8 Fun Washington, D.C. Activities with Kids
You might want to read our Local Mom Tips for Washington, DC
The Top attractions in Washington, D.C. are well documented: the zoo, the monuments, the capitol, the museum with Dorothy’s ruby slippers. But let’s face it, the heat and huge crowds keep the zoo’s animals well hidden in summer. Kids have limited interest in monuments and kids have to be at least so old before they are interested in seeing democracy in action. We’ve been to D.C. enough that we’ve covered the basics and have also had a chance to explore some lesser-known attractions that are great for families.
Here are the things we’ve liked on recent visits to Washington, D.C.
The Bureau of Printing and Engraving
Find out how the government makes money–literally. On the 30-to-45 minute tour we got to watch greenbacks being printed, inspected, counted and stacked into huge pallets. It’s definitely not something you see every day.
Tip: Tours are weekdays only. During the summer, arrive early to get your free tickets (at 9:30 a.m. we got a 12:45 p.m. tour). Pick up free tickets on 14th St. SW and enter for your tour 15 minutes before it starts on 13th St. SW.
The USDA Cafeteria
Getting up early to get our BPE tickets meant skipping breakfast, so the ticket booth guy suggested we visit the USDA cafeteria on C street near 12 St. SW. I was intrigued.
It’s essentially a company cafeteria so be ready for steam-table buffet. But the price is right and a colorful fruit-and-yogurt bar is handy for getting something healthy into your kids. A pleasant seating area has high ceilings, big windows and vintage USDA posters, which reflect our evolving ideas about nutrition and health.
Tip: On summer Fridays the USDA also runs a farmers market across from the mall on 12th St. SW. With produce, sweet and savory baked goods, pickles and locally cured olives, it’s a good place to stock up for a picnic on the Mall.
Jazz in the Sculpture Garden
On summer Fridays, the National Gallery hosts free jazz concerts in the sculpture garden from 5:00 to 8:30. Light food, beer and wine are for sale. Kids can explore a big fountain and large artwork and find some grass to run around on. It’s a kid friendly way to feel like you’re doing something grown-up.
Saturday Morning in Alexandria
I love walking around Alexandria, just outside of Washinngton, D.C., and Saturday morning is a great time to do it. We start at the farmer’s market on King and S. Royal streets. In late June, the market was bursting with local produce. We bought peaches, tomatoes and salty southern style ham to bring home. We also bought ham biscuits, raspberries (black and red) and mini cherry pies to eat on the spot for breakfast.
Then we head toward the water to explore the Torpedo Factory, a gallery space full of colorful, kid friendly art and crafts. You might even see the artists at work. On the 3rd floor we found the tiny Alexandria Archeology Museum, which let you play archeologist with activities like piecing together shards of broken pottery. Tucked behind the factory is a grassy waterside park where kids can run around and feed ducks.
Tip: A free trolley runs the length of King Street but it’s fun to walk a little, check out the shops and pick a spot for lunch. We like Eammon’s, a Dublin style chip shop where Rich and I share a plate of cod and chips and the kids’ meal comes with an ice cream cone.
If you have a car and kids under 10, cross the Potomac from Washinngton, D.C. into Fairfax County and head to this impossibly huge and colorful playground. One of the most special-needs-accessible play spaces in the country it offers a carousel, a maze, dozens of things to climb, swing and bounce on, and shaded picnic pavilions for taking a break.
Tip: If you like good Asian food, head to Eden Center, a strip mall filled entirely with Vietnamese restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores and shops about 20 minutes away in Falls Church. Options range from simple banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) and noodles to elaborate seafood dinners.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival
This world music, food and culture festival (top; 2009) takes over the mall for ten days in June and July and is one of the biggest annual events in Washington, DC. Each year it highlights the music, dancing and food of one particular country (this year it’s Hungary). Then there are smaller venues with music, story telling, crafts, fashion and family activities from diverse cultures. There were Indian, Native American, Latino and Hungarian foods stalls and a Hungarian beer tent. TT insisted on visiting the chicken & waffles truck twice.
The food and feature country’s music continue most nights until about 9:30—we got a lesson in Hungarian folk dancing one evening (above)—but most of the other activities wind down by 5:00 or 6:00. This is a shame because the Mall is blazing hot during the day and far more tolerable in the evening.
Tip: If you go with kids, shoot for a one-to-three hour stretch of activities and then head to your hotel pool or one of the air-conditioned museums nearby to cool off. Bring water, bug spray and sunscreen.
I admit I have a hard time taking some modern art seriously. So walking through this gallery with a 5.5-year-old was highly entertaining. Tiny Traveler admired a giant Warhol painting of flowers, commented that one series of pictures “looks like scratch art!” and was openly bewildered and amused by sculptures like a cascade of dry cleaning hangers.
Different Museum Dining
On our last visit we finally had a chance to try the much-praised Mitsitam Café at the Museum of the American Indian. Different stations feature ingredients used by regional tribes through North America. Dishes from the southwest take on Mexican shares (think corn, tomatoes and chicken). While the Northwest foods feature salmon, and plains food might include buffalo. It’s still museum-cafeteria quality food, but you’ll find things you and your kids will eat. It’s handy and better than yet another mediocre salad or turkey burger.