Washington, DC Family Vacation

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With so many things to do in Washington, DC, how do you decide what to include in a Washington, DC family vacation?

You’ve come to the right place! Our family has made many visits to Washington, DC — with little kids, teens and even the young adults. We know how to do Washington, DC on a budget — and we know when to splurge.

A Washington, DC family vacation is great for families of all ages.

The National Mall in Washington DC with the words "Family Travel Guide: Washington, DC with kids".

What should you include in your Washington, DC itinerary

There’s a lot to do in Washington, DC. And, for family travel on a budget, there’s good news. A lot of attractions in Washington, DC are free!

Including a mix of activities including museums, tours, outdoor activities and fun entertainment will provide a lot of variety for your Washington, DC itinerary.

Since most of the region is easily accessible through the Washington, DC metro, you can see a lot without much hassle!

FREE admission for your Washington, DC itinerary

Many of the attractions in Washington, DC are free — and they’re some of the best attractions in Washington, DC. This makes Washington, DC on a budget an easy vacation!

The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution, a collective of 19 museums, galleries, gardens as well as 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 (Smithsonian Station).

Some of the best for families are the Natural History Museum and the Air & Space Museum. The Botanical Garden, which is often overlooked, has an excellent children’s program. Just ask at the front desk for the kids’ explorer kit.

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

The DEA Museum exists to educate the American public on the history of drug use, drug addiction and DEA law enforcement.

The DEA Museum just completed a 2 year complete remodel.

The NEW DEA Museum includes more than 40 hands-on activities, 180 artifacts and a changing exhibit space.

Touchscreen timelines reveal how drug law enforcement has changed as technology, medicine and society changed.

And now, younger visitors can earn a Junior Special Agent badge by completing word searches, letter scrambles, and other challenges to think like DEA agents. Activity stations encourage visitors to inspect artifacts, examine fingerprints, go on virtual missions to understand what this important branch of law enforcement does.

The DEA Museum is located in Arlington, near the Pentagon. The Pentagon City Metro Stop is one block away.

The National Museum of the Marine Corps

If you drive I-95, you’ve seen the imposing steel and glass structure that houses the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, just south of Washington, DC.

The Quantico 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 familiar with the Washington, DC National 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).  At Great Falls Park, you’ll experience the Potomac River 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. Admission is $20 per private vehicle. NPS pass holders get in free.

Tour a government building

Go behind the scenes in Washington, DC 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).

You can also visit the Pentagon (advance tickets required). Allow extra time to visit the Pentagon Memorial, which honors those who died on September 11, 2001.

More attractions to add to your Washington, DC itinerary

You could plan a whole trip around free places to see on your Washington, DC family vacation!

But, there is so much more to do! Consider adding some or all of these attractions to your Washington, DC itinerary.

Monuments by Moonlight

The most memorable tour I have ever taken on a Washington, DC family vacation is Monuments by Moonlight.

Monuments by Moonlight, which departs from Union Station at 50 Massachusetts Ave, is simply amazing! Seeing the monuments, lit up at night, on a guided trolley tour where you learn the history and meaning of the monuments is just incredible. Read my full review of Monuments by Moonlight to get a better idea of what to expect.

This tour tends to sell out far in advance, especially during school holidays and in summertime. Be sure to book your tickets in advance.

The International Spy Museum

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. The International Spy Museum offers discounts of up to 30% when you purchase tickets online in advance.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

George Washington’s Mount Vernon — Located at 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway in Mount Vernon, VA near Alexandria, you’ll 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.

Bronze statue of George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon with a visitor peeking out from behind.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery, located at 1 Memorial Ave, Fort Myer, VA, is where President John F. Kennedy is buried. On this tour, you’ll see his burial site, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the changing of the guard ceremony, and learn the history of the US Military. This was one of the most meaningful things we did on our most recent visit to Washington, DC.

Arlington Bike Tours

Another fun thing to do, especially for adventurous families, is a self-guided bike tour of the Arlington area. With lots of bike trails, bike friendly parks and attractions, you can spend a day or more exploring by bike.

Prince William Forest Park

Prince William Forest Park, located at 18170 Park Entrance Rd, Triangle, VA, about 30 minutes south of Washington, DC, offers wide open spaces to walk, run and explore. Prince William Forest Park was developed to train World War II spies. Really! It was also used as a summer camp for poor kids from the city who needed medical care and fresh air. Today, you can hike the trails, enjoy a picnic lunch and learn more about this park’s fascinating history. It’s easy to get to from I-95 and is just a few minutes away from Quantico. Come here after visiting Quantico for a fun day. The park charges a $20 admission per vehicle, and it’s worth every penny.

National Harbor: Capital Wheel

The Capital Wheel is located just minutes from downtown Washington DC, at the National Harbor. Relax inside a fully enclosed, climate-controlled gondola as you soar 180-feet above the Potomac River. From your gondola, you’ll get a bird’s eye view of the Washington Monument, Capitol Rotunda, Masonic Temple of Alexandria, and much more. The National Harbor also has great restaurants, shops and outdoor fun.

PRO TIP: Purchase tickets in advance for sunset rides!

Washington, DC: Family Treasure Hunt River Cruise

The Family Treasure Hunt River Cruise is GREAT for families with kids ages 3-10! You’ll hop aboard the Boomerang Pirate Ship and float down the Potomac River on a one hour monument sightseeing cruise filled with kid-friendly activities like face painting, a treasure hunt, water cannon battles, and pirate battles. 

FUN FACT: The Boomerang Pirate Ship was custom designed and built to U.S. Coast Guard requirements specifically for use on the Potomac River.

Washington, DC Escape Room

On your Washington, DC family vacation, especially with kids aged 8 and above, consider the Washington, DC Escape Room. If you’ve never been to an escape room before, here’s a review of our first experience.

A cool thing about escape rooms is they’re never the same thing twice! We always enjoy them.

Washington, DC Urban Adventure Scavenger Hunt

Here’s another fun, creative way to explore Washington, DC. The Urban Adventure Scavenger Hunt starts at the National Mall. As you solve riddles, find clues and complete challenges to win the game, you’ll also learn about Washington, DC’s colorful history!

The Urban Adventure Scavenger Hunt takes up to three hours — a bit quicker if you walk fast, and is recommended for groups of no more than six.

Read about our scavenger hunt experience in Sandusky, Ohio to see how fun it is!

Where should we stay on a Washington, DC family vacation?

When you consider the best places to stay in Washington, DC, you have lots of options!

To help you decide which Washington, DC hotels for families are best for you, consider these factors:

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).

>> Read our guide on how to use the Washington, DC Metro! <<

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!

Look for Washington, DC vacation packages.

Vacation packages to Washington, DC can help you cut costs to keep to your vacation budget.

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.

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!

How can I visit Washington, DC on a budget?

I said at the beginning of this post, a Washington, DC family vacation is a great choice for family travel on a budget. To save the most on your Washington, DC vacation, follow these tips:

  1. Stay outside the city, particularly in Arlington, where hotel prices are lower.
  2. Read our guide on How to use DC Metro to get around the region by subway and save a lot!
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. Take advantage of all the free attractions in Washington, DC which we listed above.

Planning a Washington, DC family vacation is easy when you use this guide.

Is Washington, DC a good vacation destination for families with younger kids?

With museums, family friendly attractions and hotels with family friendly amenities, Washington, DC is an excellent choice for a family vacation. Many of the museums provide kid-friendly museum explorer activities and activity kits making the visit even better.

How many days do you need for a Washington, DC vacation?

There are lots of museums, attractions and historic sites in Washington, DC. Plan to spend 5-7 days here, especially if you want to explore nearby destinations like Alexandria or George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Where is the best area to stay in Washington, DC?

When visiting Washington, DC, choose a hotel near a major metro station and leave the car at the hotel. Consider nearby areas like Arlington, Tysons Corner, Alexandria as well as near Union Station, the Convention Center and the Navy Yard.

What is a must see on a 3 day family trip to Washington, DC?

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and American History Museum are unique. The International Spy Museum and Monuments by Moonlight Tour are also great. Allow time just to walk along the National Mall.