Jess, aged 13 writes: Last week, our family visited Washington DC for three days. Although we had a very busy time, we definitely managed to narrow down the best things to do in that time period and really loved it. The city itself is unusual: as it is a purpose built capital it is mainly composed of museums, memorials, lawyers and lobbyists! However, this does make it very good for sightseeing. There is so much to do, especially for kids, and we would have been happy to stay for longer.
Robert made a video of our stay – the first he’s done by himself – so please take a look for our highlights.
Where to Stay
Our hotel was the famous Willard Hotel, which used to be the thriving centre of DC’s social life. Today, it is not as busy as it was in the 1900s, but we could definitely imagine how the extravagant lobby would have looked back then, full of the most important people in the city.
The hotel is full of history; Martin Luther King stayed there when he wrote the famous “I have a dream” speech, and it is where President Ulysses S. Grant coined the phrase “lobbyists”, from all the people pestering him in the lobby when he was trying to have a drink! In fact, there is a lovely museum-style room near the back of the hotel. This tells you about the significant events that happened there, and we found it very interesting.
The room we had was big and spacious, with two double beds and a sofa. As Robert and I didn’t want to sleep in the same bed, one of us slept in the fold out bed from the sofa. Even with this folded out, there was still lots of space to walk around and sit down. The TV was massive, and it was really cool to see the streets of DC from our window. However, it was quite noisy with the noise from all the cars.
Breakfast was one of the best I’ve ever been to, with lots of delicious fresh fruit and scrumptious pastries. I loved the glass full of granola, berries, and yoghurt, and ate loads of potatoes. There were also American sticky buns and mum had pancakes.
The Willard is in a brilliant location for getting around and very near the White House.
What to See
Sarah says: Washington is full of monuments and the most noticeable is the Washington Monument itself, which was built in honour of the country’s first President. It stands at 555 feet and is located right in the centre of the National Mall (in between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol). The Washington Monument is the largest stone structure in the world, made of marble, granite and bluestone gneiss and is very impressive (as well as being rather gorgeous). It’s surrounded by 50 flags, one representing each of the states of America and you can also go up it in a lift, but we didn’t have time to do that (we hadn’t booked tickets in advance).
We also visited the stunning Lincoln Memorial which is unbelievably grand and really moving. It is a must-see when you go to Washington and will make you stop and think.
The Second World War memorial is another one we were glad to have visited, but I’m afraid we missed out on a proper visit to the Martin Luther King memorial and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial as we simply ran out of time, and to some extent energy. We (the adults) have seen the Roosevelt Memorial before and it really is worth a trip. We saw the beautiful Jefferson memorial from the tour bus we took.
If you are with children, I simply don’t think you can happily visit all the monuments in Washington as younger members of the family may not appreciate their historical value as much as you do! They are also all spaced out – Washington is a trip where you walk and walk…
Our tips would be do to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial as these are the most iconic. If you want to go to the top of the Monument, you can queue up on the day at a booth adjacent to the Monument or book in advance (there’s a $.150 service charge per ticket). Each trip is timed and lasts around half an hour in total.
Brian writes: We visited the National Archives Museum, and headed straight for the Rotunda to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.
We were there relatively late in the afternoon, so the queues were not too long. All the documents are in secure cases, but you can look down at them very closely (although you can’t take any photographs). The lights are kept very dim, so the documents don’t fade any more – the Declaration of Independence was particularly faded.
The Constitution with its opening “We the people” in large letters makes a big impression and is also interesting because of its mistakes – some words needed to be inserted between lines, and Benjamin Franklin signs for “Pensylvania” (with only one “n”, instead of “Pennsylvania”).
There are two armed guards, one on either side of the Constitution, so there is no chance of it being stolen (as Nicholas Cage impressively managed in “National Treasure”).
The rotunda is huge and incredibly imposing. There are also two large-scale murals on the walls depicting scenes of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution being presented. There are two signs which helpfully identify the signatories depicted in the murals. This makes it more obvious that George Washington only signed the Constitution, while Benjamin Franklin signed both.
We probably spent about 45 minutes in the Rotunda, but I am really pleased that we took the opportunity to visit – you don’t see documents like this every day and I think the children felt that too. We also looked round the temporary exhibition on the history of alcohol in the US. This mainly focussed on the Prohibition era (during the 1920s, and early 1930s) and was very interesting.
The museum closed at 5.30pm and there was lots we had not managed to see, including its copy of The Magna Carta. But we had already seen two copies a few months ago in Lincoln, so gave this one a miss.
We pre-booked our visit to the National Archives Museum in advance, so we beat the queue to get through security at the main entrance. This cost $1.50 per person. Entrance itself is free.
Jess says: We took the Washington DC Big Bus Tour around the city, which was very convenient as one of the stops was right outside our hotel! Every other bus has an actual person speaking, and the ones in between had recorded audio that you heard through headphones. As our hotel was one of the last stops on the tour, we took a bus with the recording to get to the first stop: Union Station. The recording wasn’t great – it didn’t give you a lot of information and just kept playing Sousa’s Washington Post March over and over!
However, the bus tour with a “live” guide is a very good way to see the city. Our guide, Tom, was funny and exciting, and we saw lots of interesting landmarks. I definitely do recommend it and I think it is good for kids too, as Tom told jokes, asked us questions and was very willing to answer them too. We saw so many different Washington attractions and learnt a lot, but the full tour is quite long, and we got off the bus after two hours as we were cold. In better weather, it would have been absolutely perfect.
The Best Museums
Robert, who is 10, writes: The International Spy Museum is probably the best museum we’ve ever been to (and we have been to a lot!) as it was so unique and cleverly thought out. First we chose an identity and had to memorise various facts about “ourselves” like our age, job and name. Afterwards we walked into the main exhibition where we got tested on who we were and learnt some more crucial facts. We could also watch videos about real life spy missions, learn about disguise and weaponry, do spy activities on interactive screens and see some amazing real life weapons. There was a lipstick that shot bullets, a shoe with a hidden knife and loads of other everyday objects used by the secret service. After a section on the history of spies we came to a brilliant James Bond exhibition. We spent more than three hours there, and could have been there longer.
Unlike the Smithsonian Museums (see below…) which are free, the Spy Museum costs $21.95 per adult and $14.95 for kids aged 7 to 11. It’s free for 6 and under and perfect for any age from around 6+.
Sarah writes: The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research grouping, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, plus the Washington Zoo. Most of them are free, and they cover such a lot of different topics, from art to American history, air and space to the wonderful Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden (worth walking through at the very least). We saw the newest being built (it won’t be open for a while yet), but it sounds fascinating – it’s to be a museum of African American history.
Unless you are in Washington for a long time, it would be almost impossible to visit all these museums. We limited ourselves to just one in-depth visit, to the Air and Space Museum (we have a budding astronaut in the family). I (but not the kids) have been to Washington a few times, and felt that this would be the best for us. Do look at what the museums offer before you travel, as there are often special exhibits or activities which might be perfect for your family.
The Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world and is absolutely amazing – but you need time to explore it properly. We split up, with Brian and Robert trying out the simulator (which Robert loved) and seeing an IMAX film, plus enjoying lots of the interactive displays. Jess enjoyed a show in the Planetarium and we both liked an old-style exhibit about the birth of flying, which included some brilliant old film and commentary. We all found the Wright brothers section impressive, and couldn’t believe that Charles Lindbergh managed to fly across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St Louis (which you can see, right in front of your eyes!).
The Air and Space Museum is free to enter, but the simulator and films do cost extra. Films are shown at different times of the day, so book in advance if you really fancy seeing one of them. IMAX and Planetarium films cost $9 for adults (over 13) and $7.50 for aged 2-12. The shop is also incredible, so be prepared to spend some money there! If you are baffled by the amount of things on offer, you can take a guided tour (these are free).
Jess says: We popped into the Natural History Museum, to see if the entrance looked anything like it did in Night of the Museum 2. If it did, we definitely didn’t recognise it! However, we stayed for about an hour until closing time, and I was amazed by how much there was to do. Robert wanted to go to the section about mammals, and he, mum, and dad enjoyed it and thought that it was really well done. I didn’t enjoy this as much, as I knew all of the information from science lessons at school. As soon as we went to another part of the museum, I started to have a really good time. I learnt about cells and bacteria, created my own country, and marvelled at how fast the world’s population was growing. I wish that we could have stayed for longer to see some of the exhibits as it was really exciting and fascinating. There was so much to do that it was perfect for all the family, including Q?rius, which is especially created for tweens and teens.
Robert says: The Newseum was fantastic. It had so many different things from all around the world dating back for many years. There were some amazing things to see like part of the Berlin Wall or the antenna which had stood at the top of the Twin Towers. It had interactive games to play and many boards to read about wars and people. The range of subjects was so big as there was everything from the president’s pets to the history of news on the TV and radio. I loved being a reporter in one section and seeing every Pulitzer Prize winning photograph in another. There were so many different things to do and so many things to learn that we will write more about the Newseum in a separate post!
The Newseum is probably best for around age 7 plus. It costs $22.95 for adults (19+ in this case), and $13.95 for children aged 7-18. All tickets are valid for two days and as there is so much to see, it is well worth a return visit, if you have time.
Where to Eat?
Sarah writes: There are so many places to eat in Washington, but that won’t surprise you! As we weren’t there for very long, we could only try out a few, but we enjoyed a supper at Clydes in gorgeous Georgetown and were very grateful that our hotel was opposite the Corner Bakery which was just perfect for breakfast and light snacks (and cakes!).
We visited the Native Foods Cafe twice in three days for lunch! It’s a vegan cafe with lots of choice, very friendly staff and reasonable prices too. Brian and I loved the (fake) steak sandwich, Jess enjoyed some meatballs and Robert was extremely happy to munch through a chicken sandwich. The desserts were also yummy!
Is Three Days Enough?
Jess says: Not really! There are a lot of other places we would have loved to visit, but we did manage to fit in pretty much everything we wanted to do. I loved walking up to the imposing Lincoln Memorial, assuming the identity of a 62 year old woman named Sandra Miller in the Spy Museum, marvelling at the films and photos in the Newseum, and being very surprised that they serve sugar on bread for breakfast…
I definitely recommend Washington DC to families of all, although perhaps for a longer stay than three days!
We stayed in the Willard Hotel thanks largely to the IHG points we have gathered on other trips to Holiday Inns! It costs upwards of $299 per night. Our Big Bus Tour, visit to the Newseum and to the International Spy Museum were all complimentary. However, our opinions and views are entirely our own.
More about the fabulous Spy Museum (Don’t miss it!)
For more on America, read about Robert’s time at Space Camp at the Kennedy Space Centre, and the day we opened the park at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando.
With thanks to the Capital Region USA who helped us to set up this trip and gave us inspiration!
We love writing this blog as a family and would love it if you would please vote for us in the UK Blog Awards. You can vote up to December 19th 2016 and it literally only takes 30 seconds. Just follow this link. And thank you!!