Taking a family trip to the nation’s capital is super exciting. There is so much to see and do, and a lot of it is free, which is always good news for the vacation budget. To get the most out of your trip, it’s easiest to plan and arrive with some tips for visiting Washington DC with kids. This way, you can figure out the best time to visit, learn to navigate the public transportation and find out the best things to do with your kids (that’s tadpoles to us). So let’s hop to it and get ready to learn about visiting Washington DC!
Airports & Transportation While Visiting Washington DC with Kids
Washington DC has a fantastic public transportation system that can take you from the airport to the city and the surrounding areas. It is a great city to visit without a car. Let’s start with getting to Washington DC. If you are flying in, there are three airports servicing the area:
- Ronald Reagan National Airport is the closest airport to downtown and most convenient to the city. The Metro (the region’s subway system) can get you to the city, via the blue and yellow lines.
- Dulles International Airport is 26 miles away from Washington DC (about a 40 minute drive, depending on traffic). You can take shuttles or taxis to the city, and in 2018, the silver Metro line will get you there as well.
- Baltimore-Washington International Airport has a nearby Maryland Rail Commuter Service (MARC) and Amtrak station with service to Union Station.
Union Station is Washington DC’s train station. It is also a mall with 130 stores and many restaurants. It is located near the US Capitol building and is near many hotels and sightseeing/tourist attractions. The station services the Washington Metro, Amtrak, MARC Train and Virginia Railway Express. You can usually pick up a cab in front of Union Station, and it is a place from which sightseeing tours often depart.
If you have small tadpoles who use car seats, here’s what you need to know about riding in cars or using public transportation in Washington DC. Children do not ride in car seats in buses or trains. The law does not require children to use a car seat in a taxi cab, but you can request a car seat if you order a taxi (or Uber) in advance. Children who are not in car seats, should use a seatbelt. You can bring your own car seat with you, but it can be cumbersome. Look into travel car seats that attach to or convert into strollers.
If you plan to rent a car, know that a child under eight must be properly restrained in an infant, convertible or booster child seat. Children ages 8 to 16 must use a seatbelt. You can bring your own car seat from home or rent one. If you will be driving, keep in mind that street parking is limited, signs and streets can be confusing, and parking lots tend to be very expensive. Do not park in a commuter lane — if you fail to move your car by rush hour, it may be towed!
*Please visit the official Washington DC DMV website for laws and rules.
When to Visit Washington DC with Kids
Even though we don’t always have control over our vacation time, there are better times to visit Washington DC with kids. Springtime (March to May) can be particularly beautiful with the pink cherry blossoms (late march to early April, which is also the time of the Blossom Kite Festival) and springtime activities. The September to November months offer crisp fall air and the beautiful changing leaves. July and August are extremely hot and humid. It can be challenging to get your children to walk anywhere in that sticky weather (although the museums are air conditioned), so summer is one of the worst times to visit. Winter brings low (freezing) temperatures, but this low tourist season also brings low hotel prices. If you visit in winter bring your coats, hats scarves, gloves and layers. If you will be visiting late November for the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, the tickets are free but are limited by lottery. The lottery opens and closes in October.
Fun Activities for Visiting Washington DC with Kids
Kids have a deeper appreciation and connection to the places they are visiting when they read about them. There are a number of picture books about Washington DC that can help you to prepare your tadpoles for a visit. Even Clifford the Big Red Dog has made the trip! The same goes for movies. Your children might recognize Washington DC from movies such as Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian or Independence Day if you have older children.
Explore a museum or two or three
There are so many museums in Washington DC it can boggle the mind. All of the museums located in the National Mall are free. The National Mall is a national park that spans from the Capitol steps to the Lincoln Memorial. It’s where you will find the Washington Monument and the well-known memorials (Lincoln memorial, Veteran’s memorial, etc)
Kids will dream about flight at the National Air and Space Museum or enjoy seeing animals at the National Museum of Natural History. History buffs will enjoy the National Museum of American History (where you might see the flag that the Star Spangled Banner was inspired by or Abraham Lincoln’s hat). The National Gallery of Art is the only National Mall museum that is not part of the Smithsonian. The National Gallery of Art offers hands-on activities for kids. If you hoppen to visit during winter, there is an outdoor ice-skating rink in the sculpture garden.
Older kids will be trying to sneak into the International Spy Museum (located in Chinatown), although this one is not free. It is filled with interactive exhibits and can make quite the family adventure. You’ll find the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC as well.
You can plan tours of the Library of Congress or the Supreme Court. If you are planning to tour the White House, you must make public tour requests through your member of congress. You can submit your request up to three months in advance but no less than 21 days in advance. The tour is free, but there are limited spaces and they are scheduled on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Before visiting any of the museums or government buildings research what you can and cannot bring with you and find out what the rules are regarding cameras and picture taking. The White House has a pretty strict list — no strollers, bags of any kind, foods or liquids, makeup, and more. There are restrictions on camera and camera equipment.
Take a Duck Tour
The Duck boats are amphibious vehicles that drive on land and then float on water. They are a fun and relaxing way to explore Washington DC with kids. Tours run April through October. You’ll get a different view of DC and the National Mall from the Potomac River with a “wise-quacking” guide to point out the sights and teach a little history.
Be Street Smart While Visiting Washington DC with Kids
Washington DC is considered safe, but every city has more and less safe areas. The National Mall and White House have good police visibility. Georgetown northwest of DC is a safe area along the Potomac with many shops and restaurants. Chinatown is also a safe area with fun things to do both day and night.
Some of the most dangerous areas are city streets, especially during rush hour. There are many one-way streets, so always pay attention when crossing the street — the cars might be coming from the opposite direction from what you might expect. You’ll need some street smart tips for visiting Washington DC with kids:
- Hold hands.
- Watch your belonging on the Metro.
- Watch out for cable cars and trolleys.
- Use a crosswalk
- Do not assume cars will stop for you, even if you have the walk signal.
- Discuss a plan in case you become separated or your entire family does not make it onto a subway car.
- Note your hotel address — you can pick up a business card when you check in. Take pictures of it with your phone and text it to everyone in your frog squad.
- Keep valuables in a safe. Do not carry money or ID in a backpack.
- Know which Metro line and stop to take before you board.
Just use your street smarts when out and about in Washington DC with kids, and keep valuables safely stowed.
More Tips for Visiting Washington DC with Kids
Take time to take in the sights
Expect to move at a slower pace with your froglets in tow. Take time to sit down, rest your legs and enjoy the sights. Let them shop for souvenirs. Let them explore artwork and gardens. Take time to play in the parks or go on a hike outside the city. People watch. Be flexible. Perhaps you find something that excites you that was not on your to-do list. Just go with it!
Wear comfortable shoes
One of most important tips for visiting Washington DC with kids is to make sure that all of you are wearing comfortable shoes. Even with all the great public transportation, you will be walking a lot around parks and museums and city streets. You do not want anyone to get blisters or sore feet. Keep everyone’s feet and flippers dry and comfortable!
Best Hotels for Visiting Washington DC with Kids
What makes a kid-friendly hotel in Washington DC? Look for a hotel that is close to a Metro subway hub or within walking distance of some top attractions. You might find a hotel with a pool for some downtime, or one that offers a kitchenette or at least a refrigerator. Maybe your ideal hotel offers a breakfast buffet to streamline mornings? In case you missed it, Undercover Tourist is now booking discount hotel rooms in Washington DC. You can get a jump on a family-friendly hotel while saving money on lodging! Some of our favorites are the Grand Hyatt Washington, Palomar Washington DC and Hilton Garden Inn Washington DC Downtown.
Washington DC makes a great family vacation. With these tips for visiting Washington DC with kids, you will be off to a great start.
Have tips for visiting Washington DC with kids? Please share them in the comments sections below. Did you know, Undercover Tourist is now hopping into top family-friendly cities, including San Francisco? Check out our discount San Francisco tickets and hotels — and check back soon, because we're adding more products weekly!