through as well as the hang competition. Both kids decided they might be spies when they grow up. We overstayed our welcome in the gift shop where I bought quite a few Christmas gifts, and then we walked around the corner to Shake Shack for lunch. Yum.
We gave ourselves some downtime that afternoon – ipads, books, napping – which was probably a good thing given the rest of our days were packed. For dinner, we cabbed to Firefly in Dupont Circle for dinner, because Yelp said it was a great place for kids. Firefly has a tree inside the restaurant and lets the kids decorate their own cookies for dessert. Sounds like the perfect family restaurant, right? Unfortunately, we found the service to be quite poor and the food not much better. Wish we had gone to Pizzeria Paradiso instead! They have a few locations, but the closest is in Dupont. Go there instead!
Day 3: Biking the Mall – Air & Space Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Sculpture Gardens, World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Korean War Memorial
Biking the mall was at the top of my list for the kids because I wanted to show them DC quickly and easily, have fun along the way, and do it on our terms vs. being part of a tour. We brought the kids’ bikes and intended to borrow the hotel’s adult bikes for us. Unfortunately, the Kimpton bikes were out for maintenance, so we rented bikes right by Union Station. I’m not sure if kids’ bikes can be easily rented, but check into it, because our biking day was one of our favorites. DC has paths and sidewalks everywhere, so once we got to the Mall - about a block from our hotel - I was completely comfortable with us all being on bikes.
We biked over to the Air & Space Museum, locked our bikes, and went in. After doing the Udvar-Hazy Center, the kids weren’t as excited about this one and went a bit stir crazy. (See pictures below.) But hubs was excited to see it all again, and we bribed the kids with another IMAX movie and candy. We probably spent more time at the airport Air & Space, but they’re both worth seeing. Because all the Smithsonian’s are free, you can check out whatever interests you and spend as much or as little time there as you’d like! Coming from Chicago where we lived for 16 years and where you spend $150+ for a family of 4 to get into one of the big museums, I find it so amazing that all the Smithsonians are free!
After the museum, we played kickball on the Mall (yes, we brought a ball with us just for that purpose), and took funny pictures and ran around like crazy people. Hunger was calling, but the Air & Space restaurant was closed for renovations, so we headed next door to the National Museum of the American Indian for lunch. The space – indoors and out - is breathtaking. Go inside and look up. The quiet and the beauty almost make it seem like we shouldn’t be in this sacred space. Go outside and walk around. It looks as if the building is carved out of swept sand.
Lunch was yummy and very different than anything you’ll find from the vendors. When the kids got in trouble for bouncing the ball by a hand-carved Indian canoe, we knew our time was up. We went down into the Smithsonian Sculpture Garden for more funny pictures, then we got our bikes and set off for a real bike ride down the Mall.
We felt like locals instead of tourists as we flew by all the walkers. We rode by all the Smithsonians without stopping (kids didn't want to do any art museums, and I didn't force it), we rode by the Washington Monument (no tours up due to maintenance), saw the White House from a distance, and then stopped at the World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004, long after I left DC. The Memorial is stunning – a semicircle of 56 granite pillars for the 48 states at the time plus the U.S. territories. We rode around the plaza, took pictures with Daddy in front of the Philippines pillar, and stopped at the Freedom Wall. This Wall has 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in the war – almost half a million lives lost. That number seems staggering, but it pales in comparison to the total estimate of 75 million people who died in WWII. In front of the wall lies the message, "Here we mark the price of freedom."
We kept riding down the Mall following the Reflecting Pool. The kids were winding down, so we only paused at the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (my favorite) before stopping at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s truly incredible how much we could see in a day on our bikes. I remember walking that route when I was a kid. 😳
We biked back along the Mall to our hotel and rested a bit before dinner. Daddy and I were craving ethnic food, so we trekked to Indigo for Indian fare, a cool hole-in-the-wall place with a cult following (according to Yelp). Ethnic food was a gamble for my kids, but luckily, we all ended up LOVING our meal despite not quite knowing what we were ordering!
Day 4: National Zoo, Comet Ping Pong
We got the car out again and headed to the National Zoo to see the panda bears! You can’t be that close to pandas and not go visit when you have an animal lover like my daughter. The Zoo is quite lovely – very hilly, nestled in the woods, not crowded at all. We spent what felt like hours watching the baby orangutans play before finally finding the pandas. The zoo is a nice relaxing change of scenery from all the history and culture of DC. And it’s free to boot! If you’re a zoo connoisseur, you may not be impressed, but there’s pandas!
For dinner we had already scouted out Comet Ping Pong, which is right around the corner from the zoo. Ping pong, pizza, beer – you can’t go wrong! We were quite happy there and even talked about how we should open up our own version in Zionsville, Indiana. Anyone want to partner with us? The pizza was amazing, the beer was cold, the ping pong was entertaining, and even the dessert was outstanding! A winning day all around!
Day 5: Pedicab tour – Embassy of Canada, the Capitol, Washington Monument, White House, Jefferson Memorial, MLK Memorial, FDR Memorial, Albert Einstein Memorial plus Capitol tour, Botanic Garden, National Archives, National Museum of American History
When we arrived in DC, I started looking for an interesting tour we could do. Yes, even I sometimes plan last minute! Friends had recommended the Monuments at Night tour, but the only options were on a big bus (yuck) and lasted until super late at night 😴. I also heard the electric cart tours were cool - more personal and easier than the bus tours - but those were all sold out. Pedicab tours were available and sounded amazing, so we splurged on the Kids Adventure tour with Barry at Adventure DC Tours. It was the highlight of our trip!
Barry picked us up at our hotel in the pedicab. He was on a bike with all four of us in the back in a cab. We felt a little ridiculous at first – like we should be helping him – but we got used to it. It was a very chilly morning to be in an open-air pedicab, but we had coats and Barry had lots of blankets for us. He was fun, engaging, and knowledgeable and took us places we would have never seen on our own. Our first stop was the Embassy of Canada because its courtyard includes the Rotunda of the Provinces, an echo chamber surrounded by a waterfall designed to represent Niagara Falls. We all took turns yelling to hear the echoes and walked around the pretty courtyard. We then got back on the bike and headed to the Capitol for pictures outside and lessons in the architecture. Barry then “snuck” us onto the rooftop of an office building (he had a key card) to get the best bird’s eye view pictures of the White House and Washington Monument. Then we were off to the Jefferson Memorial, which the kids hadn’t seen yet because it’s a bit out of the way. The Jefferson was always my favorite during my runs along the Potomac. I loved the curved dome vs. the hard edges of the Lincoln Memorial, and I loved to see it lit up at night across the Tidal Basin. After that, the last stops on our tour were all new to me!
The MLK Jr. Memorial opened in 2011 and is a 30-foot high Stone of Hope with Dr. King carved out of it. He stands past two pieces of granite that are meant to symbolize the mountain of despair from his I Have a Dream speech. “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” A 450-foot-long inscription wall surrounds Dr. King and includes excerpts from 14 of his speeches and sermons. The kids ran around while I read each and every quote and marveled at how focused Dr. King was on love, equality, justice and peace – quite a contrast from our current leader and the political rhetoric today. Here’s a few of my favorite quotes that are inscribed at the Memorial:
“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” 1959
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” 1963
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” 1967
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” 1964
“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 1968
Next up was the FDR Memorial, which I had never heard of even though it was dedicated in 1997 when I was still in DC. Barry said this Memorial is lesser-known, because it’s more secluded and because FDR wasn’t a flashy figure - but it’s his favorite. I can see why. The FDR Memorial traces the 12 years of FDR’s four terms as President. Four outdoor rooms, each with a waterfall that grows more complex as the years go by, reflect the complexity of FDR’s presidency during the Depression and WWII. For those of you wondering about him being in office for four terms, the Amendment limiting the President’s terms to two was not ratified until 1951.
1st term 1933-1937: The Great Depression – Bread lines “In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice … the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.”
2nd term 1937-1941: The New Deal – Fireside chats “I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.” “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
3rd term 1941-1945: WWII – “I hate war.” “We have faith that future generations will know here, in the middle of the twentieth century, there came a time when men of good will found a way to unite, and produce, and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war.”
4th term 1945: FDR’s Legacy - He died that year at the age of 63. “The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation…it must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”
You probably remember that FDR was paralyzed as a young man (39) from an undefined illness, although experts today believe it was Guillain-Barre syndrome. FDR’s wife, Eleanor, said this about him: “Franklin’s illness…gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons – infinite patience and never-ending persistence.”
After the two Memorials on the Tidal Basin, it was back into the heart of DC to our last stop, the Albert Einstein Memorial, which is in front of the National Academy of Sciences. We took some kooky pictures of us on the statue, said goodbye to Barry there, and grabbed a cab to Union Station for a quick lunch at Roti and Potbelly’s before our private Capitol Tour.
A couple months before our trip, I had contacted our congressman in Indiana to reserve a free private Capitol tour and try to get White House tickets. They booked us for the Capitol tour and put us in the lottery for White House tickets, but we didn't score those. For the Capitol Tour, we met in the Indiana Congressman’s office where a Page greeted us and walked us to the underground train that Congress takes to the Capitol. The train ride alone was worth the tour! Then we bypassed the hundreds of people waiting in line for the mind-numbing group tours and walked right in with our Page. She wasn’t a wealth of knowledge, but she knew enough to keep us interested. And she was flexible. When we saw the kids getting bored, we asked her if we could head back. You certainly can’t do that with the group tours! The Capitol is beautiful and huge and parts of it are really interesting, while other parts just look like a big building. But it’s something you need to see once, and it’s definitely worth an email to your Congressman to reserve a private tour!
Afterward, we found snacks and then popped into the Botanic Garden, which is right outside the Capitol, to let Ava take a gazillion pictures of flowers. Because it was our last day, we powered through and hit the National Archives to see the Declaration of independence and the National Museum of American History to see the First Lady dresses. Finally, we headed back to our hotel so Daddy and the kids could rest while I met an old friend for drinks. Dinner was around the corner at the Dubliner – decent food and live music but not lively enough to keep Brady awake at the table.
Day 6: National Bureau of Engraving, drive to Shenandoah National Park
Before we left the city, we drove by the Bureau of Engraving to see if we could get tickets for first thing that morning. Tours are free, but tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis and are a hot commodity. Getting there before 9am worked and we got in with the first group. I loved this tour when I was a kid and remember drooling over all the money! It was the same with Brady and Ava – definitely a highlight of the trip! Bring your own money for souvenirs here!
We went back to Washington Harbor in Georgetown for an al fresco lunch at Farmers Fishers Bakers. It was just as delicious the second time! Then it was back in the car for a 2½-hour drive to Shenandoah National Park where we rented a tiny house in the woods for the night. We explored our house (took about two minutes) and we hiked the woods surrounding the camp before heading into town for food we could cook on the campfire. The pickins’ were slim. We loved the novelty and cuteness of our tiny house, but by the next morning as we were all getting ready and packing up in the same space, I decided that maybe tiny houses are not our thing.
We made our way home full of culture and appreciation for our country, and we rejoiced finally being home with our fluffy dogs who are not cultured in the slightest.
For next visit:
Holocaust Museum when the kids are older. Get free tickets in advance if you’ll be there during Spring and Summer.
Smithsonian art galleries (especially Portrait Gallery)
African American Museum – new and very popular. You need timed passes to visit. They’re free but were sold out when we were there, so book in advance.
Electric cart tour (in place of pedicab tour) or for Monument Tour at night. Book in advance.
Heather Vergara is a former PepsiCo marketing executive who left the corporate world to be a Mom and never went back. In addition to family, Heather is passionate about kindness, community, travel and adventure, whole food, and sweating every day. Heather has an MBA in Marketing from Indiana University, a Digital Marketing Executive Education certificate from Columbia University, and a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives with her husband, two kids and two furry dogs in Zionsville, Indiana.