I’ve lived in several cities over the years, but Washington, D.C., is still on the top of the list. My husband and I were there for seven years and never grew tired of the buzzing capital. With our kids hitting elementary-school age, we decided the time was right to play tourist in our old hometown. So we packed up our family for a week’s worth of politics, pandas and play time. Here are the spots that won our vote.
Great place to see famous faces and places: The National Mall
Washington is easy to navigate via the Metro and by walking. Lots of walking. Remember, the Mall is big – 2 miles across – so pace yourself. After one full day at the Mall, we clocked in 8 miles on foot. Also, don’t even try to see all 14 Smithsonian museums on or near the mall. Your kids will revolt.
An evening visit is the ideal time to see many of the memorials, when the areas are lighted and crowds are smaller. The Lincoln and Vietnam Veterans memorials are near each other, and south of Independence Avenue, is the FDR Memorial and the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. My favorite spot, because of the subject and the design, is the Jefferson Memorial at the Tidal Basin, a much farther hike, but worth the trip (or treat yourself to a cab ride).
More info: nps.gov/nama
Great place to see where laws are made … and to grab a popsicle: The U.S. Capitol
Opened in 2008, the Capitol Visitors Center is where most people start their tour of Congress’ home. The grand entrance’s Emancipation Hall (named for the enslaved laborers who helped construct the building) features a 19-foot plaster model of the Statue of Freedom, a replica of the bronze female figure that sits atop the Capitol Dome.
If the tour, which runs more than an hour, becomes dull for kids, point out some of the statues and artwork. A fan of ancient gods (and Percy Jackson) will appreciate “The Apotheosis of Washington” on the Rotunda ceiling. Constantino Brumidi’s work, created in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, shows George Washington rising to the heavens, surrounded by Neptune, Mercury and Ceres. And each state contributes statues of two notable historic figures to the Capitol. Many reside in the large Statuary Hall. Our kids were more interested in the statue of Rosa Parks, added in 2013. Our guide pointed out that Parks’ seated figure is directly in the sight-line of the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
For me, the tour highlights were sitting in the Senate Gallery and walking around the Rotunda. My kids’ favorites: a tram ride and popsicles. One way to take a tour of the Capitol is to sign up through your local senator or congressman. We requested a tour through Claire McCaskill’s office weeks in advance, and we met our guide at McCaskill’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building. While we waited, we were invited to grab a popsicle from the freezer at the front of the office. Then we rode an underground tram from the Hart building to the Capitol. I just hope the kids absorbed a little history along the way.
More info: Free; request a tour at least five weeks in advance through the Capitol Visitors Center or through your U.S. senator or representative. visitthecapitol.gov
Great place to get over your fear of heights: The Washington Monument
The Washington Monument is slightly more than 555 feet tall. It’s hard to find a better view of the National Mall, the Pentagon and beyond. The monument, reopened in May after repairs from a 2011 earthquake, has an observation deck 500 feet up and a small museum. On the trip down, the lights inside the elevator are turned off briefly to show the bricks of the obelisk and where they change color. Due to money problems, the building’s construction was halted in 1854. When the project resumed 25 years later, marble from a different quarry was used, and the colors did not quite match.
More info: Free at the ticket window, first come, first served; a safer bet is to make online reservations at recreation.gov, which include a $1.50 service fee per ticket.
Great place to get lost: National Building Museum
One of the lesser-known gems of the city, the Building Museum has exhibits on architecture, engineering and construction. The wide open Great Hall gives ample room to run around; my son took some of his first steps there years ago. The “Play Work Build” gallery has giant foam bricks for building and houses a large toy collection. Kids ages 2 to 6 can go to the Building Zone and play in a life-size playhouse or rearrange a doll house.
More info: 401 F Street NW. $8 adult, $5 youth, no charge for 2 and under, additional cost for special exhibits. nbm.org
Great place to learn about Lindbergh and pretend you’re a pilot: National Air and Space Museum
The most popular of the Smithsonian museums, Air and Space lets visitors learn about the history of flight. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis? Check. SpaceShipOne? Check. 1903 Wright Flyer? It’s there, too. While most of the Air and Space museum is dense with material but still kid-friendly, the “How Things Fly” gallery is the best spot for younger children. Hands-on stations give simple science lessons on Newton’s Laws of Motion and how air pressure changes with altitude. Future aviators can have a photo op in a Cessna 150.
More info: Independence Avenue at Sixth Street SW. Free. airandspace.si.edu
Great place to learn how to sit in a kayak or to try fry bread: National Museum of the American Indian
Even if your kids don’t have the attention span to walk through this museum’s collections, I highly recommend it for families for two reasons:
The ImagiNations center, aimed at kids 12 and under. Young visitors get a passport they can stamp after they stop at stations about different tribes. The big hit on our trip was a kayak balancing game, an igloo-building activity and a quiz show about American Indian culture and customs.
Misitam Native Foods Cafe, one of my favorite places to eat on the Mall. Misitam (which means “let’s eat”) has indigenous foods from different regions of the Western Hemisphere. Adventurous diners can try octopus salad from South America, a buffalo chili with a side of fry bread from the Great Plains or steamed banana cake wrapped in banana leaves from Mesoamerica. For the less adventurous, chicken tenders and fries are also available.
More info: Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. Free. americanIndian.si.edu
Great place to learn about Bonnie and Clyde, Wyatt Earp and horrible ways to die: National Museum of Crime and Punishment
Opened in 2008, the Museum of Crime and Punishment has exhibits on famous law-breakers and crime-fighters, with pirates, serial killers, mobsters and cyber criminals all getting their due. A famous mug shots game lets users match Nick Nolte, Jim Morrison and other celebrities to his or her crime. One of the more memorable and disturbing displays features instruments of torture – an iron flail whip, drawn and quartered manacles and a squirm-inducing contraption called a breast ripper. Many guns are showcased including a double action revolver similar to Jesse James’ and the Schofield Revolver, which Wyatt Earp carried at the OK Corral. My 8-year-old wasn’t interested in reading about the famous figures and wisely avoided the John Wayne Gacy section, but he had fun trying to crack a safe, scan his fingerprints and shoot at targets in the Old West. “CSI” fans will want to see what they observe in a mock crime scene. Given the subject matter, this museum is better suited to older kids. A mannequin on an autopsy table was enough for my son to call an end to our tour.
More info: 575 Seventh Street NW. $21.95 for adults, $14 for children ages 5 to 11, online discounts available. crimemuseum.org
Great place to become paranoid: International Spy Museum
If you want more bad guys and bad crimes, go to the nearby Spy Museum. Where the crime museum has guns, the Spy Museum has gadgets galore. A pistol is disguised as a tobacco pipe, a pen shoots tear gas, a camera is hidden in a buttonhole. Plus the museum has the car for spy fans: James Bond’s Aston Martin. The museum devotes a lot of space to 007, with “Exquisitely Evil,” an exhibit on Bond villains that sounds better than it is. Sure, Jaws’ steel teeth get their own display case and animal assassins are lauded, but the exhibit won’t satisfy fans who want to know more about the making of the movies and actors who portrayed the evildoers. More fun, and interesting, are sections on famous spies and on code-breaking where visitors can test their skills.
More info: 800 F Street NW, $21.95 for adults, $14.95 for children 7-11, free for ages 6 and under. spymuseum.org
Great place to see a panda and build your calf muscles: The National Zoo
The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution, but it is not on the National Mall. Take the Red Line on the Metro to Woodley Park or Cleveland Park and walk about 15 minutes on Connecticut Avenue to the Zoo. One of the main draws is the Giant Panda Habitat. In past visits, I’ve spotted the bears lying down in a grotto, but this trip they were in the panda house, an indoor viewing area, rolling around and chomping on bamboo. Near the pandas, you’ll find the Elephant Trails, where the herd of seven elephants roam. Pedestrians may get a surprise near the Great Ape House, where orangutans occasionally swing overhead on the O Line. Remember that the zoo is on a big hill. The main entrance on Connecticut Avenue is at the top, and after you walk down deeper into the zoo, you’ll eventually have to walk back up.
More info: 3001 Connecticut Avenue NW. Free. nationalzoo.si.edu