It can be!
As with any family vacation with kids, it is important to manage expectations, understand the children's needs, and focus on the sights that can delight everyone. We just returned from our Spring Break family trip to Washington D.C. with a one-year-old and a birthday girl who turned seven during the vacation.
Washington D.C. can be overwhelming to anyone, especially if you have limited days. I have visited our nation's capital several times as a child, a teen, and an adult so I felt prepared when it came to touring the sights with kids. I knew what to see, what to skip, and what to expect along the way.
Washington D.C. with young kids -- tips for making it great:
- Understand before you go: you won't see everything - There are literally hundreds of sights you could see in Washington D.C. and many, many miles of walking so it is important to stick to a plan and avoid wearing everyone too thin. Especially with younger children who do not yet understand a lot of the history behind the sights. Make a tentative plan before you go, or at least a list of the "must-see" attractions and the "if we have time" attractions so you can focus on what matters most to the group. (Remember, most D.C. attractions are free of charge, so even if you pop into a Smithsonian museum to see just two highlights, it's okay! No money wasted.)
- Focus on what the kids know and build upon their excitement - Sure, Washington D.C. history is fascinating to adults, but younger children may have no idea what a lot of it means. Our one-year-old was simply along for the ride, so we were able to concentrate our efforts on finding the artifacts, monuments, and museums that were of the most interest to our daughter. She learned about early presidents in school and she got very excited about Abraham Lincoln, which led us on a 2-day mission to find Lincoln artifacts like his top hat and coat (currently at a special exhibit with Ford's Theatre to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his killing - April/May 2015). Because we followed her interest, we ended up with a special adventure that created a lot of great family vacation memories.
- Give the kids a map - Andrew played with and chewed on his map, but Amelia took a great interest in following along the Metro subway route, finding interesting artifacts in museums, identifying famous paintings, and helping us to plan our walking tour on a gorgeous spring day. Upon entering a Metro station or museum, grab a couple extra maps and hand them out. Kids enjoy navigating.
- Make sure they eat - When on a Washington D.C. family vacation (or any road trip with kids), do not underestimate the power of a full belly. Hungry children are grumpy and tired. We found ourselves at mediocre museum cafes each day because that's where we happened to be when the hunger struck. Travel with young kids is not usually a foodie tour; you eat when and where you happen to be as soon as the whining begins. I always have a few snacks with me as well. Like a Boy Scout, I am always prepared. (For hunger, anyway.)
- Take time to enjoy the view - Washington D.C. has numerous sights, and it would be easy to walk and walk and walk and wear everyone out. Don't forget to take time to let the littlest kids roam free and to sit as a family and enjoy the view. We found that the Jefferson Memorial was not too overcrowded, so we let Andrew out of the stroller and allowed him to stomp around for a bit. We sat on the windy top step of the Lincoln Memorial and munched a few Goldfish and pretzels. We strolled slowly along the water taking in the spring air. Even if the breaks aren't long, they help to refresh everyone and allow the little ones to stretch their legs.
- Stay in the suburbs - This may be personal preference, but I always find that the suburban areas of D.C. are better suited for family travel. The Metrorail is easy and safe to navigate, so select a hotel within a short walking distance of a Metro stop. Suburban hotels can save you a lot of money vs. the city prices and often include breakfast, indoor pools, and (if driving) much less expensive parking. The hotel and parking savings, even with the added cost for daily Metro travel, saved us over $100 per day vs. the city hotels we were considering. And after a long day of walking and sightseeing, it was nice to retreat to a more quiet location.
- Know the important info - Click around the Internet ahead of time so you understand all the most important details like opening times, child-friendliness, and transportation options. For example...
- Most museums and attractions in Washington D.C. do not open until 10 a.m., probably to keep the tourists out of rush-hour commuting.
- Most attractions are free of charge and need no reservation, but some government buildings like the White House or the U.S. Capitol require advanced permission, usually through your congressman (as in months in advance).
- Strollers, diaper bags, etc. are not allowed in the White House. Hence, we did not go there; maybe another time.
- Strollers and bags are allowed in all the museums, you just have to get the bags checked everywhere before you enter.
- Ford's Theater is a ticketed entry with a dedicated tour time. Ford's Theatre sells tickets online, usually selling out 7+ days in advance. If you don't have a ticket (like us), you can get in line at the theater at 8:30 a.m. and snag a tour time and tickets for later that same day. They are first-come first-served, so don't be late. We were in line by 8:40 a.m. and got a 2 p.m. return time.
- The National Zoo is not in the heart of the city and it is huge, so I would recommend one dedicated zoo day. Investigate your Metro or driving/parking options before you go. The $31 VIP parking is absolutely worth it at the zoo. If you have time after the zoo and you chose to drive, the National Cathedral is nearby - even if you just drive past, it is a beautiful sight to see.
Have fun exploring our nation's capital! Washington D.C. with kids - it is possible, and can be lots of fun for everyone.