Ultimate guide to things to do in Washington DC with kids
The compact U.S. capital punches well above its weight for attractions for families.
The National Air and Space Museum is home to enormous planes, flight simulators and hands-on activities, the Library of Congress is packed with everything from the Wright Brothers’ flight logs to magic books from Harry Houdini’s personal collection. The National Museum of American History has Spark!Lab, a hands on interactive exhibit for kids, while the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is abuzz with everything from insects and dinosaurs to giant diamonds and a Live Coral Reef. And if that’s not already enough museum action for your family, 007 wannabes should head to the International Spy Museum.
There are plenty of opportunities to soak up the sun in the great outdoors too with surrounding National Parks and nature centres offering an insight into the natural habitat of the area. And the Tidal Basin, located in the heart of Washington DC, is the spot for picnics, paddle boating and a visit to the Jefferson Memorial. If you’re seeking bigger thrills, Six Flags theme park boasts 100 rides, shows and the area’s largest water park.
Of course, no trip to Washington DC would be complete without a visit to The White House, and to the National Archives to see the original Declaration of Independence along with interactive exhibits that allow you to touch and explore America’s history. But it’s not only pandemonium of the political variety that can be found in the US capital – head to the National Zoo to meet Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Bao Bao, the zoo’s famous pandas.
Top things to do in Washington DC
There’s no shortage of national treasures to explore in Washington DC.
Things to do in Washington DC with…
Get outside to enjoy Washington DC’s pretty parklands and zoo with the kids. The Glen Echo Park near Bethesda is particularly great for little visitors with so much more than just space to explore. Enjoy a puppet show at the Puppet Co. or a children’s theatrical performance at Adventure Theatre along with year-round concerts and the gorgeous Dentzel carousel (that runs from May through September). At Guy Mason Park there’s a fantastic pre-school friendly playground with low structures, an igloo, playhouse and large sandpit. Or just let the kids chase the ducks at Georgetown Waterfront Park or splash in the fountain during summer in this sprawling city park.
And littlies will adore visiting the National Zoo to see the collection of more than 400 different species of animals, including giant pandas, elephants, lions, giraffes, bears and orangutans. And admission is free.
The Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History is a must for kids. Packed with fossils and dinosaur skeletons that will have the kids roaring and stomping in delight. There’s also a Discovery Room with hands-on displays where younger kids can touch and feel natural artefacts and dress up in costumes from around the world. The Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, located in the Ripley Center on the National Mall, offers live theatre for kids with classic stories retold through puppet shows, dance, music and mime. Visit the Draper Spark!Lab, where kids can invent and create new things or step back in time at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where you can explore the first President’s former home and garden and head in to the Hands-On History Room to dress up in period costume and explore activity boxes. And at the United States Botanic Garden explore the seasonal Children’s Garden where you can dig, enjoy botanical art classes and more.
The National Air and Space Museum features a massive 23 galleries where you can explore the largest and most significant collection of aviation and space exhibits in the world including planes, satellites, lunar rockets and even the starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame. Plus, there are interactive simulators, where you can experience flying on an agile aircraft complete with stomach churning upside-down rolls, and motion-based virtual reality rides.
At the enormous National Museum of American History you can see everything from President Lincoln’s top hat and Michael Jackson’s black fedora to Dorothy from The Wizard of Ox’s ruby slippers and even Harry Potter’s Hogwarts robe.
Or if you’re feeling more mysterious, unleash you inner 007 at a museum focused on espionage. At the International Spy Museum you can sign up for secret missions, test your spy skills and even diffuse an atomic bomb.
Active teens can explore the city in so many different ways. Hire a bike and take in the sites of Washington with DC Sites on two wheels. There’s even a cool Night Bike Tour to see the city at its illuminated best. Head off to explore on a Segway with City Segway Tours or a hire a kayak or canoe from Thompson Boat Center or a stand-up paddle board or pedal board from Capital SUP to see the national monuments from the water. Take a spin on The Capital Wheel at National Harbor, a 54-metre tall observation wheel for another different perspective on DC.
If you want a break from all that peddling and paddling, sports loving teens must make the pilgrimage to Nationals Park for a ball game and one of their famous DMV Hot dogs, a footlong half-smoke hotdog with Maryland crab cheese and Virginia ham.
Best time to visit Washington DC as a family
Washington DC, the capital of the United States, has four distinct seasons. The busiest times of the year are generally autumn, from September to Thanksgiving in November, when the cherry blossoms begin to appear. Then again from mid-January to June when Congress is ‘in’ and the hotels fill with guests visiting for business and conferences, which can make it both crowded and expensive.
Summer, especially the months of July and August are typically hot and humid and not the best for exploring the outdoors. However, there are plenty of indoor attractions like museums filled with cool air and the crowds are smaller.
Winter can be unpredictable. The days can be anything from mild to very cold with snow falls and even the occasional ice storm. Autumn is our favourite season as the city trades its green leaves for the brilliant colours of the fall foliage.
Family-friendly places to eat in Washington DC
Dining with the family does not have to be stressful in Washington DC. While there are a few restaurants that are strictly child-free zones, the majority will welcome a hungry horde.
From full service to fast and casual takeaways or even sugar fix at a doughnut shop, Washington DC has you covered. You will find it easiest to eat either at, or close to all the major attractions where many of the family-friendly restaurants include a kids’ menu and offer entertainment for the kids.
Try Jaleo, in Penn Quarter, for tapas served on a glass-covered foosball table. Comet Ping Pong is awesome for pizzas, amazing deserts and… ping pong. And at Mitsitam Café, located near the Smithsonian, you’ll find a menu inspired by foods from Native American regions. Then there are the popular chains like Hard Rock Café, and Shake Shack for burgers and truly irresistible shakes.
Things to do for free in Washington DC
- The list of monuments and memorials to visit for free in DC is plentiful and includes the Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and United States Capitol, along with the White House.
- For a little art and culture, visit the National Art Gallery or the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden – a fun place with changing exhibitions.
- With over 4,000 plants and themed displays from desert to rainforest, the United States Botanic Garden is a wonderful place to explore and enjoy a picnic. Rock Creek Nature Center and Planetarium has hikes (particularly beautiful in fall), an interesting nature centre and the planetarium for ages 5 and over. There are free tickets available to planetarium show at the Nature Center up to a half hour before each show.
- If you are planning to visit paid attractions consider purchasing a Go Washington DC Explorer Pass to save up to 40 percent on admission fees.
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Janeece Keller is the founder and editor of Family Travel. She mostly travels with her husband and two young kids. She has a large blended family that lives in Australia and Europe. She has visited 52 countries and lived on 3 continents. From camping to luxury resorts Janeece tries to make sure her family has diverse holiday experiences each year. She is an avid hiker and ocean swimmer who loves good food, margaritas and heading off the beaten path.