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The Capital with Kids – Part 1

Post image for The Capital with Kids – Part 1

By Cindy Murphy-Tofig

Summer in Washington D.C. means steam rising from the sidewalks and tourists standing on the wrong side of the Metro escalators (stand on the right, walk on the left).

But it also means that many of the museums and monuments are open later, giving you plenty of time to visit dinosaurs, fly to the moon, or take in a view from the tallest structure in the District. Plus it’s an easy way to sneak some education into a family vacation.

Everyone in the family can be entertained all day — and into the night — along the National Mall. Make sure everyone has comfortable sneakers before you head out, though, since it’s about two miles from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.

School-age children will get a good dose of American history (and will dig the cordless headsets) during the U.S. Capitol tour. The youngest in your crowd might get fidgety during the hour-long guided tour of the building, but would enjoy walking among the statues in the Capitol’s visitor center. Each state has two statutes at the Capitol, and about two dozen are in the visitor center.

As you walk further up the Mall (heading toward the Washington Monument) you’ll have your choice of museums to visit.

The Lincoln Memorial Credit Destination DCThe Lincoln Memorial Credit Destination DC

The whole gang will love the National Museum of Natural History. The younger set will love seeing the Triceratops and others on display in the hall dedicated to dinosaurs and fossils (if you can get them away from the mammoth elephant in the museum’s rotunda, that is). Toward the back of the exhibit is a room of scientists working on identifying various fossils. You can watch them, but don’t tap on the glass and disturb the mammals at work.

Upstairs, if you can get the kiddies to sit still, butterflies will land on them inside the live butterfly pavilion. And down the hall, for a shot of bling, check out the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond.

Next door to Natural History is the National Museum of American History, where kids can explore real objects connected to what they’ve been learning in school. There’s a pocket compass Meriwether Lewis bought before embarking on his historic expedition with William Clark, and the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner. There are plenty of fun uniquely American artifacts as well, such as songwriter Irving Berlin’s typewriter, a 1955 station wagon, and a plaster egg prop made for the movie “Alien.”

For a real outer space experience, head to the National Air & Space Museum on the opposite side of the Mall. Little ones will love making a ball float in a stream of air or trying some of the other activities in the How Things Fly exhibit on the main floor, while bigger kids and adults will enjoy artifacts as diverse as the Apollo Lunar Module, astronaut John Glenn’s spacesuit, and a reproduction of the Wright brothers’ glider.

Nancy Barone of Connecticut said the diversity of the exhibits was great for her children, ages 5, 7, and 11.

“There was enough hands-on stuff to keep Cam [the 5-year-old] interested, and enough intellectual challenge for the other two,” she said.

For a little downtime outside, wander through the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art, take the tykes for a ride on the carousel near Smithsonian Castle, or find a bench along the Mall and people watch.

Paddle boats at the Jefferson Memorial. Credit Destination DCPaddle boats at the Jefferson Memorial. Credit Destination DC

Ready for round two? Take the older kids down to the Tidal Basin and rent a paddleboat. Afterwards, walk over to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial (you’ll be able to see it from the boat) and join the Memorials by Moonlight tour. The guided tour’s about three hours long and covers memorials to Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Other stops along the tour include the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

If that’s a little too ambitious for your crowd, reserve tickets for a late afternoon visit to the Washington Monument and enjoy the view from the tallest building in the District.

If You Go


There’s plenty. Don’t try to do everything in one day. You won’t make it.

Lincoln Memorial

Hours: Open 24 hours a day. Rangers are on duty from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

An evening view of the Jefferson Memorial. Credit Destination DCAn evening view of the Jefferson Memorial. Credit Destination DC

Memorials by Moonlight

Meet at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, near the accessible entrance sign. Tours begin at 6:30 p.m. and run through Labor Day.
Cost: $20 per person, and bring cash. Kids 3 and younger are free, but remember that it’s a three-hour walking tour.

National Air & Space Museum
Sixth and Independence Avenue SW

Hours: Open every day except Dec. 25. 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (March 29-Sept. 5), 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. other times of the year. Call or check the website before you head over, since the museum sometimes has early closings because of special events.

National Museum of Natural History
10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW

Hours: Open every day except Dec. 25. 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. through Labor Day, and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. other times of the year. Call or check the website before you head over, since the museum sometimes cancels its extended hours because of special events.
Admission is free, but there’s a charge for tickets to butterfly pavilion. To buy tickets, go to www.butterflies.si.edu/tickets/index.htm

Tidal Basin Paddle Boats
1501 Maine Avenue SW

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last boat at 5 p.m.). Open seven days a week March 15 through Labor Day, and Wednesday through Sunday Labor Day through Columbus Day weekend. Two-passenger boats are $10 an hour and four-passenger boats are $18 an hour.

U.S. Capitol

The capitol is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It’s closed Inauguration Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Reserve free tour passes online at visitthecapitol.gov or through the office of either your senator or representative.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Hours: Open 24 hours a day. Rangers are on duty from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Washington Monument

Hours: Open every day except July 4 and Dec. 25. Hours are 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. May 31 through Sept. 6 and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission is free, but tickets are required and are given out starting at 8:30 a.m. People often line up well before then, so your best bet may be to reserve tickets (www.recreation.gov/tourParkDetail.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=77811) and pick them up at will call. Each ticket will have a $1.50 service charge.


The museums and the U.S. Capitol’s visitor center have café’s, and offerings vary from fast food (at Air & Space, for example) to cedar-planked roasted salmon (National Museum of the American Indian). Or bring sandwiches and grab a bench at Haupt garden outside Smithsonian castle.


The Metro is by far the easiest way to get around D.C. There are public parking garages around the District, but save yourself the aggravation. Go to Metro’s website (www.wmata.com), plug in your destination and the site will tell you the route and one-way fare. The Smithsonian station (on either the blue or orange lines) will put you right on the Mall.

Top photo: Inside the Capitol Dome. Credit Destination DC

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