Washington, D.C. Travel Tips

Call me Clark.  I’m loading the kids into the family truckster (Volvo wagon) and driving them to Washington, D.C. at the end of March.  We’re going to do the usuals: tour the Capitol Building, spend a day in the Smithsonian(s); visit Mount Vernon.

But my question for you, dear blog readers, is this: What else should I know?  Any off-the-beaten-track suggestions?  How about where to stay (I’m currently searching VRBO.com, and looking for hotel deals)?  Anything else?

Thanks for your help!

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  • Check out the Spy Museum

  • Lunch at Uncle Ben’s chili bowl on U Street!

  • carla jo

    I was going to suggest the Spy Museum, too. Also, the Newseum looks cool. If you want, I can hook you up with my bff, a gov’t insider. She can sometimes get passes to various and sundry.

  • Be careful about using mapquest directions. Our family did a similar trip and mapquest screwed up (even though my wife entered everything correctly) the directions. You’ve got to be careful about the “north” or “northwest” indications on the end of street names. We ended up at the right street # on the right street, but in a very bad part of town looking for our hotel.

  • Of course I have opinions.

    Our kids love DC. The Zoo is actually the most important thing you will see. Kids love this zoo above other zoos, and my kids know zoos. It doesn’t matter if you hit everything. They will still love it, but off beaten track, check Annapolis and the Air and Space annex near Dulles (esp if kids like big planes). My kids wanted to see Arlington Cemetary. We got a book called DC with kids and let my kids help with the itenerary.

    Park your car and buy a subway pass. Cheaper, easier, less stressful, more fun.

    Craigslist and skyauction are also good places to look for places to stay.

  • Kenton

    On board with Rick’s suggestion to park the car and take the subway. Trying to make sense of his “see the zoo” suggestion.

    Have a burger at the rooftop of the Hotel Washington after dark. An absolutely gorgeous view.

    I’ve stayed at the Red Roof Inn in Chinatown twice, and it was a good deal. Actually it was free. One of the perks of working for a hotel company.

    The national design museum was a short walk from our hotel, and it was a pleasant off the beaten path surprise. My wife’s friend who showed us around said you could hide out for days in the American Indian Museum, if you’re ever on the lamb. I would guess there’s good reason for that.

    We made Mt Vernon a longer day by throwing in Monticello and UVa.

    Mostly, I recommend all the touristy things, though. American History, Air & Space, Capitol tour, WH tour (have you called your Congressional rep?), Arlington Cemetary, etc. You can’t see all of them in one trip anyway.

  • Tim Wright

    “The Unofficial Guide to Washington DC” by Zibart is the only thing you’ll need!

  • Robin Magonegil

    Don’t miss the Holocaust Museum. Well worth it and overwhelming so give yourself some time to chill afterwards. Have a great time.

  • Wendy

    Oh, DC, how I love thee…

    Go to the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery — the ice skating rink might still be up. Even if it’s not, GREAT photo ops.

    Walk up the hill from the Zoo and take the elevator up the tower at the National Cathedral. It’s a great view. Get the kids a guide to the Gargoyles and see if you can find Darth Vader.

    Last time I was there I went to Teddy Roosevelt Island for the first time. If you feel like you need a little time in nature, that’ll do ya.

    I’ll think on food and post later.

    And I echo the transportation suggestions. Park your car and take the Metro everywhere.

  • If you’re going out to Annapolis area, the Baltimore Aquarium is fab. And of course, if you have 2 extra days, Williamsburg is incredible for kids. Once you’re outside the ring, a lot of the roads are 2 lane only, so beware of rush hour.

  • Sorry for being a newbie, but driving from where?

    yes, the metro is most fun


  • steve

    Make sure you call your congressperson or senator to get their special guided capital building tour (when I went the congressional aide gave the tour. There were only 8 of us).

  • Liz Perraud

    You’ve got to see Harpers Ferry (WV). See the downtown area and then see a REAL antique…The Kennedy Farm…where John Brown lived for the summer and planned his raid on Harpers Ferry. My dad owns it and restored it to the way it looked in 1859. Google it and you’ll see all kinds of stories (celebrated 150 year anniversary last October). Need to request a tour but it’s free and a treat to have my dad walk you through! 🙂

  • Jo Ann W. Goodson

    Tony, check with Bruce Epperly. His son lives there and Bruce knows a lot about DC.

  • Rob

    Probably just me, but I think the National Cathedral is the most fascinating… I grew up in Arlington & saw most of what there is to see on grade school field trips. Everything on the mall is pretty cool, if you’ve never checked it out before.

  • courtney

    Get some good North African food while you’re there!

    And be sure to eat in the food court at the Museum of the American Indian–The Mitsitam Café (Mitsitam means “Let’s eat!” in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples).

    I’m all about the morsels. Mitsitam!

  • Sarah Erickson

    Lived in Arlington for 9 years a while ago. Echo the comments about Teddy Roosevelt Island, Arlington Cemetary (great views of the area), the monuments. Walter Reed used to have a medical museum – if your family likes that stuff – pretty old-school fascinating. Metro is the way to go, driving Rock Creek Parkway, Georgetown. Do watch street endings – NW, NE, SW, SE. Is actually pretty easy to navigate when you get the alpha/numeric system – good grids. Confusing traffic circles!

  • Mark Baker

    Todd Query passed your request along – my wife and I reside on Capitol Hill.

    Three recommendations:
    1. Visit the National Portrait Gallery in Chinatown – and make sure to see the atrium

    2. Walk around the Capitol Building at dusk

    3. Hit 8th Street SE/ Barracks Row for dinner or lunch – great food, hip area

    Enjoy the city!!

  • Sarah Busch Solsvig

    We used to live just outside of DC. What many people don’t know is that you can park right on the Mall in front of the museums for free beginning every day at 10 a.m. We used to arrive between 9:30-9:45 to claim a spot, then wait in the car until the museums opened. I think you can park for 3 or 4 hours. I’d dedicate 2 or 3 mornings to check it out. Then in the afternoon, you can explore another part of the region.

    Also, the best food on the Mall is at the National Gallery. One of their restaurants overlooks the sculpture garden. The other is located in the museum on the lower level. The American Indian museum also has some decent food selections.

    Have fun!

  • Liz Perraud

    More thoughts…I’d second American Indian Museum and Hotel W (used to be called Hotel Washington). We were there for my birthday and saw POTUS fly by (3 helicopters…1 landed and the other 2 kept going). The view is outstanding. We didn’t even eat dinner there. My husband just ordered a beer. Seeing the memorials at night is awesome…they’re all lit. We were able to park right in front. Cabbing it around is another option and an adventure with stories from the cabbies!

  • Dan Hauge

    I’d echo everything above–although I’d also ask–how much time do you have? Cause only one day for all the Smithsonian options may feel very frustrating. If you do just have one day, then pick two museums, one for morning and one for afternoon.

    Other than what has already been suggested, I would at least try to check out Busboys and Poets on U Street–it’s just two blocks from Ben’s Chili Bowl. Probably not too kid-friendly, but it’s an awesome restaurant/cafe with a bookstore chock full of justice/progressive/multicultural books. I happened to be able to see Cornel West speak there, which was quite cool.

  • You should definitely take a little detour to Annapolis. It’s America’s sailing capital, ya know? 😉 Lots of really cool shops and great restaurants, and some off-the-beaten-path museums. My partner and I would be happy to show ya around 🙂

  • Coop

    You’ll want to double check this for exact times, but the Washington Monument offers walk-down tours of the inside of the monument twice a day; I believe they’re at 10AM and 12PM but I don’t remember precisely what the guide told us last time we were there. We didn’t do the walk-down because we only found out about it as we were riding the elevator back down. Inside the monument are commemorative stones sent in by different states, and it’s high on my list of things to do next time I make it to DC.

    Go check out the World War II memorial at night, it’s really spectacular when it’s lit up. The Roosevelt Memorial is also really cool to see at night, and is very interesting overall.

    If you’ve never been to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, make time to get there, especially if there will be a wreath laying, which I think happens several times a day.

    Other than that, hit up the Smithsonian museums. They’re free, and there’s a ton of cool stuff to see.

    Have fun!

  • Coop

    One other thing; see if you can get in to see the President’s Own Marine Corps Band play at Marine Barracks, 8th and I streets. It’s a great show, and the Silent Precision Drill Team is simply amazing. You may want to check a tour book to see about tickets, as it’s been several years since I saw the band, and I was part of a tour group, so for all I know the tickets were taken care of (I was in high school at the time).

  • I don’t think everyone knows that you will have elementary age children in tow. Some of the suggestions are awesome, but not nec. for little kids.

    Take the advice of the experts regarding the Holocaust Museum. Most suggest waiting until Middle School for that. We follow that rule of thumb, even though we want our kids to see it. We just don’t want to overwhelm them before they have a full understanding.

    Another suggestion is those corny as anything tours, only because little legs and feet cannot walk as much as some of the others suggest.

    Be prepped with extra cash or resilience for amount of crap on the streets they will want to buy (souvenirs and pretzels, etc.). DC makes kids continuously hungry due to the amount of street vendors. They have a merry-go-round in the mall that is a nice break for the little ones.

    Also, I would be as cognizant as possible of the bathroom situation. It can get complicated, so plan accordingly, especially when roaming around the mall and other outside venues.

    I am telling you, let them decide. Here is one of the books we got for the trip (http://bit.ly/cbl8am). Our 6 yr old son became obsessed with the book and pretty much planned a lot of the trip.

  • Bryn

    If you are a deconstructionist . . .
    Visit the Native American Museum first to put everything else you see in perspective.

    The ground the museum was built on was formerly a brothel and in the congressional cemetery the madam has a monument.

    For some interesting background to the site visit the link below.


  • Kraig

    yes, kyla! the chilli bowl! tony, you must go to the chilli bowl if not for the chilli, for the chance to dine with obama! he loves it!

  • Visit the Lincoln Memorial (and then the Vietnam and Korean) after dark. it is plenty lit and well guarded by park rangers. and all the more breath taking.

  • Clint B

    Chances are you’re going to be going during peak cherry blossom blooming period, so check out the tidal basin and the National Cherry Blossom Festival. (http://www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org)

    King Street in Old Town Alexandria is pretty nice for strolling and romantic dinner’s. There are bands and street performers at night. It’s on the Blue line Metro and is about a 16 block walk to the water front, but there is a street car that moves back and forth. There are also cheaper hotels in that area as well.

    Uncle Ben’s is always a good choice as is Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

  • 1. The Holocaust Museum is cool, but I don’t how the kids would like it. It may be a bit much.

    2. The World War II memorial by the Lincoln Memorial is ultra nice.

    3. Of course you mentioned the Smithsonian. That’s a load of fun.

    4. I love DC. Hope you enjoy it.

  • Tony,

    My wife and I love Mt. Vernon. Not everyone does, but it’s a great window into Washington. If it was warmer, you’d HAVE to do the boat ride up the Potomac to it. Fantastic. Kids can run around there too – we skipped the slow-moving tour and did our own thing.

    I’d echo the Holocaust museum as a must see, specially for you. Lincoln memorial and Vietnam are no-brainers. I loved getting into the House of Representatives too. Spy museum was fun, though its memory hasn’t endured like the more patriotic and political venues.

    Probably the most fun for us was the we took Amtrak in. Goes right downtown and then you have the Metro to get around. But, I’m sure you’ll be seeing friends along the way.



  • Elaine

    If you don’t want to drive into D.C., stay at the Holiday Inn Rosslyn at Key Bridge. It’s right off an exit off route 66, very easy. They have a parking garage right there by the lobby. The spaces are big enough to park an SUV in. (My husband stayed at the hotel up the street for business one time, can’t remember the name, but he could barely park his small car in there. Everyone was scraping the sides of their cars on the concrete poles). The rooms are nice and have balconies. The Rosslyn subway stop is about one block away, an easy walk. Buy a day pass and get on/off as much as you like. When you are walking to the subway stop, you will see the only Methodist Church in the US that is built above a gas station. Very strange indeed. If you don’t want to drive, Amtrak goes to Union Station, behind the Capital. Hope some of this helps, Elaine