The Perfect “Winter in Washington, DC with Kids” Itinerary
Washington, DC in winter can be lovely. Yes, it can be rainy and a bit blustery but I forgot what a joy it is to visit a city in its off-season. Last spring we spent a weekend in Washington, DC during the cherry blossom festival…. which was crazy. I felt like we were fighting crowds much of the day.
This time around, we had the place to ourselves. I spent a fair amount of time before the trip making reservations and making sure we had a tight plan. Also, my Littles (currently 10, 8, and 6) are finally at the age where we can really do things. They all have a great tolerance for walking and museums. Two of them can fully read on their own which just makes life so much easier. All this to say, this may not be your perfect Washington, DC with kids itinerary.
Everywhere in Washington, D.C. has some level of security. To make your life easier, review Checking what is and isn’t allowed at each location before you depart.
Finally, if you want more photos or to see some videos from the trip head over to my Instagram.
Where we Stayed.
We stayed at the Embassy Suites in Old Town Alexandra. Jeff had a conference at the Gaylord at National Harbor. National Harbor is impossible to get to without a car. (Particularly in winter when the water taxis are not running.) We didn’t want to be trapped without access to the city.
The Embassy Suites is across the street from the King Street Metro station on the blue and yellow lines. You get a great view of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial from the platform. (At the time of our visit, the yellow line was not working. It is scheduled to reopen in May of 2023.) We can easily get two double beds and a pull-out sofa, making it family-of-five friendly. The Embassy Suites has breakfast and happy hour plus a small pool. You can easily walk to many Old Town restaurants or pop into Whole Foods across the street. It was a great launching point for us and Jeff was able to uber to the conference each morning.
Day 1: Spy Museum, Wharf, Washington Monument
Launching Point: Metro to L’Enfant Plaza (Blue, Yellow, Green, Orange, Silver)
The general plan for the day was a visit to the International Spy Museum, a walk around The Wharf area, and going up to the top of the Washington Monument.
The tricky part of our first day was leaving the metro station. If you go the wrong way (which we did) you have quite a confusing walk ahead of you. Don’t be like us. Exit the metro station on D Street & 9th (L’Enfant Plaza Shopping Mall Concourse). If you see a large astronaut mural above the exit, it is the wrong one.
The Spy Museum requires an advanced ticket. (They do have some same-day tickets available, but appear to sell out, particularly for in-demand times.). We bought an opening time ticket in advance and walked right in when the museum opened.
The Spy Museum took us a full two hours. If you are with someone that wants to read and do every activity I would plan a full 3 hours. Every visitor gets a special card to complete a mission as they move through the museum. If your child cannot read well you are going to have to help them. I did not pick up a card and instead had each of the kids do one. The Little Little (6) needed consistent help but the Middle Little (8) and Big Little (10) were fine on their own. The museum is full of cool displays and hands-on activities. The boys all enjoyed it and won’t stop talking about our visit to the Spy Museum.
It’s a 5 min walk from the Spy Museum to The Wharf DC. It’s full of great shops and restaurants. There are plenty of great options here so it was an easy win with the kids. In the summer there is a splash pad park on 7th street. There is also a little duck pond and grassy area up 7th street. One of my favorite bookstores, Politics & Prose has a storefront at The Wharf that is worth popping into.
After lunch, we headed back toward The Mall, following a path along the water. It crosses under the large expressway and train bridges and pops out near the Tidal Basin. The Holocaust Museum will be on your right. This is a very easy walk.
We continued on the path to the Washington Monument. You need advanced tickets to go up to the monument. You can reserve these up to 30 days in advance on Recreation.gov. Tickets are free but have a $1 service charge per ticket. A few tickets are made available at 10 am for the next day.
I was able to easily get 2 pm tickets, 30 days in advance. The visit took about an hour. The most stressful part is going through a full security checkpoint in a very small space. Groups are small and once you are through security you head up in the elevator.
There are 8 windows (two in each cardinal direction) to look through for a panoramic view of Washington, DC. One floor down there is a tiny “museum” with a few displays about the construction, damage from lightning and earthquakes, and the state stones on the inside of the monument. You also catch the elevator going down on this floor. The elevator makes two stops so you can peer through the glass and see some of the state stones. Our visit took about 45 min. (There is a great Rock the Park about the Washington Monument if you want more info.)
Once out of the Washington Monument, it would be easy to pop into one of the Smithsonian Museums for an hour or walk to the other monuments. I pitched the idea of walking straight down the mall past WWII, Constitution Gardens, and Lincoln and hopping on the Metro at Arlington Cemetary. (It’s about 1.6 miles from the Washington Monument to Arlington Cemetary.) The littles were not having it. Instead, we backtracked a half-mile to the Smithsonian Metro stop and headed back to the hotel.
Day 2: National Mall Museums
Launching Point: Metro to Smithsonian (Blue, Orange, Silver)
The general plan for the day was to see a few of the museums on the National Mall. Some of the museums require advanced, timed, reservations. The museums on the Mall open at 10 am (generally speaking). We had a rough plan, but largely ended up sort of inefficiently moving around the mall to suit our fancy.
We started by grabbing coffee at the lovely coffee bar in the lobby of the Hirshhorne Museum. Grab a seat at one of the beautiful tables made of tree roots and glass or take your coffee and go explore the sculpture garden. You cannot take your coffee into the galleries. While we were there the Hirshorne was home to Yayoi Kusama’s “One With Eternity” exhibition. Tickets are free but released daily at noon for the following day on the Hirshhorn’s webpage.
Next, we headed to the National Museum of American History. This museum is dense so its best to have a plan and know your audience. I knew we wanted to see the Star Spangled Banner, the new Entertainment Nation exhibition, and the American Presidency/First Ladies gallery. We also ended up in the American Democracy gallery and the littles enjoyed seeing all the election and voting memorabilia. We could have spent more in the National Museum of American History, but ran up against some hungry kids. The restaurant at American History is often regarded as one of the worst on the mall, so we headed elsewhere for lunch.
Next door, the National Museum of African American History & Culture is home to Sweet Home Cafe. The restaurant is renowned for continuing the storytelling of the museum through the rotating food menu. You need a timed ticket to enter the National Museum of African American History & Culture, so plan ahead and grab a lunchtime ticket. After lunch, don’t leave without checking out a few of the galleries. This is another museum you could spend a whole day exploring. There are History galleries, Community galleries, and Cultural galleries plus a host of current special exhibitions. The littles started to get loud, as they do … so we took the opportunity to take them outside to run.
We took a quick detour to explore the Smithsonian Castle. I’ll spare you the details because as of February 1, 2023, the Smithsonian Castle is closed for a 5-year restoration.
The kids still wanted to poke into the National Museum of Natural History. Last Spring we were in DC and stopped by but it was so crazy we didn’t get a chance to really enjoy the museum. On a winter afternoon, the museum was quiet. From the rotunda, we went right into the Mammal Hall and spent about an hour making our way around in a circle through Human Origins and into the Oceans Hall. The Oceans Hall took another half hour because it so beautifully fit into our Blossom and Root science study.
The plan was to have dinner with friends at their house. We walked a few blocks, popping into a CVS for a yogurt drink and dried fruit snack before catching a bus up to Capitol Hill.
Day 3: The White House & The Capitol
Launching Point: McPherson Square Metro
Our White House and Capitol Tour day came together miraculously and was largely the reason a few of our days in D.C. were left unplanned. We also had torrential rain this day.
You can read all about how to get a reservation for a White House tour here. You have to make your reservation at least 21 days in advance but no more than 90 days. Even with all the prior planning, you won’t know exactly what time or date your tour is until a few days before. They are typcially between 8:00 am and 12:30 pm. Complicating things, you can bring nothing with you on these tours. No bags. No nothing. Just your wallet and cell phone. Do not arrive too far in advance, but also don’t be late. You have to queue up on the street until exactly your tour time.
Our Littles were given a Jr. Ranger packet when they entered the White House. Use the packet for a kid-friendly self-guided tour. There are placards posted on the tour to read, but the info in the Jr. Ranger booklet was more detailed and kid-friendly. The tour takes about 30 min.
When you are done with the tour save time to head over to the White House Visitors Center. This is where they will finally give you a pencil to complete the activities in the book. You can earn two badges by turning in your booklet here – Presidental Park as well as The White House. The exhibitions here are also excellent and you do not need a reservation to visit.
We grabbed lunch just across Lafayette Park at Teaism.
During lunch we got a call from our congressman moving up our meeting time by 30 min, so after lunch, we hopped on an uber up to Capitol Hill. You could also easily metro from this area to Capitol South.
If you want to set up a meeting with your congressperson you should start arranging the meeting well in advance. I recommend submitting your request by e-mail but then following up with a phone call. If you know anyone that works in the Capitol you may also wish to go through them. Our Littles enjoyed a short meet and greet. The National Council for Social Studies has some great tips on how to arrange a meeting.
We had a bit of downtime between our meeting and our tour of the Capitol Building so we headed just across the street to the United States Botanical Garden. The gardens are warm and dry. You can ask at the desk for a kid’s guide to the gardens that include some activities.
Tours of the U.S. Capitol must also be made in advance. Tours include the public spaces and do not go into the House or Senate Chambers. You can book your public tour here. I grabbed some tickets for a public tour 90 days in advance knowing that the public tour was going to be challenging with the Littles.
I started pursuing the option of a private tour through a congressional office. This can be very hit or miss, particularly during the busy season. My sister had just left a job on The Hill and was able to make something work for us. Our friends who were at the same conference are from a smaller state and easily got their office to give a tour as well.
When considering which tour is best for you know that tours arranged through your Congressional Office are led by a staff member often an intern. They may not know as many details as one of the professional tour guides. We really appreciated the flexibility of the personal tour with the little ones, but it may not be a good fit for everyone.
The Capitol Visitors Center has a variety of displays and exhibits as well, so leave time to explore those.
It was still pouring rain when the tour was over so we hightailed it to the Capitol South Metro station and headed back to the hotel.
Day 4: National Mall Museums
Launching Point: Metro Center Metro Stop (Red, Orange, Silver, Blue)
The next day we found ourselves back on the National Mall. I pitched a few ideas to the kids, but they really wanted to go back to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Coming from Metro Center you can enter the Museum of Natural History from the back. Security through here was quick. The museum was full of school groups. It was nowhere near as bad as during our Spring Break visit, but more crowded than our visit earlier in the week.
We spent over an hour making another loop through Geology, Gems & Minerals exhibition and finally ending with viewing the Hope Diamond. Then we went back downstairs to explore the Dinosaur Hall and Fossil Lab. At this point everyone was hungry.
We grabbed lunch at the Atrium Cafe which has your typical museum foods. Upstairs at the Ocean Terrace Cafe, a make-your-own grain bowl was perfect for me.
At lunch, I pitched the idea of heading over to the National Gallery of Art, but the kids wanted to continue to explore the Museum of Natural History. We headed upstairs to the Live Insect Zoo and arrived just in time for the Tarranutla Feeding. Once that was over, the kids needed some fresh air.
We set the kids free and steered them toward the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art. They have set up an ice skating rink on the fountain here. We did not skate but watched skaters and enjoyed some of the sculptures.
Our final stop for the day was the National Air & Space Museum. The museum is undergoing a renovation that started in 2018. Half the bidding is now open but you need timed tickets. Ticket distribution is on the hour. We arrived about 15 min early and were not permitted to enter. I easily grabbed 2 pm tickets on my phone and we walked in.
My advice though is to not arrive on time for your reservation. The guard told me that due to the ticket reservation system, they are crazy busy at the hour. So for less line waiting plan to come in 15 min or more after your ticket time. Whatever you do, don’t be more than an hour late or they will not let you in.
The National Air & Space Museum, while only half open, is beautiful. It once felt like a random collection of artifacts and now has some nicely organized stories supported by iconic pieces. We were most impressed by the Destination Moon exhibition. They also now have the Wright Flyer at eye level in a lovely gallery about the first flight.
We were completely exhausted at the end of the day. The kids somehow had the energy to run around just a bit more as the sun set behind the Washington Monument. We found our way to the Smithsonian Metro stop (though L’Enfant Plaza is equally as close) and took the Metro back to the hotel.
Day 5: Arlington Cemetary, National Archives, The Old Post Office, Library of Congress
Launching Point: Arlington Cemetary Metro Stop (Blue) / Federal Triangle Metro Stop (Orange, Silver, Blue)
Our final full day in Washington, D.C. and we still had a few things to check off our visit list.
The kids really wanted to see the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. In the winter the guard changes every hour. (In the summer it is every half-hour.) The challenge to visiting Arlington National Cemetary is that the walk from the visitors center to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier takes a full 25 minutes. The walk from the metro to the visitors center is another 5 minutes. There are also a few graves you may want to visit (such as President Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Thurgood Marshall) and several memorials for national tragedies.
We spent about 1.5 hours here. We arrived just after the top of the hour and visited a few places on our leisurely walk to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then after the ceremony, we headed straight back down and to the metro.
After a few stops on the Blue Line, we were at Federal Triangle. We walked a few blocks to the United States Navy Memorial. My kids have always loved playing on the large map etched into the plaza. We have spent countless hours watching them run around here. You can also venture downstairs into the memorial visitors center under the plaza to learn more about the U.S. Navy.
Tucked back near the exit is a kid’s room. It is full of great books and fun hands-on activities. The volunteers are full of ideas to do with the kids from completing a family tree to doing some research in the archival drawers they have right in the kid’s area. They had stencils of famous Declaration of Independence Signers. This is also the only place in the museum where you can take photos. (We did hear a rumor from a staff member that the kid’s room is going to be undergoing a renovation to add more technology and touch screens to the experience. I’m on the fence. So go check out this room now before it is gone.)
Just behind the Archives, one block toward the capitol from the Navy Memorial is a Potbelly’s sandwich shop. We popped in there for a quick and easy lunch.
The National Archives are across the street. A timed entry ticket is advised, though they do take walk-ins. We bypassed the other exhibits and headed straight into the rotunda to show the kids the founding documents. You can backtrack to the other exhibitions when you are done. Do not miss the “Public Vault.” There are several interactive displays here that are kid-friendly. I could have explored here for hours. There is an old census book – what page it is open to varies, but it always has someone interesting. The Emancipation Proclamation is displayed. There are also rooms for videos, emails, and other media that are kept in the National Archives.
Our next stop was The Old Post Office. The Old Post Office building was renovated to become the famed Trump Hotel. It is now a Waldorf Astoria. The entrance to visit The Old Post Office Tower is around the back of the hotel, off 12th Street NW. Tours are self-guided and require two elevator rides.
You enter the Old Post Office door and walk down a long hallway with exhibition boards. Take your time here as this is all the info you are getting. A ranger will meet you at the end of the hall and call the first elevator. Surprise, it’s a glass elevator that provides stunning views into the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria. Exiting the elevator you will find another Park Ranger who will tell you all about the Congressional Bells. You do not see the actual bells on the tour, but they have photos available to show you. The second elevator takes you to the 270-foot level where you get sweeping views down Pennsylvania Ave and beyond. There is another Ranger in the tower to answer all your questions.
Everyone loved visiting The Old Post Office. I would add this to your must-do list. Plus it’s easy to do as it doesn’t require a reservation. On your way down ask the Park Ranger at the bottom of the glass elevator for a Jr. Ranger packet. If they have any badges they will make up a little quiz and award a badge!
We hopped back on the metro at Federal Triangle and rode to Capitol South to visit the Library of Congress. You need a timed entry ticket to visit the Library of Congress. They allow a thirty-min window on either side of your timed ticket, making it very easy to arrive and be let in.
If you are with kids stop at the desk that is immediately after you go through security and ask for a scavenger hunt. It’s a great way to keep the kids engaged so you can soak in the architecture of the main gallery. You won’t want to miss going up the stairs to peek into the reading room. Also head into the exhibition gallery and back to the original Jefferson Library. Stop at the windows for a great view of the Capitol. Downstairs you can see the old office of the head of the Library.
Do not leave without taking your kids to the Children’s Reading Room. You may have to ask for directions because it is all the way down the hall. Here you will find a beautifully curated collection of books. They also had activity boxes and a puppet theater to engage the kids. We spent over an hour in the room reading and doing activities.
Exiting the library we headed away from the Capitol South Metro station so the kids could see the Supreme Court. We snapped a photo on the stairs. (phew… we got all three branches of government.) We walked from here to my sister’s apartment for dinner.
Day 6: Old Town Alexandria & Departure
This whole time we had been staying in Old Town Alexandria and barely ventured out into the city. It is one of my favorite places to walk and enjoy the stately houses that line the street. Plus, it makes for such great people walking.
We made a short walk down King street, across the waterfront, and back up Prince street. I grabbed a coffee on the walk. There are so many good options! If you want something more organized check out the City of Alexandria’s self-guided walking tours.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center is a great stop. (Yes, even with kids.) There is also lots of public art on the waterfront as well as a good car-free area for kids to run. There are plenty of parks to check out too. It just depends on how much time you have to spend and what the weather looks like.
We just needed a leisurely stroll before heading by Metro to the airport to head home.