A trip to Washington D.C. with kids can be a wonderful family vacation. Here are one mom's tips for success.
I just returned from a trip to Washington D.C. with my kids. It was a wonderful adventure, complete with fun food, memorable sites, Metro mistakes and valuable travel lessons learned. I’m sharing our experience in the event that you have the want/need to recreate a similar trip with your family. You’ll recall I visited Alaska with my kids last summer and shared my travel tips HERE, HERE AND HERE.
Those posts were so well received it made me realize that many parents are in the same boat — we want memorable, safe and fun vacations with our kids, but piecing all of the “how to” info together isn't easy. Hopefully, this will help you navigate what to do and not to do if you decide to visit D.C. with your family.
Where We Stayed — There's no shortage of hotels in and around D.C., but choosing where to stay was one of the decisions I worried about most. Cost can be an issue, as can accessibility to the sites you want to see. My goal was to find a place that could accommodate our needs as a family (i.e. a kitchenette or at least fridge/microwave was mandatory) and be accessible to the Metro. The Residence Inn at Pentagon City was perfect! There’s a Metro station a couple of blocks away, situated in a retail area complete with a CVS (always good to have nearby when you’re traveling with kids) and Harris Teeter grocery store (another must for traveling as a family.) More pros of this hotel:
- InternetTV — At the end of a long day of site seeing, I wasn’t at all hesitant to embrace a little screen time for my kids. This hotel had the option to login to your Netflix account, making it super easy for my kids to find their favorite shows (and give me some much needed time to
have an adult beveragedecompress.)
- Full Breakfast — Hotel stays can get pretty pricey when you have to pay for breakfast each day for a family of four. This hotel provided a complimentary full breakfast buffet — complete with eggs, oatmeal, bagels, yogurt, fruit, waffles and even fresh veggies — that helped us fuel up before hitting the sites. As you quickly learn when visiting the monuments along the National Mall, eating opportunities are a little sparse. So a big breakfast is a must to ward off early morning cries of “Mom, I’m hungry” before you’ve even left the Metro station.
- 2 Bedroom Suites — My mother joined us on this trip, so having a separate bedroom for her was a must. For a single overnight hotel stay, sharing a room is fine. But I’m a big believer in the importance of a really good night’s sleep to ensure everyone is at their best on trips like these. The price is an upgrade to get the separate living space, but it was well worth it.
Where We Ate — The good part of having friends located in the D.C. area is that I had plenty of great suggestions, and they did not disappoint! Since this is, after all a food blog, I think you'll enjoy these highlights:
- Gillies — This is admittedly not a Washington D.C. restaurant, but it is worth mentioning… especially if you plan to drive up to D.C. from the south (as we did). We stopped in Blacksburg, VA the first night of spring break and ate breakfast here. I was told by the locals it was THE place to eat breakfast in town. I had the Spanish Frittata and a freshly pressed beet juice concoction, both of which were delish. Blacksburg is a small little town with seemingly not many eating options (although hats off to my VaTech friends. I thought it was a great campus!) Definitely give this place a visit if you’re in the area. Note that it’s a vegetarian/vegan restaurant, so bacon won’t be an addition to your breakfast plate, which suited me just fine. No shame in beets before bacon, ya know?
- Shake Shack — While not a D.C. exclusive restaurant, Shake Shack wasn’t a place I’d ever eaten a burger. With more than one friend recommending it, we gave it a try after our visit to The Spy Museum. It was epically crowded, but overall the food was good. I probably wouldn’t seek out a burger from there again, but it’s a good stop if you’re in the area and eating with kids. I may have been more excited about the menu if I hadn’t been saving room for what we were eating next:
- Red Velvet Cupcakery — You’ll notice a theme on our trip. We sampled a lot of desserts (a nice balance since we walked A LOT). I’m not sure what it says about my friends or D.C., but I received tons of sweet treat recommendations that were a must-visit. (#ToughJob #SomebodyHasToDoThisResearch). This is the gluten free and vegan chocolate cupcake I ate…
…and it was so. darn. good. Seriously. As someone who bakes a lot of gluten free food, this was astoundingly “normal” tasting. Yum.
- Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken — We made a quick swing by here one day after visiting the White House and White House Visitors Center (be sure to check out the fun food of Presidents exhibit) to grab doughnuts for later in the day. My hope had been to eat lunch at the National Museum of the American Indian (it came highly recommended), but my youngest son and my mom were dragging a little bit from all the walking, so we decided to call it a day early. Instead of eating lunch out, we headed back to the hotel, ate a simple lunch of sandwiches and some leftovers (again, the advantage of a fridge at your hotel) and savored our doughnut score from earlier in the morning. We tried the Maple Bacon Doughnut, Cherry Blossom Doughnut (so pretty!), classic Vanilla Doughnut and the Birthday Cake. I thought the Maple Bacon was exceptionally good, but my mom and youngest were over the moon with Cherry Blossom and Birthday Cake, respectively.
- Founding Farmers — another highly recommended choice from friends, we snagged some early evening reservations for this popular D.C. spot. The service was awesome. Our waiter was super kid friendly, something you really appreciate as a mom who travels both with and without kids. (I’ve learned that you get different looks from both waiters and other patrons when you walk into a restaurant with kids. A lot of people assume we’re about to ruin their dinner.) It was nice to have a waiter who could make suggestions from the menu that were beyond chicken fingers. We ordered the kettle corn appetizer (yes, that’s a thing!) and chicken & waffles with the boys in mind. My oldest son still says it was the best fried chicken he’d ever had. We sampled the bacon wrapped bleu cheese dates (a bit disappointing as they didn’t have much bleu cheese taste) and the skillet cornbread (which was delicious). I had the cauliflower steak, which was okay, but the risotto served with it was yummy.
- Ted’s Bulletin — This probably tops my list of places we ate. Instead of eating at the original downtown location, we stopped by the Reston site after a day at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Eating a late lunch meant we were all super hungry, a good quality when you visit Ted's. The portions were plentiful and satisfying. I had the meatloaf sandwich (which is offered on gluten free bread as needed) and a side of what turned out to be my favorite dish from the entire trip — Roasted Brussels with Blue Cheese and Bacon. You guys know how I love my Brussels sprouts!
But I’d be lying if I said that our entire table found those to be the best foods of the visit. They were more impressed with the giant carrot cake and the homemade pop-tarts.
Where We Went — You could spend weeks and weeks in D.C. and not see all the sites. Do yourself a favor and prioritize where you want to go in advance. For my family, the priorities were the biggies — White House, the Capitol, Supreme Court, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. I think taking children to D.C. is best when timed with their natural interest in learning more about a subject they’re currently studying. My youngest (a Kindergartener) learned about Washington and Lincoln earlier this year and my oldest (a third grader) recently completed a project on the three branches of government. They couldn’t have been more ready to visit D.C. and for that, I’m super thankful. This could easily be a boring and tiring trip for kids otherwise.
Beyond the sites mentioned above, we also visited the Korean and Vietnam War Memorials (both are located right in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall near the Reflecting Pool), more for my own interest than theirs. But I highly recommend you visit these sites with your own children. The memorials are moving. The Korean, because of its life size portrayals of soldiers in combat and the Vietnam, because of the sheer number of names inscribed on the walls. Being in the hustle and bustle of D.C. and then literally stepping into this zone of somber reverence was a powerful moment for me as an adult and my kids felt it as well.
Other stops on our journey were the Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It’s a bit outside of downtown D.C. so just keep that in mind when planning your itinerary. But don’t let the distance turn you away. It was a highlight of the trip for my boys and me, too. I thoroughly enjoyed the Journey to Space Imax movie and seeing the Discovery Space Shuttle up close, and the boys loved the space simulator and the chance to sit in a Cessna.
One addition to our week that didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped was the Spy Museum. Numerous friends recommended it, but it didn’t resonate with my boys. I’m not sure if that’s because they’re not all that “in” to spy stuff, but overall we just found this to be “ok.” I think this points to what I said earlier — when planning your itinerary keep in mind the natural timely interests of your family.
Metro Lessons Learned — I travel a lot with my kids, but each trip provides a new chance to refine the system and smooth out our process. This trip was no different. Most notably, navigating the Metro was new for us as a family, but super exciting for kids who don’t live in an area where they ride public transit. If you’re someone who lives in a city with a subway or metro rail system, it’s easy to think that the rest of us know how to navigate that. But here’s the thing. We don’t.
I’ve traveled to all but 5 of the 50 United States, have lived in multiple different states throughout the South and have been to Europe 3 times in the last two years. But seldom have I ever ridden a subway. It is for this reason that I’m keenly aware that guidebooks are written as if we all know how to just “hop on the Metro and head downtown.” This kinda oversight in helpful guidance sorta bugs me. So, if you’re headed to D.C. and aren’t comfortable navigating the Metro, let me share with you the basics:
- In D.C., the Metro is easy, safe and the ideal way to get around since so much of what you want to see is downtown.
- Here is a very general overview provided by the Metro system that you'll want to read.
- The most important thing you need to know after you’ve bought your SmartTrip card (the easiest thing to do since you don’t have to worry about calculating fares, etc.) is to figure out the COLOR of the line you’re taking and then figure out the NAME OF THE LINE’S END IN THE DIRECTION YOU'RE GOING since that’s what will be displayed on the platform and on the train that you want to get on. (I.e. if you’re headed East, find the eastern most destination and that will tell you the name of the train.)
- IF you happen to get on the wrong train, DON’T FREAK OUT. Simply look on one of the maps (hopefully you have one in your pocket) posted in the train and find a station with a LARGE circle and the line that you want to be riding on. This large circle means this is a station you can change trains and get on the right one. (Let’s just say I know this to be an easy fix for hopping the wrong train, since that can easily happen your first day in the city if you’re rambling kids to the platform and not paying attention to the color/name of the train, since multiple lines can be caught on the same platform at some stations.)
While many spring breaks are filled with theme parks, beach trips and ski getaways, a visit to Washington D.C. with kids learning about government, history and (in the case of this year) a national election was a wonderful experience. I'm so thankful for this week and the memories made. I hope if you decide to visit D.C. with your family these tips will make your trip even more special.
A trip to Washington D.C. with kids can be a wonderful family vacation. Here are @ReganJonesRD's tips for success Tweet this