Washington DC definitely brags some of the best things to do with kids! In fact, it’s one of the most kid-friendly destinations in the country, perfect for a family vacation. Between free Smithsonian museums, kids’ play spaces for little ones, and even activities for teens, you’ll find something for all ages here! Plus, there are also plenty of parks and gardens to roam about (and release some energy). By way of Metro trains or buses, public transportation is also safe, clean, and relatively stroller-friendly!
Having lived in Washington, DC for more than 15 years, now with a toddler, I have plenty of expertise to help families navigate these 9 Things To Do In Washinton DC With Kids. Here are some of our favorite places to visit as a family, including where we take visitors when they want to explore everything this dynamic city offers!
1. Visit the Many Museums
Definitely put The Smithsonian Institutions on your list of things to do in DC with kids! This network of 19 museums and a zoo stands adjacent to the National Mall (the big green space in the center of Washington, DC—not a shopping mall!). As a plus for those traveling on a budget, Smithsonians are free to the public. Check out as many as you can with the help of this handy map of Museums along the National Mall. To narrow it down based on your interests, here are some of my family’s favorite museums to visit, especially with our little one!
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Smithsonian’s Air & Space
Smithsonian’s Air & Space is one of the most popular museums in the world! Anything air or space-related is housed here, from early aircraft replicas to model rockets. Kids can also see the Apollo 11 Command Module that housed Neil Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins during the first manned lunar landing mission! It’s truly striking how small this module is—and it took the astronauts more than 51 hours to reach lunar orbit. (If your kids complain about the long flight, you could always impress them with that fun fact!)
Older kids will love the museum’s upgraded IMAX theater, which has a new dual 4K laser projection system with a 74-by-49-foot screen, one of the largest in the Mid-Atlantic. A Beautiful Planet in 3-D IMAX is amazing, filmed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station! The most breathtaking part was seeing the cities of South Korea aglow at night—and then seeing its neighbor North Korea, which was shrouded in darkness.
Younger kids can attend the museum’s planetarium for a daily free show at 10:30 am starring Elmo and Big Bird! And there’s storytime most Thursdays and Fridays at 11 am, and Saturdays at 11 am and 1:30 pm.
Natural History Museum
Everyone goes to the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaurs, but there’s also an amazing exhibit on early humans and Neanderthals. And you can also see the Hope Diamond, one of the most famous jewels in the world! The Butterfly Pavilion is so much fun for everyone too. My family had dozens of butterflies land on us while we walked through. (You have to buy tickets to go inside, but it’s worth it.) Go to the Q? rius Lab, an interactive space for kids and teens! (It is REALLY COOL for adults too!) There, you can look at fossils, butterflies, and hundreds of other exhibits under a microscope. It’s open Monday-Friday 2 – 5 pm, and on weekends from 10 am – 5 pm.
Smithsonian American History Museum
The Smithsonian American History Museum is another one to add on your list of best things to do with kids in DC! Covering the history of The United States, perhaps the most popular exhibits here are the actual Star Spangled Banner and Julia Child’s kitchen. The best reasons to go with kiddos, however, are the Wonderplace and Spark! Lab. These interactive spaces give children of all ages, from toddlers to teens, ample room to explore their curiosities. It’s open every day, 10 am – 4 pm (except Tuesday.)
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture
The National Museum of African American History & Culture is the newest addition to Smithsonian’s lineup. Its exhibitions tell the history of African Americans, from hardships in slavery to current culture and political issues. It’s a beautifully-curated museum, and definitely worth the visit for anyone interested in what’s on display. Here, families can literally walk through centuries of history, starting from the basement level up. Plan your visit beforehand to ensure a spot, though! Free, timed-entry passes are required for weekends, which are available on their website.
Smithsonian American Indian Museum
Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum’s mission is to advance knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures in the United States—past and present. It’s also a great place to take little ones to teach them about native people’s importance in history! Though constantly rotating, the kid-friendly exhibits here are created in partnership with Native leaders, and thus true-to-life. Kids will particularly love The American Indian Museum’s interactive exhibits! Be sure to visit the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, which is open every day 10 – 5 (except Monday.)
The National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is a must-visit for art lovers! Our toddler loves modern art, so the museum’s East Building is fun to walk through. On weekends, make sure to check their calendar for drop-in art-making for the whole family. Film buffs or older kids will also appreciate special screenings of films for all ages in the East Building Auditorium. (Though The National Gallery of Art isn’t a Smithsonian, it’s still free!)
The Hirshhorn Art Museum & Sculpture Garden
The Hirshhorn Art Museum & Sculpture Garden is the perfect place for kids to roam free and explore their creativity! It has a wonderful storytime program, connecting its towering metal and bronze sculptures to a wonderful story. Then, you can even enjoy a free play for the entire family! This spectacular takes place every Wednesday at 10 am and Sunday at 11 am in a space with a panoramic view of the National Mall. For those looking for things to do in DC with kids on the weekends, they also have drawing activities for all ages at 2 pm on Saturdays.
Smithsonian American Art Museum & Portrait Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum & Portrait Gallery is where the famous Presidential portraits are on display—which is fun for any young person learning about Presidential history! (Michelle Obama’s well-known portrait is here as well!) On a sunny day, natural light flooding the building’s central atrium is breathtaking, often decorated with hundreds of orchids. You’re welcome to bring food from outside (Shake Shack is across the street!) into the atrium, where there are tables and wifi for everyone to enjoy. On the first floor of the building, there’s a children’s discovery center with art on display and blocks for play!
2) Tour the U.S. Capitol Building
With the newly restored rotunda open to the public, The Capitol is stunning, inside and out. You could get a more personal tour from your Representative or Senators’ offices (which may be easier with multiple strollers in tow) or through the Capitol Visitor Center. (Book a tour in advance!) The Visitor Center offers a 45-minute guided tour, including a brief orientation film (a good time to rest or cool off when it’s hot outside.) Tour guides take about 20 people through the crypt (and the intersection of the four quadrants of the District of Columbia), the rotunda, and the national statuary hall. In case you’re wondering if it’s hard to hear during the tour, don’t worry! They’ll equip you with a headset so you can hear your guide clearly, despite the many other tours happening at the same time.
Ask older kids to find the two statues in the Capitol that represent your state. (Or your tour guide will know where they are placed.) You can also get passes to the visitor galleries of the chambers of the House of Representatives and Senate. If Congress is in session, you might see them at work, or even voting! (Seriously, it’s very interesting.) The chambers look different in person than on C-SPAN, and it’s fascinating to watch the side conversations happening before a vote.
3) Walk by the Monuments on the National Mall
D.C. is an amazing city to simply people-watch and stroll, no matter what season. The best time of year to visit Washington, DC with kids by far, however, is always when the cherry blossoms are in bloom! The average peak bloom date is April 4, according to the National Park Service. (Follow the Bloom Watch.)
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Exploring monuments around town is definitely one of the most popular things to do in DC with kids. As such, driving could mean getting stuck in traffic and finding a unicorn of a parking spot. The preferable way is to walk, and depending on how fast your kiddos are (or how fast you can push your stroller!), it’s possible to see several monuments in one day. We’ve always started near the Tidal Basin with a view of the Jefferson Memorial (which is a 15-minute walk from the Smithsonian metro station) because it’s our favorite. From there, it’s an easy walk to the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial (10 minutes) and then the Martin Luther King Memorial (7 minutes.)
After that, you could walk northeast to the World War II Memorial (5 minutes.) Or you could walk northwest to the Korean War Veterans Memorial (8 minutes.) I think the Korean War Memorial comes alive at night, so you may want to go later in the day. If you continue walking northwest, you’ll also get to the Lincoln Memorial (3 minutes), which is equally breathtaking at night. And from there, you could walk to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall (also 3 minutes!)
From almost any part of the Mall, you’ll also be able to see the Washington Monument, a 555-foot marble obelisk that honors President George Washington. (Its elevators are undergoing renovation until later this year, but once it’s open again, you can take a ride to the very top!) Just north of the Washington Monument, you can also see the White House. Public tours are available only through your Member of Congress. (If you are visiting from a foreign country, you’ll need to contact your embassy in Washington, DC for assistance in submitting a tour request.)
4) Watch a Performance at the Kennedy Center
Sure, the Kennedy Center is grand and opulent, and it’s a lot of fun to dress up to see the symphony or the opera. But the Kennedy Center also has regular performances for children and families! Occasionally, the theatre even hosts sensory-friendly performances for children who may need to walk around or children with autism or other disabilities that create sensory sensitivities. Also, there are daily free performances in the main foyer’s Millennium Stage, where everyone is welcome. You can find the schedule here. No tickets are required—just show up, and no need to dress up!
5) Say Hello to the Animals at the Smithsonian Zoo
While the National Zoo isn’t on the National Mall, it’s close to two Metro stations—Woodley Park or Cleveland Park. And like the other Smithsonian Museums, the Zoo is also free to the public! Our toddler’s favorite animals here are the orangutans (look for them overhead, on their dedicated “O-Line”), small mammals, and the electric fishes in Amazonia. (There’s also a daily electric fishes demonstration at 1 pm.) If you’re visiting between Thanksgiving and Christmas, visit during the evenings, when the entire zoo is covered with festive decorations and lighting for Zoo Lights. (And they serve adult beverages, like spiked cider!)
6) Stroll The U.S. Botanic Garden
Spend another day in DC surrounded by luscious nature! The Botanic Garden is located on the southwest end of the Capitol building (House side)—and it’s one of the oldest botanic gardens in North America. Parents will love the tranquil atmosphere here, and kids have plenty of space to roam curiously. The Conservatory is also a giant greenhouse with all sorts of plants in a variety of environments from jungle to desert. Around Christmas time, look out for carolers in the evening or an epic train display, which little kids love!
7) Visit the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is probably one of the most impressive buildings in DC to visit with kids! Luckily for families who are sightseeing nearby, it’s also across the street from the Capitol. And its history is equally fantastic! Take a guided tour to learn all about the significance behind this building, originally established in 1800. While its details may not be best for younger children, older ones will surely be fascinated by the story. Eventually, invading British troops set the library on fire in 1814, then housed in the Capitol. The entire property had all but burned to the ground when retired President Thomas Jefferson offered his entire personal library to Congress as a replacement for $23,950.
8) Learn about Telling Time at the U.S. Naval Observatory
Ever wonder how time was kept in the 1800s? Well before the ubiquitous cell phones in our pockets, the US Naval Observatory was established to care for the US Navy’s marine chronometers and other navigational equipment. In 1845, the observatory also began dropping a time ball, the first of its kind, at Mean Solar Noon to alert all ships and civilians in the area to the exact time! Kids can learn all this and more during a visit today, where the observatory operates one of two Master Clocks, a cesium atomic clock. Back then, however, people had an unobstructed view of the observatory from the docks. Instead of looking for a time ball, you can also always call to get the exact time from a voice announcement: 202-762-1401. Tours are only available on select Monday nights, though, from 8 – 10 pm. Make advanced reservations!
When the skies are clear, older kids are also able to see the stars (or planets) through a 12-inch refracting telescope. (We saw a star cluster 145 light-years away!) Also, the Vice President lives on the property!
9) Visit the National Cathedral
Your whole family will fancy a visit to DC’s gorgeous National Cathedral! Completed in 1990, it took 200 years to envision, plan, and build in total. It’s also extremely beautiful, and tall enough to see from all over the District! In fact, kids will be fascinated to discover its tower holds the highest point in Washington DC. Be sure to understand its history before venturing here, though. The Cathedral isn’t Catholic; rather it is a part of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and serves as “a house of prayer for all people and a spiritual home for the nation.”
Point children toward the stained glass window containing a 2 3/8” sliver of moon rock as its centerpiece! “Piece 230 of Apollo 11 rock no. 10057” was presented to the Cathedral by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, “a fragment of creation, from beyond the Earth.” Also, the outdoor gardens are beautiful, and there are many benches under trees to take a break—or burn off some energy running around! Don’t miss Bishop’s Garden as well. (After that, we always get pizza at 2Amys, which is nearby.)
Thank You To Our Community!
No matter how you spend your DC vacation, we’re sure you’ll love this magical city. A special thank you to the Families Who Love to Travel Facebook community who also submitted photographs for this list of 9 Things To Do In Washington DC With Kids!
Families Who Love To Travel is a group of amazing families who love adventure and exploring through travel. Join the Facebook community and also the Instagram community to connect with other families who love the unique experiences travel has to offer!
Next, find more things to do with kids in DC – even virtually! – with our Travel From Home: DC Edition. It’s a great article to explore Washington DC virtually or prepare kids for an in-person visit.
By Rachna Choudhry, co-founder of POPVOX.com, a platform that helps people keep track of what’s happening in Congress. She lives in Washington, DC, and loves exploring the city with her toddler.
*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, activities mentioned on this list may be closed. Please check availability before making your decision.
*This post may contain affiliate links that may earn us a small commission, at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links in no way inform the hotels, sights, products, or other recommendations included in our articles. All opinions and recommendations expressed here are compiled from submissions submitted by the generous members of our Families Who Love To Travel community.
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