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 with tough security in place it can be hard to see 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 things to do that are great for families.
Here are ten things we’ve liked on our many visits to Washington, D.C. that you might not know about. (Read our tips on finding good hotel deals in Washington, DC.)
Our Top Ten Washington, DC Family Activities
A wonderful company called Boating in DC has seven boat houses around the city that offer dragon, swan and plain peddle boats as well as kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, sailing lessons and sculling boats. A staff member told us that the National Harbor is a great place to kayak with kids because there is undeveloped shoreline nearby where you can see a lot of wildlife. We had gone dragon-boating in the harbor a day earlier however, so we decided to push off in kayaks from their Key Bridge location. Tiny Traveler perched on the front of one of the two single-person kayaks we rented (they’re super stable) and we set off up river.
We looked up at the rooftops of in Georgetown (The views are probably better in the fall when there is less foliage) and actually saw a deer munching on leaves on shore. At a cluster of small rocky island we spotted a large strange bird, saw a kayaker fishing and some SUPers swimming. Tiny Traveler got out out climb on the rocks before we headed back down river. At one point a group of ducks surrounded us, probably looking for food. Starting at about age 8 you can try renting a double kayak with a child, just plan on doing most of the paddling and steering.
Tip: Since at most locations you are parking on the street I recommend quick-dry or bathing suit shorts. There are lockers where you can put shoes or some clothes at this location, but no places to change.
After our kayaking we stopped into Mal Maison a funky cafe right under the bridge that is popular with cyclists. They have good pastries, coffee and iced tea and we discreetly used their bathroom to change into dry shorts.
2. 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. At 6YO Tiny Traveler was initially interested but was bored before the short tour was over. I’d say 8 to 10 and up is best because those kids can appreciate the technology and anti-forgery efforts that go into designing the bills.
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.
3. 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.
4. 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, while you take in the music and a glass of wine. It’s a kid friendly way to feel like you’re doing something grown-up.
5. The Hirshhorn
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.
(Read our tips for visiting Smithsonian Museums with kids.)
6. Saturday Morning in Alexandria
We 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 the two books stores near the Kimpton Lorien Hotel and eating at 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. Virtue Feed & Grain is a big space near the water with a good beer selection, appetizers and root beer floats. It feels more family friendly than some of the other area pubs.
7. Clemyjontri Park
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 playgrounds 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.
8. Smithsonian Folklife Festival
This world music, food and culture festival 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 (the year we want it was Hungary). Then there are smaller venues with music, storytelling, 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.
9. Rainy Day at the National Building Museum
If you’ve run through the most kid-friendly Smithsonian museums and need an inside day, head to the National Building Museum a few blocks away from the mall. You have to pay admission, but given how hard it was to get 9YO Tiny Traveler out, it’s worth it. The building was originally the Civil War soldiers pension office (you can see remnants of this use in some of the rooms and the staircases scaled for wounded soldiers). The soaring atrium has hosted inaugural balls and temporary exhibits (top), and they don’t seem to mind kids getting their ya-yas out by running around in it. If you get there early enough you can take a building tour.
There is a Building Zone for 2-to-6YOs (ask for timed tickets when you go in) and the Play Work Build room for kids 7 and up. We left Tiny Traveler happily building with Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and blue foam blocks of various sizes while we checked out some of the grown-up exhibits. These included an exploration of timber, a retrospective on the American house and a display of elaborate paper building kits (Think of the Sagrada Familia or the Roman Baths in England rendered in folded paper),
10. Unique 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 flavors (think corn, tomatoes and chicken). While the Northwest foods feature salmon and plains food might include buffalo. It’s still a museum-cafeteria, but you’ll find things you and your kids will eat and it’s a change from the usual mediocre salad or turkey wrap.
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