Washington D.C. has so many fun things to do with kids, it’s almost too much! We’ll show you how to navigate all the options to have the most fun in Washington D.C. with kids. The capital of the United States is super family-friendly- after all, all the national museums are free! It can be overwhelming choosing what to do or see. Here are our top tips and recommendations to help you plan the best trip to D.C. possible.
Washington D.C. is one of the stops on our Epic Cross-Country Road Trip for summer 2021. We’ve updated as of June 2021.
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Where to stay in Washington D.C. with Kids
There are lots of great places to stay in Washington D.C. Since we planned to do a lot of things around the National Mall we chose a hotel that was close to the National Mall and also close to a Metro stop for exploring farther.
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill. We had family members meeting up with us, so we arranged for two adjoining rooms, which is amazing for tired parents! The kids can eat instant oatmeal next door while we sleep in? Yes, please!
The hotel is within walking distance to Union Station, and walking distance to the Capitol building end of the National Mall, and (bonus!) they have an indoor pool which is great for quiet afternoons and rainy days.
There are plenty of easy family-friendly restaurants within walking distance. They have a sunken lobby with escalators, but also a side elevator for the stroller that avoided the lobby altogether. I asked my girls what they remember about their trip to D.C. and they both answered “the pool!”
In June of 2021, we stayed in Hotel Harrington. It’s definitely not a luxury hotel, but it was an extremely convenient location, and we got a room that was essentially two rooms connected by an accordion door. The kids had twin beds in one room, and we had a queen in the other, with two bathrooms. The setup was fantastic, as we could put the kids to bed and do things in the other room. We were also able to shower in one bathroom and hang laundry to dry in the other.
Before you head out on the town, make sure you have everything you need: The Complete Family Packing List for Day Packs.
How to Get Around
The D.C. Metro System
The D.C. Metro is an easy way to get around Washington D.C. with kids. It’s fast, easy, and efficient and takes you just about anywhere you want to go. Each member of the family age 5 and over will need their own metro card. The cost of the ride varies by distance, so you will swipe each card when you enter the system, and again when you exit. Your metro card also works on Metro parking garages and regional buses.
Here’s a handy map of the D.C. Metro system.
The DC Circulator
The DC Circulator is another great way to move around the National Mall. This is a free shuttle that goes around the National Mall, around the Tidal basin, and back the other side of the National Mall. We caught it outside of Union Station which was about a 10-minute walk from the hotel.
During the morning, the Circulator does a full lap in about 20 minutes, however we rode in the later afternoon and got stuck in traffic. The kids fell asleep on the bus while we inched around the mall. A loop was taking closer to two hours, so plan accordingly.
It’s worth noting that the brochures say $1 a ride- it is free, they just haven’t reprinted.
DC Circulator Route Brochure
What to Do and See in Washington D.C. with Kids
There is so much to do in Washington DC with kids that we are going to break it down into three broad categories: Monuments and Memorials, Museums, and Tours. We find it’s best to start the day with one “must do” activity, plan a second activity, and then see how the rest of the day works out. Flexibility is key when kids are involved!
Monuments and Memorials
The National Mall in Washington D.C is chock full of monuments and memorials, most of which are best experienced by wandering through and around them. Some, like the Washington Monument, are easy to spy from most areas across the Mall, others you need to seek out.
There are more than 20 major monuments/memorials around the National Mall, so pick a few to focus on! You may find some monuments speak to your family based on military service, or other connections. Those personal connections are a great place to start.
Is the National Mall Safe at Night?
Yes! A lot of people like to walk along the mall at night to see the monuments and memorials lit up. There are also a lot of tours that will take you to see the mall at night.
Are Monuments and Memorials Kid-Friendly?
Yes! Monuments and Memorials are great for kids- depending on their age they may not absorb as much history or context as adults, but there is lots of room to safely wander and explore.
Tip: All of these are monuments and memorials are free of charge and stay open late. Most have bathrooms, if the signs aren’t obvious, ask a ranger. Here is a handy map of all the bathrooms on the Mall.
Our favorite Monuments and Memorials to Visit with Kids
The Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial anchors the West side of the National Mall, with a reflecting pool in front of it, and vistas past the Washington Monument, down to the Capitol Building. This has become an iconic image of Washington D.C.. Lincoln is 19 feet tall, and sits high above the crowds.
One of the most visited monuments on the mall, It is from the steps of this Memorial that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Check out these myths about the Lincoln Memorial.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
The Jefferson Memorial sits on the tidal basin, away from the crowds of the National Mall. It’s is gorgeous in the Spring when the Cherry Blossoms are in bloom. The memorial is a round rotunda with a large statue of Jefferson in the middle. It looks out over the Tidal Basin back towards the National Mall. We let our 2 year-old out of her stroller here and she wandered in the rotunda safely. Our 5 year-old was content to pick dandelions in the grass while we took in the views.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is one of the newer memorials on the National Mall, dedicated in 2011. Largely based on his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the memorial recreates the “Stone of Hope” and “Mountain of Despair”. The scale of this memorial is what makes it so effective, you feel like you are really walking through mountains.
World War II Memorial
The World War II Memorial makes a wonderful place to sit and contemplate everything going on around you. With low steps to sit on by the water, you have views of the Lincoln Memorial on one side, and the Washington Monument on the other. Opened in 2004 to honor the over 16 million men and women who served overseas this is a very popular spot on the mall.
Fun Museums for Kids in Washington D.C.
There are a ton of museums within in an easily walkable area in Washington D.C. The Smithsonian Institution is a huge part of this, but there are also other national funded museums as well as privately funded museums that charge an entrance fee.
Established in 1846, The Smithsonian Institution includes 19 museums plus the National Zoo. With a budget of 1 billion dollars in 2020, and over 22 million visitors in 2019 the system really is massive. All of the Smithsonian museums are free to the public, and located close to the National Mall.
We love free museums with young kids because you never know how long their focus will last- you give it a try, and if you have to leave within a few minutes, there’s no money lost. With so many options, you’ll need to focus your efforts. Below are a few of our favorites and key highlights so you can best plan a fantastic trip to Washington DC with kids.
Tips– most museums will have a line at opening. Try to get there a few minutes before opening to join the line. Once the doors open it will move quite quickly. Most museums close at 5:30, plan accordingly. Museums are a great place to use bathrooms before heading out to the Mall!
All of the museums have changing exhibits, check for anything of interest before you go.
*Currently Smithsonian museums are requiring timed entry passes, check before you go.
National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History is a great place for families to start- it covers the Colonial period through the present. Depending on the age of your children you can easily tailor the experience. Artifacts range from historical to pop culture. This is the museum we started with, and it went over well with the kids and adults!
Wegman’s Wonderplace– this is a play area for kids 0-6. It has areas safe for crawling and climbing. Includes a pretty cool “egg sorting” area, a play kitchen, etc. When we visited our kids were 2 and 5, while they both had fun, our 5 year old was on the edge of aging out of it. For smaller kids this is a great place to start, and helps them have more patience for other parts of the museum. Also check out the detailed Doll’s House right outside the entrance. 1st Floor West
America on the Move– All sorts of transportation is chronicled here. Includes a locomotive and a 1959 subway car from the Chicogo “L” system that you can climb into. 1st Floor East
The First Ladies– This collection of dresses worn by First Ladies is a great exhibit for kids and parents alike! 3rd Floor Center
Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers– These iconic shoes will be a big hit with fans of The Wizard of Oz. This is what I remember looking forward to the most on my first trip to DC as a child. These are part of the American Culture exhibit. 3rd Floor West
Star Spangled Banner– This is the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired the National Anthem. Hanging right in the lobby of Floor 2, you can’t miss it as you head toward the National Mall Exit.
National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum is a perpetual family favorite complete with IMAX theatre. By the time we got here, everyone was a bit tired out, but we still had a good time. There are tons of aircraft here, and lots of hands-on activities for all ages. I was impressed by how many of the explanations were easy to understand for a five-year-old. Highlights include a full-scale mock-up of the Hubble Space Telescope, the 1903 Wright Flyer, and a Lunar Module. This is also where S decided that Astronaut Barbie is the coolest.
Please note if you are hoping to see the Space Shuttle Discovery, it is NOT located here, it is off-site at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. You can go visit, and also see the Concorde.
National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History has mummies, dinosaurs, and the Hope Diamond- what’s not to love? This is huge museum, so plan to spend sometime here.
Check out the African Elephant in the rotund and press buttons to hear his call. Then head East to the Hall of Fossils to check out all the dinosaurs. This exhibit was closed 2014 and completely reimagined with the idea of showing how all life connects to life around it. Look for the Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil feeding on a Triceratops.
Head upstairs to The Butterfly Pavilion to hang out with live butterflies- timed tickets are required- free on Tuesdays, with a small charge other days. Then check out the Insect Zoo where you may be able to watch a tarantula feeding. Throughout the day volunteers bring out various crawly things for kids to see and touch. Don’t miss the Egyptian mummies while you are here. 2nd Floor East.
Then head across to 2nd Floor West for the Hall of Gems where you can learn about rocks and minerals, and see the Hope Diamond as well as some meteorites. Update: A lot of the museum was closed for our June 2021 visit, but the Hall of Gems did not disappoint.
Check out Q?rius jr. (pronounced “curious”), an interactive space for kids K- 5th grade. Kids can dress up in costumes, check out fossils under a microscope and more. Older kids can explore the Q?rius area. Located on the ground floor behind the Atrium Cafe.
If you still have the energy for one more thing, check out the IMAX theatre.
Other Free Museums
There are quite a few museum options outside of the Smithsonian system, many of which are nationally funded, and thus free of charge.
United States Botanic Garden
For younger children, the United States Botanic Garden is our top pick! When you enter, look for the free scavenger hunt for kids. Take a look around, then head to the back left corner to find the Children’s Garden. It is outdoors, so it is seasonal (and not good for rainy days).
Our kids loved meeting up with friends here. They had a fantastic time digging, planting, watering, and climbing. There are plenty of places for adults to sit and watch the action. The area is enclosed so you don’t have to worry about anyone wandering off. Children’s Garden is probably best for 7 and under, older kids will enjoy the other parts of the botanic garden.
Established by Congress in 1820, the US Botanic Garden is the oldest continuously operating botanic garden in the United States.
100 Maryland Ave SW; Free of charge, open 10-5 daily.
Download a free 16 pg coloring book.
National Archives Museum
See the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives Museum. Head to the archive’s “Rotunda for the Charter’s of Freedom” to see original versions of the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Photography is not allowed as the ink is fading on these documents.
I dashed in here when visiting a girlfriend in D.C. and was glad I did. It’s easy to miss these in favor of the larger museums with more to do- but seeing these originals is pretty special.
It’s interesting to note that over 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence were printed and distributed around the colonies in 1776. Once Congress approved the declaration, a copy handwritten (engrossed) on parchment was ordered. This version was signed by the delegates, with the last signature added between 1777 and 1781. It traveled with the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary war. This is the version now in the National Archives.
701 Constitution Avenue NW, just North of the National Mall; Free of Charge, 10-5:30pm.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is amazing and important, and heart-breaking. I would advise that children be at least 9 years old but use your own judgment. Free of charge, but with timed tickets.
100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW; Closest Metro is Smithsonian; Open 11-4:00, Closed Wednesdays.
There are some privately funded museums that charge an entrance fee. While you’ll want to focus largely on the many free museums, some of these offer unique experiences and are worth the price of admission.
National Children’s Museum
The National Children’s Museum began in 1974 as the Capital Children’s Museum but just opened its doors in a new space as the official Nationals Children’s Museum in February of 2020. The museum aims to combine science, technology, and creativity into interactive spaces. Exhibits are geared toward ages 0-12.
For infants and toddlers, there is a “Little Mover’s” space as well as a “Little Dreamers” space with a cloud and flight theme. For kids 5 and up there is a three-story jungle gym with slides as well as interactive experiences with Nickelodeon characters. Kids will need closed-toed shoes.
1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW, closes at 4:30 pm.
International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum is super fun and super popular with both kids and adults. When it opened in 2002 it was known for long lines and crowded exhibits. Thankfully, in May of 2019, it moved into a new larger facility. When you enter you are given a cover identity and a chance to test your spy skills. Artifacts on view range from a letter George Washington wrote to recruit a spy, to the Aston Martin James Bond drove in the 1964 film Goldfinger. Not cheap, but totally worth it. Recommended for ages 7+.
700 L’Enfant Plaza, SW; Metro to L’Enfant Plaza, then 8 min walk. Open Friday – Monday, Children 6 and Under are Free.
Tours Kids will Love
With so many iconic institutions in Washington DC, there are endless opportunities for tours that the whole family will love. Book ahead to make sure you can fit in your favorite!
The Capitol Building
Tours of the Capitol Building do not include the Senate or House Galleries, but there are plenty of other things to see. Book online for a timed ticket, or try for same-day passes on the lower level of the Visitor Center.
The Capitol Visitor Center is beneath the East Front plaza of the U.S. Capitol at First Street and East Capitol Street. Free of Charge, Closed Sundays. No large bags, food or water allowed.
We weren’t able to take the kids on this tour on our last trip, but we stopped on the steps of the Capitol and talked about it and took some pictures. Even though they are young, it was great that they had that reference point when we were watching the inauguration this year. They remembered the building and I think it gave the event more context for them.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Watch money be printed and cut on a tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. This is one of only two places in the US where paper money is printed (the other is Fort Worth, Texas). This is a 40-minute tour that kids will love (no photos allowed). Avoid lunchtime when workers may be on break.
14th Street near C Street, SW. Free of Charge, tickets required March- September. The ticket booth opens at 8 am at Raoul Wallenberg Place (formerly 15th ST, SW). No charge, one person in line can get up to 4 tickets.
The White House
Tours of the White House are currently only being conducted Friday and Saturday mornings. To get a ticket, you’ll need to make a request through your Congressperson (find your representative). Traditionally you need to book a few months in advance. International visitors need to make a request through their home embassy in Washington D.C. We haven’t done this yet, but would love to!
Tours take you through the East Wing and include the Blue Room, Red Room, and Green Room; the State Dining Room, and the China Room. You will also get a view of the White House Rose Garden.
Free of Charge. White House Website.
Where to Eat in Washington D.C. with Kids
We look for places to eat that are reasonably quick, and close to either where we are staying, or where we plan to be out and about. There’s nothing worse than “hangry” kids on vacation!
Casual, Quick Food Options
These places are great for lunch or a casual pub-style dinner.
Food Trucks on The National Mall– The middle of the National Mall is full of food trucks, so everyone can choose what they want. Options range from tacos and burritos to shawarma, to hot dogs, and more. But be warned- they close up early. We caught dinner here right as they were packing up (around 6 pm), and then found ourselves stuck with no bathroom. I ended up doing a mad dash with one of the kids from port-a-potty to port-a-potty, which were all padlocked for the night. Ugghh. Don’t get stuck like we did! All the museums lining the mall were closed, so no bathroom options there. Luckily we made it back to the hotel without incident. 7th Street NW.
Food Trucks outside the National Museum of the American Indian – There is a great selection of food trucks across from the National Museum of the American Indian- we got waffles (with whipped cream and chocolate sauce of course), Chicken Quesadillas, and Falafel. Maryland Ave SW.
National Museum of the American Indian Cafe– the Mitsitam Cafe inside this museum specializes in indigenous foods. I’ve heard great reviews- check out their menu.
We ate at the cafe in the National Air and Space Museum– it was convenient, but beyond that I wouldn’t recommend it. Expensive, and not at all interesting. Skip unless absolutely necessary.
Irish Pubs- We found Irish Pubs to be great places for a family dinner. They are all over DC (often more than one on a block), and just noisy enough that kids can blend in. There are burgers and fries and the adults can chill out with a beer. These places generally won’t blow your mind, but you all get fed, usually pretty quickly, and are a great choice when everyone’s worn out and hungry.
Sit down and Relax Options
These places are ideal for dinner or a more leisurely lunch depending on what part of town you are in. These places are not fancy, and all are kid-friendly.
Cafe Berlin- This is high on my list to try next time. It’s an easy walk from either the Capitol building or Union Station. It has German favorites and a beer garden. Noisy kids will not be noticed, and even picky eaters will love the potato pancakes with apple sauce!
Update: We ate here in June 2021. I would call their “beer garden” more of a “patio”, but we were happy to be able to reserve seats outside. The kids liked the pretzel platter and the Kasespatzle. The beer selection was good, and we enjoyed sharing dishes to try a few different things.
Cafe Berlin, 322 Massachusetts Ave NE
Southeast of the Capitol, near the Library of Congress, is We the Pizza. The Forest Shroomin’ sounds amazing- wild forest mushrooms, truffles, mozzarella, thyme, bechamel, and parmesan. They also have house-made sodas made with real fruit. I almost never let my kids have soda, but for these, I’d have to make an exception.
We the Pizza, 305 Pennsylvania Ave SE
Elephant & Castle- If you are close to the White House, this British Pub comes highly recommended. As well as classic pub food they have a gluten sensitive and vegetarian menu. The patio makes for great people watching.
Update: We ate here in June 2021, it was very close to our hotel, but beyond that we weren’t impressed. The bread pudding for dessert was the highlight of the meal.
Elephant & Castle, 900 19th St NW
If you are staying near Dupont Circle, try Firefly, in the Hotel Madera. Each kid is given a raw cookie to decorate which is served to them baked at the end of the meal. American comfort food with a great cocktail menu.
Firefly, 1310 New Hampshire Ave NW
There you have it!
There’s so much to do in Washington D.C. with kids, that it can be overwhelming. These are our top suggestions for a fun trip that both kids and adults will enjoy.
Have more time? Drive the 30 minutes to explore George Washington’s family estate of Mount Vernon!
Read Next: A Beginner’s Guide to New York City
Driving to D.C.? Check out Road Trip Essentials: What to Pack for the Ultimate Road Trip in 2021 for gear and supplies, 40+ Easy Road Trip Snacks for Kids & Toddlers to keep everyone fed, and 20+ Tips to Survive and Thrive on a Road Trip with Kids and Toddlers.
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