As far as I know, Pierre L’Enfant and his successors were not thinking of children when they incorporated the long, open stretch of the Mall into their design for the city. But they may as well have been. This 2-mile expanse of lawn running from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol is a playground, really, and a backyard to the Smithsonian museums and National Gallery of Art, which border it. You can visit any of these sites assured that if one of your little darlings starts to misbehave, you’ll be able to head right out the door to the National Mall, where numerous distractions await. Vendors sell ice cream, soft pretzels, and sodas. Festivals of all sorts take place on a regular basis, whether it’s the busy Smithsonian Folklife Festival for 10 days at the end of June into July (see the calendar of events), or the Kite Festival in spring. Weather permitting, a 19th-century carousel operates in front of the Arts and Industries Building, on the south side of the Mall. Right across the Mall from the carousel is the children-friendly National Gallery Sculpture Garden, whose shallow pool is good for splashing one’s feet in summer and for ice-skating in winter.

The Smithsonian’s comprehensive calendar of events page has a daily list of family-friendly fun at all 19 locations, letting you screen for children’s activities. It’s a great timesaver.

The truth is that many of Washington’s attractions hold various enchantments for children of all ages. It might be easier to point out which ones are not recommended for your youngest: the Supreme Court, the chambers of Congress, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the State Department Diplomatic Rooms. The International Spy Museum is now recommending that its museum is most suitable for children 10 and over. Generally speaking, the bigger and busier the museum, the better it is for kids.

For more ideas, consult the online or print version of the Friday “Weekend” section of the Washington Post, which lists numerous activities (mostly free) for kids: special museum events, children’s theater, storytelling programs, puppet shows, video-game competitions, and so forth. Call the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre to find out about children’s shows. For outdoor fun, consider the southwest waterfront’s Wharf complex, studded with oversize game boards, ice skating, a splash fountain, bocce, and waterpark activities. And see our family-themed tour of the capital.

Early Risers?

Zoo grounds open daily at 8am, which might be too early for a lot of tourists, but not for families whose young children like to rise at the crack of dawn. If you know you’ll need a morning activity, book your free entry passes online, then hop on the Red Line Metro, which opens at 5am weekdays, 7am Saturday, and 8am Sunday (or drive—the zoo parking lot opens at 8am, too), get off at the Cleveland Park station, and walk down the hill to the zoo. A Starbucks, which opens at 6am daily, is directly across from the zoo entrance on Connecticut Avenue. Good morning.

Favorite Children's Attractions

Check for special children’s events at museum information desks when you enter. I especially recommend a visit to the International Spy Museum for tweens and teens (and adults), for the fun interactive spy adventures; and to the National Building Museum, for kids ages 3 to 11, for the assortment of hands-on building-related activities. Here’s a rundown of overall kid-pleasers in town: 

  • Gravelly Point: Zzzzooom! It’s a thrill for young airplane lovers to watch jets take off and land at this park just steps from Ronald Reagan Airport’s runway. It’s also an ideal spot to picnic, play ball, and walk along the Potomac River.

  • National Air and Space Museum: Spectacular IMAX films (don’t miss), planetarium shows, missiles, rockets, and a walk-through orbital workshop.
  • National Museum of American History: This museum’s got all your kids covered: the fabulous Wegmans Wonderplace is a playground for infants to 6-year-olds; the Lemelson Center introduces visitors of all ages to the stories of inventors and inventions (Places of Invention), and invites kids ages 6 to 12, especially, to experiment and test their curiosity with plenty of hands-on activities (Spark!Lab). The museum has also gotten into simulators, offering rides that simulate driving a racecar or riding a roller coaster.
  • National Museum of the American Indian: Children, and their parents too, enjoy themselves in the museum’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center, where visitors learn basket weaving, kayak balancing, and other Native American skills, and play games to discover more about American Indian culture. Check the opening status before your trip here to make sure imagiNATIONS is open to visitors.
  • National Museum of Natural History: This is a no-brainer: Dinosaurs, a megalodon shark jaw, mummies, a live coral reef, gemstones… nearly every exhibit here has appeal for kids of various ages.
  • National Zoological Park: Pandas! Cheetahs! Kids love zoos, and this is an especially good one.
  • U.S. Botanic Garden: Kids get their hands dirty at the seasonal digging area outside the Children’s Garden. 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.