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Washington, D.C. with Kids: Trip Planning and Best Bets for Families

Happily, I've trouped all over Washington, D.C. on your behalf, and thought long and hard about the details so that you won't have to work too hard to devise a terrific trip to suit your own entourage.

Logistics take on a whole new meaning when you're dealing with a group -- nothing is simple when the needs of the many must be taken into account, as happens with most (successful) family vacations. Happily, I've trouped all over Washington, D.C. on your behalf, and thought long and hard about the details so that you won't have to work too hard to devise a terrific trip to suit your own entourage.

Visitor Information

Nothing beats careful planning for a smooth-running, fun-filled vacation, especially when traveling with kids. I think familiarizing yourself with your destination is always helpful. Because you're traveling to the nation's capital, why not practice the precepts of a democracy and include your children in the planning process? Encourage your kids to borrow books from the library and surf the net for information. Then gather everyone at the dinner table, and share what you've learned along with your mac and cheese. Discuss your priorities, and before you know it, you have a working itinerary.

Our family likes to list "must-sees," followed by backups we can live without. I've found that it's wise not to leave anything but the weather (and, if you're not fussy, where to eat) to chance. Make any necessary reservations before you arrive. Then allow those unrehearsed magic moments to filter in. Speaking of planning: If you want to eat lunch in the members' dining room or to take VIP tours of the Capitol, White House (groups of 10 or more only), Kennedy Center, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, or FBI (when it reopens), contact your congressional representatives. You don't have to be very important; this will allow you to tour with a smaller group. Passes are limited, and 6 months before your visit is not too soon to write. Send your request, with the dates of your trip, names of people in your party, your phone number, and mailing address, to your senator, C/O U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510, or your representative, C/O U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515. If you're not sure whom you should write to, call the Capitol switchboard (tel. 202/224-3121), or visit or

Besides combing the travel shelves of your local library and bookstores, you can order brochures from the following sources: Washington, D.C. Convention and Tourism Corporation, 901 7th St. NW, 4th Floor, Washington, DC 20001 (tel. 202/789-7000 or 800/422-8644;; the Washington, D.C. Chamber of Commerce, Visitor Information Center in Ronald Reagan Building, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (tel. 202/866-DCISFUN [347-7386];; Washington, D.C. Accommodations (tel. 202/289-2220 or 800-503-3330;; Capitol Reservations (tel. 202/452-1270 or 800/847-4832;; and Bed and Breakfast Accommodations, Ltd. (tel. 877/893-3233;

You could spend an entire lifetime discovering the wonders of Washington, D.C. But you probably have other things to do as well, like working, eating, and paying bills. So be realistic and scale down your expectations. It's better to spend quality time on a few attractions than to dash through a multitude.

Look to your children when planning your itinerary, and be sure to factor in time for relaxing. Visit a few well-chosen sites and then let off steam in one of the city's many parks and recreational areas. Dunk in the hotel pool, or if shopping is your favorite sport, browse in one of the museum shops or glitzy indoor malls. Remember, this is a vacation, not an endurance contest! Young children have short attention spans. Catch a movie, puppet show, or theater presentation for a change of pace. Preschoolers often get antsy after 20 minutes in a museum. When they do, it's fruitless to push them further. Stop for a snack, rest, or get some fresh air. Then try again. You'll know when they've had it!

Our suggestions are for those moments when "kids have to be kids" -- run around, get a toy or simply rest. But even these times can be spend in beautiful surroundings and places your kids will sure remember.

Frommer's Best of the Best

  • Best Place to Run Around: Head for the National Mall (you can't miss it -- just step outside almost any Smithsonian museum). If you have time, go to Rock Creek Park at 5200 Glover Rd. NW (tel. 202/426-6829), where you may also ride bikes or horses, play tennis or golf, gaze at the stars, swing, slide, hike, or rent a boat on the C&O Canal or Potomac.
  • Best Views: The Washington Monument, 15th Street and Constitution Avenue NW (tel. 202/426-6841), can't be beat, but you need passes spring and summer. You'll rarely have a wait at the Old Post Office, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (tel. 202/289-4224). Take the elevator to the clock tower for a panoramic view of downtown and beyond. The National Cathedral, Massachusetts and Wisconsin aves. NW (tel. 202/537-6200), is a bit out of the way, but the view from the Pilgrim Observation Gallery is spectacular.
  • Best Ride for Kids: Both the Carousel on the Mall, 1000 Jefferson Dr. SW (on the Mall outside the Smithsonian "Castle"; tel. 202/357-2700), and the Dentzel Carousel at Glen Echo Park, MacArthur Boulevard at Goldsborough Road, Glen Echo, MD (tel. 301/492-6282), get my vote.
  • Best Souvenirs: Souvenir City, 1001 K St. NW (between 10th and 11th streets; tel. 202/638-1836), sells shirts, books, paperweights, mugs, and other D.C.-inspired mementos.
  • Best Toy Store: Barston's Child's Play, 5536 Connecticut Ave. (tel. 202/244-3602), and Sullivan's, 3412 Wisconsin Ave. NW (tel. 202/362-1343), get my vote and have stood the test of time. Both are in the Friendship Heights neighborhood, because that's where a large number of affluent D.C. families live. Though they're a bit out of the way if you're staying in downtown D.C., the stores are well stocked and excel at giving their young customers one-on-one attention. (For this toy shopper, they are a refreshing alternative to the large, impersonal toy "factories" where customer service is far from the numero-uno concern.)
  • Best History Lesson: For older kids, sitting in the House or Senate galleries at the U.S. Capitol, East Capitol Street and 1st Street NE (tel. 202/225-6827 or 202/224-3121), when either is in session is to view history in the making. Bear in mind that the House and Senate are not in session all the time. You can check the local papers or the Capitol website to see what is on the docket.
  • Most Unusual Tour: D.C. Ducks, Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE (tel. 202/966-DUCK), departs Union Station to tour various Washington, D.C. sights on land and sea (the Potomac River) in refurbished World War II amphibious vehicles.

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