Updated May 13, 2016
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The Top 10 Things to Do with Kids in Washington
Washington D.C. is an exciting city that attracts over 15 million visitors annually. Both children and adults descend on this fantastic family-friendly destination. I consider myself fortunate to call the DC Metro area home. On any given day there is an endless array of activities in our Nation’s Capital. If you are planning a trip to the DC Metro area these attractions are my “Top 10 Things to Do with Kids in Washington D.C. “.
Located in the middle of Cleveland Park, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park is a beautiful urban park offering family fun and excitement, kid-friendly educational programs, and a great venue to introduce your little ones to some of God’s creatures. Take in the 163 acres that are nestled in Rock Creek Park. The zoo is home to 2,000 individual animals, the most famous of course being the Giant Panda. Noteworthy, take the Metro to the zoo and, if Junior is willing, have lunch at one of the nearby trendy restaurants on Connecticut Avenue. (Their web site has excellent directions and visitor information.)
2. Tour The United States Botanic Garden
The United States Botanic Garden (USBG) is a botanic garden run by the Congress of the United States. It is located in Washington, D.C., on the U.S. Capitol Grounds campus near Garfield Circle. The building itself, which includes a large Lord & Burnham greenhouse, is divided into separate rooms, each one simulating a different habitat. The USBG offers endless activities for kids and adults. Children will learn valuable lessons about plants, gardening and many interesting facts about the world of botany. Located at the base of Capitol Hill, the USBG can make a great starting or ending point if you are planning for a day on the National Mall. It can also be an ideal destination on a cold or rainy day.
3. Visit The Smithsonian Museums
There are 16 Smithsonian Museums in the DC Metro area. They are the highlight of Washington, DC for many families and are filled with fun and educational pursuits that will enchant all ages. The venues offer free admission and are easily accessible via Metro. Bonus, the majority are clustered together on the National Mall to allow you to make a day of your Smithsonian journey. The most popular destinations include the Air & Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum, and the National Zoo (#1 on the list).
4. Visit The Jefferson Memorial And Washington Monument
Sitting at the Southern end of the National Mall, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin are a must-see if you are in the Washington D.C. area. Best known for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, this venue is wonderful destination year-round. See the grandeur of the Thomas Jefferson statue, soak in the beautiful view of the Tidal Basin, rent a paddle boat and become part of the action or simply linger on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. Bring a picnic lunch or buy from one of the local vendors. Walking tours of the National Mall can make for long days with little ones. Try to break up walking tours with bathroom breaks, snacks, plenty of water and know when it is time to quit for the day. The Washington Monument offers an amazing view from the top. Tickets are required, but the goods news is they are free. Tickets are distributed daily at 8:30am. You must have a ticket for everyone in your party to enter. Noteworthy, during weekends and holidays tickets go fast. Folks line up as early as 7:30am. Your best bet is to go during weekdays or off hours.
5. Wander The National Mall
A great way to experience the National Mall is on two wheels. If you have children that are comfortable with long bike rides, consider a self-guided bike tour down the National Mall. Start your trip at Capitol Hill. Your path will lead you past the Washington Monument and onto the World War II Memorial. The family will then see the Reflecting Pool. Just off each side of the Reflecting Pool, you will discover the Korean and Vietnam Memorial. Your final destination is the Lincoln Memorial. Pack a snack or take advantage of one of the numerous food carts. As a side note, there are also public bathrooms in the base of the Lincoln Memorial. If you have energy to keep going, consider extending your trip to the Jefferson Memorial or take the Memorial Bridge over to Virginia. There are bike trails that extend to Alexandria, VA. The web site has an excellent list of kid’s events. For ranger led bike tours, visit the Plan Your Visit page.
6. Stroll The National Harbor
The National Harbor is a recent addition to the Washington D.C. Metro area. The expansive complex boasts six hotels, 23 restaurants, 32 shops and an amazing marina. Let’s not forget the majestic Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center with its 18 story atrium. The impressive venue is located on the Potomac River just over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Prince George’s County, Maryland. It has wonderful views of Washington D.C. as well as Old Town Alexandria. It also features a lovely sunset. The spacious marina and pier have a number of local cruises available to visitors, including a water taxi to the Washington National games. If all this wasn’t enough, the National Harbor also plays host to a Food & Wine Festival, a summer concert series, a Beer, Bourbon & Barbeque Festival, an annual road race and a producer-only farmers’ market. Be sure and check the website for all the details. With reasonable room rates and loads of activities, you might opt for a room at one of the National Harbor hotels (The Westin and Aloft are both near the water), with ferry rides into the Washington D.C.
Take a cruise on the Potomac with Capitol River Cruises. This is a fun, festive and inexpensive way to cruise the Potomac River. Pick up this riverboat cruise/tour at the Georgetown Waterfront and spend the next 50 minutes seeing the major Washington D.C. landmarks that hug the Potomac River. This is an awesome deal and they allow kids on board! Rates are reasonable and kids under the age of 3 ride for free. Save some money and order your tickets in advance on the web. During the cruise, facts of interest, landmarks and local history are shared with passengers. Beer, wine, soda and snacks are available. This is great entertainment for the entire clan! Bring a camera and aim for a sunny day. It is an amazing way to experience the local sites. There are also river cruises with the larger and glass-enclosed Odyssey (pictured above). For something really special (and a little fancy) do a 3-course dinner cruise on the Odyssey (but book in advance as it’s very popular).
8. Go Undercover At The Spy Museum
Get your would-be spies ready for a great adventure. The Spy Museum if filled with over 200 spy gadgets, weapons, bugs, cameras, vehicles, and technologies. Guests can peak at 50 years of spy technology that were created by agencies like the KGB. See the exploits and discover the truth about spies such as Moses, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth I to George Washington, Cardinal Richelieu, Joseph Stalin and more. Scavenger huts provide loads of entertainment for families and little ones.
9. Take In A Scavenger Hunt In Old Town Alexandria
Kids and young adventurers will go wild for this hunt that takes place on the brick-lined streets of Old Town Alexandria. The scavenger hunt is a self-guided tour that takes you through the beautiful historic streets of Alexandria. Your historic journey will lead you through a maze of clues and facts about George Washington and the City of Alexandria. The hunt is very inexpensive, simply buy a map at the Christmas Attic at 125 S. Union Street and get started. Perfect for families, groups can even break up into teams and see who wins. Finish off the day with a wonderful lunch at one of the many restaurants that line King Street.
10. The Best Events for Kids (by Month)
Dragon dances, fire crackers and a colorful parade welcome in the Chinese New Year. This annual event is held in DC’s Chinatown and normally falls in either January or February. This is a fun celebration for the entire family. The event is free and held from 2-5pm. The parade is held at H Street between 6th and 8th Street.
St. Patrick’s Day Parade – Washington D.C.
Break out the green and get ready for a parade! DC plays host to an entertaining day of floats, marching band, Irish Dance troop and bagpipers. The 3 hour event is typically held the Sunday before St. Patty’s Day. The parade route begins at Constitution Avenue and runs from 7th and 17th Streets.
Just as weary locals are more than ready to put away their shovels and gloves along comes the Cherry Blossom Festival. For the Metro DC area this event ushers in a spring right of passage. The celebration is held for two week and culminates with a parade. It is truly breathtaking to see 3,000 trees come to life at the Jefferson Memorial & Tidal Basin.
Children of all ages can enjoy the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. The event includes egg coloring, art activities, face painting, music, magicians, and other activities. Tickets are required ticket to attend. The National Park Service holds an online lottery about a month prior to the event. Stay tuned to the website for updates. Great fun for all, bands such as the Black Eyed Peas have been in attendance.
The event plays host to over 140 artists and craftsmen. Junior will enjoy the sites and sounds of the fun crowd and live music. Don’t forget to sample the culinary delights of local restaurants that have booths set upyou’re your dining pleasure. The fun lasts an entire weekend and normally falls on the second weekend in May.
Thousand of people converge on the National Mall for the annual Cinco De Mayo Festival. Enjoy a full day of music, dance, food and even a children’s pavilion. The event teaches children how to make piñatas, weave strands of colored yarn into decorative braids, and decorate beautiful fans. A very fun day for the whole family!
This annual event is held for the benefit of the gardens, grounds and woodlands of Washington National Cathedral. This two-day flower fest is held outdoors on the beautiful Cathedral grounds. You will find music & entertainment along with more than 50 boutique booths, filled with gift items for the home and garden. Ride the antique carousel, which is only open for this event. Flower Mart features plant sales, floral and horticultural displays, boutique booths, tasty foods, fun activities for children. Tower Climbs will be offered Friday afternoon and Saturday during the event.
This is a great event that has been celebrated for over 80 years. Gold Cup is widely known as the crown jewel of steeple chase. There is an eclectic mix of people. You will find everything from the hats and pearls crowd to normal folks that are just there to take in the sites and sounds of Gold Cup. Regardless of you financial status, this is a fun day at the races for all. Lots of food, fun and plenty of spirits are the backdrop of this local favorite. The event is typically held the first Saturday in May.
Memorial Day Weekend – Rolling Thunder
Since 1988 war veterans and supporters have rumbled through our Nation’s Capitol over Memorial Day Weekend. The annual pilgrimage draws over 500,000 riders to the Metro DC area. Rolling Thunder blazes a trail through Washington D.C. on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend with a ride from the Pentagon to the memorials.
The mack daddy of all annual DC events is the celebrated 4th of July festivities on the National Mall replete with celebrity bands, fireworks and a big old parade. This is one that you have to get to at least once in your life. Yes, the crowds can be a bit much but if you go early and use Metro you will be in good shape. Noteworthy, the parade kicks off at 7th & Constitution. The event culminates with fireworks that are set off around 9pm. Most agree this is a LONG day and best meant for older kids. Infants and toddlers tend to poop out in the sun, heat and extended hours.
The Black Family Reunion Celebration is a cultural event that attracts more than 500,000 people each year. The 3-day festival focuses on health, education and economic empowerment in the African American community. The celebration includes a VIP Gala, themed pavilions and an enchanting evening R&B concert on the National Mall. The event is held in early September.
Take a moment to soak in the official last moments of the summer at The National Symphony Orchestra FREE Labor Day Weekend concert. Held on the West Lawn of the U. S. Capitol, the annual concert is led by the NSO Associate Conductor. This fun event is family friendly. The Kennedy Center lists concert information under its “Performance Calendar” tab. The concert is typically held the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend at 8pm.
The festival is free and open to the public and features more than 70 award-winning authors, illustrators and poets appearing in “Fiction & Fantasy,” “Mysteries & Thrillers,” “History & Biography,” “Children,” “Teens & Children,” “Poetry,” and “Home & Family” pavilions. Activities for children, which are fun and promote reading, can be found in the popular “Let’s Read America” pavilion. Check out the Library of Congress WW I pavilion. The Pavilion of the States brings representatives from throughout the country to the festival with information on local reading and literacy programs. This is a great day and message for children. This event is held in late September.
The Marine Corp Marathon is the 4th largest US Marathon and 7th largest in the world. One of the most memorable moments for those that finish the MCM is what happens after you pass the finish line. Runners receive their official finisher’s medal from the men and women of the Marine Corps.
The Shenandoah Valley Hot Air Balloon & Wine Festival is a fabulous 3-day annual event. The quaint town of Longbranch plays host to this charming festival, held every October. Stunning fall foliage and the intoxicating Blue Ridge Mountains are the backdrop for the festival. The majestic sky is filled with hot air balloons throughout the event.
The festival also features a huge array of children’s activities, entertainment, artisans & crafter, antique fire trucks and more! The venue is 60 miles from Washington D.C. Once simply a Hot Air Balloon Festival, it has expanded to the Shenandoah Valley Hot Air Balloon, Wine and Music Festival.
Halloween – Boo at the Zoo
Trick or treat with the lions and elephants? The “Boo at the Zoo” Halloween event has been attracting little ghosts and goblins for years. Harry Potter, Dora the Explorer and even Spiderman can be seen at this fun, festive and safe Halloween gathering at the National Zoo in Washington DC for kids ages 2 to 12. Costumed volunteers hand out candy, snack food and special treats at 40+ treat stations. Animal encounters, zookeeper chats, Halloween decorations and zoo animals will be on hand for the fun!
Annually the White House rolls out the red carpet to thousands of lucky guests that get the opportunity to see the President of The United States light the National Christmas Tree. The event is marked with song, storytelling, live bands and The First Family. An online lottery is held prior to the event. Tune into the White House website in mid-November to find out all the details. If are a lucky ticket holder, bundle your little ones up. You will be in the elements for a few hours.
The Author: Claudine has lived in Northern VA for 10 years. She enjoys discovering all that is Washington D.C. and spending time with her daughter and husband.