At first thought Washington, D.C. might seem an odd vacation destination for a family with young children – what is there to do in America’s political headquarters? It’s all work and no play, right? This couldn’t be further from the truth. Washington D.C. is truly a family vacation goldmine. This shining city that is America’s capital has one particularly special feature due to its high status: museums like the Smithsonian, National Museum of American History, Freer Gallery of Art, and even the National Zoo are all free! What’s more, some of America’s most important national monuments, the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the Constitutional Gardens and others are all packed conveniently into the National Mall. D.C. and its surrounding suburbs are where it’s at if you’re looking for a destination with an infinite amount of activities, entrance fees that leave your pockets full, and learning opportunities around every corner!
Washington’s National Mall is Gorgeous at Night
Access by Air
Flying into Washington D.C. can seem complicated when looking for flights because there are three different airport options: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), and Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD). None of these airports has particularly long wait times, but their locations can determine which is best for your vacation plans. Here’s the low-down on each:
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) – Reagan National is the closest airport to Washington D.C. and the place to fly into if you’re going to stay in the capital. Cab rides from here take about 15 minutes when traffic is low and cost around $20. DCA is the smallest of these three airports and only receives domestic flights so if you’re flying from outside of the country you’ll have to transfer at another international airport if you want to arrive at DCA.
Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) – Sitting about 26 miles from the capital is Dulles International, Washington’s biggest and most famous airport. With high-tech, quick-moving security checkpoints and more than 100 restaurants and shops, Dulles is the best option for families. Washington, D.C. is about a 45 minute drive from Dulles, and Fairfax County, which lies between the airport and the capital, is only 30 minutes away. For families who want to see D.C. as well as enjoy the many opportunities offered in northern Virginia, it’s a great move to rent a car and stay in a hotel or AirBnB around Fairfax so that you can have easy access to D.C. and the activities in the surrounding suburbs.
Dulles International is State-of-the-Art and Hassle Free
Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) – Baltimore Washington Airport is the furthest away at about an hour northeast of D.C. but this means it’s also the best for low-budget vacations as a result of its status as a major hub for Southwest Airlines. A taxi ride from here to D.C. will cost are $90.
The D.C. metro area always ranks top-10 in the country’s most traffic-heavy cities, but if you’re savvy this won’t be a problem. If you drive to D.C. or decide to rent a car, try to plan your trips so that you leave and return to D.C. between 10 – 2pm on weekdays to avoid traffic. One important thing to know is I-66 (the main highway into D.C. from Fairfax County and Northern VA) is HOV only during peak commute times – all lanes are HOV. Luckily this won’t be a problem for traveling families since there will always be at least two people in the car!
D.C. is also a great place to skip personal transportation and go public. The region has an extensive metro system that extends from Fairfax County into D.C. and up to two children 4-years-old and younger can ride free with each adult paying full fare. Plus parking is free at metro-operated lots on weekends and federal holidays. On most weekends, it’s easy to find a space at metro parking lots, but it can be challenging to find parking on weekdays due to the number of metro commuters.
D.C.’s Metro System Zooms Right By the Capital Building
Fall is such an amazing time in Fairfax county with so many farms and seasonal activities. Frying Pan Farm Park: Kidwell Farm is a must see for anyone with toddlers or kids interested in farm animals or farm equipment. And here’s the cherry on top: the animals are having babies this time of year! Cox Farms is another can’t-miss destination during fall. Opening on September 24 this year, its slides, hayrides, mazes, and market make for fun for the entire family. Another great outdoor option is Clemyjontri Park in Fairfax County. It’s a 2-acre park where every kid can play! It’s built so that kids with wheelchairs or other disabilities can play on everything too, it’s perfect for kids aged 3 to 8! It’s the best park in the region.
The Incredible Colors at Clemyjontri Park
If the weather is good and your family is up for a hike, try the Great Falls State Park in northern Fairfax county. Here you can take a two mile hike (and you can turn back any time if the kids get tired) which offers gorgeous views of George Washington’s Potomac Canal, and other beautiful scenes at the Great Falls and Mather Gorge.
Great Falls is Beautiful Year-Round
D.C. is an incredibly diverse city so there are many incredible eateries in store here for traveling families. One of the highest rated restaurants in Pizzeria Orso which is 25 minutes outside of the city in Falls Church, VA. With its creative pizza options, healthy menu, and free meals for kids on Tuesdays, this place is always a hit with traveling families. Lost Dog cafe (our favorite is the N. Arlington location at 5876 Washington Blvd, Arlington, VA) has great pizza and craft beer and is very kid friendly. The walls provide great decor for entertaining kiddos too.
The Pizza at Orso is Thick!
If you’re in D.C. and need a bite to eat you have to check out Ted’s Bulletin, a Family Restaurant which offers an extensive menu for adults and a kids menu with all entrees under $6. And when it comes to beverages, Ted’s is where it’s at – order one of their world famous milkshakes for the kids to share while you sip on their expertly crafted cocktails.
You Won’t Forget a Ted’s Bulletin Shake Anytime Soon
Another great option in the capital proper is the Commissary restaurant, but make sure tummies are hungry because these meals are hearty! The kids meals are affordable here but when we go we like to order family style – sharing a salad, a pasta, and pizza is more than enough for a 4-member family.
There is one go-to option for excellent excursions in the D.C. area – the National Mall. Bring the kids along and introduce them to our country’s most hallowed spaces – the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the D.C. War Memorial dedicated to the soldiers who fought in World War II.
Every American Needs to Walk the National Mall
Once you’ve gotten the National Mall experience, don’t miss the White House Visitor Center. It’s important for American children to see the country’s most iconic building and get a sense of what life is like for the President and his family, after all, they will see this building on the news over and over again throughout their lifetimes! The next stop on a historical tour of D.C. is the National Archives where they will get to look at and learn first-hand about the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights. Other important documents housed here include the Louisiana Purchase and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Get a Glimpse of Presidential Life at the White House Visitor’s Center
Once you’ve seen some of America’s historical sites it’s time to take advantage of the incredible museums and activities D.C. offers, most of which are subsidized by the government. The Smithsonian Institution has it all – it’s the largest museum and research complex in the world and offers 19 different museums and galleries to check out.
The Smithsonian Gardens are Gorgeous Too!
A must-see for small children is the National Zoo, which offers free admission and is open 8am – 5pm and houses all kinds of species from american alligators, beavers, bison, lions, tigers, and bears, oh yes! The zoo also provides excellent learning opportunities like the “Coral Lab” where kids can learn about under-water environments, “The Inside Story” which shows x-rays of different animals to show how they eat move and play, and “Elephant Trails” which discusses elephant life at the zoo and efforts to save the Asian elephant.
Children Love the Pandas at the National Zoo
Other attractions kids always love are the National Air and Space Museum where they can learn about the Wright Brother’s experiments at Kitty Hawk, America’s path to space exploration, and current military unmanned aerial vehicle technology. One must-see exhibit is the “Voyage – A Journey Through Our Solar System” which ventures to illustrate the great distances and challenges we face on our path towards planetary exploration.
There are Many Incredible Machines at the National Air and Space Museum
Last, but not least, is the American Natural History Museum where families can learn about about the vast life we are just beginning to discover under the sea at the “Living on an Ocean Planet” exhibit, or the “Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt” which covers the religious ideas and process of creating a mummy from the body of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. This list only scratches the surface so make sure to pay this incredible museum complex a visit!
A Massive T-Rex Awaits Visitors at the American Natural History Museum
Washington, D.C. is a walking city, so it’s important to have a stroller even for children who might be pushing the the limits of stroller age. You won’t want to cut your day short because some little legs are tired – especially because all of the above attractions are just as interesting for adults as they are for kids. It’s important to note that cribs can be hard to secure at hotels. Hotels typically don’t have many available, and when they do, cribs are often outdated or actually pack ‘n plays rather than full-size wooden cribs.
For those families who want to see D.C. and enjoy the surrounding suburbs and the fun activities they offer, the right move is to rent a car. For families with small children this makes renting car seats vital. Most rental car agencies overprice their car seats, offer outdated gear, and take minimal steps to sanitize their gear, so consider renting from a baby equipment rental service instead. Babierge DC/Fairfax has car seats for littles one of all ages and great strollers for single kid families or for families with multiple children. Plus, they deliver to you right at the car rental service counter!
Nicole Kitzman is a Babierge Independent Trusted Partner, renting baby gear to traveling families out of Washington, D.C. Nicole and her children have ventured all around D.C. and Northern Virginia and have all the insider knowledge for other visiting families. Find her at: http://www.babierge.com/dc or follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BabiergeDC.