Whether it’s spring break, a summer vacation, or a weekend getaway, Washington, DC is a great place for the whole family! We took our boys there over spring break and they fell in love with the city, so we compiled some of our favorite Washington, DC activities for the whole family.
- If possible, try and book a hotel or Airbnb that’s close to a Metro stop. We found a room at the Marriott DC Metro Center, which put us right next to the Metro Center station.
- One of the best things about DC is that nearly every museum and tour is FREE! Some require tickets the day of (Library of Congress, National Museum of African American History) or require reservations in advance (Capitol or White House tours, which you arrange through your state representative’s office). But the free offerings mean that if you only want to spend an hour in a particular museum, you’re not on the hook for expensive admission.
1. Take a Monuments By Moonlight Tour
One of our favorite activities was booking Trolley Tour’s Monuments By Moonlight Tour our first night in town. (Pro-tip: book online to save 10%.) Doing it our first night provided a good introduction to the layout of the many iconic buildings and monuments on and around the National Mall.
The bus tour leaves from the Washington Welcome Center at 10th and E Streets (near Ford’s Theatre), and takes about three hours. The driver/guide was incredibly knowledgeable, and they stop and let you explore around the WWII Memorial, the MLK and FDR Memorials, and the Lincoln Memorial, so you can stretch your legs, use the restroom, see monuments up close.
The monuments and the National Mall also just look gorgeous at night!
2. See the MLK and FDR Memorials
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a powerful new addition to the National Mall. It takes his quote, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” and depicts Dr. King carved out of a tall slab of stone that has in turn been cut out of a larger piece.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is nearby. It depicts FDR in a wheelchair, with some important quotes and other features. Our guide said a memorial to Eleanor Roosevelt is nearby, but we couldn’t find it.
3. Tour the National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery is an easy first stop, with beautiful pieces in classical, modern, and contemporary styles.
Our boys engaged with the presidential gallery, as we counted each president, starting with George Washington.
Don’t miss some of the large-scale paintings – we loved the giant portraits of Yellowstone National Park – as well as the beautiful covered atrium where you can sit, enjoy the greenery, get a cup of coffee or sandwich in the cafe.
4. See Our Founding Documents at the National Archives
Make your Nicolas Cage/National Treasure/”I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence” jokes outside, then head in to see our nation’s found documents in the National Archives. You can’t take photos in the main galleries, but you can get an up-close look at the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and other important documents.
Bonus: if you’re hungry, walk a few blocks north to Fuel Pizza & Wings.
5. Eat Breakfast at Lincoln’s Waffle Shop
No, Abraham Lincoln probably didn’t eat waffles there, but you can enjoy a great breakfast at Lincoln’s Waffle Shop! The cozy, family-run diner sits across the street from Ford’s Theater and next to the Petersen House, aka The House Where Lincoln Died.
Certainly order the waffles here, and arrive early – it fills up quickly!
6. Ride the Metro
DC’s Metro system is easy to navigate, and helps get you to stops around the city. Or if your boys are anything like mine, they’ll just enjoy riding the trains.
Get your Metro card at a kiosk at any station, then easily refill it as needed. Fares run between $2.25-6, depending on the distance traveled and time of day.
7. The National Museum of African American History & Culture
The stunning National Museum of African American History & Culture sits adjacent to the Washington Monument. It’s a powerful, sometimes difficult, but very necessary institution to visit, and it provides great opportunities for in-depth conversations with your kids.
It covers a wide history, starting with the slave trade and how it affected African countries, the founding of our country, the Civil Rights era, through today and beyond. It includes artwork, interactive displays, historical artifacts (see Harriett Tubman’s handkerchief and hymnal), and much more.
Note: free time tickets are required for entry. You can request them the morning of your visit. And after you explore the three lower levels, head upstairs to the galleries.
8. Food Trucks and Hanging Out on the National Mall
If your kids need time to run-around, or you just want to relax outdoors, find a spot in the shade on the National Mall! Noisy and colorful food trucks line up, giving you plenty of lunch options. And you can rent a scooter for half an hour to (safely) tool around.
9. The National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History offers an eclectic collection that covers historical pieces (see the original star-spangled banner, for instance), transportation, pop culture, currency, food and drink, and much more.
Highlights for us included see Muppets and Sesame Street puppets, Julia Child’s kitchen, the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Ozand the giant trains (aka where Andy climbs in the Parks & Rec episode).
10. Lunch at The Old Ebbitt Grill
Located a block east of the White House and the Treasury building, the Old Ebbitt Grill has a long history as a beautifully decorated historic tavern, known for oysters, sandwiches, drinks for the adults. Depending on the time of day, expect a wait, although the restaurant features expansive dining rooms.
11. Breakfast at Busboys & Poets
Busboys & Poets takes its name from Langston Hughes, who was once called the Busboy Poet when he worked at the Wardman Park Hotel in DC. With multiple locations, it serves as a restaurant, bar, bookstore, and event space.
Bonus: go to the 14th and V location of Busboys & Poets, then stop for pastries and coffee at A Baked Joint next door.
12. The National Air & Space Museum
The National Air & Space Museum is a must-visit for any family. The museum property on the National Mall is closed through September 2022, but you can always visit the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. It’s about 30 minutes outside DC proper at Dulles airport. Admission is free, but parking is $15.
The Udvar-Hazy Center features multiple hangars chock full of aircraft. You can see a Concorde, an SR-71 Blackbird, the Enola Gay, John Glenn’s Friendship 7, pieces of the Apollo 11 launch system, and much, much more. On our visit we spied Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega being restored and the Bell X-1 temporary on loan from the DC museum.
Of course, one of the centerpieces is the space shuttle Discovery. It’s just magnificent seeing it up-close.
Pro-tip: Before you leave, head up the observation tower to watch planes landing at Dulles.
13. Paddle Boats on the Tidal Basin
One of our favorite afternoon activities was renting paddle boats on the Tidal Basin. The four-person boats cost $32.50 an hour. You can see the cherry blossoms (in season), the Jefferson Memorial, the MLK Memorial, and other sights from the water.
14. Walk the Floral Library
When you park to rent paddle boats, you’re right next to the Flora Library, a small collection of beds that mostly feature tulips in the spring.
15. Gimme Your Tots at Tonic at Quigley’s
For a fun and easy-to-love dinner experience, head to Tonic at Quigley’s in Foggy Bottom. They’re known especially for their tater tots.
16. Tour the US Capitol
See inside the iconic US Capitol at the east end of the Mall. Capitol tours must be scheduled in advance, either online through the visitors center site or through your state senator or representative’s office.
The tours are led by knowledgeable guides and include looks at the Rotunda, crypt, National Statuary Hall, and other sites, but NOT the Senate or House chambers.
The building really is a marvel, especially standing under the rotunda.
After your tour, walk across the street to see the Supreme Court.
17. Burgers & Fries at Good Stuff Eatery
For lunch after your Capitol tour, walk a few blocks to Good Stuff Eatery, a great spot for burgers, fries, and shakes.
18. Library of Congress
The Library of Congress often flies under the radar, but the beautiful building is often a high point for visitors. Timed passes are required for entry, so reserve yours in advance.
19. Hirshhorn Museum
The Hirshhorn Museum explores modern and contemporary art, and includes permanent pieces, rotating exhibitions, and a small outdoor sculpture park. Day-of timed entry passes are required for some exhibitions, like Yayoi Kusama’s work on display through November 27, 2022.
20. National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History is another must-stop for families. From animals to skeletons, mummies to precious gemstones (like the Hope Diamond!), the museum offers hours of engaging exhibitions.
21. Tortas, Tacos, Queso at El Sol Restaurante & Tequileria
El Sol Restaurante makes its home on 11th in Logan Circle, and has been lauded as one of the best taquerias in the city. We encountered rather indifferent service, but the queso fundido, enchiladas, gorditas, tacos were all top-notch.
22. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall
The iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is another powerful piece that invites great conversations as a family. Take your time to stroll quietly, observe the many names, and note the letters and other tributes left to loved ones.
23. The Lincoln Memorial at Night
Just as we started our trip with a night-time tour of the National Mall, we ended it with an evening stroll around the reflecting pool and the Lincoln Memorial. It was the perfect cap to the trip, sitting on the steps while watching the sun go down.