A visit to Washington D. C. makes a fun and educational family vacation but to get the most from your visit you’ll need to plan ahead… in fact way ahead! Most of the major sights are open to the public and completely free. However they are extremely popular and crowded during any school break, so visitors without reservations often miss out.
If you’d like to include a White House tour, see Congress in action or visit the Bureau of Engraving, you’ll need to write one of your Senators 6-9 months before your planned arrival. In Washington State both Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have email forms online so it’s pretty easy and it doesn’t hurt to contact both. Our family did and we got confirmations for the tours we requested plus the Library of Congress and Kennedy Center which offers free concerts every evening. Score!
You’ll also need reservations for the National Holocaust Museum, Washington Monument and an IMAX show or two. You’ll pay a few bucks in service fees but save literally hours standing in line (At 6:00 am) plus you can organize your sightseeing to avoid unnecessary backtracking and worn out feet.
Speaking of feet, D.C. has an excellent subway system but visitors will still spend a lot of time walking and standing. You’ll want comfortable walking shoes and an itinerary that incorporates rest breaks every few hours. A centrally located hotel such as the moderately priced Holiday Inn Capitol or more upscale Loews Enfant will also reduce wear and tear and make dining at night much easier.
The weather is most pleasant in the spring or fall while the summer months can be hot and winter quite cold. Our visit was timed for mid April and the Cherry Blossom Festival but nature was a bit contrary. 80 degree temperatures brought out the flowers but an unusually late snow storm knocked most of the blooms to the ground just days before the festival. Oh well!
If possible, I would plan 5-7 days in the city itself. Our family ranked the Museum of Space and Flight, Mt Vernon, the Holocaust Museum, the Monuments, Supreme Court and the Library of Congress as must do’s. The highlight of our vacation was observing a Senate debate and vote in Congress. (Both are much more interesting then they sound.) But that was a stroke of exceptional travel karma and not everyone will have that privilege! Interestingly enough, we were under whelmed by our specially arranged White House tour…
In a generous ½ day you can tour the major monuments by foot or by hop on hop off trolley. Start at the Washington Monument (You’ll need a reservation to go up to the top) and work your way around the loop to the WWII, Jefferson, FDR, Korean War, Lincoln, and Vietnam Memorials.
The Museum of Space and Flight can easily take a full day to explore. I suggest you arrive early and take a free docent tour. These guys really know their stuff and you’ll still have lots of free time on your own. There is a good size food court and several excellent IMAX films when you need a break from Apollo rockets and the Wright Brother’s planes.
While the Museum of American History is closed for renovation (Until summer 2008) some of its most popular exhibits have been moved to the Air and Space Museum. This is where you’ll find Dorothy’s red slippers from the Wizard of OZ, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat and a gown worn by Jackie Kennedy.
Assuming you’ve planned ahead you need a full day for Capitol Hill. This will include a tour of Congress (ask if the Senate or House is in session and go if they are), the Library of Congress (D.C.’s most beautiful building) the Supreme Court (don’t miss the video interview of our current justices) and anything else you can fit in.
Although it wasn’t a highlight for us, you can’t leave Washington without seeing the White House. The structure and grounds are impressive but we were disappointed that even our “specially arranged congressional tour” was essentially self guided. With all the history and stories that should be shared they have really missed their mark here!
Mt. Vernon on the other hand is fabulous and needs another ½ day or longer. George Washington’s plantation home is interesting but the live interaction with “Martha” was outstanding as was the tour of the slave quarters. The museum on site deserves a few hours all by itself and there are several films we were unable to see. Don’t skimp on time!
The Museum of Natural History has dinosaurs, the Hope diamond, a walk through the ice age and formation of the seas, meteors, a recreated mining cave and more. Although it is a wonderful museum, several exhibits including the hall of dinosaurs are dwarfed by NYC’s museum of the same name.
If time permits you can tour the National Archives, Arlington Cemetery, Kennedy Center (don’t miss the free concerts), the Spy Museum, the Navy Yard, DAR Museum and another ½ dozen Smithsonian Museums including art museums, African History, Native American History and more.
All in all D.C. makes an excellent, fun and educational vacation for adults and children alike. An outstanding family vacation!