Planning a trip to Washington, DC can seem daunting. There are so many things to do in Washington, DC. How do you decide where to begin planning your Washington, DC itinerary?
If that’s you, you’ve come to the right place! This post includes everything needed when planning a trip to Washington, DC. We will answer:
- What are the best places to stay in Washington, DC?
- Which are the best places to see in Washington, DC?
- What are some things to do near Washington, DC?
- How can I visit Washington, DC on a budget?
We answer each question below. So, let’s start planning a trip to Washington, DC with kids (or without!).
What are the best places to stay in Washington, DC?
When you consider the best places to stay in Washington, DC, the first thing you should know is there are abundant Washington, DC hotels for families.
I’ve stayed in hotel suites, Washington, DC, which offer more space than standard hotels. Those who need pet friendly accommodations, might consider motels in Washington, DC. Some of the best places to stay in Washington, DC are in the suburbs nearby.
To help you decide which Washington, DC hotels for families are best for you, consider these factors:
1. Book one of the dozens of Washington, DC hotels near metro stations.
The best places to stay in Washington, D.C. are located near metro stations, helping you save both time and money! Parking in DC is expensive, and traffic congestion makes it hard to drive in the city. Select Washington, DC hotels near the metro to make getting around the city easy (and affordable).
2. Some of the best places to stay in Washington, DC are in the suburbs!
Some of the best places to stay in Washington, D.C. are in the suburbs, where overall costs are lower and parking is often free.
For example, if you drive to Washington, DC, hotels in the city usually charge upwards of $40/night for your car. That’s not valet parking! In nearby Arlington, most hotels provide FREE self-parking. Hotel rack rates tend to be cheaper, too! See? hotels outside of Washington, DC are worth a look!
3. Look for Washington, DC vacation packages.
Vacation packages to Washington, DC can help you cut costs.
I use two websites to search for vacation packages: Kayak and Momondo. Both offer package deals to help you save on travel by bundling airfare, hotel, car rental and/or attraction passes.
- Click here to explore vacation packages on Kayak.
- Click here to explore vacation packages on Momondo.
Area visitors’ bureaus, which work with local businesses to promote tourism, offer Washington, DC vacation packages that help you save money — and make planning easy!
- Stay Arlington Vacation Packages — summer packages include bike rentals, admission discounts, shopping discounts and more at a variety of participating hotels.
- Extraordinary Alexandria Vacation Packages — summer packages include FREE PARKING and attraction passes, as well as discounts for Mount Vernon at a number of hotels.
- Loudon County, “Lakeway to the Smokies” — This region, west of Washington, DC, has affordable hotel options and great lake house getaways.
- Prince William County — Home to the National Museum of the Marine Corps, shopping and the countryside southwest of the Washington, DC, has easy access from I-95 and offers affordable lodging options. Check the website for seasonal specials.
- Fairfax County — Just across the Potomac from Washington, DC, family friendly Fairfax County is just a short metro ride away. Check their website for specials and deals on lodging, dining and attractions.
What are the best places to see in Washington, DC?
There are so many Washington, DC activities, it’s almost hard to narrow them down. Some of the best places to see in Washington, DC are free — which makes Washington, DC on a budget a very easy thing to plan. Of course, these are just some of the best places to visit in Washington, DC. There are many other Washington, DC activities to consider, as well as things to do near Washington, DC. To help you plan your Washington, DC itinerary, here’s a list of Washington, DC activities — first the things to do in Washington, DC for free, then the other Washington, DC activities (including my all-time favorite!) and finally, things to do near Washington, DC — which you’ll find in the nearby suburbs. Since most of the region is easily accessible through the Washington, DC metro, you can see a lot without much hassle!
1. Washington, DC activities that are free (yay, budget)
The Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Institution, a collective of 19 museums, galleries, gardens and the National Zoo, is free to the public. Many of the individual museums are located near the National Mall and easy to reach by metro. Two of my favorites are the Natural History Museum (maybe because I’ve long been a fan of Teddy Roosevelt) and the Air & Space Museum (because as an Ohio native and North Carolina transplant, air and space are part of my DNA). Another spot not to miss, especially if traveling with kids age 3-10 is the National Gallery Sculpture Garden on the mall.
The DEA Museum & Visitors Center
(Closed for refurbishment until Fall, 2020) The DEA Museum exists to educate the American public on the history of drug use, drug addiction and DEA law enforcement. Using exhibits, interactive displays and educational tools, the history of drug use is laid out — and to be honest, it’s heart breaking. The role federal law enforcement plays to curtail drug use is also explained. As more people are impacted by drug use and abuse in the United States, the museum hopes to make a positive impact through education going forward. NOTE: I visited this museum with my college age son. I do not recommend this museum to young families (under age 10). When you visit, be sure to take information pamphlets home for further, guided discussion with your kids.
The National Museum of the Marine Corps
If you drive I-95, you’ve seen the imposing steel and glass structure near Quantico, just south of Washington, DC. The National Museum of the Marine Corps offers free parking, free admission and free tours! Guests are invited to explore and learn the important role our US Marine Corps has played through three centuries — and continues to do today. Children’s exhibits, onsite restaurants and free wheelchair scooters make this a museum the whole family can visit.
Historic parks in Washington, DC
Washington, DC might be known as a political hub, but the region has a lot of green space, too. You’re probably family with the Washington, DC Mall area — and its monuments, cherry blossoms and museums. But, there are many other parks in the area to consider. Some of my favorites are:
- Theodore Roosevelt Island in Arlington (near the Rosslyn Station). The island includes 91 wooded acres and a memorial, fitting for the father of our national parks.
- Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens at 1550 Anacostia Ave, NE in Washington, DC (near the Deanwood Station). This national park, which opened in 1926, is dedicated to water plants and animals. Raised boardwalks take visitors along trails to see water lilies, hyacinths, lotuses and blue heron (and more) at this oasis in the city.
- Great Falls Park at 9200 Old Dominion Dr., McLean, VA (not accessible by metro — you’ll need a car for this one). This park presents the Potomac River in stunning fashion. I’ve seen the river from many vantage points, like Mount Vernon, and it appears to be a wide, lazy river that meanders through a busy city. At Great Falls Park, you’ll experience the other face of the river — with water crashing over rocks and cliffs at Mather Gorge. It’s not Niagara Falls, but it is impressive! The park features six different hiking trails. Visitors can also go kayaking or explore the park’s visitor center. Hiking tip: The River Trail offers the best views of Mather Gorge. Admission is $10 per private vehicle, or $5 per person. NPS pass holders get in free.
Tour a government building
Go behind the scenes in Washington to get a glimpse into the day-to-day life of our government officials. Most of them are free! You can tour the The US Capitol, the Supreme Court Building (no advance reservations required), and the White House (advance tickets required). At the Pentagon, allow extra time to visit the Pentagon Memorial, which remembered the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
2. Other places to see in Washington, DC
You could plan a whole vacation around free places to see in Washington, DC. But, there are so many other Washington, DC activities to consider! These are the best places to visit in Washington, DC — even if they do have a fee!
BUT, just because these Washington, DC activities have a fee doesn’t mean you have to pay full price! (I avoid full price whenever I can!!!)
The Washington D.C. Explorer Pass lets you choose from a list of 28 attractions in Washington, DC to create your own vacation bundle. You save up to 47% on attractions you already want to see. Some of my favorites, like the International Spy Museum, DC Bike rentals and Mount Vernon are included options (at the time of this post).
Individual list of places to see in Washington, DC
If you don’t want to get a Washington, DC Explorer Pass, you can also save on admission to a number of individual Washington, DC activities by purchasing in advance. These are my personal favorites, with links to purchase money saving tickets online.
- The International Spy Museum — Located at 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW Washington, DC, this is the only public museum in the world to provide a global perspective on the history of intelligence and espionage, showing how it has changed with the times and its impact on world affairs. Interactive exhibits make this one of my all-time favorite museums for family travelers.
- George Washington’s Mount Vernon — Located at 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway Mount Vernon, VA near Alexandria, a visit to George Washington’s family estate transports visitors back to Colonial America. Discover what life was like for George and Martha Washington, learn about life in the late 1700s and how Washington’s legacy shaped our nation. Allow a minimum of three hours to visit, though you can easily spend a whole day here. Onsite restaurants are available.
- Arlington National Cemetery — Located at 1 Memorial Ave, Fort Myer, VA, is where President John F. Kennedy is buried. Many others are buried or honored here, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While it is free to visit the cemetery, it is very large — with many places of historic significance to see. The best way to visit is with a hop on/hop off guided trolley tour. Allow 2-4 hours to visit depending on your interest in history. Walking shoes are recommended.
- Monuments by Moonlight — Departure from Union Station at 50 Massachusetts Ave, this is my all-time favorite Washington, They’re great to visit during the day, but a nighttime tour makes them come to life in a whole new way. Tours sell out, especially during school breaks and the holidays, so buy in advance!
- Prince William Forest Park — Located at 18170 Park Entrance Rd, Triangle, VA about 30 minutes south of Washington, DC, this park charges a $20 admission per vehicle, and it’s worth every penny. Explore this wilderness where World War II spies were trained, hike the trails, enjoy a picnic lunch and learn about the park’s role in improving the health of inner city kids from the city. It’s easy to get to from I-95 and provides a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of city life.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the places to visit in and around Washington, DC, but they are some of the best. I hope highlighting my favorites will help you plan your Washington, DC family trip more easily.
How can I visit Washington, DC on a budget?
I said at the beginning, Washington, DC is a budget friendly family vacation destination. To save the most on your Washington, DC vacation, follow these tips:
- Stay outside the city and use the METRO during your vacation. Our Beginner’s Guide to the DC Metro shows you just how easy it is!
- Book vacation packages through Kayak or Momondo. These websites offer discounts on hotels, airfare, rental cars and vacation packages so you can do more while spending less. That’s my favorite way to travel!
- Consider bike rentals as a fun, inexpensive way to get around the city. Rentals include helmets, locks, handlebar bag and tire pump for emergencies. There are bike trails all the way to Mount Vernon that active travelers will enjoy.
Planning a trip to Washington, DC with kids is a surprisingly affordable vacation choice. When planning a trip to Washington, DC, look outside the city for better prices on hotels (and free parking). Include visits to some free attractions like the Smithsonian Institution Museums, the National Gallery and the monuments. And, purchase Washington, DC activities tickets in advance to save money on admission ticket prices!
To learn more about Washington, DC activites and surrounding areas, read these posts:
- Monuments by Moonlight, a full review.
- Historic Occoquan, a Washington, DC day trip for arts, history and culture.
- The best food in Northern Virginia, the Washington, DC Suburbs.
- Visiting the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon: Things to know before you go.
- Ten best things to do in Old Town Alexandria.