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How to Feel Like a Washington, D.C. Family, Plus Our Favorite Experiences

While on the family trip in Washington, D.C., let the 'locals' show you how to get the taste of life in the capitol.

I moved to Washington, D.C. as a dewy-eyed college student -- before the Kennedy Center or Metro; before Watergate, Iran-Contragate, Monicagate, or Iraqgate; and probably before you were born. I grabbed a B.A. from George Washington University in Foggy Bottom and a Mrs. (I actually married a native), and then found a job with a trade association -- a polite term for lobbying groups. After a few years, I traded downtown traffic and bureaucracy for suburban diaper duty and freelancing. Raising two children a dozen miles from the National Mall had its perks. Whenever the kids grew restless with Play-Doh and Mr. Rogers -- and in later years during school vacations -- I bundled them into the car, and we headed to D.C. Back then, there were few resources targeted to families visiting the nation's capital. So we were trailblazers in a way, discovering the wonders of Washington, D.C. by the seat of our pants (and, sometimes, diapers). Armed with a map and a Frommer's guidebook, we found out which museum exhibits had the most kid appeal and where to let off steam. We learned the best and worst times to visit the popular attractions and where to get a quick and cheap meal. An inveterate note-taker, I amassed a lot of information -- information that I shared with local friends and out-of-town visitors. Little did I know that I had sown the seeds for a guidebook. With the kids in school full time and bored with baking brownies for PTA functions, I began writing travel features in 1980. A decade later I parlayed my knowledge and our family's experiences into Frommer's Washington, D.C. with Kids.

Since I first set foot on a D.C. street more than 40 years ago, I've lived through more scandals than I can count, endured Potomac Fever and worsening D.C. traffic, and survived 12 administrations of nine presidents. I was at one of the Washington Senators' final baseball games in 1971 and at one of the Washington Nationals' first games in 2005. The kids are now grown and are parents themselves. In the blink of an eye, I morphed into the grandmother of four munchkins whom I delight in introducing to the wonders of the nation's capital. Heaven knows my step is a bit slower, and I have more silver in my hair than in my jewelry box. Restaurants, hotels, dress codes -- and many of the major players -- have come and gone. But some things haven't changed. I still get a thrill on Capitol Hill. And when I walk past the White House. Or visit the newest zoo babies at the National Zoo. Or take in a world-class exhibition at one of the myriad museums or galleries. And whenever I'm downtown with the family, if you dig into my backpack, you'll still find -- tucked beneath the tissues and snacks and crayons -- my notepad and pen.

There's no doubt that living in or visiting the Center of the Free World can be an exciting and educational experience. Washington produces and employs more spin-doctors than anywhere else on the planet. This is not only the nation's capital, but also the world capital of security leaks. This is where congressional investigations, protests, spies, filibusters, motorcades, and national debts in the zillions are as commonplace as crabs in the Chesapeake Bay -- or corn in Iowa. It's a place where our presidents take the oath of office outside the Capitol and subsequently lie in state in its Rotunda. D.C. is where protestors and special-interest groups converge to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly. Washington is where today's rumors bump noses with tomorrow's headlines -- and cover-ups. What better place for children to learn the inner workings of our unique, if at times, confounding, form of government?

If you scratch the District's grimy bureaucratic surface, you'll uncover a cosmopolitan city that is rich in history -- a microcosm of the American Experience and a living classroom. No wonder it's a top travel destination for families. For most of us who live in the Washington metropolitan area, D.C. is less about executive privilege, multi-billion-dollar budgets, and votes than it is home -- a vibrant multicultural city where we work, play, and raise our kids. A place where families fly kites on the Mall or listen to free concerts from front-row blankets on the Capitol lawn. Where we pause, in awe, to watch the president's motorcade pass by, even if we dislike the current president's policies. Or the president. Frequently we spot -- on city streets, in restaurants, shops, and theaters -- legislators, media moguls, and Hollywood celebs. We never tire of visiting the city's magnificent landmarks, sights, and diverse neighborhoods, whether on foot or via Metro, bicycle, open-air tram, cruise boat, and kayak.

Washington, D.C. is just another place on the map. And it's like nowhere else.

Kids and Washington, D.C. go together like peanut butter and jelly. Little wonder, then, that children of all ages come to know and love the fascinating international playground that is the nation's capital. Washington has broad tree-lined boulevards, numerous parks and recreational areas, and multiethnic shops and restaurants, not to mention its host of attractions (historic and new), waiting to be discovered and rediscovered. The nation's capital is a natural as a family vacation destination. Not bad for a 69 1/4-square-mile parcel of former swampland!

For those of us living in or near "the District" or "D.C.," it's not surprising that visiting families flock to Washington in huge numbers. In fact, nearly 19 million visitors came to Washington in 2004 when D.C. was named the 4th-most-visited U.S. destination (after Orlando, Las Vegas, and New York). Rest assured, the District pulls out all the stops to extend a friendly hand to families. Local hotels bend over backward to cater to families by offering special rates and perks to those with kids in tow. And restaurants go out of their way to please pint-size patrons with kids' menus, half portions, crayons -- and sometimes free food. It's no accident that thousands of buses and planeloads of schoolchildren arrive annually from all over the world. Where else can kids visit the president's house, touch a moon rock, view the city from atop a 555-foot obelisk, and cruise the Potomac on a luxury yacht or the C&O Canal on a mule-drawn boat -- all within minutes of the U.S. Capitol? And that's just for openers!

Despite the staggering number of museums and federal buildings, much of downtown Washington resembles an enormous park. First-time visitors are quick to note the abundance of greenery cozying up to all the marble and granite. In fact, gardens, fountains, and parks hug most major sightseeing attractions. The area known as the National Mall (stretching for 2 miles from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial) is the perfect site for chasing pigeons or flying a kite. Anyone with kids knows that they have short attention spans and typically get bored and antsy after an hour in a museum. These same kids, cranky from being cooped up and longing for physical activity, can exit almost any museum in D.C. onto a glorified yard and let loose.

Compared to other urban areas, both in the United States and abroad, Washington's skyline is surprisingly and refreshingly uncluttered. You can thank the founding fathers for that: Because the original city planners declared that no building could be higher than the dome of the U.S. Capitol, the height of commercial buildings is strictly regulated to 110 feet. And if you've visited other major cities recently, you'll be pleased to discover that Washington's foremost tourist areas are clean and safe.

Getting around D.C. is a breeze. All major attractions are accessible by the Metro, the public rail/bus system. Despite signs of aging that may occasionally cause delays and frustration, the subways are clean, safe, and surprisingly graffiti free. They're also quiet. It's easy to navigate the city with kids on the Metro, even if they're in strollers. Some stations are at hotels, shops, and food courts listed in this book. Most are within a couple of blocks of your destination. And except for a few neighborhoods, where you're not apt to be in the first place, you can unleash older children to wander on their own. Teenagers will enjoy exploring areas such as Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria, which are uniquely appealing to this age group.

You don't need a degree in accounting to budget for a D.C. vacation. Or a huge budget! Prices for food, lodging, and entertainment compare favorably with those of other tourist meccas around the United States and around the world. If you've recently been to New York, London, Los Angeles, or Rome, you'll find Washington a relative bargain -- even if you can't sleep for free in the White House. Families also find that they can eat well in a wide variety of kid-friendly Washington restaurants without breaking the bank. Best of all, almost all the major attractions are free. Try that in New York or Paris!

Tourism is the second-largest industry in D.C. The first, as you might have guessed, is the federal government. The "natives" (sort of an inside joke, because so many residents come from somewhere else) are friendly, helpful, and eager to make visitors feel at home. Washington is, after all, everyone's home, and it tends to engender a sense of belonging to short-term guests as well as longtime residents.

Although D.C.'s citizens enjoy many perks, they have suffered, one way or another, because of local politics. Here's why. According to the Constitution, Congress has the power to "exercise exclusive legislation . . . over the seat of the Government of the United States." Believe it or not, before 1961 and the passage of the 23rd Amendment, residents of the District could not vote in national elections. Under the Reorganization of 1967, the president appointed a mayor and nine-member council to govern the District.

In 1970, Congress okayed legislation for a delegate to represent the District in the House of Representatives, but here's the catch: This rep can vote on committees but not on legislation on the House floor. And although Washington has had an elected mayor and city council since 1975, Congress continues its tight reign over the D.C. budget. It must be true that adversity builds character, because those who live and work in the District share an immense feeling of pride. Chances are, it will rub off on you and yours during your visit.

Kids who snooze their way through American History in school wake up when they tour the Capitol, White House, and other federal buildings. Being there and seeing for themselves where laws are enacted, where the president lives, and where the government works leave a mark on young minds -- one that won't soon be erased.

Frommer's Favorite Washington, D.C. Family Experiences

  • Watching the Fourth of July Fireworks on the Mall. You can't beat the setting of the Washington Monument grounds, National Mall, or west front of the Capitol for observing the nation's birthday. A concert by the National Symphony Orchestra, culminating in the 1812 Overture, accompanies the magnificent pyrotechnic display.
  • Seeing the Sunset Behind the Lincoln Memorial. Make sure your camera is primed and ready to snap for one of Mother Nature's better shows. The west front section of the Capitol is the best vantage point for a sweeping view across the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial and beyond.
  • Catching a Free Concert on the Capitol Lawn. Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends and July 4th, local families toting blankets and chairs camp on the Capitol lawn to hear a free concert by the National Symphony Orchestra and songs by a megastar or two, and then join in the traditional sing-along.
  • Row, Row, Rowing Your Boat on the Potomac. Don't go home without viewing Washington's waterfront and several major sights from an appropriate conveyance: rowboat, canoe, or kayak. Or let someone else play captain on a river cruise. Equally fun is pedaling a 2- or 4-seater around the Tidal Basin before visiting the Jefferson and FDR memorials.
  • Picnicking on the Mall. Have your hotel pack a picnic, or get carryout from a food court or restaurant to enjoy on the Mall. There's plenty of room on the 2-mile lawn between the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial.
  • Looking up Your Congressional Representative or Senator. Stop and say hello to the folks who partake in those lengthy and boring filibusters, battle the pigheaded opposition, and work long days (and often nights). Tell him/her how you feel -- how you really feel -- about important issues. Be prepared: You may end up shaking hands with an administrative assistant who looks about 12. Research your representatives or senators at or, or call tel. 202/224-3121.
  • Spying on the Giant Pandas at the National Zoo. Visit the baby panda, born July 9, 2005, to Mei Xiang. Plan your visit to arrive early in the day when the pandas are most active. For an even more up-close-and-personal look, you can use the pandacam (; warning! it's highly addictive viewing).
  • Taking Pictures of the Cherry Blossoms. Forget about buying those touched-up postcards. Make your own. Photos of the cherry blossoms, the White House, or other famous D.C. sights make stunning cards to mail or email to friends and family. They're also one-of-a-kind souvenirs of your visit.
  • Listening to a Military Band Concert. March yourselves over to a free military band concert, and salute the red, white, and blue. The concerts are held two or three evenings a week in summer at several D.C. venues and Arlington Memorial Cemetery.
  • Seeing a Free Movie on the Mall. Families blanket the Washington Monument grounds summer evenings for "Screen on the Green," free screenings of classics such as Casablanca and The Graduate under the stars.
  • Getting a Bird's-Eye View from the Washington Monument. Come here at off times for a shorter wait, and thrill to a panorama of downtown D.C.; Arlington, Virginia; and beyond. Yes, it is touristy, and yes, it is usually crowded. Go anyway. If you've been during the day, go at night. You may not recognize the sights, but it is a spectacular view!
  • Reading the Charters of Freedom at the Archives. A moving experience awaits visitors, especially first-timers, regardless of their hailing port. The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights have been much more reader-friendly (especially to youngsters and those with disabilities) since the Archives' building renovation and charters restoration a few years ago.
  • Experiencing America the Beautiful in To Fly at the Air and Space Museum's IMAX Theater. What is it about this movie? Thirty years after its debut, crowds still line up to view it. My eyes still mist over at the breathtaking photography -- and I've seen it at least a dozen times.

Share your experiences with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Washington, D.C. Message Boards.