Washington DC is a great destination to visit with kids. With dozens of historic sights it is a perfect place for a citytrip, or to build into an East Coast itinerary. I visited the city several times over the past years, most recently (October 2014) as part of a father-son road trip. Please travel along with me and my 12 year old son to my very subjective top-5 family travel sights to visit in the US capital.
#1 – The White House
For many people the White House is the number one reason to visit Washington, and it should not miss on your itinerary! Our hotel is just a block away from the back side of the President’s mansion. In fact, you can get much closer at the back, where you can even see people walking around inside.
The area at the Mall-facing front of the building is much more strictly guarded and you are further away. But you simply cannot leave without this totally touristy yet classic White House selfie!
Just around the corner from the White House is the “Old Ebbitt Grill“, claimed to be the oldest restaurant in DC. Great food, great service, great atmosphere! We did not make a reservation, so ended up at the bar. Highly recommended, and kid friendly (as most restaurants in the US).
#2 – Museum of American History
Along the National Mall you will find a great selection of museums, all of which belong to the Smithsonian Institution. One of my favorites is the National Museum of American History. The centerpiece of this museum is the highly symbolical large ‘original’ US flag. Much more interesting for the non-US visitor like us is the collection of transport vehicles that allowed people to cover great distances in the past.
Like this enormous 1926-built Southern Railway steam train, set in a 1920’s railway station setting. This was mass transport before the car completely took over.
The car had a major impact on the post-war development of the United States, so some of the classics are at the museum, like this 1964 Ford Mustang. I really liked the stories about the trailers and the motels along the new highways and interstates. Interesting recent history!
#3 – Monuments on the National Mall
Apart form the museums, the National Mall is home to many important national monuments, memorizing key chapters in US history. Most significant is the Washington Monument, a 169 meter tall obelisk. Opened in 1888, it is still the largest freestanding stone building in the world. It was damaged by an earthquake in 2011, and only reopened to the public in May 2014.
Being the tallest structure in Washington DC, the Monument offers unprecedented views over the city. You can get free tickets to the monument from the ticket booth to the east of the obelisk. Get your time-stamped ticket early, so you can get on the same day! The elevator ride up (and especially down!) is an adventure by itself. The small windows in the tip of the obelisk offer awesome photo opportunities of many DC landmarks.
The view on the Monument is best from a distance, most notably from the reflection pool at the western end of the Mall, at the Lincoln Memorial. Early morning or evening is best for photographs, due to light and lack of crowds.
Of course the Lincoln Memorial itself is a great attraction and the oversized image of Abraham Lincoln in his marble chair is world famous and should not be missed!
Also make sure you read the impressive texts on the two side walls, describing the essence of modern American culture as it formed just before and during the Civil War.
#4 – National Air and Space Museum
On the opposite end of the Mall you will find the National Air and Space Museum. As a space worker this is my obvious favorite place in the city (if not the world). I will write a dedicated post to just this place later. In this picture you find an original flight-proof ‘spare’ of the Skylad space station, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope Structural Dynamic Test Vehicle (SDTV).
This museum has almost all relevant ‘firsts’ in aviation and space flight, including this famous red Lockheed Vega 5B that undertook the first female non-stop flight across the US and over the Atlantic in 1932, with Amelia Earhart as her famous pilot adventurer.
Kids of all ages will love the ‘operational’ aircraft carrier flightdeck, where aircraft are landing and taking off. You climb up to the air traffic control bridge from a full aircraft hangar.
The Air and Space Museum has an important annex, holding many more and – to my opinion – some of the best items. The Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center is located just outside Dulles Airport, in Chantilly, VA. A visit to Air and Space is not complete without seeing this facility too. Although called an ‘annex’, it is actually larger than the DC city museum itself.
A kids favorite is the simulator hall! Unlike most museum simulators, you get to sit behind the stick of a fighter jet, where you can pull several G’s and do a full looping (or many) here! Highly recommended, but not for the faint of heart (and stomach…)!
As an extra bonus kids get to take their first real flying lesson at the museum Cessna 150 trainer aircraft. Instructions are given by certified pilot trainers and you get to operate all controls! Only thing it doesn’t do is actually take off, but the fact that this is a free-of-charge experience makes it worth the effort of visiting! Great staff!
#5 – Historic Gettysburg
Only a few hours north of Washington you can visit nearby historic Gettysburg. This amll town in Pennsylvania is famous for the battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg address by president Lincoln. Gettysburg was the scene of one of the determining battles of the Civil War, where the confederate troops lost an apic attempt to bring the war to the Northern States. Although this battle did not end the war, it was the beginning of the end.
At the visitor center the story of Gettysburg is told in three awesome displays. First of all there is a panoramic movie that goes through the entire history of the battle, then there is the exhibit with artifacts, weaponry, maps and many personal stories of the battle. The most famous depiction of the battle however is also the oldest. It is the 1884 Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 360 degree painting bringing the final Confederate assault on July 3, 1863 to life. Very impressive and an awesome way to get kids to love 19th century paintings!
If Abraham Lincoln wasn’t your kid’s favorite president yet, he will be after visiting the Lincoln Memorial and Gettysburg! What an inspiring life story!
The entire town of Gettysburg is dedicated to the Civil War events. Even the Gettysburg Wyndham Hotel lobby has a very Civil War feeling, with the cannon and large paintings of the generals of the 1860’s. Although slightly out of town, I highly recommend staying here. Very comfortable and good value.
Now obviously there are many dozens more great attractions in the DC area. There are many more museums, you can visit the US Capitol building and US citizens can even visit the White House. Our trip in the fall of 2014 only had two full days in DC and a day in Gettysburg, along the way to New York City (see my blog about New York City with Kids here). But when traveling with kids you have to make choices. Kids get tired (and bored) very easily, so you have to keep it relatively light. Besides, if there is any city in the world where they will want to come back when they are older, it is this place!
At the end of the day, you’d better have a comfortable bed waiting!