D.C. is one of the first American landscapes that kids become familiar with from afar—and, in person, D.C. really lives up to expectations. The buildings themselves—from the Neoclassical U.S. Capitol to the Washington Monument, which stands 555 feet tall in front of the iconic Reflecting Pool—are impressive, majestic even, to kids and adults alike. But in addition to being a great city to see, there’s a ton to do in D.C. (and just beyond it). The museum offerings (beginning with the well-known Smithsonians) are really quality—and arguably the most kid friendly in the U.S. Many of the historical sites are highly interactive and engaging, and there’s plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities. What’s more: The food in D.C. has never been better. (For more recs, see our guide, here.)
800 16th St. NW, Downtown | 202.638.6600
The Hay Adams is as classic a hotel as you’ll find in D.C. It’s named after John Hay (who served as personal secretary to Lincoln, U.S. Ambassador to the U.K., and Secretary of State) and Henry Adams (historian, Harvard professor, grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams)—who both lived in homes where the hotel now stands. Many historic details (like original wood paneling) have been preserved, but the building also underwent major renovation in the early 2000s to make a stay there feel all the more luxurious. And kids tend to be impressed by the location—you’re literally steps from the White House, blocks from the National Mall, the Smithsonians are nearby, and the panoramic views of it all are pretty awesome.
2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Georgetown | 202.342.0444
Located in charming Georgetown (cobblestone streets, beautiful row houses, C&O Canal waterways), this Four Seasons is a great option, particularly if the hustle of downtown doesn’t appeal. If you’re traveling with teens on the verge of college years, you can easily stop by the campuses of Georgetown University and George Washington University, which are both about a mile from the hotel, in either direction. The rooms here are contemporary, smartly designed, and very comfortable for traveling families (the hotel recently got a $13 million facelift). It has all the amenities you’d need for a family trip, plus babysitting services.
1213 U St. NW, Cardozo | 202.667.0909
D.C. natives will tell you that Ben’s Chili Bowl is the most D.C. place in D.C. They have multiple locations (including one in the Ronald Reagan airport, at Nationals Park, and FedEx Field) but the original one is on U Street. It’s the kind of beloved dive spot where you order at the counter (although table service is available for parties of five ore more), and you don’t come for the salad bowl. As the name suggests, it’s all about the chili dogs, chili burgers, and chili fries. That said, there are a lot of veg-friendly options, from vegetarian chili to veggie burgers.
2331 Calvert St. NW, Woodley Park | 202.332.2331
Part coffeehouse, part restaurant, Open City is open early and closes late. It’s an easy spot for a family breakfast or afternoon pit-stop—i.e. no frills and something on the menu for everyone (from breakfast sandwiches and grilled cheese, to kale caesar, pizza, and grilled chicken). The outdoor patio is lovely on not-too-humid days, but there’s a cozy, neighborhood café-bar feel inside. The standalone Open City is near the Smithsonian National Zoo, and they also have an outpost at the National Cathedral.
675 15th St. NW, Downtown | 202.347.4800
As legend goes, Old Ebbitt Grill was founded in 1856 when innkeeper William E. Ebbitt bought a boarding house that became D.C.’s first saloon, a place that people like President McKinley, Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt frequented. Over the years, the saloon moved around a bit, landing just outside of downtown and right near the White House in 1983, where it is today. The expansive Victorian interior (there are four different full-service bars) is still decorated with some original fixtures (like an antique clock hanging over Ebbitt’s revolving door), as well as updates (like the reinvented mahogany “Old Bar,” marble stairs, and gas chandelier). Ebbitt’s serves breakfast/brunch, lunch, and dinner. Their produce comes from local farms and the menu is a good mix of meat and seafood, pasta dishes and entrée-worthy salads—plus they have a kids line-up.
122 Blagden Alley NW, Shaw | 202.450.1015
Arguably one of the best restaurants in D.C. right now, The Dabney sources its ingredients from Mid-Atlantic farmers. Admittedly, this is not a spot to take a picky eater—however, the menu, while elevated (e.g., green garlic soup with fried oyster, radish, and yogurt; duck with kimchi purée), still has some kid-friendly options (chicken with roasted potatoes) and is designed to share family-style. The space itself features an open kitchen with a wood-burning hearth, exposed brick, and artisanal wood tables.
Almost too obvious to include, but unlike many other popular tourist destinations in other American cities, seeing the monuments and memorials in D.C. is really such an iconic, impressionable experience, and one that kids remember. Absolutely walk the National Mall and check out as many of the big ones as you can, including: Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans wall. And in terms of government buildings, touring the U.S. Capitol is an interesting, behind-the-scenes sort of activity if your kids are on the older side, but it’s best to plan advance (see how here).
555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Downtown | 202.292.6100
Just outside the National Mall near the National Gallery of Art, the super interactive Newseum is cool for adults and kids. The museum opened in 2008 and centers around groundbreaking moments in media history. Their best known exhibits are a 9/11 gallery, featuring the broadcast antennae from the top of the WTC; the Berlin Wall gallery, which is home to one of the largest pieces of the wall outside of Germany; and their collection of Pulitzer Prize photographs dating back to 1942.
1000 Constitution Ave. NW, National Mall | 202.633.1000
As a whole, the Smithsonian museums are first rate, but doing them all isn’t feasible (or really all that entertaining for the littles). If you’re choosing just one, we recommend the Museum of Natural History. And if you’re not too squeamish, take the kids to the museum’s insect zoo, a fan-favorite permanent collection.
So, the Potomac River isn’t known as the most pristine of waters. But touring it via kayak is a surprisingly fun outdoor family adventure that breaks up the museum visits and trips to historical sites in the best way. This outfitter makes it easy to rent kayaks, as well as canoes, row boats, hydro bikes, etc. And conveniently, they have a handful of waterside hubs.
Arlington | 877.907.8585
This is an iconic field trip right outside of D.C., across the Potomac. You can take kids of all ages but the gravity of the place is obviously more easily appreciated by middle schoolers and up. The cemetery’s rolling green hills make an impressive landscape, as does the somber Changing of the Guard ritual, which occurs every hour October 1 through March 31, and every half hour April 1 through September 30, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., Mount Vernon | 703.780.2000
Further than Arlington—about 20 miles from D.C.—Mount Vernon is another quintessential kids field trip. The grounds of this sprawling 18th-century estate include the meticulously restored, 21-room mansion that George Washington lived in. There’s also the outbuildings that were home to daily operations like laundry, spinning, meat curing; six acres of gardens; a crew of animals (many are the same breed as in Washington’s day); the Mount Vernon slave memorial; the Washington family tomb; and working gristmill. There’s a lot for kids to learn here about plantation life, and the live reenactments and hands-on activities serve as a real draw.
Read & Watch
Prepping for a D.C. trip could happen in a number of ways: There’s the serious non-fiction (Bill O’Reilly’s heavy hitter on Lincoln has been adapted into a young readers addition, so you can swap notes with the kids), required high school civics reading (i.e. Lord of the Flies), Nora Ephron’s D.C. roman à clef about her split from Carl Bernstein, legendary political movies, and you know, Schoolhouse Rock’s “Three Ring Government” song.
Lincoln’s Last Days by
Bill O’Reilly and Dwight
Jon Zimmerman Amazon, $10.35
Lord of the Flies by
William Golding Amazon, $4.81
Washington: A Life
by Ron Chernow Amazon, $12.49
by Bill O’Reilly Amazon, $9.99
All the King’s Men by
Robert Warren Penn Amazon, $12.27
Heartburn by Nora
Ephron Amazon, $9.14