Best attractions for budget-conscious families visiting our nation’s capital
FREE! It’s the most attractive word to budget-conscious families and the price of admission to most of Washington D.C.’s world-class sights that welcome nearly 20-million visitors each year. In the case of our nation’s capital, you don’t get what you pay for! Instead you get what our hard-earned tax dollars pay for: art, culture, education, and amazement! You could fill a week with all the fantastic freebies, but I’ve also included a few spots where it’s worth reaching into your wallet.
1/National Air and Space Mueseum
600 Independence Ave., SW, National Mall
Gaze upward in awe as you walk into the largest of the Smithsonian museums – the National Air and Space Museum. See the real Wright Brothers’ plane, the Wright Flyer, the Apollo command module, and more artifacts than I can count. Little ones can toddle through one of the first commercial aircrafts or blast off in the planetarium for a trip to the moon with Big Bird and Elmo. Cost: Free.
KidTripster: Buy some freeze-dried astronaut neapolitan ice cream in the gift shop. It’s a (space) trip!
KidTripster Tip: If you can help it, don't visit on a weekend or over the July 4th holiday because of the huge crowds.
Photo courtesy: National Air and Space Museum
2/National Museum of Natural History
10th St. & Constitution Ave., NW, National Mall
From the tiniest specimens to the largest mammals that walked the earth (what kid doesn’t love dinosaurs!), you can roam the National Museum of Natural History like an outdoorsman but in the comfort of air conditioning. And be sure to check out the enormous 45.52-carat Hope Diamond. A walk though the butterfly pavilion or a show in the IMAX theater will cost extra. Cost: Free.
Photo courtesy: National Museum of Natural History
3/More national museums
The actual Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History may be reason enough to dive into our nation’s cultural archives. Or tour the Presidential Gallery to see the First Ladies' inaugural gowns. The Spark!Lab for kids (ages 6 to 12) encourages their inner-inventor. Cost: Free.
The National Museum of the American Indian is one that my family visits at least once a year for its rich cultural performances. The food court is also a draw with rare choices for the kid who is willing to try more than hot dogs. Cost: Free.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a worthwhile visitors, ideal for kids 8 and up. Cost: Free; however advanced tickets are required from March to August. For more on the ticketing policy, click here. For more on the museum itself, click here.
Photo courtesy: National Museum of American History
4/National art galleries
The National Portrait Gallery regularly hosts family days in its Kogod Courtyard with musical and dramatic performances and crafts for kids of all ages. The courtyard’s glassed, airy space is the perfect place to take a breather from your busy day. Be sure to check out the presidential portraits, my daughter’s favorite. Cost: Free.
Have a picnic or stroll in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. During the summer, families mingle with singles in the garden for free Friday night Jazz concerts. The garden’s fountain doubles as an ice rink in winter months. Cost: Free.
KidTripster Tip:Pavilion Café in the Sculpture Garden is a good and convenient place for lunch.
When my daughter was a toddler, she and I could spend hours winding through the maze of colorful galleries at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian’s home for contemporary art. Cost: Free.
The Renwick Gallery, part of the National Museum of American Art is sparkling after a two-year renovation. My 17-year-old nephew and his friends spent an afternoon among the larger-than-life crafts, gathering inspiration for their own art projects. Cost: Free.
Photo courtesy: Hrag Vartanian
5/Smithsonian's National Zoo
3001 Connecticut Ave., NW
If Bei Bei, the National Zoo’s latest coo-worthy addition, isn’t enough of a draw, consider visiting for the beautifully landscaped grounds that resemble a national park more than a city zoo. Must-see attractions include the Giant Panda habitat with baby Bei Bei, the Elephant Trails, and the O-Line – ropes that hang high over visitors heads to aid resident orangutans as they swing from building to building. Cost: Free.
KidTripstser Tip: There’s a carousel. Your kid will beg for it. Be prepared. Cost: $3/ride.
2 15th St., NW, National Mall
Plan ahead for your visit to the Washington Monument by ordering tickets online up to three months in advance. National park rangers and volunteers educate with historical facts on the elevator ride up to 550-feet and point out some surprises on the way down. Junior Ranger booklets are available at the Survey Lodge Ranger Station adjacent to the monument. Cost: Free; however, it’s better to purchase the limited number of advanced timed tickets online for a small fee, so you don’t waste your vacation in a long line. (During peak periods, tickets can run out. If the monument closes at its regular time, 800 tickets will be distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis for the day; if its closes early, only 600 tickets will be given out.)
KidTripster Tip: From the top, check out the White House’s South Lawn. You may even see POTUS’ helicopter land!
Of course, the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial are worthy visits, as well. No need for tickets there. With the cherry blossoms in bloom, spring is lovely time to visit. For more on navigating the crowds during peak bloom, click here.
KidTripster TIp: If you're traveling with older kids (10 and up), I'd highly recommend taking the Capitol City Bike Tour's sunset ride of the monuments. For more information, click here.
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Want to visit America’s house? Well, it’s going to take some advance planning and a little bit of luck! In order to visit the White House, you need to submit a request online to your member of Congress (senator or representative, it doesn't matter) up to six months in advance. And then you wait… About two to four weeks prior to your visit, you’ll be notified as to whether you got tickets. (You’re unable to select a specific time; it will be assigned.) The earlier that you submit your request, the better your chances are. The tour is self-guided and lasts about an hour; most of the time is spent going through three security checkpoints. Cost: Free.
While you can request a guided tour of the United States Capitol (E. Capitol St., NE & 1st St., SE) through your senator or representative's office, I think that you're better off taking the regular tour given by the official Capitol docents, who are far more educated about the building's history than the congressional interns. There's no need to reserve these tickets in advance; simply visit the Capitol Visitors Center. Cost: Free. If Congress is in session, you can request gallery passes to watch the action (if any) on the floor through your Congressional office; you can submit this request online up to six months in advance.
KidTripster Tip: Read carefully the long list of prohibited items for both of these tours. Know that you can't bring a camera with a detachable lens into the White House. This rule is problematic for those visitors who are touring Washington for the day, want their good camera, and are unable to return to their hotel or campground. Solution? Have half of your party go through at your ticketed time. Explain to the park ranger on duty that the other half of your party will wait. After the first group is done, switch. Yes, it's a pain. Note: Cellphones with cameras are allowed on the tour.
555 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
We’ve officially departed from the admission-free zone. But, if you’re vacationing with tweens and teens, the Newseum is well worth the price of admission. I convinced my 14-year old nephew to give teleprompter reading a try at one of the museum’s permanent interactive exhibits. Camera shy kids can play the role of videographer. Exhibits go behind the headlines of some of the greatest news stories ever told and offer visitors insight into the critical role of the press. Cost: Youth (6 & under) Free; Youth (7-18) $13.95; Adult $22.95.
KidTripster Tip: Pace yourself. This museum can wear you out! Fortunately, tickets are good for two days.
9/International Spy Museum
800 F St., NW
Antsy museumgoers can get moving with interactive adventures at the International Spy Museum. A GPS-driven activity called “Spy in the City” is recommended for kids (10 and up). This mission – “should you choose to accept it” – will wind you through the streets of Washington, D.C. (extra fee). Cost: Youth (6 & under) Free; Youth (7-11) $14.95; Adult (12-64) $21.95.
KidTripster Tip: The Spy Museum’s interactive missions can be reserved in advance and shut down earlier than the actual museum.
My daughter asked me why the performance space at Imagination Stage is smaller than some of the other theaters that she’s attended. Her question highlights the first of many reasons to grab a seat at one of the kid-sized professional performances for theatergoers (ages 4 and up). The theater is just a 10-minute walk from the Bethesda Metro station with plenty of restaurants on the way, if you need a break before or after the show. Cost: Varies.
One of the most spectacular sights along the waterfront is the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2700 F St., NW). Show up by 6 p.m. for free concerts on its Millennium Stage every day – yes, 365 days of the year! Ticketed professional performances for kids (5 and up) dazzle too. Cost: Varies.
Journalist Jocelyn Sigue lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and daughter, two proud native Washingtonians. While she's happy to live amid all that our nation's capital has to offer, Jocelyn's okay being a native San Franciscan.
This writer received some complimentary activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.