by Kathryn Streeter
Hands-on museums and kid-friendly attractions are just a few reasons to plan your next family vacation in Washington, D.C. These 10 hidden gems will take your vacation to the next level by blending education with fun and giving your family a broader understanding of life in the nation’s iconic capital.
1. National Portrait Gallery, Chinatown
A short stroll north off the National Mall on 7th Street will take you into the heart of Chinatown, where opposite the Capital One Arena, home of the 2018 National Hockey League Stanley Cup winners, sits the impressive National Portrait Gallery. The gallery offers various free classes and activities for children, including Portrait Story Days (Saturday & Sunday) and Open Studio (Friday). If a scheduled activity isn’t your speed on vacation, take advantage of the Portrait Discovery Kits, available for check-out whenever you choose to stroll-in. Don’t miss the soothing Kogod Courtyard, lush with trees and plants, providing a great place for parents to get off their feet while kids splash in the water scrim.
2. Old Town, Alexandria
Catch a ride with Potomac Riverboat Company and head to Old Town, Alexandria dubbed the “Fun-side of the Potomac” where you’ll dock near the historic Torpedo Factory Art Center, converted into artists’ workshops. Open to the public, let your kids peek into studios to watch the artists at work. Make your way up historic King Street, oozing with charming shops and restaurants. Before bidding Old Town good-bye, treat them to a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream as you leisurely return to the waterfront, where balloon artists, musicians and live acts liven up the atmosphere.
3. Gravelly Point Park
Abutting the Ronald Reagan National Airport sits a prized piece of grassy land, perfect for picnicking, playing frisbee and, naturally, plane-spotting. Gravelly Point Park is a delightful treasure, offering a place to unwind while taking in the landscape. Kids will be dazzled watching planes take-off and land overhead while parents can take in the impressive view over the Potomac River.
4. US National Arboretum
Just three miles from the US Capitol, the US National Arboretum will astonish your wee ones with 446-acres of protected land, open and free to the public 364-days a year. Besides thoughtful children’s programs such as Family Garden Days and Saturday Patch, spearheaded by the Washington Youth Garden to connect kids with nature, freely explore perennial, herb, azalea and bonsai collections. Kids can frolic in the open fields under the shadows of original sandstone US Capitol columns, which were replaced in 1958 by larger marble supports.
5. National Mall
The National Mall, a 2.3 mile stretch of grassy land connecting the US Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, promises to deliver whatever your family enjoys, from flying kites to playing tag. For $3.50 US, younger children may relish a spin on the Smithsonian Carousel situated along the mall. When tummies start to growl, head to the nearby food-trucks lining 7th Street, which boast a smattering of ethnic and traditional grub including Mediterranean, Korean and Peruvian cuisine as well as easy-wins in the kid department: hotdogs, pizza and naturally, ice cream.
6. The Wharf
The Wharf, a newly-developed DC district replete with a kids’ splash park, live music venues, colorful bars and restaurants rightly boasts it’s where DC meets the water. But if you care to be on the water, step it up a notch and join DCSail on their 65-foot schooner American Spirit for a 3-hour sunset cruise to see DC by night. Pack snacks (and wine and beer for mom and dad) to enjoy while the sun sets. Baseball fans? The Boating + Baseball excursion will bring your family a homerun with a pre-game sailing adventure guaranteed to stoke your kids’ anticipation for the game at the National’s Park. Upon exiting the craft, the Captain will hand out tickets and perhaps bid you adieu with, “N-A-T-S Nats Nats Nats!” as you step ashore to walk or take the Metro (one stop away) to the nearby ballpark.
7. Theodore Roosevelt Island
Unlike the Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt presidential monuments, Theodore Roosevelt’s is easy to miss because it’s located on its own island on the Potomac River. Theodore Roosevelt Island is a quiet place to enjoy nature, one of Roosevelt’s passions. With your kids, read America’s 26th president’s thoughts carved into stone on Nature, State, Manhood and Youth, before heading around the small island (roughly 1.5 miles) via the Swamp Trail. Roosevelt would be happy to see your kids observe birds and other natural life while traversing the boardwalk.
8. Sculpture Garden
Join the fun around the Sculpture Garden fountain for a weekly summer Jazz in the Park series, a festivity which successfully gathers locals and visitors, young and old. Pack your own picnic or indulge in the food available such as the Argentina-Style Chicken Sausage Style Sandwich ($9.50) or the Smoked Brisket ($10) through the Pavilion Café’s outdoor stands, pitched for the event to satisfy hungry guests. Arrive early so your little ones gain a seat at the fountain and dip their toes in the water to the sound of the music. In the winter, the fountain is transformed into an Ice Rink, where your kids can twirl on skates for $8 for an hour and a half.
9. Eastern Market, Capitol Hill
If you want to get a taste of local life, hang out at the vibrant Eastern Market on the weekend, a neighborhood tradition where fresh market produce, street music, food and handmade craft stands abound. You’ll be strolling shoulder-to-shoulder with the families of Capitol Hill, walking dogs and pushing strollers. If you’re already planning a visit to the US Capitol, Supreme Court or Library of Congress, consider folding the market into your day.
10. National Building Museum
Creative kids with an active imagination will be captured by the interactive Fun House exhibit at the National Building Museum. The “house” appears typical to the eye, but you’ll find each room built to test the imagination. In the “backyard”, your kids can take a “dip” in the popular “pool”, an engaging installation filled with thousands of plastic white balls. Finish your visit with some BBQ at DC’s Hill Country Backyard Barbecue on the museum’s west lawn. In advance, check this seasonal venue for hours and listing of events, such as Sunday’s Fam Jam with a bounce house and craft brews for the parents.
Originally published at Today’s Parent and reprinted with permission. Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including The Girlfriend AARP, The Week and Austin American-Statesman. Find her on Twitter, @streeterkathryn.