National Mall. Note that all the Smithsonian (and many other) museums are free, which is a win, but they partly compensate for that with the prices of food. We never took the time to really search out food options outside the museums while we were there. We chose convenience over price. We tended to buy lunch in the cafes/restaurants while out sight-seeing, and then make our own simple dinners at the hotel (we had a small kitchenette). Also, there's no subway/bus line that really goes around the mall so you have to do a lot of walking.
- Air and Space Museum. Kind of a must with kids. Great exhibits and interactive areas. The cafe here sucks big time - it's McDonald's and always crammed and gross. We went to the Museum of the American Indian next door for lunch and then came back rather than fighting through this cafe.
- Museum of the American Indian. I wish we'd spent time here, but we never made it past the lobby on the way to the cafe. I've only heard amazing things about it. The cafe is expensive, but very good with a rotating menu that reflects different Native American traditions and cultures.
- Museum of Natural History. Kids loved this one. Lots of diverse and really interesting exhibits. The gemstones exhibit is unique. Cafe is standard cafeteria food. Good, but (as usual) expensive.
- Museum of American History. Our kids loved the transportation section, the Star-Spangled Banner, and Kermit, but not much else. They didn't understand most of the contemporary cultural exhibits. But they have a lot of rotating exhibits, so there are probably different exhibits now.
- National Gallery of Art. Absolutely lovely if you have an art lover. And they have the only DaVinci in North America. The cafe in the basement is very nice and overlooks both a dug-out waterfall and a tunnel of lights that's a lot of fun to walk through.
- Sculpture Garden. Outdoor part of the National Gallery. It was really nice to walk around it in the summer. There is a Pavilion Cafe in the sculpture garden that we really enjoyed.
- National Archives. Totally worth it and doesn't take too long. See the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution and one of the original Magna Carta. We went first thing one morning and there was virtually no line.
- White House. It’s a self-guided tour, and you can go at your own pace and spend as much time in each room as you want. It covers the official state rooms, and there are Secret Service officers stationed in each room. Those officers are an amazing wealth of knowledge! They will answer any questions and tell amazing stories about administrations and events in each of the rooms. But you usually have to request (free) tickets at least six months in advance through your Representative or Senator. Note: Tours are current suspended due to sequestration. Hopefully that will change soon.
- Capitol/Library of Congress. You can walk into the Capitol visitor center and get a free tour ticket anytime. The standard tour is okay (you can see the dome), but if you contact your Representative or Senator ahead of time you might be able to get tickets to the galleries that look out on the chamber floors. There's an underground walkway from the Capitol to the Library of Congress. We walked around the LoC for less than an hour, but I'm glad we did. Stunning architecture and displays in the main lobby.
- Bureau of Engraving and Printing. A really interesting tour. Watch real paper bills being printed!
- Monuments/Memorials. Washington/Lincoln/Vietnam are all close together (opposite end of the Mall from the Capitol) around the Reflecting Pool and somewhat easy to walk to, though the Lincoln Memorial is at the very far end of the Mall. The kids really liked these. We never made it to the Jefferson or Roosevelt monuments, because those require walking to the other side of the reservoir and our kids just didn't have it in them at the time.
Other around DC
- National Zoo. It's okay. Very, very hilly which made for lots of complaining from our crew because we were there after spending several days walking all over the Mall. The pandas are certainly unique, but the rest of it is a regular zoo. Food is typical zoo-fare, but there are lots of little eateries on the city streets just outside the zoo. The Zoo is also free (part of the Smithsonian) so it’s easy to come and go as often as you like.
- Udvar-Hazy (annex of the Air and Space Museum). About an hour from downtown DC near Dulles airport in VA. This is the one we're all dying to go back to already! There's not really any interactive stuff, so Audrey was a bit harder to keep engaged. But it's an ENORMOUS hanger filled with planes and other aircraft. Fascinating stuff. I think it's worth the drive even if all you do is visit the space wing to see the Space Shuttle Discovery nose-to-nose – it’s a breath-taking experience! Again, cafe is nothing but McDonald's and there's no place to go outside the building. But you can bring your own food.
- National Aquarium. This is in Baltimore. It's a nice aquarium, but I'm not sure I'd make it a priority over the stuff in downtown DC.
- B&O Railroad Museum. Also in Baltimore. One of my husband’s favorites. A must for any train lover.
- Mount Vernon. About an hour drive from DC
and very nicely maintained. You can easily
spend a full day walking around the grounds.
If you contact the office of your Senator or Representative, you can also get (free) tickets to tours of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Library of Congress, or Kennedy Center for the Arts. There may be a few other options, too. It's only the White House tours that require long advance notice and background checks.
What We Didn’t Get To, But Hear Great Things About
- Botanical Gardens near The Capitol
- Supreme Court tour
- Georgetown. Lots of boutiques, small interesting shops, and restaurants. There is no public transportation to Georgetown, so you need to walk a mile or so from the nearest Metro stop. There is an amazing hole-in-the-wall cupcake/baked goods store called Baked &Wired that is definitely worth the trek!
- Arlington National Cemetery
- Holocaust Museum. We thought our kids were too young at the time and we hadn’t discussed the Holocaust with the younger two yet, but I’ve heard they have a really good space for kids that is very age appropriate.
- Wolf Trap
- NASA Goddard Space FlightCenter in Greenbelt, Maryland
We stayed at Residence Inn in Greenbelt, Maryland, about a 5 minute drive from a Metro station with a very large commuter parking lot. The hotel prices in DC were astronomical, and we really wanted a place with a kitchen so we could make our own dinners after a long day of sight-seeing.