Updated July 9, 2020.
Full disclaimer: I do not have kids, but I have tons of friends who do! Washington, D.C. is a hot spot for school trips, family “edu-vacations,” and young families who move to the area for jobs. As a result, there are tons of things for kids to do! If you’re planning a trip to D.C. with kids, here is your ultimate guide!
If you’ve got more than one kid (or even if you just have one kid), you know that ticket and admission costs add up quickly! So to keep your wallet fat and happy, here are some kid friendly free places to go and things to do.
The Smithsonian Museums
All the Smithsonian Museums are absolutely FREE of charge. That means if your kids want to see exactly one thing, you can pop in and out without feeling like you didn’t get yoru money’s worth! Some kid favorites are the National Zoo (for the animals, of course), American History Museum (for war stuff, Kermit the Frog, Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, and so much more), the Air and Space Museum (because, airplanes and spaceships), U.S. Postal Museum (lots of hands-on displays, including exhibits about the Pony Express and Owney the dog-mascot), and the Natural History Museum (for dinos)! Spend as little or as much time as you want in each one, or just pop in for a little air conditioning and a bathroom break in the middle of a long day!
More here: Your Guide to D.C.’s Smithsonian Museums
The Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Gardens is not part of the Smithsonian, but it is still FREE! It’s a nice break from the cold if you’re here in the winter, and kids can go to “the jungle,” “the desert,” and more to see what grows in different parts of the world!
Arlington Cemetery is a very solemn and moving place, and the employees are firm about showing respect–especially at the Changing of the Guard. If your kids are able to handle that, a couple of hours at Arlington Cemetery will be a memorable experience. Watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, visit Arlington House, find the gravesite of a loved one, and marvel at the unique monuments and grave markers. It’s important to bring plenty of water with you as well!
Pro tip: Arlington Cemetery includes a lot of uphill walking, so everyone should be exhausted after a couple of hours and will sleep well that night!
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
A tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is one of the most fun things to do in D.C., in my opinion. It’s very kid-friendly, but fun for adults, too! Tickets are FREE, but they are first come, first served, so get there when the Visitor Center opens at 8:30am so you might get on the first tour at 9:00am!
All the info: How to Tour the Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Old Post Office Tower
Do your kids love having a birds’-eye view? Walk around to the back of the Old Post Office (now the Trump International Hotel) and take the entrance next to the Starbucks. You’ll walk down a long hallway telling the history of this beautiful building, and take two elevators to the top of the clock and bell tower. The views of D.C. are impressive. See how many monuments and landmarks you and your kids can find!
Gravelly Point Park (Alexandria, VA)
If you have a kid who loves airplanes, it will be worth your while to watch the planes come in or out of Washington National Airport (DCA). You can bike there on the Mount Vernon Trail, or drive and park, just follow the signs. Whether the planes are going in or out depends on air traffic control and the wind direction, but either way, you’re in for a treat! Bring a picnic and make an afternoon of it. For more information, check out this website: Virginia is for Lovers — Gravelly Point Park.
Jones Point Park (Alexandria, VA)
Continuing south on the Mount Vernon Trail, you’ll find Jones Point Park and Light House. Alexandria is a beautiful area situated along the Potomac, and this light house has a gorgeous view. There is also a playground on the premises, so it’s a fun way to spend an hour or so with the kids before nap time!
Worth the Money
Sometimes the experience costs a little something because it’s worth a little something. Here are some activities worth considering spending some cash on.
The International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum is one of the few museums in D.C. that costs money, but this one is exceptional in that it’s worth the cost. Check their website for the most up to date hours and prices. It’s interactive, interesting for adults and kids alike!
Hop-on Hop-off Tours
If you know your kids are not able to handle all the walking, and especially if you only have a day or two in D.C., a hop-on hop-off tour is a great option! You’ll see what you want to see, someone else will be chauffeuring all of you around, and you will get some extra info on the sites as you ride! Find a Tour here: Hop-on Hop-off Tours.
National Harbor (National Harbor, Maryland)
National Harbor is a free place to go, but it is not Metro-accessible, so you will be paying for parking or to take the boat from Old Town Alexandria across the river to get here. But once you’re here, there are plenty of kid-friendly things to do! Kids love playing at the Poseidon Hands at the beach area, and of course you can’t miss the Ferris Wheel! There is also a Peeps store (yes, those sugary marshmallow treats you see around Easter), and if mom needs a bit of a break, dad can watch the kids while she goes shopping! There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, and don’t forget to walk around in the Gaylord Hotel to see the decorations around Christmas and take a break from the heat in the summer.
Ghost Tour (Alexandria, VA)
Alexandria Colonial Tours gives family-friendly ghost tours in historic Old Town Alexandria, and it’s truly something that’s fun for all! Your tour guide will take your kids’ ages into account and do their best to make the stories, funny, a little scary, and age-appropriate for you and your family! One of the best parts is that a “child’s” ticket is for anyone ages 7-17! When was the last time you paid a child’s price for your 17 year old? Kids under 7 are free!
The Apothecary (Alexandria, VA)
This is my favorite museum in Old Town, Alexandria! The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary operated within the same two families from 1792-1933, and patrons included George and Martha Washington, the Lee family, and more! Kids will love seeing the petrified turkey leg, dragon’s blood, and Harry Potter tie-ins, and grown ups will probably find the early 20th century medications interesting as well! It’s well worth the nominal fee to take the tour!
More here: 10 Reasons to Visit Old Town Alexandria, VA
Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon, VA)
George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate is an essential part of any family trip or educational trip to D.C. They really have done a great job of making it fun and interactive for kids, both on the estate itself and in the museum! It’s one of the best things to do in the area, and it’s well worth the cost to see this historical place in person and learn about this country’s most famous founding father.
If your kids are too small to walk around all day, several days in a row, make sure to bring your stroller or a baby carrier! If you’re opting to walk, make sure everyone has good walking shoes to wear.
Where to Stay
Hotels are one of the most expensive parts of any trip, but you have to stay somewhere! There are good hotels in and around the area. Location is really the most important part of this decision. You will save time (and money in the long run) if you can stay downtown. If that’s not in the cards, then definitely stay near a Metro Station to make getting into town easier. Several hotels in the area have pools, some both indoor and outdoor. Kids love pools, right?
Check out my post about Choosing Accommodations for more!
Where to Eat
Many restaurants will make accommodations for kids, but some are more kid friendly than others. Some restaurants to consider are The Shake Shack (next to the International Spy Museum), Union Station (on the Metro Red Line with plenty of diverse options to choose from), Hard Rock Cafe (near Ford’s Theatre and a few blocks from the National Mall), the Smithsonian Castle (easy grab-and-go options at the heart of the Smithsonian on the Mall), and Ted’s Bulletin (multiple locations and homemade pop tarts). Looking for ice cream? Pop’s Ice Cream on King Street in Old Town Alexandria has the best ice cream, plus it’s decorated like an old-fashioned ice cream parlor!
There are bathrooms available in every museum, restaurant, and at many of the monuments and memorials as well. Many will have family bathrooms and/or changing stations, but be prepared if you find yourself in a bathroom emergency situation without either of those.
Tips for Metro
If you plan to take metro with your kids, it might seem a little intimidating. Before you go, take a look at D.C.’s Metro System: A Guide. And follow these tips:
If You Get Separated
Do not panic! There is a simple way to solve this problem, but you’ll need to talk to your kids about it before you go to the Metro. If one of you is still on the metro when the door closes and everyone else has gotten off the train, do not panic. Let the train go to the next stop; make sure your loved one on that train knows to get off at the next stop. When the next train comes, get on it for one stop. Your loved one should be waiting for you on the platform!
The best thing, of course, is to stay together. Hold hands with little kids, keep eyes on your kids, and if you’re like my mom, dress your kids alike in bright colors to keep up with them!
Strollers are not supposed to be on the escalators. There are elevators in all the Metro stations, but be aware of possible elevator outages.
Please stand single-file on the right side of the escalator. If you want to walk up and down on the escalators, please walk on the left side. You will get dirty looks and possibly some not-so-kid-friendly words tossed your way if you break this rule, particularly during rush hours.
There are special, marked seats for pregnant women, handicapped people, and the elderly. If you’re pregnant and need to sit down, by all means take advantage of that.
Each paying adult can take two children under 4 years on to the Metro with them for free. Sorry, kids over 5 years old will be paying the full fare. Click here for more on Metro fares.
I hope that is all very helpful information for you! Special thanks to my local D.C. friends with kids who gave me all the help I needed to create this post!
Want more? Check out my Washington, D.C., Page!
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