As the capital of the United States, (no, it’s not New York, and yes, I’ve heard that before) Washington, D.C. is a major tourist destination. It’s also a great place to visit and, I might add, an even better place to live. There’s so much to do – the museums, monuments, restaurants etc., and most of it is FREE!
I hope you find this DC city guide useful. I can’t possibly do this city justice in one post, so I opted to list only my favorites. Be sure to check out our new Washington DC Area Punky Moms Chapter to plan meetups with local Punkies.
The National Mall – or simply, “the mall” is the area of D.C. where the Smithsonian Museums and monuments are located
Smithsonian Museums– A network of free museums located on the mall. Learn about their history here
Metro– the (mostly) underground rail network in D.C.
WMATA– stands for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. I recommend using their trip planner to help navigate the city
Circulator– the six WMATA bus lines designed specifically for sightseers. Learn more about it here
DMV – stands for Delaware Maryland Virginia (you’ll see this a lot when you visit)
NOVA – Northern Virginia
The National Mall
Of course there’s much more to D.C. than the monuments and museums on the National Mall, but I suggest you start here.
- If you’ve never had a chicken sandwich on a savory donut bun then Astro Donuts is your place. From their D.C. location, you could throw a donut hole and hit the White House, although I don’t recommend it.
- At the intersection of 7th street NW and Maryland Ave SW, L’enfant Plaza is a metro station that becomes a picnic spot nirvana. Grab a delicious (and cheap) lunch from one of the many food trucks that gather here. Ethiopian (my favorite), Greek, and BBQ are just a few of your options. Then people watch in the shade, while hearing some of D.C.’s best street musicians.
Museums in the Smithsonian System are all free, but you pay with time spent in security lines. Due to security concerns, you will go through a sometimes lengthy bag search – leave your brass knuckles at home. There are too many museums to list out in their entirety, so I’ll stick to the ones which also have play areas specifically for children. But by all means, look through their offerings and see what interests you. I should mention, the National Museum of Air and Space is one of the most popular museums, but I find it to be a stressful place to bring my munchkin. However, they have a NOVA based companion museum, the Udvar Hazy Center – home of the Discovery Space shuttle and the Enola Gay, among other historically significant aircraft, which is well worth a visit.
- The National Museum of American History is my go-to museum for out of town guests, especially those with kids. You can expect to see Julia Child’s kitchen in one of two ways – as a small scale child friendly replica at the Wegman’s Wonderplace playscape exhibit or in it’s original state upstairs. The Elmo puppet is also a big hit. I recommend getting to this museum early, lest you wait in the aforementioned security line for what feels like an eternity.
- The National Museum of the American Indian has, hands down, the best cafeteria on the mall. Mitsitam Cafe features traditional cuisines representative of Native American tribes. Upstairs, the ImagiNATIONS exhibit, a play area for children, offers daily storytimes and crafts. Kids can also “build an igloo,” play in a teepee and test their kayaking skills.
- Worth every Penny! The National Building Museum is not in the Smithsonian system, which means it’s less crowded but requires an entry fee ($16/ adult, $13/children, ages 0-3 free). The upstairs play area is all ages, while the exhibit downstairs is for ages 0-6 and requires timed entry tickets (included in your entry fee). If you don’t want to shell out any cash, you can always soak it all in with a cuppa from the cafe in their jaw-dropping lobby.
- I’m a sucker for paddle boats. If you have a child who’d be easier to contain within a boat and/or need a break from the crowds, then you should paddle around in a swan boat and see the tidal basin (and maybe the cherry blossoms if your timing is right) from the water on a Tidal Basin Paddle Boat. You’ll be able to see the Jefferson Monument and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as well.
- I’m still waiting to get my White House tour but here’s some info if you’d like to try and get one. Foreign visitors will need to submit a tour request through their respective embassy in D.C..
- Get to the top of the Washington Monument with free day of tickets or you can secure your spot in advance for a very small fee here.
- If you visit during the winter, slide over to The National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden Ice Rink for ice skating and hot cocoa.
Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Adams Morgan
The National Mall could keep you busy for days, but if you want to escape the crowds and see the side of D.C. locals love, I recommend checking out some of the neighborhoods mentioned here. These three distinct neighborhoods are all within walking distance of each other, and can be easily accessible before or after a trip to the National Zoo.
- Dos Gringos is a ridiculously inexpensive coffee shop and cafe in Mt. Pleasant, with a comfortable & eclectic vibe, that’s often mimicked but rarely perfected. We like to come here for brunch, but we can’t get enough so we often return later in the afternoon for ice cream.
- Sticky Fingers is an award winning vegan bakery and cafe in Columbia Heights. If you’re not vegan, I recommend my personal weakness, Zombie Donuts, around the block.
- The Raven is the diviest of dive bars and is also in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. They have zero tolerance for children, so you’ve been warned.
- There seems to be a trend amongst D.C. Thai places, of choosing a name that’s also a clever alliteration, like Thaiphoon (for shame I’ve never been) or my favorite, Beau Thai in Mt. Pleasant. I know it’s not a coffee shop but sometimes I treat it as such and stop in for their thai iced tea.
- I LOVE Haydees, a Salvadoran restaurant in Mt. Pleasant. I recommend getting their pupusa platter, along with a pitcher of margaritas. This super laid back local favorite has a dance floor and a juke box, both of which entertain my toddler while we eat.
- Amsterdam Falafel, Sakuramen, Tryst, and Lapis are just a few of the eateries along the main drag in Adams Morgan worth checking out.
- The Songbyrd Cafe is a record store and cafe by day and music venue by night. I saw the Mystery Skulls perform here and it was a really fun space.
- Suns Cinema is a newly opened independent movie theater, playing classics like, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as obscure foreign films. Movies are cheap, cocktails are not.
- Yah, yah, yah we have giant pandas at The National Zoo, but I spend more time at the children’s zoo, the prairie dog playground maze, and the sea lion splash pad where the “tide” will come in and out, much to your child’s delight. I recommend bringing a change of clothes for the latter activity. Also, don’t eat zoo food – you’ll be sorely disappointed.
- Kalorama Park is a great playground for kids. It includes a sand pit, some climbing and a hammock, where I personally like to supervise. It’s located in the heart of Adams Morgan, making it a great pre or post lunch or dinner spot.
- Meridian Hill Park is a picnic spot favorite. Spread out across the expansive lawn, admire the statues and fountains and bike or skateboard along the paved perimeter.
- I can jog to the National Mall from my house using the Rock Creek Parkway. Other stops along this paved route, include the National Zoo and the Georgetown Waterfront Park. This is truly a wonderful trail for running, biking, and walking. With options for more strenuous hiking, you’ll forget you’re in the city.
By and large, Georgetown is a bit rich for my blood but it’s a beautiful neighborhood with some cool family options.
- My preferred method for accessing the Waterfront Park is via the Rock Creek Parkway. The most notable feature of the park is the splashpad where kids can burn off steam and parents can enjoy views of both the Potomac River and the Kennedy Center, which I might add has free performances 365 days a year.
- If you’d like to join the kayakers on the water, you may rent watercraft from the Thompson Boat Center.
- If you make it to Georgetown on a Saturday afternoon, stop by the Swedish Embassy for story time in their children’s room.
- A very well inked friend of mine raves about Jinx Proof Tattoo.
- In the winter months, lace up your ice skates and go for a whirl at the Washington Harbour Ice Rink.
The Yards Park
If you visit in the summer, you’ll not want to miss the free pool/waterfall/splash pad that is the Yards Park. You could easily spend half a day here. I recommend visiting Philz Coffee for a mint mojito iced coffee and Ice Cream Jubilee for some amazing scoops of flavors like, thai iced tea or banana caramel bourbon. For the baseball lovers, Nationals Stadium is within walking distance. In the winter opt to visit the nearby Canal Park ice skating rink.
D.C Seasonal Events
- Check out this website for the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony. Last year was pretty star studded.
- Geek out at AwesomeCon with celebrities, cosplay and comics.
- Meet real life scientists, engage in hands on activities and hear a live concert by They Might be Giants at the USA Science and Engineering Festival.
- Meet your favorite author in person at the National Book Festival.
- The Cherry Blossom Festival marks the beginning of spring in D.C., when the 3,000 cherry trees gifted to the city in 1912 by the Mayor of Tokyo, bloom.
- Dates are not up yet for the 2017 Bluegrass Festival, but this one day event held on Kingman’s Island in D.C. is a wonderful intersection of live music, food trucks and outdoor advocacy. We took a boat tour of the Anacostia River while at the festival and it was a completely different way of experiencing D.C.
- Advance sign-up is required for the White House Easter Egg Roll, but if you’d like the president of the United States to read your child a story before allowing kids to have an easter egg hunt on the grounds of the White House, this is the event for you!
If you want something you can carry with you, Wallpaper make a beautiful Washington City Guide.
I hope you enjoy your D.C. trip! Let us know in the comments section what experiences you’ve enjoyed in D.C. or what’s still on your bucket list.
Tina is a stay at home mom who left her corporate job so her family could relocate to Washington D.C. in pursuit of a more interesting, urban lifestyle. She can be found surfing the internet, walking her dogs or exploring the city with her toddler who is affectionately called, Ooey. Follow along via Instagram @DCwithKids, Facebook DCwithKids, and on her blog www.DoDCwithKids.com.