Millions of people descend on Washington DC every year to tour the White House, meet their Members of Congress and visit the world-famous Smithsonian Institution museums. There’s a lot more to the city though than the standard tourist route, including these family-friendly activities that are fun for visitors of all ages.
After you’ve finished touring the U.S. Capitol, walk a few blocks north to one of the city’s great insider secrets, Eastern Market. During the week this 19th century market features fresh produce, artisanal cheeses, flowers and other standard market fare.
On the weekends, though, Eastern Market explodes in a frenzy of food, crafts and art. Every Saturday and Sunday farmers, artists and vendors from around the Mid-Atlantic descend on the Market to ply their wares, featuring everything from tasty cakes to one-of-a kind artwork. There’s also an antiques market where treasure hunters can search for their own lost treasure. Eastern Market is a great place to take the kids for some wholesome fun, but be sure to stay for lunch and truly live like a local.
TIP: Get there early as crowds can get large on the weekends.
Most people visiting the city for the first time don’t realize that not only does Washington have some of the best museums in the world, but many of them are free, including the famous National Zoo. Located in the prestigious Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, the Zoo is easily accessible by the clean and fast metro system and is a short shade-tree lined walk away. The National Zoo may be one of the oldest zoos in the country, but it has definitely kept up with the times. Its compact size makes spending an afternoon exploring the many habitats fun and easy for families.
The highlight of the zoo is the famous panda enclosure; a breeding program that’s been ongoing since 1972. The zoo is also close to completing a brand new Elephant Trails section that will not only recreate more natural surroundings for the elephants, but will feature a state of the art breeding, education, and scientific research program.
TIP: Even though there’s parking available, it’s sometimes hard to find a spot, so I suggest always taking the metro.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts
Even though there’s a lot to do in DC itself, the surrounding suburbs of Maryland and Virginia also feature enough diversions to keep any family entertained for weeks. My favorite near-DC attraction is the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. This mammoth 100-acre park is the only National Park in the United States devoted to the performing arts and features year-round programming at the Barns at Wolf Trap and the Filene Center.
The main draw to Wolf Trap is the Filene Center, which comes alive in the summer months with a variety of concerts, shows and performances. This remarkable outdoor theater was constructed of wood from native tree species and truly looks at home in this pastoral setting. Wolf Trap attracts a wide range of performers; Aretha Franklin, Bill Cosby, Counting Crows, Broadway musicals and symphony orchestras all perform here on a regular basis. The least expensive tickets at the Filene Center are, in my opinion, the most enjoyable – the lawn seats. Over the years, patrons have made lawn seating a well-heeled tailgating event, bringing elaborate picnics to enjoy before the evening shows.
TIP: Book early as the more popular shows can sell out quickly.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Before settling into a summertime concert at Wolf Trap, stop by the sometimes overlooked Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Located close to both Dulles International Airport and Wolf Trap, Udvar-Hazy is where the Air and Space Museum parks its cool toys. Modeled after an airplane hangar, this place has it all including the Enola Gay, a Concorde and even a space shuttle. The museum isn’t stuffy and instead was built with visitor interaction in mind, including a robust kids program.
After you’ve explored the hangar, be sure to take the elevator up to a model air flight control tower where the art and science of modern aviation control is demonstrated. The tower offers stunning, 360-degree views of the Virginia countryside as well as the best viewing spot for incoming air traffic to Dulles. The museum is free, but there is a fee to park.
TIP: Try to avoid this area during rush hour if at all possible; the traffic can sometimes be overwhelming.
Read more: DC’s Best Kid-Friendly Museums
A good way to end your visit to Washington, DC is also one of my favorite ways to see the city: by boat. Even though Washington was essentially built on a swamp, water access to the mighty Potomac River was vital in the early years of the country and still plays an important role today.
There are a number of different cruise options and most feature the highlights of Washington by water. Floating slowly down the Potomac you’ll get incredible views of the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. You’ll also see little-known features impossible to observe otherwise, like the fine artwork on turn of the century bridges and even the actual water gate that inspired the name of the now infamous building. Not only is this one of the best way to see Washington’s sights, it’s just a lot of fun to sit back and relax cruising down the Potomac on a nice evening.
TIP: If you’re visiting during cherry blossom season, be sure to book one of the very popular cherry blossom cruises.
Washington is a fun, dynamic city that has something to offer for everyone, but especially families. These are just a few of my favorite family-friendly activities but I’d love to hear yours too!
Read more: 5 Tips for Visiting Washington DC with Kids
- Matt Long