Our nation's capital is not just a living history museum, it is history in the making. For a family, it offers a fantastic adventure, with surprises around every corner. And though this vast, sprawling metropolis, the seat of power for the nation and the Free World, can be intimidating for families, with a little preparation that also allows for serendipity, it is remarkably easy.
To begin with, so much of what is most fascinating for families is contained around the National Mall, that is anchored on one end by the U.S. Capitol building and on the other by the Lincoln Memorial. Situated around the mall are the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Natural History (where there are happenings all the time, like the "Bug Fest" we came upon with free samples of food cooked with insects), the National Museum of American History, the Washington Monument (not really worth the wait if there is a long line to get to the top), the stirring Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the new Korean War Memorial which is exquisite in its artistry and message, the Freer & Sackler Galleries, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Castle, Arts & Industries, Hirshhorn Museum, and of course, the truly fabulous National Air & Space Museum.
Just off to a side is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (tickets required, but a very moving section called "Daniel's Story" geared to children may be visited without tickets and is free) and the Bureau of Engraving & Printing (where you can see piles of money; but you have to get there early to get in).
Set off from the Mall in kind of a triangle, is the National Archives where you can see the actual documents of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, the FBI building (kids love the shooting demonstration and everyone will find the displays about FBI techniques fascinating), the White House (got to get there very early and wait on line for a tour; when we were there, no visitors were allowed at all).
Though it is possible to walk to all of these, they are really further apart than they appear. Nonetheless, it is possible to structure an itinerary where you bop from one to another--though a good idea is to also check schedules to see if there are special programs, or a session of Congress, you want to see.
There are plenty of pure fun things to do, that break up the day. We trotted over from the National Museum of American History to the Tidal Basin, about a 20-minute walk with two kids, to ride a paddleboat right up to the Jefferson Memorial.
What isn't on the Mall--such as the National Zoo--is more than likely reachable by the Metro, Washington's subway system, which is so clean and efficient, it is more like a Disney World ride than mass transit.
What also must be emphasized is that most of these museums and attractions--some of the best in the world--are free (paid for out of our tax dollars).
Save a good portion of time for the National Air & Space Museum--the most popular museum in the world, and for good reason. Many of the objects on exhibit have traveled into space and belonged to astronauts like Sally Ride and Gene Shephard. The IMAX movies (which you pay for) are phenomenal. There are guided tours, included one geared to families--our children even got to handle astronauts' helmets, gloves, boots, held space food packets and feel the fabrics and materials of spacesuits and shuttle tiles. The cafeteria at the museum is a virtual oasis--cool, comfortable, airy, with magnificent views out of ceiling-to-floor windows, and excellent food moderately priced. The Smithsonian has a Visitor Center in the "castle" on the mall, where experts can help you arrange your visit.
To ease your way around, especially with young children, consider purchasing a ticket on Tourmobile, a narrated shuttle bus tour affording unlimited boarding and reboarding at 18 stops (14 historic sites plus the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Arlington National Cemetery (where there is a separate tour stopping at Kennedy Grave Sties, Changing of Guard Ceremony at Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers and the Robert E. Memorial at the Arlington House). Pick ups are very convenient, every 20 minutes at each of the stops; there are also seasonal tours that include Mount Vernon and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site ($10 adult; $5 kids).
While it is a good idea to plot out a basic itinerary for the day, one of the best aspects of Washington is just coming upon something you hadn't anticipated--like when we were walking back to our hotel, the Grand Hyatt, happening up a street we hadn't taken before, and came upon Ford's Theater and the house across the street, where Abraham Lincoln was taken after he was shot, and where he died. The Ford's Theater has a museum with more than 400 objects pertaining to the assassination.
There are also a host of tour companies, some which have particular themes, like GNP's Scandal Tours (irreverent guided tours of Washington's infamous scandal sites, hosted by the Gross National Product comedy group); Old Town Trolley Tours, provide two-hour narrated tours every 30 minutes, with free reboarding from 16 sites around the city; guided walking tours.
Boat tours are also fun: there is the C&O Canal Barge ride--a mule-drawn barge that travels along the C&O Canal (if you take your bicycle, you can also bike along this trail for miles); Capitol River Cruises travels aboard the Nightingale II, Georgetown's only hourly sightseeing cruise; the Potomac Riverboat Company; and Spirit Cruises, which provides daily cruises to Mount Vernon, George Washington's home. Also, Odyssey Cruises provides delightful dining trips up the Potomac.
There are scores of fine hotels to stay, including most major chains, and even bed-and-breakfasts, and a full spectrum of prices. For extra value, stay in Arlington, Va., minutes away from the National Mall via the Metro (we have enjoyed the Hyatt Arlington in the past); on another visit, we stayed right downtown, walking distance from the Mall, at the Grand Hyatt, eye-poppingly magnificent with top-grade service and all the amenities of a plush hotel--even a magnificent indoor pool and fitness center (a real advantage when traveling with kids). Since Washington is really geared to business travelers, there are packages aimed at leisure travelers which are surprisingly affordable.
Restaurants can also be part of the visitor experience. Old Ebbitt Grill, for example, makes a claim to being the oldest saloon in Washington (founded in 1856); President McKinley is said to have lived there during his tenure in Congress; Presidents Grant, Andrew Johnson, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Harding reportedly took refreshment at the bar (the whole building was moved when the original building was razed, and now is part of Metropolitan Square, a one-square-block complex of stores and offices). And spend at least an evening in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, the hometown of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Elegant 18th century homes of sea captains still stand along the cobblestone streets of Captains Row and there are many lovely restaurants and shops.
Washington D.C. is about a five-hour drive from New York City; Amtrak does it in about three and is an extremely pleasant way to go right to Union Station downtown, where you can take a Metro to many D.C. hotels. The Washington DC Convention & Visitors Association's website lists hotel specials, www.washington.org. The website also lets you know what's new and what's happening: such as the new Newseum, the world's only museum dedicated exclusively to news (free, 703-284-3530); the National Sports Gallery located at the city's new, 20,000-seat sports/entertainment arena, the MCI Center, which also has a Discovery Channel Destination store and a Velocity Grill. Also, the National Museum of Natural History's Gem and Mineral Hall has been renovated and now includes interactive computers, animated graphics and hands-on specimens plus a Whole Earth Theatre, a multi-media presentation that provides the 'big picture' story of the earth (202-357-2700). The Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress has some new additions, including a 90-seat visitors theater with a new film about the Library of Congress, a Performing Arts Gallery and a room to honor George and Ira Gershwin (202-707-8000). Also, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing's public tour gallery has been renovated to your experience viewing currency production.
Major exhibits ongoing through New Year's: Van Gogh's Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, at the National Gallery (tickets required, 800-551-SEAT; a limited number of same-day passes available free of charge on first-come, first served basis, 202-789-4998); Impressionists in Winter:Effects de Neige at the Phillips Collection, tickets required, 202-387-2151, ext. 235; and Star Wars Exhibition, commemorating the 20th anniversary of filmmaker George Lucas's popular "Star Wars" trilogy, at the National Air and Space Museum's Flight and Arts' Gallery, through Jan. 31, 1999 (202-357-2700); free, timed passes are required; same day passes distributed on first-come, first-served basis, or call in advance, for $3.25 service charge, 800-529-2440.
You can also find a listing of 101 things to do free in Washington D.C., free daily performances at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage; take advantage of Passport Fridays at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall; take the production tour at The Washington Post newspaper; visit the Corcoran Museum of Art on Sundays and participate in free family programs; research our genealogy at the Natonal Archives; visit the U.S. House and Senate in session; see money being printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing; observe the Supreme Court in session; see Dorothy's ruby slippers at the Museum of American History; bicycle along the Potamac River; ice skate on the Reflecting Pool; tour the White House.
To best prepare for your trip, contact the Washington D.C. Convention & Visitors Association, 1212 New York Ave., NW, Ste. 600, Washington, DC 20005-3992, tel. 202-789-7000, www.washington.org