Insider Guide: Washington DC
Advice from folks who’ve been there By the MiniTime Community
Why Go: Looking for the motherlode of national treasures? You’ve come to the right place. No city delivers such an all-star line-up of marquis attractions and one-of-a-kind experiences. Your family can view the Lincoln Memorial at sunset, spy on giant pandas at the National Zoo, and ogle the space suits worn by the first astronauts to walk on the moon. With some advance planning, you can also tour the White House and the Capitol Building. Visiting for just a few days? No worries. Since so many major attractions lie within a compact, walkable area of “the District,” you’ll be amazed at how much you can do and see in a short amount of time. Yet whether it’s your family’s first or twenty-first visit to the capital, there are always new, underhyped attractions to discover and explore.
More good news: It’s unlikely that a visit to DC will break the bank. Compared to the cost of visiting other major cities, a Washington getaway is surprisingly affordable with (mainly) reasonable prices for lodging, dining, and entertainment. Of course, it helps that almost all the major attractions are free. That’s because so many of the city’s most popular museums and monuments—including the 16 Smithsonian-run attractions—are government-subsidized and charge zero admission. As every parent knows, there’s nothing more family-friendly than a bonanza of free fun.
Best hotel: Marriott Residence Inn at DuPont Circle (2120 P St. NW; 466-6800; rooms from $299 a night). “An ace for families. All sizeable rooms include a full kitchen and an incredibly tasty free full breakfast. The location can’t be beat, just two blocks from a Metro and central to just about everything if you’re driving.”
Get Your Bearings
We can thank our founding fathers for Washington’s open and uncluttered skyline. Their declaration that no building shall be taller than the dome of the US Capitol ensures that commercial buildings never reach higher than 110 feet, all the better for us to view the wide array of monuments that dot the cityscape.
Luckily for Washingtonians and out-of-towners alike, our capital has a logical layout. The US Capitol sits at the center of the city, which is divided into four quadrants (NW, SW, NE, SE). Note that most, but not all, of the major monuments and attractions are in the northwest (NW) quadrant. Numbered streets run north-south, starting with 1st Street on either side of the Capitol. Lettered streets run east-west, beginning with A Street. Avenues are named for states and run diagonally across the grid and often intersect at major traffic circles. For example, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts avenues converge at Dupont Circle. Washington’s main drag is Pennsylvania Avenue, which runs northwest in a direct line between the Capitol Building and the White House. Directly west of the Capitol Building is the grassy expanse of the National Mall, with its famous reflecting pool and the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial beyond.
Washington is an accessible place for families to visit. The city boasts an efficient, safe public transportation system, so save yourself the hassle and expense of parking. Ditch your car and jump on the Metro. Just make sure you’re wearing comfortable walking shoes.
Most fun way to get around:
The Metro (single rides from $1.35, one-day pass $7.80/person, seven-day pass $39/person). “Clean, safe, and mostly easy to use.” Children 4 and under ride for free.
Best local tour:
White House Tour (1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 456-7041; Tours available Tues-Sat mornings). Landing a tour of the White House is not impossible if you plan ahead. No sooner than 30 days and no more than six months before your visit, submit your request through one of your members of Congress. If your visit is less than 30 days away, you can also enter a lottery for last-minute openings. “Tours are provided to groups of 10 or more. If your traveling party is smaller, your congressperson will group you up with other tourists from your district.” “As your travel dates approach, keep following up with your congressperson’s staff.” You’ll need to provide the names, Social Security numbers, and birth dates for everyone in your party.
DC Ducks (Tours run on the hour, daily 10am-4pm, mid-March-Oct; Union Station; $29/adult, $14/child 4-12, free for kids under 4). This tour takes in many major sights in DC aboard an authentic, fully-restored 1942 amphibious ‘duck’ vehicle. “This tour is really fun, especially when you splash into the Potomac and float under the approach pattern at Ronald Reagan airport.”
Monuments Cruise from DC Cruises (Cruises every hour on the half hour, daily 11:30am-6:30pm; Moonlight cruises at 7pm and 8pm, 9pm cruise in summer only; Washington Harbor, Georgetown, bottom of 31st St NW; 595-5555; $13/adult, $8/child 3-12, free for kids under 3. Buy online for $2/ticket discount.). This 45-minute Potamac River cruise is “really special, with awesome views of all of DC’s iconic monuments. I highly recommend the moonlight cruise—the monuments are especially beautiful when illuminated at night.”
Tidal Basin Paddle Boats (1501 Maine Ave. SW; 479-2426; Rental: $18/hour for four-seater boat). Take the kids on a paddle boat in the Tidal Basin for “a fun outing with great views of the Jefferson and Washington Memorials.” “Particularly spectacular during cherry blossom season.” Boats can be reserved online in advance.
Washington Monument (National Mall; Free, but tickets are required). “From the top, the views stretch for 30 miles on a clear day. Fabulous!” Or better yet, “go at night, when the city’s lights twinkle below. The monument stays open until 10pm in the summer. It is really something to behold.” Note: Admission is free but does require a ticket. The Washington Monument Lodge, located along 15th Street, opens at 8:30am for distribution of free, same day, timed tickets on a first come, first served basis. One person may pick up as many as six tickets and choose a preferred time to visit. Each individual (including children) must have a ticket. Be aware that tickets run out quickly during the spring and summer. An easier option: Shell out $1.50 per ticket and order them online in advance.
National Cathedral (3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW; requested contribution: $15/family).“The view from the cathedral is breathtaking. Make sure you bring your camera.” “The cathedral has a brochure for a family scavenger hunt, which my kids really loved. You have to search for gargoyles, stained glass windows, and other interesting visual elements. It was a fun way to explore the church and grounds.” “Try to be outside when the bells ring in the tower. It’s a very beautiful experience.” Note: Carillon recitals take place each Saturday from 12:30pm–1:15pm. Peal bells are rung on Tuesday evenings from 7pm–9pm and Sundays at about 12:30pm.
Rooftop restaurants at the Kennedy Center (2700 F St. NW; 800/44-1324 or 467-4600). “Both the Roof Terrace Restaurant & Bar and the more casual KC Café have floor-to-ceiling windows with amazing views of Washington and many of its monuments. It’s a very dramatic place to eat, particularly at night.”
Capitol Building (East end of National Mall, First St. and East Capitol St. NE; 226-8000). “Stand on the steps of the Capitol and look west across the National Mall to the Washington Monument, reflecting pool, and Lincoln Memorial in the distance. It is one of the most photographed views of DC.” Note: With just a bit of advance planning, you can get a super insider’s tour of the Capitol Building by booking through your senator or representative. You’ll need to provide the names, Social Security numbers, and birth dates for everyone in your party.
Soak Up the Local Scene
Best food market:
DuPont Circle Farmer’s Market (20th St. between Massachusetts Ave. and Q St., in adjacent parking lot of PNC Bank). “Vendors sell mainly yummy organic produce, with plenty to nibble and wonderful sourvenirs like handcrafted honey and jams.”
Eastern Market (Capitol Hill, 7th St. and North Carolina Ave. SE). “This is a terrific place to get picnic provisions, and there’s a great craft market every weekend.”
Ultimate Frisbee on the National Mall (Saturday afternoons, May-October). “You can catch frisbee exploits in front of the Smithsonian Castle or the Air & Space Museum. This is so much fun for kids to watch. Bring a picnic and relax.”
The DuPont Circle neighborhood. “The area is incredibly lively and diverse. Pull up a chair at one of its many streetside cafés (Le Pain Quotidien is a child-friendly favorite) and relax for an hour or two.”
Nationals Park (1500 South Capitol St. SE; 888/632-NATS). “The team is still growing but the new stadium, which opened in 2008, is totally state-of-the-art and amazing. Get some cheap seats—grandstand and upper terrace seats go for $5 to $10. The food is really good and not too overpriced. It is a very family-friendly ballpark.”
Let the Fun Shine In
C&O Canal (north bank of Potomac River, from Rock Creek Park). The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal is one of the most intact examples of canal-building in the US. It runs 185 miles, from Georgetown to Maryland. “The section of towpath in Georgetown is a favorite place to stroll, jog, or go for a bike ride.”
Rock Creek Park (5200 Glover Road NW; 895-6070). This enormous, 1,750-acre park (more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park) bisects Washington DC. It is one of our oldest national parks and features a huge array of amenities, including a golf course, horseback-riding trails, a nature center and planetarium, an outdoor concert venue, and playgrounds. “This is a great place to let the kids run off some steam. On a nice day, plan to picnic here.”
Hains Point (Ohio Dr. SW). The 300-acre East Potomac Park “is perhaps the most beautiful place to go for a walk in Washington.” It is almost completely surrounded by water, as it is the place where the Potomac River and Washington Channel meet.” There are playgrounds, tennis courts, and a mini-golf course. But perhaps best of all, “The park contains a ton of Washington’s famous cherry trees. Come for a picnic in the springtime, when they are in bloom.” Note: You can get to the park on foot via trails from the Jefferson Memorial.
Best public beach or pool:
Fletcher’s Boat House (C&O Canal National Historic Park, 4940 Canal Rd. NW; 244-0461). “Don’t go swimming. Rent a canoe or rowboat, or go fishing.”
Palisades Playground (5200 Sherrier Pl. NW, near Georgetown). Local kids love this playground for its “multi-level forts and tire areas that are fun to climb. There’s also a curvy tunnel slide and a sandbox for little ones.”
Walk on the Wild Side
Best animal experience:
National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Ave. NW; 633-3025; Free admission). “This is one of the best zoos in the country,” housing 400 different species. It is unique in that one out of every five species is endangered. Some of the more popular sections include the African Savanna, Amazon, and Asia. “My kids absolutely loved the apes and primates. Of course, the Asia Trail is fabulous and offers super views of the giant pandas.” “Prepare for pandamania!” “If you have little kids, don’t miss the petting zoo section.” Tip: “Take Metro’s Red Line to the Cleveland Park stop. Do not get off at the Woodley Park/Zoo stop, or you’ll have to walk uphill to the zoo. Go one more stop to Cleveland Park, and you walk the same distance but downhill.”
Feed Your Culture Vulture
Coolest place to catch a movie:
Uptown Theater (3426 Connecticut Ave. NW, Cleveland Park; 966-8805; ). Opened since 1936, this Art Deco gem is the city’s last movie palace showing first-run films. “Pure Nostalgia—Washingtonians cherish this place because of its huge 400-seat balcony and the enormous screen—the largest in DC. It is a memorable place to watch a movie. Kids love it!”
Best museum for kids:
Museum of Natural History (10th St. and Constitution Ave. NW; 633-1000; Free admission). “There is a great program here for kids interested in dinosaurs.” “My kids thought it was fun to see the exhibits featured in ‘Night at the Museum 2,’ so we made up a little scavenger hunt to find elements from the movie.”
National Air & Space Museum (National Mall, Independence Ave. at 6th St. SW; Free admission for museum only; IMAX and planetarium shows: $8.75/adult, $7.25/child 2-12). “It’s a good idea to book tickets for the IMAX and planetarium shows online, in advance of your visit, since they do sell out on busy days.”
National Gallery of Art (National Mall, 4th St. and Constitution Ave. NW; 737-4215; Free admission). “You’ll get more out of your visit if you plan ahead, since you need passes for some exhibitions. Also, the children’s and parent-and-child workshops are excellent, but you need to pre-register for them. Well worth it!” “Little kids love the sculpture garden.”
Phillips Collection (1600 21st St. NW; 387-2151; Suggested donation: $10/adult, free for kids 18 and under). This wonderful museum houses nearly 3,000 works by French Impressionists (Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse) and other European innovators (Van Gogh, Picasso) to American modernists such as Klee, Homer, Whistler, O'Keeffe, and more. “Great art tours for kids. Call in advance and set one up.”
Best for live music:
Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center (2700 F St. NW; 800/444-1324 or 202/467-4600; Nightly at 6pm, year-round). You never need a ticket for the free nightly concerts at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, but seats are available on a first come, first served basis—so get there early if you want to see a well-known artist. “The performers are different every night, and the schedule is a mixed bag—it can be thing from a military glee club to an ethnic ensemble to a string quartet to an accoustic guitar soloist.” “Try to catch a performance scheduled on the South Plaza Stage, whose view over the Potomac is really gorgeous.”
Evening Parade at Marine Barracks Washington (8th St. and I St. SE; 433-4073; Fridays at 8:45pm, May-August). This “jaw-dropping show of military pageantry takes place every Friday night all summer long. Tickets are free but must be reserved in advance online. “Tickets get booked up months in advance, but you can line up at least an hour in advance; at 8:15pm, unclaimed seats are released.” “This is a very moving, unforgettable presentation.”
Sylvan Theater (Washington Monument, National Mall, 15th St. and Independence Ave. NW; 426-6841). The theater is actually a simple wooden stage, from which the lawn slopes back to form a natural amphitheater. “There is a wonderful, free military band concert series here every summer, drawing crowds of up to 10,000 people.” During the spring, summer, and fall, the program includes everything from concerts to Shakespearean plays to puppet shows.
Jazz in the Garden at the National Gallery of Art (National Mall, 4th St. and Constitution Ave. NW; 737-4215; Concert series: Fridays at 5pm, late May to mid-September). “All summer, Friday evenings mean free jazz concerts in the museum’s sculpture garden. It’s a phenomenal venue, and kids love it.”
2Amys (3715 Macomb St. NW; 885-5700). This casual pizzeria is “always noisy and full of kids at dinner time. No question, it serves the best Neapolitan pizza in town.” “They don’t take reservations, so if you have young kids, it’s best to go early so you get a table quick and don’t have long to wait for your pizza after you order.” “This is as close to gourmet pizza as you’re ever going to find.”
Jetties (1213 U St. NW; 667-0909). This Georgetown sandwich-and-salad place is right on the water. “When the weather’s nice, stop for a bite and sit outside at the picnic tables.” Specialties are the gourmet-combo sandwiches on fabulous breads and terrific mixed salads. “As sandwich places go, this is definitely upscale. It can seem pricey until you taste one of the meatball subs or club sandwiches. They are all so delicious, you’ll forget the price and think it’s the best sandwich you ever ate.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St. NW; 667-0909). This landmark all-day diner has been around since 1958, serving everything from pancakes and French toast to burgers, chili dogs, and vegetarian chili. “It’s a must-stop when you’re in DC. The burgers are amazing. Even President Obama is a fan!”
Maine Avenue Fish Market (1100 Maine Ave. SW; 484-2722). This waterfront haunt has “the freshest, best seafood in DC.” “Go to Jimmy’s for steamed crabs and crabcake platters.”
Best ice cream:
Fro-Zen-Yo (5252 Wisconsin Ave. NW). This new chain has three locations in DC and “the most awesome frozen yogurt, with tons of toppings and frozen drinks.” See the web site for other DC locations.
Best kid-friendly menu:
Old Ebbitt Grill (675 15th St. NW; 347-4800). This historic (circa 1856) place was a favorite of Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Harding, and Teddy Roosevelt and is still a popular meeting spot for politicos and Washington insiders. “It’s a fun place to stop after a White House Tour. Its kids’ menu features a grand slam of favorites all on one plate: mac ’n cheese, chicken fingers, and fries. Adults will enjoy the Walrus seafood samplers and towering burgers. It gets very busy, but seats are usually available at the bar for drinks and munchies, including the fab kids’ menu.”
Best toy store:
National Gallery of Art (National Mall, 4th St. and Constitution Ave. NW; 737-4215; Free admission). “The Children’s Shop has some of the most amazing crafts and art-based toys (including high-tech building blocks) ever.”
Best gift shop:
Museum of Natural History (10th St. and Constitution Ave. NW; 633-1000; Free admission). “Fantastic stuff for kids. Check out the Mammals Store for animal-themed items and the Family Store for educational and reasonably-priced items like crystal-growing kits, musical instruments and a bag of polished stones.”