A Family Guide to Washington DC

Washington DC is a must-visit for any family who lives in the United States. Washington DC is where you can see our federal government in action, learn more about the history of our great country, and engage with your family in any way that is important for you. Washington DC had been a dream trip of mine for years. We were due to go in 2020 and it got postponed for 2 years. But in 2022 we finally made it and my children enjoyed it even more than they might have 2 years earlier. Check out my guide to Washington DC to plan your best family trip.

*Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links that allows me to earn a small commission at no cost to you. I only link to products I would or have used myself and all opinions expressed here are my own. You can read the full disclaimer here.

A family in front of the Washington Monument

How to get to Washington DC

As the capital of the nation, there are straightforward ways to get into Washington DC:

The inside of Washington DC Dulles Airport
Dulles Airport has gotten a modern update
  • Flying – There are two major airports. If you fly into Reagan National (DCA), while technically in Virginia, it has super easy access to the city from the train as well as rental cars. The other option is Washington Dulles (IAD). It is about 45 minutes from the city, and you will need to drive, or ride share into the city. The ride share can be expensive. The last option is to fly into Baltimore Washington (BWI). This option will also require renting a car and driving or taking a ride share.
  • Train – Amtrak has a station walking distance from the National Mall and connects to the Metro which takes you all over Washington DC.
  • Car – Washington DC is right on the I-95 corridor. Note that traffic around Washington DC during commute hours can add hours to your drive time. Make sure to keep that in mind when driving.

Museums To Visit

One of the top things to see in Washington DC are the museums. DC is the heart of the Smithsonian Institution, and it has 17 museums, all offered for free. Most of the big ones are right on the National Mall, but there are several more sprinkled around the city and even outside the city.

The ones we visited

A selection of photos from the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC
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  • National Museum of Natural ScienceRight on the mall, you can see dinosaur bones, the Hope Diamond, and check out a great exhibit on early humans
  • National Museum of American HistoryOne of my favorite museums in Washington DC, it focuses on the history of our country. Make sure not to miss the permanent exhibit featuring the First Lady’s dresses and artifacts. You can also see the red ruby red sneakers from the Wizard of Oz.
  • National Gallery of ArtThere are rotating exhibits and we saw amazing 100-year-old photography, as well as permanent exhibits including stunning paintings from the Dutch and French Renaissance.
  • Holocaust Memorial MuseumThis museum is so popular; you have to acquire a timed entry ticket. Once in, you go through three floors of its permanent exhibit, which starts from the groundwork that the Nazi’s propaganda, through the holocaust and the heroes of the time. It is a difficult museum to go through, and you should provide yourself 2-3 hours to truly absorb it. Also please take as much time as you may need afterwards to reflect on one of the darkest events of human history and decompress afterwards.
  • Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Outside DC, closer to the Dulles airport, this is an arm of the Air and Space Museum, but it is the hanger where you find the big aircraft. Here you see the Discovery Space Shuttle, the Concord Jet, and the Lockheed Blackbird.
  • International Spy MuseumOne of the only paid museums in Washington DC, it is worth the cost of entrance. A 2-hour experience, you go through the museum as a spy, completing missions as you learn about some amazing spy programs and codes through history. The kids declared this their favorite museum.

The ones on our bucket list

The National Museum of African American History and Culture
African American History and Culture Museum is the newest and looks amazing*
  • National Air and Space MuseumA favorite of most everyone, it was closed for renovations while we were there. It is expected to open in fall of 2022 with all-new exhibits and experience
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture – One of the newest Smithsonian, it is supposed to be an immersive experience that you go through in order. You need timed entry tickets, released 90 days in advance and often sell out the same day. A limited number of same-day tickets are available daily and are gone in minutes.
  • National Museum of the American Indian – We missed our timing on this, but it is supposed to have a great exhibit on Native Americans and their contribution to our society. They are also supposed to have one of the best museum cafes in the mall.
  • National Portrait Gallery – Here is where you will find the official portraits of the presidents and first ladies. This is off the mall, but it is supposed to be a great museum to visit.

Monuments to Visit

While Washington DC is full of museums, much of what there is to see is outside and available 24 hours a day. You cannot complete your trip without seeing a monument or statue on any street corner. The city is so full of history, it is hard to miss.

The ones we visited

A selection of monuments in Washington DC
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  • The National MallThe heart of Washington DC, this two-mile grassy park in the middle of the city is where all the streets radiate from. Here you will find all the major museums and monuments, and is bookended with the Capitol Building on the East, the Lincoln Memorial on the West, and the White House to the North.
  • The Dwight D Eisenhower Memorial – Just off the mall is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, which pays tribute to both his time as president and his time leading the allied forces to victory in World War II.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial – A new-ish memorial, it has a large carving of the iconic civil rights leader carved out of stone. Along with quotes from his famous speeches, and you overlook the tidal basin of the Potomac River.
  • The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial – The memorial is a large, interactive memorial that is set into four sections. Each section is dedicated to one of his terms of presidency. The memorial is fully accessible by wheelchair, a nod to FDR who was wheelchair-bound his entire presidency.
  • The Lincoln Memorial – One of the most famous monuments, it sits at the westernmost end of the National Mall. Heading up the steps, you get to the giant statue of Lincoln seated, with his most famous speeches on each side. Across from the monument is the reflecting pool.
  • The Washington Monument – Across the reflecting pool, in the middle of the National Mall, is the tall spire that is the Washington Monument. Tickets to go to the top are free but must be reserved in advanced, up to 90 days ahead online. They sell out quickly. A limited number of next day tickets are released daily and go quickly.

The ones on our bucket list

  • The World War II Memorial – One the other end of the reflecting pool is the massive memorial to the World War II Veterans. I have seen it once, but never with the fountains on and in all its glory.
  • The Vietnam MemorialA truly unique memorial, this one is a black granite wall with the names of those lost to Vietnam. It is a beautiful moving tribute, and truly shows how less can be more.
  • The Jefferson MemorialSimilar to the Lincoln memorial, it is in a large building with stairs. But out by the Tidal basin, you really need to track out to see this monument.

Buildings to Visit

There are several buildings in Washington DC that you will recognize just from the outside. You can get into some with advanced passes, but they can be very hard to come by. If you want a tour of them, I suggest contacting your representative well ahead of time to score one of those coveted passes.

A selection of the key buildings in Washington DC
  • The White House – If you want the classic photo of the White House, go to Constitution Avenue, and take a picture from The Ellipse Park. You can also get pictures of the back from Lafayette Square, but at the time we visited, barricades were up on the lawn shielding most of the building from view.
  • The CapitolThe seat of Congress is the imposing domed building that sits to the east of the National Mall. Be warned, it is a much further walk than you would expect. But you can get excellent pictures of it and in the background from any spot east of the Washington Monument on the National Mall.
  • The Supreme CourtJust behind the Capitol Building is the Supreme Court. A classic, columned building, it looks like a small building for such big, life-changing decisions that come out of it.
  • The Department of the Treasury – Being Hamilton fans in this house, we were excited to see this building and see… Albert Gallatin’s statue is in front of the building. Say what!!!  Sadly, no statues of the great Hamilton in sight.
  • The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center – This was one of the few government buildings you could just walk into. It is a large, imposing complex that houses numerous offices around international trade and US Customs and Border Protection. But it also has public stores and food options that allow you access to the building (after security, of course).

Where to Eat

A selection of food you can enjoy in Washington DC

Being a city where deals are made in restaurants, you can expect great food options. The surprising part is that they are mostly North of the Mall. South of the Mall is a bit of a dead zone in terms of food. We mostly would eat lunch in DC, so where is what we did:

  • Food Truck Row – We enjoyed the options of Food Truck Row. You can find them in other places, but the largest concentration of food trucks is on Constitution Ave, between 7th and 14th street. There are tons of Halal options, pizza, burgers, chicken tenders, and hot dogs. And you will also get sweet treats such as ice cream and boba tea. Make sure to grab a seat in the grass of the museums and enjoy a picnic lunch.
  • The Ronald Reagan Building Food Court – In the basement of the Ronald Regan Building is a large food court that will satisfy everyone’s palate. We did Sbarro’s pizza, but there was Panera Bread, Subway, and Kabuki Sushi among other popular options.
  • Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken – A fantastic sit-down restaurant with different beers and ciders on tap, amazing fried chicken options, and their famous fried chicken salad on a savory donut. It was amazing. While you wait, there are table games such as Checkers, Chess, Connect 4, etc. to entertain you.
  • Jaleo by Jose AndresThis was our splurge lunch during our very rainy day where we were rained out of most of our activities. A Spanish tapas place by chef Jose Andres, the celebrity chef and humanitarian, we were able to take advantage of their lunch special, which gives each person three different tapas and desserts. My daughter got a Jamon Espanola bocadillo, but the rest of us got the special and each picked three different things so we could taste everything. It was so amazing. We capped it off with some of the most amazing flans anyone of us has ever tasted.

Where to Stay

A young man writing on the couch in a hotel

I do not generally do hotel reviews, and if you are looking for loyalty points, your best bet is to stay in one of the branded hotels that you are generally loyal to (Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Choice Hotels, etc.)  However, know that staying in Washington DC can get expensive, so if you can get away with using points, it will save you a lot of money.

Another option is to stay in Alexandria, Virginia, and this is the option we chose. We stayed at the Wyndham right by the King Street Stop in Alexandria and used points to help pay for the stay. It was two blocks from the metro, and in 20-30 minutes we were anywhere we wanted to be in Washington DC. There were also all your favorite loyalty hotels right near the Metro stop, and it was much cheaper to stay just on the other side of the Potomac. Plus, if you have teens and are not completely wiped at the end of the day, you can eat in some of the amazing restaurants in Old Town Alexandria.

How to get around

The nice thing about Washington DC is that it is an extremely walkable city and very easy to navigate. Make sure to bring comfortable shoes because you will be walking for miles each day. However, there are ways to cut down on some of your walking when in Washington DC

The inside of the Pentagon City Metro stop in Washington DC
  • Metro – The underground train is everywhere in Washington DC. There are several stops along the National Mall which makes it easy to get out close to wherever you are trying to go in the city. The Metro uses a Smartcard. It costs $2 for a Smartcard, and you can reload it throughout your trip. You can also do a virtual Smartcard on your phone.
  • DC Circular – A public bus option, the red line goes around the National Mall and the Tidal Basin, making it easy to get to all the major sites in the area. The DC Circular also uses the Smartcard and is $1 a ride.
  • Hop On Hop Off Big Bus – We choose to do this option after having an enjoyable experience in San Francisco, but unfortunately, it did not work out as well for us in Washington DC. We choose to do it on a rainy day so we could get a tour without getting wet. But the bus we got on had an advertisement wrap on it so we could not see through the windows well. And there was a portion of the bus where the water was coming in and it was raining in the bus. The next day, it did take us to the major monuments we wanted to see, but we noticed the Circular stopped at all the same places, was more frequent and cheaper. If you are using it for the hop-on, Hop-Off feature, save yourself money and take the DC Circular. If you want to take the tour, do it on a dry day.
  • Electric Scooter Lime and Bird Scooter rentals were everywhere. Many people would rent the, and ride two to a scooter. It is inexpensive and easy to use if you are looking for a way to lesson walking or help take along tired legs. But as a pedestrian, watch out because there are a lot of inexperienced scooter riders on the sidewalks on a sunny day.

How to structure your day

A mom and two kids swinging on a park bench
Always schedule in fun*

There is so much to do in Washington DC, it can be easy to be overwhelmed very quickly. It is important to structure your day in a way to make sure that you will be able to make sure your vacation is fun and not too overwhelming.

  • Early MorningsMuseums do not open before 10 am. If you have toddlers or little ones or want to get photos without the throngs of people, then use the early morning time to walk the mall, pick a monument to see before the crowds descend. Have pre-teens or teens? Do not expect to get out early. Have breakfast in the hotel or the nearby Starbucks when they finally roll out of bed and enjoy the leisurely start.
  • Late Mornings – I highly suggest hitting up a museum when it opens. Crowds grow during the day, but the morning lets you get in and enjoy before everyone is there. If you do not have timed entry tickets, pick one of the favorites and plan to spend 2-3 hours.
  • Lunch – One of the reasons I suggest museums in the morning is because they are closer to the lunch spots. In a hurry – pick up food at the food truck row or in the Ronald Regan Building. Have some time for a leisurely lunch? Check out one of the famous restaurants in Washington DC
  • Afternoon – Here there are two choices. For younger ones who can only take one museum a day, time to walk and check out the monuments. Pick one or two that are close together. They are further apart than you think. If you have a long list of museums you want to see, then check out a second museum for the day. Note, most close at 5 pm, and will close their doors to people entering about 30 minutes before they close.
  • Dinner – Now is the time to try one of Washington DCs world-famous restaurants and have leisurely sit-down dinner. Or maybe you go back to your hotel or Airbnb for some home-cooked dinner or DoorDash.
  • Evening – On the warm summer days, this is supposed to be the best time to see the monuments. They are lit up at night and the weather is cooler. You could also consider renting a car or getting on a bus and riding around at night to see the monuments lite up. There are also night bus tours of Washington DC and that can be a fun evening activity when you have preteens and teens who can stay up late.

What to Bring

Two men walking toward the Washington DC Capital Building, a mom and her daughter with Eleanor Roosevelt Statue

When you are in Washington DC, understand that you will be walking A LOT! You can easily walk 5-10 miles a day in Washington DC, especially exploring all the Museums and walking the National Mall to those Monuments you think are close together. A few things I recommend you pack for this trip are:

  • A Good Walking Shoe:  Make sure you have shoes in which you can walk miles. I wore my faithful Rothy’s Sneakers. I packed sandals, but they did not come out once in DC. My husband swears by his Skechers GoWalk Sneakers as his go-to for trips.
  • Selfie Stick/Tripod:  You are in your nation’s capital, and you will want to get all the pictures with the famous buildings and monuments behind you. Sometimes you do not want to hand out your camera to a stranger to get a picture. I have found that the selfie stick, while annoying, can get in the whole family with a nice background in the distance. But I have really liked this Self-Stick/Tripod, which allows you to set up your phone with a tripod so you can take pictures from a distance with a Bluetooth remote, and it does not feel as intrusive as a selfie stick.
  • A Good Day Bag:  You need a bag that will carry all the essentials for the day (hand sanitizer, masks, your phone and wallet, snacks, etc.)  For this trip, I had injured shoulders, so I brought this belt bag from Target that I could hold just my phone, wallet, some lipstick, and wipes. My son carried my trusty Pincnel backpack which held the family’s snacks, battery back-up, cord, hand sanitizer, etc.
  • A Battery Backup:  There will be no place to charge your phone all day and you will be going from place to place. Have a good battery backup that can charge two phones at once and can-do multiple charges. Saved us this trip.
  • A Versatile Charging Cord: I am from a mixed family. That is right, we use both Android and iPhones. I bring a cord that can charge either phone with the battery backup.

Other important tips

Here are some other important tips that you need to think about when going to Washington DC

  • Washington DC is a trip you need to plan for:  Museums are free, but not all of them allow you in any day you want. Many of the popular museums (Holocaust Memorial Museum and the African American History Museum) and popular monuments (Washington Monument) require timed entry tickets to enter the museum. They open the window 90 days in advance and at any of the popular times to visit (think Spring, Summer, and winter break) the tickets will disappear in hours or even minutes. All these museums usually offer a same day or next day option, but again those tickets will sell out in minutes. We did the multiple phones strategy, the picking different items strategy, and failed numerous times. For example, Holocaust Museum tickets went online at 7 AM, I refreshed the page at 7 AM, grabbed four tickets, added them to the cart, and by the time I got to the queue they were already gone – at 7:02 AM. Went back and all time slots were full. By 7:05 AM they were not even showing the date as available anymore. Your best bet:  plan ahead, each person has a phone, know what time slot everyone was going for, and go through even if you think you have them. You do not have them until the ticket is processed. Also, try for a later time slot, everyone goes for the earlier ones.
  • Double Check What Days the Museums on Your Wish List Are Open:  Unlike most cities, where all the museums close on a Monday, the museums in Washington DC tend to rotate. Check each museum schedule to figure out what days they are open and when that aligns with your trip. We made that mistake when we tried to go to the Museum of the American Indian, to find it closed…
  • Make sure to plan lunch:  For a city that has a ton of food options, there are surprising food desserts in the city. All the food is North of the Mall, and you seem to have to choose between fancy restaurants or food trucks. Make sure you have some snacks with you and plan your day, so you are near a place for lunch to avoid hangry family members.

Washington DC is a bucket list trip, and one that I feel like all families should visit before their kids graduate high school. This is not a relaxing trip, where you sit back and enjoy your time together. This is a busy trip where you are going from place to place and soaking in as much history and culture as possible.  But even when we all wandered into our hotel room tired at the end of each night, we could not stop talking about all the amazing things we saw and new facts we learned. My kids were talking about this trip for weeks afterwards and declared it one of their favorites in recent times. Is it a lot of work? Yes. Is it worth all the work? 100%

A Family Guide to Washington DC

* Starred Photos taken by Atma Photography

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