Vacations with kids can be mellow, like a walk along a nature path. Or they can be packed with one adventure after another.
In Washington, D.C. vacations can be both. And if you have older kids, you can throw in a little stealth as well.
The International Spy Museum is a great place to take older kids, particularly those who like gadgets. The museum has hundreds of cameras, bugs, weapons, and other technology. From Navajo code talkers to the Red Scare to Robert Hanssen, there’s a broad look at how much nations rely on intelligence. Become an operative during an “Operation Spy” adventure, or embark on a “Spy in the City” mission that takes you around the District as you try to find a traitor.
For a more low-tech adventure, pack sunblock and snacks and head to Rock Creek Park. Founded in 1890, Rock Creek is the oldest urban park maintained by the National Park Service. Join a ranger-led tour, bike into Maryland, or learn about the night sky at the National Park Service’s only planetarium. Or just wander along one of the blazed hiking trails that wind around the park’s 1,754 acres. Better yet, hit the trail on horseback. The stables are near the nature center. The younger set can go on a pony ride, and the older ones (you have to be at least 12) can take a guided trail ride.
Another easy place to entertain everyone is the National Zoo. Download a zoo map before you head out; it’ll help you plan what you want to see, since the zoo’s pretty spread out (163 acres). Try to hit the popular outdoor spots, like the panda habitat, first thing in the morning. As the sun gets hotter, duck into the Reptile Discovery Center, Small Mammal House, Bird House, or one of the other enclosed exhibits. The zoo’s also hilly in some places, so bring a stroller in case your smallest family member tires out.
Look up as you walk down the path toward the reptile house. You might see orangutans as they swing along the O Line, a series of plastic-covered cables attached to towers. The orangutans use the line to travel from their main home in the Great Ape House to the Think Tank, an indoor exhibit where you can observe the orangutans and learn about their thought processes.
And if you can, hit the grocery store the day before for sandwich fixings, snacks and drinks and bring a picnic. There are picnic tables over by the reptile house, or just find a spot on a grassy area. It’ll make for a nice afternoon, plus you’ll save a little money along the way.
You can also save some money—and dream a lot—during a free tour at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The tour includes a short film and lasts only about 45 minutes, so the little ones shouldn’t get too antsy. Still, it’s long enough for inquisitive visitors to ask about the life span of an average dollar (about 21 months), or learn that paper money isn’t actually made out of paper (it’s made of cotton and linen). And really, who wouldn’t want to look down on the production floor and sheets of money practically flying off a machine? After the tour, head toward the gift shop and pick up copies of the word search and other worksheets; they’ll help keep the kids occupied during downtime on the Metro.
It’s up to you. Generally speaking, the hotels closer to the National Mall and other attractions tend to be more expensive, and hotels a short train ride from downtown (say, in D.C.’s Chinatown) tend to cost less.
The National Zoo (officially, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park)
3001 Connecticut Avenue NW
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day (April through October), 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day (November through March).
202.633.4800 (a recorded zoo information line)
International Spy Museum
800 F Street NW
Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Sept. 6. After that, the museum’s generally open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call or check the website before you head over, since there are some different hours and closings around holidays.
Admission: $18 (ages 12-64), $17 (ages 65 and older, members of the military of intelligence community), $15 (ages 5-11). Tickets to “Spy in the City” (meant for ages 10 and older) or “Operation Spy” (for 12 and older) cost extra.
Rock Creek Park
5200 Glover Road NW (this is the address for the nature center and planetarium)
Hours: The park is open during daylight hours. The nature center and planetarium are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. Planetarium shows are free, and tickets are available at the nature center’s information desk.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
at 14th and C Streets NW
202.874.2330, or toll-free at 866.874.2330
Hours: The visitor center is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., though the doors close at 3 p.m. Tours are free, and you’ll need a ticket during peak season (March-August). Tickets are first-come first-serve and are given out starting at 8 a.m. at the ticket booth on Raoul Wallenberg Place.
The Kennedy Center
2700 F St., NW, at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue NW and Rock Creek Parkway
Hours: Free concerts are every day at 6 p.m. on the Millennium Stage. No tickets needed! For a free, guided tour of the building, go to the tour desk on Level A. Tours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.-1 p.m. weekends.
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
The visitor center is at the corner of 15th and E Streets.
Hours: Tours are available 7:30 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 7:30 a.m. to noon on Fridays, and 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. They’re free and self-guided. To get tickets, e-mail your congressman with the date you’d like to visit (offer a few dates, in case your first choice is booked). You have to request tickets at least a month in advance. Travel light – you can’t bring your purse, camera, stroller, and several other items. Check the website for details.
Metro, Metro, Metro. Use the trip planner on Metro’s website to learn how to get somewhere, and how much it’ll cost one way. www.wmata.com
Top photo: International Spy Museum. Credit: Destination DC