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Here’s the thing about planning a family trip to Washington, DC: it doesn’t have to be all monuments and museums. A trip to this city full of rich American history can be fun for the whole family without anyone feeling obligated to tag along.
Home to the United States federal government, Washington, DC, is also home to many incredible free activities and city tours. From meandering the National Mall to exploring the dozens of museums and not forgetting the Capitol Building, Washington, DC, could become a new family favorite.
However, since there’s so much to do, you’ll need to plan appropriately before setting out and using your time in the nation’s capital to the fullest. It also helps you avoid mistakes when booking your tour so you don’t overlook yourself or accidentally put yourself out of the way before a day full of touring.
Here, we have created the ultimate guide for planning an amazing family getaway in Washington, DC, from booking cheap flights with tools like Going (Formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) to creating your daily itineraries.
We’ll help ensure you don’t accidentally end up at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial when you meant to hit up the Mount Vernon Trail.
- Do Your Research, Or You’ll Miss Out
- Plan Out the Journey
- Check Your Flights
- Book Your Lodging
- St. Regis Washington, DC
- Canopy by Hilton Washington DC The Wharf
- Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center
- The Morrow Washington DC Curio Collection by Hilton
- Hilton Club The District Washington DC
- Learn to Navigate the Washington, DC Metro
- Find the Best Places to Eat in Washington, DC
- Map Out an Itinerary
- National Children’s Museum
- Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park
- United States Botanic Garden
- Georgetown Waterfront Park
- Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
- Rock Creek Park
- White House and Visitor’s Center
- Busch Gardens Williamsburg
- Arlington National Cemetery
- National Museum of Women in the Arts
- National Air and Space Museum
- National Archives Museum
- 3-Day Washington, DC Itinerary
- Tips to Plan an Amazing Family Getaway In Washington DC.
- Avail All the Free Stuff
- Become Early Birds
- Is Washington, DC, a good family vacation?
- How many days should a family spend in Washington, DC?
- What is the best time of year to visit Washington, DC?
Do Your Research, Or You’ll Miss Out
While the average traveler knows the significant sites like the Washington Monument or the Smithsonian National Museum.
Did you know about the International Spy Museum, the National Children’s Museum, or The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts? All this and more await you and your family in Washington, DC.
You can also let your family experience these walking tours in Washington, DC, for adventure and let your kids see the dozens of museums in the capital city.
These broad-reaching explorations can help pinpoint how to spend your trip best. After all, while traveling with family, you must also plan your excursions according to your kids’ interests.
For example, if your children taste history, you can visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum or the National Museum of African American History. However, the images and content in these museums may be difficult for young children to understand.
If your little ones can’t handle that, consider alternative Washington, DC museums. Or, use the museums mentioned above as a critical learning opportunity.
Most importantly, after you list the must-visit places you want to see and the activities you want to take up, check if they’ll be available during your stay. It would be a bummer to reach your destination only to find out your favorite spots are closed.
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Plan Out the Journey
Once you find the attractions and activities that will suit your family while you’re in Washington, DC, you’ll have to plan your journey to the city next. The essentials include travel bookings, how you’ll get around in the city, and your lodgings.
As for flights, Going.com is one of the best online options to find and book cheap flights. I love Going.com because it can find incredible fares you would only discover by scouring the web (and having a bit of dumb luck).
The site is also great if you aren’t committed to set dates since it can sometimes find a surprise or mistake fares to get you a flight for dirt cheap.
Check Your Flights
Flights are the most significant chunk of your travel budget, and fares are hard to avoid, unlike hotels with many options and flexibility. That’s why choosing a cheap and accessible flight is necessary when planning a family getaway.
There are lots of flights that travel in and out of Washington, DC, daily. The district sports three airports, so you can choose airlines that land at the airport of your choice. Choosing the airport depends on the activities you plan to take up that day as well as your budget.
If you’re traveling on a budget from within the US, you should consider landing at the Baltimore Washington Airport, which is more likely cheaper. The airport has a dedicated terminal for Southwest Airlines, so the fares are usually low.
On the other hand, if you want a glimpse of the monuments with an aerial view from the cabin, you should plan to land at the Reagan National Airport. Dulles International is a little far from the main city but an excellent option for those who want to set out for Udar-Hazy Center on their first day.
Besides that, this airport lets in lots of direct international flights, so it’s an excellent choice for foreigners. Otherwise, domestically, the airports in Washington, DC, are visited primarily by American, United, Southwest, and Delta Air Lines.
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Book Your Lodging
Next come the hotel bookings. Where you book your lodging will impact how easily you access your planned tourism sites and your transportation fares.
If you want to stay close to things to do in Washington, DC, you will want to choose from the wide selection of hotels near the National Mall or Downtown DC.
If you’re into nightlife, staying in the Logan Circle neighborhood will keep you close to the action. You won’t have to spend as much on cabs or rideshares during your trip.
If you’re looking for personal recommendations on the best places to stay in Washington, DC, here are our top picks.
St. Regis Washington, DC
Address: 923 Black Lives Matter Plz NW, Washington, DC 20006
An Art Deco masterpiece blocks from the White House, the St. Regis Washington, DC, is a luxe accommodation befitting presidents and tourists alike. From here, you’re also less than a mile from the National Mall and only steps away from the delectable restaurant.
Order breakfast to your room to get a late start with everyone still in their jammies, and feel free to bring Fido too–this deluxe hotel is also pet-friendly. The St. Regis also has bike rentals to get you in style around the city.
Canopy by Hilton Washington DC The Wharf
Address: 975 7th St SW, Washington, DC 20024
As the name implies, the Canopy by Hilton Washington, DC The Wharf is not far from DC’s waterfront. Only steps from The Jefferson Memorial, blocks from the National Mall, as well as the National Gallery of Art, this chic and modern location offers unparalleled access to so much of the city.
The whole family can snuggle up by the fire on the rooftop lounge and see the city from a new perspective. Two restaurants are on-site to enjoy, one serving traditional African cuisine and the other American dishes.
Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center
Address: 201 Waterfront St, National Harbor, MD, 20745
Located in the DC suburb of National Harbor in Maryland, the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center is a huge accommodation for those who don’t need to stay in DC proper.
Given its size, this hotel has much to do, including eating at the four restaurants, enjoying the garden atrium, hitting the pool, or relaxing at the spa.
Although it’s about 11 miles from DC, it’s only four miles from the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. What it lacks in proximity to the capital city, it makes up for in amenities and access to other area attractions. For example, you’re only a few miles from the fascinating and unique Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum.
The Morrow Washington DC Curio Collection by Hilton
Address: 222 M St NE, Washington, DC 20002
One of the more affordable hotels in the city that doesn’t shirk on the amenities, The Morrow Washington, DC Curio Collection by Hilton is a bit further from the main sights; however, it makes up for that by saving you a ton of money on accommodations. It even has family rooms for when you need to stretch out and give everyone more space.
The Morrow has an on-site French restaurant, Le Clou, and has several other eateries within easy walking distance. You can enjoy room service, get your work out at the hotel’s fitness center, and catch an easy commute to nearby sites that start roughly a mile away.
Hilton Club The District Washington DC
Address: 1250 22nd St NW, Washington, DC 2003
The location of this hotel may confuse some folks; it isn’t its independent building. You’ll find the Hilton Club The District Washington, DC, on the top floors of the Embassy Suites by Hilton Washington, DC, Georgetown.
Enjoy a complimentary breakfast every morning to kickstart your day and finish each day with a free happy hour and snack session at the hotel reception. Despite its fancy name, this hotel won’t cost a fortune for your stay.
It’s pretty moderately priced, which is incredible, given the many free amenities. The two closest sites to this accommodation include the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Theodore Roosevelt Island Park.
When planning a family getaway with kids on board, traveling expenses within the city can add up quickly. In Washington, DC, you can easily avoid expensive transportation by taking DC’s Metro.
You may remember the Metrorail train if you haven’t been to DC in a while. It quickly takes you from one end of the city to another, and you can walk to most destinations from the train stops.
However, when planning an excursion to Mount Vernon or the Udvar-Hazy Center, renting a car for the day is better.
See Related: Day trips from Washington DC By Train
Find the Best Places to Eat in Washington, DC
Washington, DC, is well-known for its unique culinary experiences. You can find popular chains, including places like Shake Shack, at every corner, as well as incredible local meals at the Le Diplomate, L’Ardente, or Fiola Mae.
Besides those more elevated dining experiences, Washington, DC, offers the best comfort food at Ben’s Chilli Bowl. Open since 1958, everyone clamors for red hots from Ben’s, from dignitaries and presidents to college students looking for a treat. Both Anthony Bourdain and President Barack Obama famously adored the restaurant.
When you’re ready for a break during your litany of things to do in Washington, DC, don’t forget that most museums have on-site dining options. You can even buy the Smithsonian Associates Membership for your trip and avail of up to 10% discounts on all your meals at museum cafes.
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Map Out an Itinerary
Now that you’ve done your essential planning for your trip, you’re ready to create your perfect travel itinerary. Especially if you’re a US citizen or fascinated with American history, your trip to the nation’s capital will be filled with fun and educational experiences.
Some of the best free things to do in DC for your consideration include:
- Seeing the National Mall
- Visiting the Smithsonian National Zoo
- Touring the Capitol Building
- Exploring the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
- Admiring the United States Botanic Garden
- Adventuring through Rock Creek Park
- Play on the seasonal ice rink in Canal Park
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National Children’s Museum
Address: 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20004
Now located downtown in Woodrow Wilson Plaza, the National Children’s Museum has served young minds since 1974. Nine exhibit areas cater to science and learning for kiddos of all ages.
The littlest of learners will enjoy the free movement area at Little Movers, while older students will love the Tinkerers Studio.
Past visitors will particularly enjoy the Visiting Exhibit Hall. These experiences change throughout the year, offering glimpses of something entirely different every time.
Past exhibits have included XOXO: An Exhibit About Love & Forgiveness, Moomin Animations – Thrills and Cuddles, and Emotions at Play with Pixar’s Inside Out.
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Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park
Address: 3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008
Formerly known as the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, the National Zoo was founded in 1889. Across its two campuses, the free zoo houses over 2100 animals from nearly 400 species. Here, you will discover these majestic creatures in 14 various exhibits strewn throughout the 160+ acre campus.
Throughout the day, zookeepers hold animal demonstrations around the zoo. These include a seal or sea lion demo, horseshoe crab feeding, and small mammal keeper chats.
In addition to the zoological exhibits, you can also check out the carousel, the bee-themed playground, two incredible murals, and a splash pad zone.
See Related: Best Resorts & Hotels With Animals On-Site
United States Botanic Garden
Address: 100 Maryland Ave SW, Washington, DC 20001
When George Washington was America’s first president, he dreamt of the country’s capital having botanical gardens. By 1820, Congress made it possible for Washington’s dream to become a reality. After two centuries of operation, the United States Botanic Garden is the country’s oldest continuously operating public garden.
Thousands of plants reside in the site’s several garden spaces, though the one most interesting for families with little kids would be the Children’s Garden. Here, kids are welcome to be kids as they plant, water, touch, smell, and sometimes even dig around the plants to encourage their curious nature.
Georgetown Waterfront Park
Georgetown Waterfront Park is a massive green space encompassing over 200 miles of land beside the Potomac River. It begins in Cumberland, Maryland, and extends all the way to Mount Vernon, Virginia. Winding throughout the park are tons of trails for walking, running, biking, and skating.
Some of the favorite amenities at the waterfront park include the fountain, the labyrinth, rain and pollinator gardens, and many more. There is also beach and waterfront access here. Kayaking is a particular favorite for visitors who want to take to the Potomac.
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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Address: 10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560
Often the most visited museum in the country, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Is one of the most celebrated places in Washington, DC. This free national museum documents incredible feats of historical prowess and countless educational opportunities for young and old(er).
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is the largest natural history museum in the world, housing over 146 million specimens.
Here, you will discover 10 exhibit hall areas, including the Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals (where the Hope Diamond resides), the Hall of Human Origins, and the Deep Time Exhibit/Fossil Hall.
Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park has so much to offer as one of the free things to enjoy on a family vacation to DC, particularly during its stunning autumnal foliage.
If your family is up for the adventure, you could even take up the nearly nine-mile Rock Creek Trail for some exhilarating hiking. You could also enjoy a picnic, horseback riding, and bike trails.
The whole family could also enjoy a stop at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium to learn far and away from the Earth we know. The park is also well-known for housing Colonial-era homes, Civil War fortifications, and even working mills.
White House and Visitor’s Center
Address: 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20230
No one can visit Washington, DC, especially for the first time, without touring the White House. That’s why the Capitol Visitor Center is a spot you should add to your list.
Entry to the White House is free, with 45-minute self-guided tours running between 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. You can also view the six exhibits in the visitor’s section with your kiddos to learn more about the history encompassed by the Capitol.
These include the First Families, symbols, interior design and architecture of the White House, and ceremonies and celebrations at the White House. Depending on the time of your visit, you can view limited-edition exhibitions as well.
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Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Address: 1 Busch Gardens Blvd, Williamsburg, VA 23185
If your kids are jumping out of their seats for adventure, you can take them to the Busch Gardens Williamsburg for an exciting day trip. The roughly two-and-a-half-hour outing to the amusement park will be a welcome day away from the real history to a fictionalized one.
The park is themed after 17th-century Europe, making it a fascinating juxtaposition to the dozens of amusement park rides. Busch Gardens has consistently been called the World’s Most Beautiful Amusement Park since 1990, so why not find out what makes it so special?
Should you rather not trek five hours roundtrip back and forth to Washington DC, you could always stay at a nearby hotel. The Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Williamsburg is one of the closest spots to the amusement park, with a pool and a delicious breakfast to get you going.
Arlington National Cemetery
When you want your family to experience history hands-on, you can take them to the Arlington National Cemetery to pay respects to the national heroes. Among the thousands of tombstones here are President William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy, two of the most well-known interred people in the cemetery.
Additionally, you can see the renowned Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Spanish–American War Nurses Memorial, the Nurses Memorial, Chaplains Hill, and the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial, among others.
All told, there are 70 distinct sections in Arlington, which will take roughly two to three hours to see most of the sites. The cemetery is free to visit, and you can utilize the hop-on, hop-off bus tour to get around.
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National Museum of Women in the Arts
Address: 1250 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC 20005
This museum houses over 250 pieces of extraordinary art created by women from countries all over the world. In fact, this DC museum is the only one on Earth dedicated entirely to the contributions of women in the arts.
So, even if the kids aren’t super interested in the premise of an art museum, it’s an incredible way to inspire them. Over 4500 works from the 16th century onward are housed within this museum. The oldest work is Portrait of a Noblewoman by Lavinia Fontana, circa 1580.
Some of the special collections at this museum include pieces from fashion, 17th to 19th-century silversmiths, and botanical prints from the 18th century, among others.
See Related: Museums in the United States
National Air and Space Museum
Address: 600 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560
Launched in 1946, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum resides along the National Mall. It is one of the most visited museums in the world and the second most visited in the country. There are nearly two dozen exhibits in this free museum.
Devoted to aviation and space, this museum houses some incredible pieces of American history. Among them are the Wright brother’s Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis made famous by Charles Lindberg, and even the Apolo 11 command module. And Trekkies will be thrilled to learn that the model of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek: The Original Series is also on display here.
National Archives Museum
Address: 701 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20408
At the National Archives, you can view our country’s significant documents. These include the federal records, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights.
3-Day Washington, DC Itinerary
Trying to hit all the significant places in Washington, DC, can be intimidating for first-time visitors. Chances are you won’t get to everything you want to do. But even so, I hope this sample itinerary can help you make the most of a few short days in DC.
Start by having breakfast at your hotel to fuel up for the day on the first day. We love the one served at the Willard Intercontinental, for instance.
After that, you can explore a handful of DC’s free museums, like the National Museum of Natural History–there are over 40, so you obviously won’t get to all of them, and visit the famous monuments along the National Mall.
Some sights along the National Mall include the Lincoln Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Washington Monument, and many others.
From there, you can choose a place for dinner and lunch from the stalls and shops at the National Mall. Alternatively, if you spend the day at the museums, you can take a moonlight Big Bus Tour to get a night view of the monuments.
On day two, you can visit the historical sites around Georgetown. Have a traditional Washington, DC-style brunch at Farmers Fishers Bakers while enjoying the view of the Potomac River. Afterward, explore Georgetown’s other offerings, including the Kennedy Homes and the Tudor Palace and Gardens.
From there, you can go to Pinstripes, indulge in bowling, and have some late afternoon tea. At night, you can try the impressive selection of microbrews at Pizzeria Paradiso or enjoy some French cuisine at Chez Billy Sud.
On day three, you can spend the day around the Capitol Riverfront and the Eastern Market. You can see the celebrated Nationals Park and go kayaking as well. If you want to spend a relaxing day, go to Yards Park or Canal Park and enjoy the scenic beauty.
In the afternoon, you can watch the Washington Nationals if it’s baseball season or pay a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Whatever you choose, follow it up with a meal at Scarlet Oak Restaurant & Bar or Kruba.
Tips to Plan an Amazing Family Getaway In Washington DC.
If you want to plan a perfect vacation to Washington, DC, follow the abovementioned steps. Along with that, here are some tips to make your trip memorable.
Avail All the Free Stuff
You’d be surprised at how many things to do in Washington, DC, with kids are free. Some top-class museums, like the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Building Museum, have no admission fee.
Besides that, the National Zoo is also available without an entry fee if you’re tired of museums. There is also a ton of green space around the city to enjoy at various parks like Yards Park or Glen Echo Park in nearby Glen Echo. Similarly, the tour of the Capitol requires no fee either.
However, several tours must be planned and reserved beforehand to ensure your entry on time. Prepare beforehand to avail yourself of all the free stuff available.
See Related: Best National Parks in the United States
Become Early Birds
Every museum in Washington, DC, is popular, especially if it’s free, like the National Postal Museum or the Smithsonian American Art Museum. So it’s often better to see these places earlier in the day before they become packed with other tourists.
This way, you can visit all the tourist attractions before they become crowded. On the other hand, monuments are often open for 24 hours. So, feel free to visit the museums first, then the monuments.
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Is Washington, DC, a good family vacation?
Absolutely! DC is family-friendly, with iconic locations like the Lincoln Memorial, the Kennedy Center, and dozens of museums with free tickets. This city has so much to do, especially if you are fascinated by American history.
How many days should a family spend in Washington, DC?
There is so much rich history here; you’ll have a heck of a time fitting everything in with just a few days. Even so, you can knock out several locations on a short weekend visit to DC. I recommend at least three days if you can manage it.
What is the best time of year to visit Washington, DC?
For smaller crowds and mild temperatures, your best bet is to visit DC from September to November or March to May. The exception for crowds is during the Cherry Blossom season when the city lights up in hues of pink. The Lincoln Memorial area is lovely.
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Amanda is a Chicago-based queer travel, arts, and lifestyle writer who is passionate about exploring the world. Her work has been featured in Newcity Stage, The Chicago Reader, Huffington Post, and Yahoo, as well as the November 2022 book, “Chicago Like a Local” and other travel journals available on Amazon. Amanda’s favorite destinations include Costa Rica, Prague, Dublin, Hong Kong, and every Disney park she’s visited.