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Washington D.C. is the capital of the United States of America and it’s a top destination for families. Some of the best monuments, museums, historical sites, zoos, and parks in the United States are located here. Even better, many of them cost nothing to visit.
I’ve visited Washington D.C. several times, and Katie – a longtime friend and Tips for Family Trips contributor – lives just outside the city in Northern Virginia. Here are our top tips and posts for Washington D.C.
What to do
For most people, Washington D.C. is all about the museums and monuments. We love exploring the National Mall, wandering Smithsonian museums, and touring government buildings and historic sites. Get specific tips for our favorite places and activities by clicking the images below.
I have also spent time in National Harbor, Maryland, which is a popular Washington D.C. conference location. It’s located about 10 miles from downtown D.C and it’s a walkable family destination with water taxis to Alexandria and Mount Vernon.
One of the best things about Washington D.C. is that so many of its’ popular attractions are free! All the monuments and Smithsonian museums cost nothing to visit. You can quickly fill your itinerary with free activities.
There are a number of activities that cost money that are worth your consideration. The big one is George Washington’s Mount Vernon. It’s worth it. We also love the International Spy Museum, Newseum and others.
You can save up to 35% on these and many other popular attractions with the Go Washington DC Card. Between Go Card and free activities, it’s easy to keep your entertainment expenses under control in Washington D.C.
Where to stay
There are so many hotels in Washington D.C., it can be difficult to narrow down your options. I strongly recommend booking a hotel within a block or two of a Metro station. If you can book something within walking distance of the National Mall or other top attractions, even better.
We have stayed in several Washington D.C. hotels.
- The Omni Shoreham Hotel was located within walking distance of the National Zoo and National Cathedral. It’s a beautiful historic hotel with Rock Creek Park in its back yard. It’s located one block from the Woodley Park-Zoo Metro Station.
- Kimpton Hotel Madera is a converted apartment building located near the Dupont Circle Metro Station. It’s a fun, walkable neighborhood, not too far from the White House. We loved the family-sized room with bunk beds for our kids. Click the image below to read my full review.
- Hotel Harrington has an outstanding location around the corner from Ford’s Theater and a few blocks from the National Mall. We stayed here for two nights over the 4th of July. The price is right, but be aware that this historic hotel feels a little run down.
- Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center is located in National Harbor, Maryland. I highly recommend this hotel if you’re here for a conference, but do not recommend it for a D.C. vacation. There are a lot of fun things to do in National Harbor, but it’s too far from the main D.C. attractions, with no Metro access.
Renting a home or apartment through AirBnB, HomeAway or other rental sites is a good option for families in Washington D.C. It can be an affordable way to get more space and a full kitchen.
I recommend using public transportation in Washington D.C., with occasional help from Uber, Lyft or a taxi. It can be difficult to drive and park in Washington D.C., especially if you aren’t familiar with the city. It’s not uncommon to pay $50 per night to park at your hotel.
Buy Metro cards at vending machines inside the Metro stations and top them up as needed. Avoid riding at rush hour if you can because trains can be very crowded. Walking is the best way to see Washington D.C., so don’t take Metro everywhere just because you can.
Bicycling is another good way to get around Washington D.C. The city has a Bikeshare program where you can rent a bike from one station and drop it off at another for just a few dollars per day. Learn more at capitalbikeshare.com. Families with young children may want to rent smaller bikes or trailers from a rental shop. Bike rental is one of the options on the Go Washington DC Card (see Money-saving tips.)
Hop-on Hop-off bus tours are a popular way to see the city. Pay for the route you want, get off the bus whenever you like for as long as you like, then get on another bus when you’re ready. A knowledegable guide shares information about points of interest while you ride. The Big Bus Hop-on Hop-off tour is one of the options on the Go Washington DC Card (see Money-saving tips.)
Where to eat
There are good restaurants to fit a variety of budgets pretty much everywhere in Washington D.C. Here are a few of my family’s favorites.
- Shake Shack – This east coast burger chain is a must for those of us who can’t get it at home. Find it at Union Station, next to the International Spy Museum on F Street, Dupont Circle and Logan Circle.
- Burger Tap & Shake – This is another great burger that you can only find in Washington D.C. The Foggy Bottom location was a short walk from Kimpton Hotel Madera.
- Pi Pizzeria – Rumor has it that this St. Louis pizza chain opened a D.C. location because it was a favorite of President Obama. I believe it, because this pizza is truly exceptional. Find it on F Street, near the International Spy Museum and Ford’s Theater.
- Lebanese Taverna – This restaurant is a D.C. favorite, with several locations. We’ve tried the one near the Woodley Park Metro Station, just down the street from the National Zoo. It’s family friendly, and welcoming to those who are new to Middle-Eastern cuisine.
- Capitol Cafe – This cafeteria, located inside the U.S. Capitol Building, offers a variety of inexpensive options for families with picky eaters (like mine.) Eat lunch here before or after a tour of the Capitol, or anytime you’re in the area.
Weather and Seasons
Washington D.C. generally has mild winters and hot, humid summers. Spring and fall are the most pleasant times to visit, but you can have a good trip any time of the year if you plan for the weather.
Spring and summer are the busiest seasons, but expect crowds at the most popular attractions any time of year. I’ve visited on the 4th of July and in November in the last couple of years. November crowds were lighter, but there were still plenty of other visitors.
Washington D.C. has several special events throughout the year. The National Cherry Blossom Festival in March-April is a very popular event. There is nothing like celebrating Independence Day in July on the National Mall. Colorful fall leaves in the D.C. area rival the autumn splendor in any other part of the country. Christmas is a festive season in Washington D.C.
Click the images below to read our top tips for some of these seasonal events.
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