Your Ultimate Washington D.C Guide: Where to Stay, Play & Eat
Sure, our nation’s capital may conjure up memories of dusty museums and towering government buildings, but the city is surprisingly kid-friendly and chock full of fun history that is much more exciting than what you may remember from your high school history class aka snooze-fest. So whether you live in the D.C. Metro area and want to play tourist for a day or are heading to the area to try and catch a glimpse of Bo (and the President, of course), you’ll want to print out our handy guide for enjoying all the city has to offer. After all, it’s never too early to start grooming a President-in-the-making.
Washington D.C. is served by three airports. Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) is 26 miles west of downtown Washington, D.C. in Sterling, VA, while Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) , 32 miles northeast of Washington, DC, serves the Baltimore–Washington Metropolitan area. The closest airport is Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) located 3 miles (4.8 km) south of downtown Washington, D.C., in Arlington County, Virginia. All major airlines fly into at least one of these three airports.
Tip: Washington, D.C. has a wide lodging selection, with one for every budget. To save even more, keep in mind that weekend rates can dip 30 percent to 50 percent less than during the week, and try to stay away from the District during the high season (late March to mid-June) when prices are at their peak. The best time to visit is between mid-June and Labor Day, when Congress and your kids are on vacation.
Best package deals: Holiday Inn Washington DC-Central/White House
This centrally located hotel is walking distance to the White House and two Metro stations but we love it because of their Family Fun Packages that come with lots of perks! Combine a stay here with metro passes, tickets to private museums like Newseum or National Geographic Museum, or sign up for the Panda package for a box of Panda-themed goodies. Plus, kids always eat free at the Avenue Cafe and parents have breakfast included with all of their family packages.
Best “home away from home”: The Helix
Kids don’t like sleeping in a strange bed, don’t we know it. And so do the folks at the Helix Hotel. That’s why they’ve designed the awesome Family Bunk Room with a king and double-decker bed (top single, bottom double), and how about some hula hoops? Their large King studios (400 square feet) have a separate kitchenette with all you need to make breakfast, or a simple dinner for two when toddler needs an early night. Request an in-room child safety kit which includes outlet covers, toilet latches and nightlights.
Best family-friendly outside the city: Hilton Garden Inn
If you’d rather retreat to a tranquil neighborhood after a long day of sight-seeing, the Hilton Garden Inn offers spacious rooms and one bedroom suites. Located in the extremely walkable Shirlington Village neighborhood, you can shop at cute boutiques, eat at numerous restaurants, and even read books at the public library. Free parking means no extras to hire a car for trips further out, and the hotel’s complimentary 24-hour shuttle to the Pentagon City Metro station makes it a breeze to get in and out of the city.
Tips: The following museums are very popular so plan to arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid crowds, and allow at least 2 to 3 hours. Download the National Parks Service app for no-hassle visits to the memorials
Best museum for interactive fun: National Museum of the American Indian
NMAI’s highlight for families is the imagiNATIONS Activity Center. Here, young kids can learn about Native cultures through a variety of hands-on activities, interactive games, and craft workshops: Weave a giant basket to learn about the various styles of basketry. Explore different modes of transportation like snowshoes and skateboards. Explore traditional Native dwellings including a full-sized tipi and learn about the buffalo. Explore music through Native percussion instruments. There’s something fun going on every day of the week!
Best museum for “digging” into the past: National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History is a favorite with families and for good reason. In the Dinosaur Hall, kids will be awed by the skeleton of the giant Diplodocus and can watch paleontologists at work in the glass enclosed FossiLab. Elsewhere, an enormous prehistoric white shark and the 45-and-a-half carat Hope Diamond beckon. Other popular exhibits include the Insect Zoo which offers tarantula feedings, and touchable insects, while the Sant Ocean Hall showcases male and female giant squids and a replica of a living North Atlantic right whale. And the butterfly pavilion with live butterflies and exotic flowers is a treat for the youngest of visitors. Purchase IMAX tickets in advance or as soon as you arrive.
Best “just for kids” venue: National Children’s Museum
The new National Children’s Museum (phase one opened in December 2012), is a vibrant children-centered museum geared for kids eight and under. The “3 & Under” Gallery features Sesame Street characters and revolve around play, movement, art and discovery through the senses for infants and toddlers. Themes include a pretend play area, a baby crawlers area, and a play area for gross-motor play and building, arranging and exploring objects and shapes. The highlight of “Our World” – geared toward children over 3 is the “Pack Your Bag” exhibit, where a luggage carousel demonstrates that people travel to many destinations around the world and for many reasons. Children can learn to be responsible citizens in the “My Town” exhibit which showcases all the amenities in a town such as a store, school, home, fire station and a pizzeria, all to learn how to be responsible citizens. And finally, “World Cultures” aims to cultivate world citizens by featuring exhibits and programming such as kitchens with food, arts and crafts activities, traditional clothing, and a language area to promote cross-culture awareness and interaction among kids.
Best for wannabe astronauts: National Air and Space Museum
If your kiddo is intrigued by flying and space—and really, who isn’t?–this museum is a must! At this museum which has the largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world, children will ooh and ah at lifesize exhibits including the original Wright 1903 Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, and a “yes, please touch” lunar rock sample. Look out for Discovery Stations—interactive carts that encourage informal learning through active looking, discussion, and hands-on activities related to aviation, space exploration, astronomy, and planetary geology. You can even hop on a 4-minute flight simulator ride! If your kids still can’t get enough, visit the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near the Washington Dulles airport.
Best memorial to romp around: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Spread over 7.5 acres, the memorial has a park-like setting animated by water, stone, and sculpture inspired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s life. As your little one runs around the green space, hops up stone steps, and zigzags around carved columns, she might stop to pet Fala, FDR’s beloved Scottish terrier immortalized in bronze. She will, however, ultimately try to jump in a pond or run through one of the five manmade waterfalls. It’s too bad the National Parks Service, fearing accidents, rescinded initial permission allowing visitors to wade through the water.
Best memorial to get away from it all: Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Inspired by the Roman Pantheon and Jefferson’s own design for the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, this beautiful memorial is surrounded by the iconic cherry trees that gave rise to the National Cherry Blossom Festival, gifts from the people of Japan in 1912. Its location in West Potomac Park, overlooking the Tidal Basin of the Potomac River, is well removed from other memorials on the Mall which means you just might get it all to yourself (but don’t count on it during the Cherry Blossom Festival)! Your little ones can run around freely and there’s a good chance you’ll find free parking nearby.
Best ride for kids: The Carousel on the Mall
The time will come when your kids—and you–are tired of museum-and memorial going. The antidote? A ride on this old-school carousel situated outside the Smithsonian “Castle.”
Best year-round market: Eastern Market
Built in 1873, Eastern Market is the oldest continually run fresh food public market in D.C. The indoor market (South Hall) is always open, offering fresh produce, meats, poultry, seafood, pasta, baked goods, flowers, and cheeses. On weekends, the market moves outdoors with vendors selling the region’s freshest produce and handmade arts and crafts and antiques. Enjoy free concerts in May, June, September and October.
Tip: Food trucks line the streets of D.C. by the dozen during the week feeding throngs of office workers quickly and cheaply. Keep your eyes peeled and you’re bound to find one close by serving everything from tacos and kebabs to cupcakes and crepes.
Best chi chi restaurant to dine out with kids: Zaytinya
With its sleek décor and revered status in the food world (notable D.C. chef Jose Andres is at its helm), this Mediterranean restaurant may seem off-limits to families with young kids. We disagree. Start with the pita bread and hummus-that “exotic” food every kid will eat-and let the kids choose from menu items such as chicken shawarma or kofte, which are just fancy names for grilled chicken and meatballs respectively. Moms and dads can satisfy their more adventurous palates with tapas-style small plates (mezze) from Lebanese-style beef tartar to grilled octopus and fried Brussels sprouts topped with yogurt and barberries. Opt for outdoor seating so restless kids can run around the courtyard or play hide and seek by the looming public art sculpture.
Best street eats: G Street Food
While not a food cart or truck, their two downtown locations (White House and Dupont Circle) pay homage to street food from around the globe. Choose from cheap and tasty, on-the-go foods such as: Montreal-style bagels, sausages, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, panini, socca (a savory chickpea pancake), rice bowls, and salads. A high-energy vibe and somewhat noisy office crowd means boisterous kids will fit right into the cacophonous atmosphere.
Best pizza: Pizzeria Paradiso
For a good old standby, head to Paradiso for their classic wood-oven-baked pizzas. Their basic Margherita and Quattro Formaggi (four cheeses) pizzas are fabulous as-is or choose from a dozen in-house combos or select your own toppings. They also have a good assortment of salads, antipasti and panini.
Best for a bite of history: Old Ebbitt Grill
Established in 1856, Old Ebbitt Grill was a favorite of Presidents Grant, Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt. Just steps away from the White House and the Mall museums, its Beaux-Arts facade, mahogany and velvet booths, and bars set in marble, brass and beveled glass, jets you back to the past. The food is decent, the prices are reasonable, and the children’s menu has all the usual suspects. From crab cakes and meatloaf, to hamburgers and club sandwiches–even the pickiest eater will find something on the menu. But go for the old world charm and atmosphere! If you’re in Georgetown, check out their sister restaurant, Clyde’s, famous for its burgers, zesty chili and Sunday brunch.
For cheap eats and a wide variety of choices, belly up to the Food Court at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center for familiar food court fare (salads, hamburgers, deli sandwiches, pizza, sushi, etc.). The centrally located building is ideal for hungry downtown sightseers and easy on the pocket.
Best picnic spot: Brown bag it and head to the National Mall for an alfresco picnic. The lawn between the Washington Monument and the Capitol has plenty of open spots for the taking. Or if you’d like creative company, the Sculpture Garden at the Hirshhorn Museum or the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden are both quiet oases amid the clamor.
Best sweet treat: Pitango Gelato
Owner Noah Dan revived traditional Italian ice cream-making methods to make his gelato using only the finest ingredients: organic milk, cream, free-range eggs, raw cane sugar, fresh fruit and nuts, and premium chocolates. You’ll find classic gelato flavors such as stracciatella (vanilla chocolate chip) and nocciola (hazelnut) on the menu, plus vegan sorbets the likes of Bosc pear or strawberry. They serve only 20 flavors at any given time, so if you’re craving something more exotic, say, cardamom or orange dark chocolate, you might just have to come back. But no one’s twisting your arm right?
Tip: The Nation’s capital boasts festival all throughout the year. A little research will likely yield a fun festival to complement your trip.
To commemorate the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Tokyo, the annual festival is timed with the blooming of beautiful cherry blossoms along the tidal basin. (In 2013, it is held from March 20 to April 14). The festival kicks off with a two-day “Family Days” event at the National Building Museum featuring hands-on activities, interactive art demonstrations, and indoor and outdoor performances that celebrate spring and explore Japanese arts and design. Rent a paddle boat to enjoy the show from the water or hop on a guided bus tour to scope out the best vantage points for viewing and photographing the cherry blossoms. Other festival highlights include the Blossom Kite Festival showcasing creative kite-makers and kite-fighting competitions. And of course make your very own kite to bring home. As the climax of the three-week festival, the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival stretches for nearly one mile through the streets of downtown Washington DC featuring food, arts and culture, merchandise, and live traditional and J-Pop performances on four stages.
Every summer (in 2013, it is held June 28 to July 8), the Festival is held outdoors on the National Mall in between the Smithsonian museums. Families can enjoy crafts and food demonstrations, as well as music and dance performances. The Family Activities tent features a pizza garden, family folklore collecting, technology fun, and an art activity to raise hunger awareness. Pick up a Garden Activity Guide at any of the program’s gardens (marked with flowers on the site map) and answer questions to collect all six prizes and start your own wildflower garden! Younger visitors can try their hand at scheduled activities throughout the day, including quilting, mural painting, portraiture, sculpting, and designing with stained glass.
Do you have any tips to add to our Washington D.C. travel guide?
~ Pat Tanumihardja