Fly in/out: Washington National (DCA) or Dulles (IAD)
Recommended ages: 5 and up
Ball Park Price: $400/person for up to five travelers(airfare not included)
Best time to travel: Spring, summer and fall
Time Zone: EST
DAY ONE: Depart early from Chicago for an eleven hour drive to Washington DC. Stop at Old Ebbitt Grill, just steps from the White House. Take a walking loop around the White House. Check in at Carlyle Suites Hotel.
DAY TWO: Stop in early to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Take a tour of the U.S. Capitol with advanced reservations online. Take a Metro train to Arlington National Cemetery. A two hour tour at the cemetery was fascinating but too long for the kids. Take a late afternoon walk along the mall stopping to see the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Stop at Matchbox Restaurant in Chinatown.
DAY THREE: Visit the National Archives Museum on the mall to view the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and the Constiution. Get reserved times in advance to avoid long lines. Visit the Newsuem a modern, relatively new museum with fabulous exhibits from the media’s perspective. Do a quick and fun walk through of the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. And a final stop at the International Spy Museum. Stop and enjoy the gift shop. End the long day at the Washington Nationals baseball Game.
DAY FOUR: Only three major museums today! The Ford’s Theatre Museum to learn about Lincoln’s presidency and shown where he was shot. Kids loved it! The National Gallery of Art with one of the finest art collection in the world. And finally, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, a hallmark spot but can be very crowded. In the evening, take a cab to explore Georgetown.
DAY FIVE: Final half-day, drive to Mt. Vernon, home of George Washington’s estate. Make reservations and purchase ticket in advance. Drive home.
- Our approach for this vacation was to maximize the opportunity to explore things that we wouldn’t see anywhere else. We selected a mix of museums, monuments and exhibits that are unique to DC, educational and entertaining for the kids. The only exception was the National Gallery of Art which was a special visit for mom. The fact that many of the exhibits and museums we visited were free allowed us the freedom to roam around and explore for as little or as much time depending on our tastes and schedule. It’s a major plus for visiting this city.
- Of all the exhibits and museums, we paid for admission for just three; Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum , International Spy Museum, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Our kids loved the Wax Museum probably because of it’s uniqueness and loved the history and beautiful grounds of Mount Vernon. Both of these locations were well worth the ticket price. We think we caught the International Spy Museum on a very crowded day and our kids didn’t have a great interest in spy paraphernalia and games. All of the Smithsonian museums are not only free they deserve a high praise for being such a remarkable complex of museums. The Smithsonian website does a nice job of highlighting the museums exhibits to help families select the right museums based on ages and tastes.
- We prearranged through the office of our congresswoman, Jan Schakowsky, a staff-led tour of the U.S. Capitol. This can be done online here. It was great for the kids to see the workings of our congress that day. It inspired many questions! Allow for a lot of time to visit the office to pick up the passes. There were long lines to get through security but it was worth it.
- With a military family, it was very moving to see Arlington National Cemetery. We would not suggest the 2-hour tour for younger kids. Although it was informative with a tour guide, it was too long on a hot day. We would recommend to go and explore the cemetery independently. An app is now available to locate a gravesite of a family member.
- Our Georgetown trip was a little bit of a bust because we were spent by the time we got there and it was quite crowded. We also discovered too late, that we needed a reservation for any of the better restaurants. Also, the Georgetown Cupcakes store had a line around the block.
- Watching a Washington Nationals Game was more than a baseball game. It’s a beautiful ball park with fun entertainment for the kids. We purchased the tickets that night at the box office.
- A wonderful last half day on the outside of DC area, Mount Vernon recreates the 18th century plantation life through beautiful gardens, great exhibits and this gorgeous farm for the kids to explore. It was a great ending before getting in the car and heading home.
- One of the most memorable tours was the tour of the U.S. Capitol. The tour lasts approximately an hour with a guided tour through the Rotunda, Statuary Hall and the Crypt. Getting the sneak peak of “Senate in Session” was a highlight for the whole family. Enter through the visitor center on the East Side. Book ahead through your local representative.
- Of all the museums in Washington DC, our kids loved the Newseum the most. It’s a dedication to journalism and the exhibits are interactive and creative. The hams in the family will fight over the opportunity to become a news reporter. There’s also a Pulitzer Prize Photograph Gallery and a 9/11 Gallery and so much more. It opens one hour earlier than the Smithsonian, so try to get there early.
Places to stay
- The Carlyle Suites Hotel is a very reasonable priced option for families hoping to stay in a spacious suite with kitchenette to accommodate a family of 4-5. A great family-friendly location on a quiet residential street and just a five minute walk to the Metro.
- Centrally located in the heart of Washington, DC, many families highly recommend the Hyatt Regency, Washington, DC.
- Old Ebbitt Grill, a wonderful family-friendly restaurant with a fabulous history and location.
- Matchbox Chinatown is a fabulous family restaurant with a wide variety of brick oven pizzas to choose from.
- A fabulous list for family friendly dining including landmark restaurants, view this list at Washington.org.
- We walked a significant amount on this trip. A alternative might be to take an Old Town Trolley to get a general orientation of Washington DC. and then decide to walk later to visit a location. If a family prefers to bike, another option is to rent bikes.
- Most of the museums have a video providing an overview of their exhibits with great websites. Review these with your kids to help select the best museum for you family based on a families preferences. For a detailed list of museums to choose from visit Washington.org.
- Plane, train or automobile to get to Washington DC? Jetblue offers cheap prices and Amtrak home has a train that runs from Chicago to Washington DC. Once your in Washington DC, you won’t want a car.
- Getting around Washington DC is pretty easy on foot or by the city Metro. Stop at a visitors center and ask for a pull-out map. Almost every building is a historic landmark or interesting government building.
- Try to do as much advanced planning as possible and purchase tickets or make reservation times. This will help avoid long lines and make the days more productive.
- We covered a lot of ground on foot so wear comfortable tennis shoes, pack light and bring one backpack or a crossbody purse to carry the daily belongings. With many security checks that can take up to 20 minutes extra, it’s efficient just to have one for the family. One other thing if you’re a germaphobe who understands museums are a collection base for germs, bring hand sanitizer in that light weight backpack.
Before You Go
View the websites and links on this page to help select your favorite museum to visit and make reservations where possible.