Washington, DC is a fabulous place to visit, full of history and amazing architecture with educational opportunities around every corner. There is so much to see and do–and most of it is free! We recently returned from five full days exploring our capital from morning to night and could easily have spent a month…if our feet could have handled any more walking.
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We did a lot of research and advance planning for this trip. We’ve been studying American history for the last two years, so much of what we would see related to something we’d learned and this enriched the visit for my children. We also read through The Kid’s Guide to Washington, DC for an overview of the main attractions to prioritize what we wanted to see.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of activities and places to go (there are hefty guide books for that), but I wanted to share the major activities we enjoyed on our trip with a seven and ten year old. I’m listing them in reverse order, so if you have less time than we did scroll down for the top choices that had the biggest impact on our family.
#10 The Pentagon
We scheduled a tour ahead of time. For the most part the inside of the Pentagon looks just like a regular office building (albeit a big one with escalators and stores), but the tour guide was an impressive young man who shared about the history of the building and the military in general. The best part of this tour was the memorial where the plane hit on 9-11. It’s very touching to stand in the Pentagon looking out the window at the hotel that had antennas knocked off by the low flying plane.
#9 Supreme Court
The front of the Supreme Court building looks beautiful, though we only saw a printed drape because of construction. The inside is incredible: huge, marble and designed to impress. You can watch a video and listen to a talk by a tour guide, and if court isn’t in session you’ll visit the actual chamber. If you’ve studied the three branches of government with your children like we did during our Government Unit Study it’s worth the time to visit the home of the Judicial Branch.
#8 The National Zoo
I’ll admit zoos give me mixed feelings: it’s fascinating to see these animals up close, but I can’t help think how contained some of them are versus their natural habitat. That being said, we enjoyed our visit to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. There was one clear highlight, and that was a sea lion that wanted to play. My son was mesmerized and wanted to stay forever.
Which museums should you visit, you ask? You can’t possibly see everything in every museum. All the Smithsonian museums offer free admission, so those topped our list. Our favorite was probably the National Postal Museum for its hands-on exhibits. We loved the display about Owney, the famous postal service dog from the late 1800s. (We’d read about him in the book Owney, The Mail-Pouch Pooch. Check out the museum page for other resources and free curriculum.)
We prioritized the Museum of American History because of our history studies and the Air and Space Museum because of one little boy who wanted to see all the planes and space ships.
There are many other museums we just couldn’t fit into our schedule: the International Spy Museum, the Newseum and the Holocaust Museum (my kids were under the recommended age for this). My recommendation is to not try to rush through them all, but pick ones of particular interest to your family.
#6 National Archives
How can you pass up seeing the actual Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights? The children’s book The Journey of the One and Only Declaration of Independence is one of our favorites and prepped my kids for the wonder of seeing the Declaration still in existence. There are many other exhibits at the archives–the highlight for us was seeing Charles Ingalls’ actual handwriting on his homestead paperwork. I recommend scheduling your National Archives tour in advance to save on waiting.
#5 The White House
Unfortunately White House tours were cancelled due to budget cuts, so perhaps this would be even higher on our list if we could have gone inside. We’ve read The Story of the White House for the background on this residence with so much history. We could see the garden and even caught a glimpse of the President’s dog running on the lawn! The view from the front and the back is lovely, and don’t forget to check it out at night!
#4 The Monuments
We began our tour of the monuments of the National Mall at dusk, our goal being to end at the Lincoln Memorial after dark when it would be lit up. We began at the Vietnam Memorial.
I whispered to my kids, “Look at all these names.” I could see that they understood. The stone was warmed by the sun and we ran our hands over the etched names and the combination of the visual simplicity of the monument and the tactile nature is overwhelming. We’ve talked about the Vietnam War, and the public opinion debates, and how some soldiers were treated when they returned. We’ve talked with Vietnam veterans that greet planes of soldiers coming and going at the airport in a city near our hometown. Standing at the memorial you SEE and FEEL the sacrifices made by so many.
The second most moving monument for us was the Korean War memorial. It was near dark when we arrived, and the statues of soldiers moving through the low growing plants seemed ghostly. We were able to see how the soldiers were dressed and moving and imagine their feelings. This memorial sparked discussion about current events in North and South Korea.
We ended as planned at the Lincoln Memorial. We’d read so much about this amazing man, and his monument is as awe-inspiring as his true story.
#3 Arlington National Cemetery
Our #3 and #2 spot aren’t in DC, but are worth the time to visit while you’re in the area. Arlington National Cemetery is a visual reminder of all that’s been sacrificed for the country we enjoy today. Rows of simple white stones line the rolling hills in this beautiful, poignant place.
While there be sure to view the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The reverence paid to those who have given their all, and the sense of duty you’ll see in the men serving at the tomb will stay with you and your children.
#2 Mount Vernon
So much work has been done to restore and preserve George Washington’s Mount Vernon residence to be just as it was when he called it home. It was fascinating to see how he lived and walk on the grounds he loved. The slave quarters and contrast between the lifestyles gave us so much to think about. The tour of the house has to move quickly to move so many people through, but roaming the estate you can take your time. There are informative signs and tour guides to answer questions scattered throughout.
#1 The Capitol Building
Our Capitol tour topped the list for all of us. There are public tours of the Capitol building, but I highly suggest contacting your Senator’s office well in advance. Maine Senator Susan Collins popped out of hearings to take photos with us and had a staff member give our small group (my family and two other adults) a lengthy tour.
The staff member was wonderful and allowed us to linger, take pictures and ask questions. We were able to observe in both the House and Senate galleries, watching the process of our government’s legislative branch. We also learned a lot about the history of the building and interesting background stories.
For instance, the statue of Ronald Reagan has pieces of the Berlin wall built into it. We could see where people rub the foot of the Will Roger’s statue for good luck. Our favorite story is probably the infamous “whisper spot” where John Quincy Adams could pretend to sleep and overhear conversations in the room. The acoustics are such that from his spot someone talking quietly from the other side of the room sounds like they are right next to you! (Make sure your tour guide demonstrates this–it is unreal.)
I hope this list helps any of you that are considering a trip to Washington, DC. It has to be the most fascinating vacation we’ve every taken, and we’re already brainstorming what we’d like to do someday when we return to our nation’s capital. For those of you that have visited, what is on your must-do list for Washington, DC?
Thank you to the wonderful hostesses with fun link-ups on Fridays. Be sure to join the fun and see what other homeschoolers have been up to!