Top 5 things for teens and tweens to do in our nation’s capital
Every American should visit our nation's capitol at least once (if not several times) in his or her life. I'd recommend bringing your kids when they're in middle school and have had the opportunity to study some U.S. history and government, so they're able to more fully appreciate the experience.
And let's be honest, we grown-ups can probably use a a refresher course on civics ourselves. A visit to Washington, D.C. is just that!
1/Capital City Bike Tours
502 23rd St., NW
While it’s possible to simply rent bikes from Capital Bikeshare stations or other vendors, I think that it’s absolutely worth the money to take a guided tour of the city. I’d highly recommend an evening tour of the monuments with Capital City Bike Tours. Hands down, my teenaged sons enjoyed this activity above all others in Washington, D.C. Our tour was guided by a George Washington University student, majoring in history. The memorable stories and fascinating facts that he shared at each stop really engaged my kids. He also left ample time for photos and exploring.
There is safety in numbers. On your way to and from the National Mall and Tidal Basin, you'll be biking both on sidewalks and city streets, but the guides expertly navigate using the least busy routes. When on the street, the group takes over the lane. Drivers seem accustom to it, and frankly, anyone who’s driven in Washington knows, no one goes anywhere quickly. Cost: Youth (12 and under) $34; Adult $44.
KidTripster Tip: Even though CapitaI City will allow younger kids, I’d recommend this tour for ages 10 and up, mostly because I think you need to have a certain comfort level riding a bike, especially at the very end of the tour when you’re pedaling back in the dark (with bike lights). We did have parents on our tour who had little ones strapped in bike seats, but after three hours, those passengers got pretty fussy... and the parents were visibly stressed.
2 15th St., NW
While it’s easy to see the imposing exterior of the Washington Monument when visiting Washington, it’s worth the extra effort to arrange a visit inside to learn the history of the world’s tallest obelisk. Not to mention, the views at 550 feet are the best in D.C.! And there’s a surprise on the way down. (I won’t ruin it for you.) But to visit, you’ll need to plan ahead.
The best way to get tickets for the elevator that takes you to the top of the monument is to order them online up to three months in advance. Even though the timed tickets are free, there is a small fee to reserve them. It’s worth it! Because if you don’t…
You’ll be like me on Fourth of July weekend, waking up at 4:45 a.m. (at our campground in College Park, Maryland) to arrive outside the Survey Lodge Ranger Station (adjacent to the monument) by 7 a.m. for tickets to be distributed at 8:30 a.m. for that day’s tours. Did I mention it was raining, and I didn’t have time to pick up coffee or the sense to bring an umbrella?! Each person in line can claim a total of six tickets. I was number 73. Fortunately, I snagged four tickets, but not everyone in line was so lucky. On that day, because the monument was closing early, only 600 tickets were given out; normally, there’s 800 tickets available, but they go more quickly than you would think. So let me serve as an example of what not to do. Go online!
Photo courtesy: National Park Service
3/National Museum of American History
14th St. & Constitution Ave., NW
More than the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History, my teenagers loved the National Museum of American History. They spent the majority of their time in the Presidential Gallery, where you can see artifacts like the top hat that President Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. (I’ll tell you, the hat is not as tall as you may think!) I really enjoyed looking at the First Ladies’ inaugural dresses through the decades, including Michelle Obama’s first inaugural gown designed by Jason Wu. You’ll also see the china patterns chosen by each First Family. My boys and I agreed that Nancy Reagan had the best taste in gowns and dishes; see if you agree. And don’t miss the opportunity to see the actual Star-Spangled Banner that continued to fly over Fort McHenry after the British bombardment in 1813, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would later become our national anthem. You and your kids will leave this museum with a great appreciation for those who had the foresight to preserve our nation’s historical artifacts. Cost: Free.
KidTripster Tip: It’s also worth a visit to the National Archives Museum to see the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. Granted, you’ll have to wait in line to view these documents under glass and in dim lighting. And admittedly, they’re extremely hard to read. But it’s the kind of tangible history that students seem to understand and appreciate. Cost: Free.
Photo courtesy: National Museum of American History
555 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Having worked for more than 20 years in television news, I admit to being partial to the Newseum, but teens and tweens will find this museum dedicated to our country’s press with its six levels, 15 galleries, and 15 theaters to be very interactive. Don’t miss the 4D Time Travel Adventure, the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery, and the moving 9/11 Gallery. Because there’s so much to see, you may want to consider taking a 90-minute private tour with your own guide. While it doubles the price of regular admission, you’ll likely get twice as much out of your visit, including the untold stories behind the headlines. Cost for regular admission: Youth (7-18) $13.95; Adult $22.95; look for discounts online including free kid days during the summer.
Photo courtesy: Sam Kettner/Newseum
5/International Spy Museum
800 F St., NW
Where else are you going to find an exhibit dedicated to "Bond, James Bond?" In addition to the interactive exhibits, the International Spy Museum boasts two experiences (for an added fee) that your kids will love. The first is called Operation Spy (ages 12 and up), in which teams have one hour to save the world by decrypting secret conversations, penetrating and escaping from a high-security compound, and interrogating suspects. The second game is called Spy in the City (ages 10 and up). Armed with interactive GPS-devices, “agents” receive clues and complete their secret mission on the streets of D.C. Even hard-to-please teenagers will enjoy this kind of sightseeing. Museum cost: Youth (7-11) $14.95; Adult $21.95. Operation Spy or Spy in the City cost: $14.95; discounts available for combo tickets.
KidTripster Tip: Ask for the family guide at the museum or download it before you go.
Many years ago, editor Shellie Bailey-Shah worked in Washington, D.C. as a young reporter-in-training.