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A Family Travel Guide to Washington, D.C.

By Stirling Kelso Neff

Jan 5, 2022

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The Capitol Riverfront is a stretch of the Anacostia River that’s been upgraded with cool pedestrian bridges, public art, kid-friendly water features, and plenty of restaurants.

Courtesy of Washington.org

The Capitol Riverfront is a stretch of the Anacostia River that’s been upgraded with cool pedestrian bridges, public art, kid-friendly water features, and plenty of restaurants.

The nation’s capital is full of hands-on museums, tasty food, and wide-open spaces perfect for family trips. These are the top things to do—and places to stay—whether it’s your first visit or 10th.

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If you happened to grow up within a bus ride’s distance of Washington, D.C., you likely went on field trips to our nation’s capital. Perhaps, braces chattering in the off-season, you ran around the National Mall. A museum or two made the list, no doubt, as did monuments, memorials, and a class picture in front of the White House, so far in the distance that the Secret Service agents on the roof looked like ants.

While these city cornerstones remain family travel highlights, we’ve gathered several more in-the-know spots to add to the list—museums that offer hands-on experiences, hikes shaded by tall maples and oaks, cultural spaces, and globally inspired food halls that attract not only weary travelers exiting I-95 but also D.C. dwellers. Your littles will navigate this new side of Washington with a smile and a renewed sense of patriotism, and you, dear parent, will enjoy yourself as well.

Visit a voice-activated museum: Planet Word

Housed in the historic Franklin School—the 1869 brick building was once D.C.’s flagship public school—Planet Word is the world’s first voice-activated museum. Your chatterboxes will love the speaking willow in front of the museum, which greets visitors in hundreds of languages. In the library, books come to life, thanks to narrators and secrets in the stacks of tomes. You can also listen to famous speeches or try your hand at speechifying yourself, with the help of a teleprompter. There’s even a recording booth where families can share their own stories.

Build a LEGO skyscraper: The National Building Museum

While parents are sure to admire this 1887 structure’s impressive architecture—the National Building Museum features some of the world’s largest Corinthian columns, plus an exterior frieze depicting Civil War soldiers—kids will beeline to the Play, Work, Build exhibit, a permanent playscape for future engineers. Perhaps you’ve heard of LEGOs? They have ’em, as well as building blocks, construction tools, and tool-kit carts throughout the galleries. And don’t miss the Architectural Toy Collection, part of a 2,300-plus-piece assemblage previously owned by an English teacher, with American classics such as Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys.

Chase butterflies in a blooming garden: River Farm, Alexandria, VA

Kiddos can hunt for butterflies in the exquisite children’s garden at history-filled River Farm, one of four farms on the Potomac owned by George Washington and home to the American Horticulture Society, which is celebrating 100 years in 2022. Along with a brick manor house, built in the 1750s, the property has trees that date back to the first president. Budding nature lovers can scout the grounds for the 18th-century black walnut tree, a variety that used to dominate the Virginia landscape. Another fun find? Kentucky coffee trees (the seeds were used as a coffee substitute), a species Washington brought from the Ohio River Valley after a surveying trip. There’s also a roll-worthy hill overlooking the Potomac. Free admission.

Brick sidewalks and 19th-century row houses make Georgetown a peaceful and picturesque neighborhood for meandering with a stroller.

Stroll a scenic neighborhood: Georgetown

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Pushing a pram? Head to Georgetown, where painted 19th-century row houses and brick sidewalks make for a scenic stroll. Older kids will love the waterfront, which keeps children in mind through the seasons thanks to an ice rink in winter and a splash park in summer. Refuel at Moby Dick House of Kebob, which piles skewered chicken or lamb on top of plates of Persian-style rice. Sweet tooths can wrap up a meal with baklava or saffron ice cream. If you’re more in the mood for bagels, pastrami, and other grab-and-go foods, look no further than Call Your Mother Deli, a neighborhood favorite.

Create your own art: The Kennedy Center

Along with the Kennedy Center’s regular youth-focused events calendar—the family theater has I Dream of the Moon and Super Cello! performances slated in coming months—it also recently opened the Reach, a new branch that aims to make performance art more interactive and accessible. This plays into the hands, quite literally, of children, thanks to several tactile exhibits. Kids can jump from dot to dot of Mo Willems’s massive 2D mural playscape, for example, or blend music with visual art—drawing to inspiring tunes, mixing rhythms, playing with shadows—in the Moonshot Studio, a creation lab.

Ride an elevator to the sky: Washington Monument

Closed for years due to construction, COVID-19, and even a lightning strike, the Washington Monument (or the Pencil, as schoolchildren call it) is finally open again. Families can take the elevator up 550 feet for stellar views of the city and neighboring Virginia. Tickets are free and can be reserved 10 days in advance.

Explore interactive exhibits: National Children’s Museum

Good luck tearing your half pints away from the new National Children’s Museum, which encourages kids to touch, build, explore, and flex their brains. The Tinkerers Studio is where art supplies, recyclables, and plenty of tape and glue might lead them on a design path to building the next great city. Snow and lightning come alive in an immersive digital room that would make your local weather reporter jealous, and kids can bat off a tee and celebrate sports teams at an exhibit that’s all about games and play. There’s also a three-story slide and a slime funhouse (don’t worry, parents, the mess is virtual). And as for those active tots? Open the gate to the sky-themed Little Dreamers playroom, where they can climb in wooden airplanes and hot air balloons, while you might be tempted to nap in the pillow-filled cloud pit.

Eat your way around the world: Union Market

Have a budding foodie in the family, or looking for a one-stop shop for a range of tastebuds? Up in northwest Washington, Union Market could call itself a national food tour thanks to 40-plus vendors. O-Ku has top-quality sushi and sashimi, as well as wood-fired meats and seafood. Shouk serves up flavor-packed Israeli street foods, many of which have a plant-based twist, like mushroom shawarmas and eggplant burgers. Save time to shop for children’s gifts—mini suitcases, wooden puzzles, handmade stuffed animals—from Three Littles.

Take in baseball, burgers, and ice cream: The Capitol Riverfront

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This stretch of the city on the Anacostia River has been transformed thanks to an elevated walkway and pedestrian bridges—one of which is edgy and futuristic and spans Washington’s first canal—and public arts and water features that invite curiosity and play. It’s also home to Nationals Park, where you can catch a game and keep an eye out for mascot Screech, a bald eagle as energetic as its species’ comeback. Kid-friendly restaurants include Bluejacket Brewery, where moms and dads can take a back-of-house beer tour while kids fill up on house-made pretzels and burgers (picky eaters can choose between beef or falafel burgers). For dessert, pop over to Ice Cream Jubilee for scoops in flavors like lemon honey lavender and Thai iced tea.

Stomping Ground’s cappuccinos, biscuits and jam will help families refuel.

Shop and snack in the suburbs: Del Ray, Alexandria, VA

Take the Metro to Del Ray, Alexandria, a family-friendly neighborhood anchored by a charming main street (Mount Vernon Avenue) lined with shops and restaurants that keep young ones in mind. The biscuits and housemade jams—along with top-notch cappuccinos, a godsend for tired parents—are among the delicious items at Stomping Ground. At the Purple Goose children’s shop, you’ll find souvenir-worthy toys and clothes ranging from special occasion to comfy PJs. Kids can order gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches while parents nosh on wedges of specialty fromage, paired with charcuterie, breads, and drizzles at Cheesetique. Get your wiggles out at one of Del Ray’s playgrounds, all in walking distance of the Metro stop.

Wander through the trees: Gulf Branch Park and Nature Center, Arlington, VA

The trees—towering maples, oaks, ash, and evergreens—in and around the Washington-Virginia area are monuments all on their own. Learn about them, as well as the region’s other flora and fauna, at the Nature Center in Gulf Branch Park in Arlington. The center has a glass-walled beehive—ask a staff member to point out the queen—plus a room full of crafts and activities. From there, families can also explore nature trails that cross creeks filled with minnows and crayfish, wind through urban forests, and lead to Potomac River overlooks.

D.C.’s monuments are beautiful at night; don’t miss the Jefferson Memorial.

See the famous monuments by night

Is there anything more exciting to kids than a staying up after dark? Sneak the monuments into the itinerary—and avoid the crowds—by seeing them after sunset. Climb the steps at the Lincoln Memorial (open 24 hours a day) and walk all the way around it for spectacular views of the Washington Monument and the Capitol. The Jefferson Memorial’s Vermont marble dome is also particularly striking in the moonlight (open 24 hours a day).

Where to stay with kids

Choose from one of these kid-friendly accommodations in Washington D.C..

Four Seasons Hotel Washington, D.C.

  • Neighborhood: Georgetown
  • Book Now: From $750 per night, expedia.com

At the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, D.C. the staff greets youngsters with a Red Flyer wagon filled with seasonal treats to choose from (like stuffed polar bears in winter), among other goodies. And if you’re splurging on room service, children’s dishes will arrive on kid-sized plates with special cups and cutlery. The property also has a pool that can be booked—with floaties!—for family swims.

The Willard Hotel

  • Neighborhood: Downtown
  • Book Now: From $369 per night, expedia.com

The Willard has a dedicated kids’ concierge, who contacts families before arrival to ensure that guest rooms (some of the largest in the city) are equipped with the things you need most, whether that means microwaves for warming bottles or extra diapers and pails.

Vrbo

  • Neighborhood: various locations
  • Book Now: vrbo.com

It’s hard to beat a vacation home from Vrbo for conveniences like washers and dryers, parking, kitchens, and perhaps a patch of green space to run around. Many houses and apartments also have specific kid-friendly amenities ranging from cribs and baby gates to bathtubs and toys. Choose the “families” filter to see properties with rave reviews from previous travelers with kids.

>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Washington, D.C.

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