As appealing as Washington, D.C. is as a destination for adults, it is nothing compared to the way a three-year-old feels about our national capital. For (him or) her, D.C. is better than Disneyland, with so much to discover, huge stretches of lawn to run around, interactive museums and plenty of images to snap with her first (indestructible) digital camera. With the thought of my daughter's first "What I did on Spring Break" pre-school class project due, I didn't want to disappoint. We could not have picked a better getaway than D.C. in my daughter's eyes. Nearly two weeks later and she is still drawing pictures of the city in her sketch book, showing photos and proudly telling anyone who will listen about her magical trip to D.C. (or as she first called it "Washboard D.C.").
Two days is not a lot of time to discover a city with this many attractions, but we were determined to do our best to keep our two daughters entertained. Perhaps the single most astounding thing about the museums and zoo here is that almost all are free. Sure you may spend up big on souvenirs and snacks, but to have access to such amazing art, cultural and historical collections, without paying is a huge bonus.
Although we live in New York City and regularly visit what is arguably one of the best Natural History museums in the country, no trip to D.C. with kids would be complete without a visit to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (www.mnh.si.edu). The crowds were enormous and at times there were stroller traffic jams, but this could detract from the experience of walking around the exhibits and watching my daughter's face as she came across her favorite dinosaurs and animals. We didn't walk around the museum, we ran -- trying to chase after her as she excitedly darted from one collection to the next. Watching the scientist work in the fossil lab and sitting through the informative videos were also highlights.
The National Air and Space Museum (www.nasm.si.edu) is another fantasy land for kids. The planes and rockets fascinate them (and a few older kids like my husband too). The Discovery Stations allow kids to be hand-on with the exhibits and speak with qualified interpretive staff. The touch screens are also fun for wandering hands. While the National Museum of American History is still being renovated (it is due to reopen in the fall after a two year hiatus), some of its keys exhibits have been moved to the Air and Space Museum, so you can still see artifacts like the original Kermit the Frog, Edison's light bulb, President Lincoln's top hat and the Lewis and Clark compass on display in Gallery 211.
A few suggestions I would make when it comes to tackling the D.C. museums include avoiding going anywhere near the cafes and food outlets, especially at peak periods. The lines are long, the spaces are crowded and the food can be questionable (I'm not a fan of highly commercialized fast food in cultural institutions -- i.e. at the Space Museum). At the Natural History Museum, try the smaller Fossil Cafe located at the end of the Dinosaur Hall rather than the main Atrium CafÃ©. Seeing entry is free anyway, it may be a better idea to leave the museum at lunch time and find a nearby restaurant or have a picnic on the Mall before returning to take up where you left off. Another option is to visit late in the day. The Natural History Museum is open until 7.30pm daily from May 23 through August 31 and was also open late on the Saturday when we were there.
The National Zoo (www.nationalzoo.si.edu) is yet another way to make your child smile in D.C. This is another activity that you can do after hours as the zoo is open until 8pm daily until October 31 -- or if you are a really early riser, it opens at 6am. The giant pandas are the main attraction here and no child can resist them, especially Tai Shan the almost three-year old panda cub. The Reptile Discovery Center lets you get up close and personal with the scaly ones and sea lion feeding time (11.30am) is always a treat.
With all the amazing museums and the zoo, I was surprised that the thing that gave my daughter the greatest joy was our walk along the mall and seeing all the monuments. The World War II Memorial may be a place of solemn reflection for adults, but for kids, it is a place to run along the ramps and marvel at the beauty of the fountains. The Mall's famous Reflecting Pool was also enjoyed, providing an opportunity for my daughter to stroll along talking to the ducks and geese. Spring brought out the squirrels in D.C. so chasing them was a major activity over the weekend. We didn't venture inside the National Monument (no strollers allowed) but the Lincoln Memorial was more accommodating, saving me from lugging that stroller up dozens of stairs with a handy elevator. The imposing statue of Lincoln seated on his chair was my daughter's favorite, not to mention her sense of personal achievement when staring at Gettysburg Address engraving, identifying all the letters she knew.
One museum that does not get as much attention as the Smithsonian ones, but is a great spot to bring kids is the National Building Museum (tel. 202/272-2448; www.nbm.org) on F Street at Fourth Street, right across from the Judiciary Square Metro station. Housed in one of the most magnificent structures in the city, the 1881 former Pension Bureau building (that has been used for everything for Presidential inaugurations to state visits), the museum is dedicated to exploring and celebrating architecture, design, engineering, construction and urban planning. For school-aged children it provides hands-on activities for enhancing math, science and art skills and younger kids love The Construction Zone -- a play area that came in very handy when it rained one day. The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm (from 11am on Sundays). Admission is free but a donation of $5 per person is suggested.
Getting around D.C. can be a little problematic with strollers and small children but the Metro system is relatively accommodating with working elevators at most stations (and they don't stink like their New York counterparts). In general though, you'll be doing a lot of walking, especially along the mall, in between the monuments. Distances can be long and quite exhausting for adults and children alike so be prepared. We made a bad decision in only bringing a single stroller and expecting our three-year-old to walk, but in the end, tiring her out by day made her sleep better at night.
Choosing the right hotel made the entire experience pleasurable when it could easily have gone the other way and turned into a travel nightmare. In general, finding large enough hotel rooms to accommodate two adults, a toddler and an infant isn't that easy. I often choose to stay in hotels that offer rooms with kitchen amenities (efficiency suites), but to be honest these are seldom if ever luxurious and this time, I wanted the comforts of home without having to forgo a bit of personal indulgence, like bathrobes, valet parking, quality cuisine for room service and attentive staff. We stayed at Hotel George (www.hotelgeorge.com) on Capitol Hill, which was a little out of the main downtown chaos but a stone's throw from Union Station. What I liked about this hotel is that for a brief moment I remembered what it was like to travel before we had kids, staying in boutique hotels, soaking in the tub and having a glass of wine before bed. I needed a way to boil water to make formula and the concierge organized it for me. I wanted to heat the baby's food in a hurry and the front desk staff not only microwaved it, but brought it out on a platter -- and in case you wanted to know, no they didn't know that I would be writing about the experience -- it was just great customer service. My toddler loved her "Kimpton Kids" goody bag with miscellaneous toys and coloring activities plus the sudsy foam duck kept her highly entertained in the bath. The room was spacious enough for one daughter to work on her three foot wide dinosaur puzzle on the floor while the other crawled about exploring the carpet design (there are hotels that I would not let my daughter even crawl on the carpet). At the Hotel George weekend standard rates for a room like this with two queen sized beds is $199 plus tax.
The Washington Suites Georgetown (tel. 202/3333-8060; www.washingtonsuitesgeorgetown.com) is another good family option, especially with slightly older kids. It is located two blocks from Foggy Bottom Metro Station so is a pleasant walk or subway ride to all major attractions. They offer a Panda Family Package that includes deluxe accommodations in a spacious one-bedroom suite with two double beds in the bedroom and a sofa bed in the living room, a kitchen and living room space; daily deluxe continental breakfast; four Metro day passes; a special zoo welcome kit; a disposable camera; two plush panda bear toys; and a kid's zoo scavenger hunt challenge, including a special treat upon completion. This package is priced from $179 to $359 per night with a minimum two-night stay required (weekends are cheaper than weekdays).
For more detailed information about getting away to Washington, D.C. with kids, pick up a copy of Frommer's Washington, D.C. with Kids by Beth Rubin.
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