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Washington DC family holidays

Lake sceneLake scene© Destination DC
Ice skating Ice skating © Destination DC
Tidal basin Tidal basin © Destination DC
War memorial  War memorial © Destination DC
International Spy MuseumInternational Spy Museum© Destination DC
Flying Time 8hrs
Carbon Footprint 6.58 CO2
Timezone GMT -5
Currency US Dollar

Today

Overview

As the capital of the USA, Washington offers a rich experience for family holidays or even long weekend breaks, with a focus on learning about American history and much more. Major family-friendly attractions include the Smithsonian museums, but children will also enjoy seeing money printed, viewing the Charters of Freedom, riding to the top of the Washington Monument and taking a whirl on the carousel on the National Mall. Best of all, most Washington attractions are free.

Things to do with kids in Washington DC

The National Air and Space Museum showcases the history of aviation and space exploration, including the Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer and Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis, the Friendship 7 and Apollo 11 command modules, and large-format movies in the IMAX cinema. Its Udvar-Hazy Center, at Dulles International Airport, has one hangar devoted to aviation exhibits, the other to space, including the shuttle Enterprise. A tower allows visitors to see real-time traffic at Dulles and experience a modern air-traffic-control facility. NASM on the mall has a shuttle bus here.

To view the surrounding area, take an elevator to the top of the Washington Monument, the city's tallest structure.  

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing gives tours showing paper currency being printed. The National Archives houses the Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.  

The National Museum of American History highlights the nations’ cultural, political, scientific,and technological development. A popular destination is the display of first ladies’ gowns, and there are also hands-on science and history rooms. 

On the Mall, ride the 50-year-old Carousel. The National Museum of Natural History, also on the Mall, has a stuffed African bush elephant, the 45.5-carat Hope Diamond, dinosaur skeletons and a Discovery Room where kids can touch animal, vegetable and mineral materials. Large-format films are shown in the IMAX cinema.  

The National Zoological Park's most popular residents are North America’s only pair of pandas, loaned from the government of China.While you're in the neighborhood, Washington Cathedral’s child-size Children’s Chapel is worth a visit. The Scientists and Technicians Window was presented by the Apollo astronauts and has a piece of moon rock embedded in it. From the Observation Gallery, one can see the distant Potomac Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains, and close-up the gargoyles and grotesques.  

Capital Children’s Museum gives kids a chance to interact with exhibits, while the International Spy Museum showcases a WW II Enigma cipher machine, disguises and gadgets that would make James Bond envious.

Eat

On the Mall your best option is the museum cafés, but you can always resort to street vendors. If possible, bring your own food. There are many benches inside and outside the museums where one can sit and eat.

If you walk to L'Enfant Plaza, a complex of office buildings off Independence, there is an enclosed promenade with fast-food restaurants and a variety of ethnic and American food, but most restaurants are open only for breakfast and lunch and all are closed at the weekend.

When to go to Washington DC

The best times to visit Washington are spring and autumn. Summer is hot, although all buildings are air-conditioned. If you come in summer, wear loose clothing, hats and sunscreen, as you wander from one a/c building to the next, and carry plenty of water. American public schools have spring breaks at different times, but many families visit in the weeks around Easter. Winter is reasonably mild but the occasional very cold spell can make walking outdoors a chilly proposition.

For current events, consult the Weekend section of Friday’s Washington Post, which has a special feature for families, Carousel.

How to get to Washington DC

The closest international airport is Washington Dulles. BA, Virgin Atlantic and United Airlines have regular non-stop flights between Heathrow and Dulles. Search for flight deals with Expedia.

There are several options for getting from the airport to downtown Washington. Cabs are very expensive, probably around $40. The Washington Flyer has a bus to the West Falls Church Metro station, where you can catch an orange line train to many downtown or suburban locations. A third alternative is an express Metro bus, which takes you to the Rosslyn Metro station, where you can board a blue or orange line train. Remaining on the bus will take you to the L'Enfant Plaza area, close to many of the Smithsonian museums.

Most tour operator packages from the UK will include transfers between airport and hotel.

If you have rented a car, leave it at the hotel and travel by Metro. Day passes can be purchased from a machine at all Metro stations. The Metro is clean, fast and inexpensive, and runs on time. The best hop-on hop-off bus is the Tourmobile.

Cost

Once you have paid around £300 to £600pp for flights and budgeted for accommodation and food (both cheaper than London), you can enjoy most of Washington's sights for free.

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