Sledding on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Valerie Hinojosa / Flickr

Why Washington, D.C. Is America's Best City for a Vacation with Kids

There is no better place to take the kids on vacation than Washington, D.C. The District is overflowing with the stuff of a memorable field trip—pandas, dinosaur bones, spy gadgets, rocket ships, insect gardens, historic monuments—and much of it is free. There’s even a park adjacent to Ronald Reagan National Airport; it's so close to the runways, in fact, you feel as though planes are landing on top of you. Ask any kid—nothing is cooler than this. Allow at least 2 days to visit every kid-friendly spot on the following list, or pick and choose the ones your youngsters want to see most.

And for more on making the most of your time in the nation's capital, check out Frommer's Washington, D.C. day by day.

Paddle boat on the tidal basin
Paddling the Tidal Basin

The Jefferson Memorial overlooks the serene waters of the Tidal Basin, dotted with paddleboats on sunny days. Rent a boat and marry a history lesson with great exercise—and see the monuments and cherry blossoms from a beautiful, unique vantage point.

Family picnic in great hall
Daderot/ Wikimedia Commons
The National Building Museum

If the weather is blistering or freezing, and the kids need to blow off some steam, then head to this museum. The colossal Great Hall, which has hosted 15 presidential inaugural balls, is the perfect place to let them run indoors. Bring your own food and have a picnic inside.

Elephant statue in atrium of museum
David S. Hollway
National Museum of Natural History

Opened in 1910, this enormous repository for animal and plant specimens, many long extinct, includes a T. Rex skull, fossils, the Hope Diamond, and the remains of a giant squid—guaranteed to wow even the most tech-obsessed kids. In the National Fossil Hall, lay your eyes on enormous dinosaur bones and learn all about the giants that once roamed the Earth. Everyone loves the huge African bush elephant that greets you at the Mall-facing entrance (pictured), the expansive Sant Ocean Hall with its 674 marine specimens, and the first floor Discovery Room filled with creative, hands-on exhibits “for children of all ages.” The outdoor Butterfly Pavilion is another crowd-pleaser: Lush vegetation supports an estimated 22 species of butterflies.

Planes hanging from atrium cieling
Pedro Szekely / Flickr
National Air and Space Museum

Containing the largest historic collection of air- and spacecraft in the world, this is the place to explore rocket ships that have shot to the stars, see real Russian and American spacesuits, view the 1903 Wright Brothers’ Flyer and World War II bombers, and even inspect the earliest passenger planes (kids can walk through the fuselage of one). The number of crafts suspended from the sky-high ceiling inspires lots of upturned heads and dropped jaws. The Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, with its awesome 3-D effects, will transport your little ones to Mars or the moon.

James Bond car on display at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
MattCC716 / Flickr
International Spy Museum

Older kids who think the zoo is for babies will love this place, a museum dedicated entirely to espionage. They’ll learn about Soviet double agents, view the spy treasures from Hollywood films (one of James Bond's cars is pictured above), play spy games, watch informative films, and take part in other super-sneaky stuff in a range of interactive exhibits.

Panda at zoo
m01229 / Flickr
National Zoological Park

Established in 1889, the National Zoo is home to some 500 species, many of them rare and/or endangered. It also occupies 163 acres of beautifully landscaped and wooded land, wonderful for strolling and enjoying the sunshine. The best place to start your tour is with the famous giant pandas. Then follow the Olmsted Walk and you’ll spot several natural habitats holding cheetahs, zebras, bears, and elephants. Once off the main drag, you’ll find natural wetlands and creatures ranging from bald eagles and wolves to sea lions along the American Trail. Farther south, at the Great Ape House, you can peer through glass walls at gorillas as they engage in startlingly humanlike behaviors: grooming, wrestling, and even hugging one another. In the circular habitat of the Great Cats, south of the Great Ape House, lions and tigers sun themselves, their tails batting lazily as they gaze out at you.

Shack rents bikes and kayaks near the canal
TrailVoice / Flickr
C&O Canal Towpath

Have rambunctious little ones? Rent a bike at any nearby outfitter and hit the C&O Canal Towpath. The tree-lined, gravelly trail follows a 19th-century canal that begins in Georgetown and heads west, ending 184 miles later in Cumberland, Maryland. It’s a favorite of hikers, joggers, and bicyclists alike; if you’re looking to escape the bustle of the city or blow off steam after a day spent touring museums, you’ll love it too. Near the start of the path you can rent kayaks and canoes.

Plane flies over kids playing in park
Geoff Alexander / Flickr
Gravelly Point

If your kids are thrill-seekers, drive to this park that borders Reagan National Airport, minutes outside the District. On any given day, you’ll find teenagers, toddlers, and grandparents parked or picnicking on the grass, just feet from the airport runways. Gaze upward as jet after jet descends directly overhead, so close you can read the markings on each plane's underbelly—and then lands safely a short distance away. Not for the faint of heart!

Cover photo of Frommer's Washington D.C. day by day
Frommer's Washington D.C. day by day

For more on what to do in the city, check out Frommer's Washington D.C. day by dayConcise and pocket-size, this book features scores of full-color photographs; maps (including a fold-out one in the back); lists of the top hotels, restaurants, and attractions; and suggested itineraries tailored to every kind of traveler. Everything you need for a perfect vacation is right here.