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Washington DC may not sound like the most exciting holiday travel destination for a teen and tween who have spent most of their lives traveling (and visiting far too many museums).
“DC will be boring” my two daughters protested when I told them we were taking our annual holiday season trip this year to the nation’s capital.
So, I appointed myself the difficult task of making a memorable Washington DC vacation for all members of our family. And I’m very happy to say, “Mission accomplished.”
Both of our girls loved their trip to DC. They enjoyed experiencing firsthand many of the places they have seen in films and TV or learned about in school. They loved the extra fun things we did like bike riding, ice skating, and holiday shopping.
If you’re looking for a three-day itinerary for Washington DC that will please your kids, as well as mom and dad of course, then you will enjoy this Washington DC trip I’ve highlighted below.
- Is Washington DC a Good Destination To Visit In The Holiday Season?
- About This 3 Day Itinerary for Washington DC
- Day 1: Sunday Afternoon in Georgetown
- Day 2: National Mall by Bike, Spy Museum & Holiday Markets
- Cycling Around The National Mall
- National Mall Memorials
- Stop 1: Thomas Jefferson Memorial
- Stop 2: Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial
- Stop 3: Martin Luther King Memorial
- Stop 4: Lincoln Memorial
- Stop 5: Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Stop 6: Korean War Veterans Memorial
- Stop 7: World War II Memorial
- Stop 8: Climb to The Top of the Washington Monument (12pm)
- Stop 9: Stop for a view of the White House
- Stop 10: Coffee Break at Colada
- Stop 11: International Spy Museum
- Stop 12: Explore the Downtown Holiday Market
- Stop 13: Dinner at Pi Pizzeria
- Day 3: Capitol Hill & National Mall Museums
- Stop 1: U.S. Capitol Building Tour (9am)
- Stop 2: Library of Congress (10:45)
- Stop 3: Lunch at Capitol Hill
- Stop 4: See the Tropics in the U.S. Botanic Gardens
- Stop 5: Explore the Smithsonian Museums
- Day 4: The Ford Theater + Alexandria
- Top Tips for your Washington DC Vacation with Kids
- Where to Stay in Washington DC
- Parking in DC
- Final Thoughts On This Washington DC Vacation
- Don’t forget Travel Insurance!
Is Washington DC a Good Destination To Visit In The Holiday Season?
When Allianz Partners Top 10 Thanksgiving Destination Index came out sharing the top 10 destinations for Americans traveling in the United States for Thanksgiving and the Holiday season, we decided to choose number 9 on the list, Washington DC.
(New York City of course topped the list, followed by Seattle, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Boston, Atlanta, Phoenix, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Dallas.)
While it might be too late for you to travel to DC for Thanksgiving, Christmas is around the corner and a time that is just as great to experience any of these destinations.
Most of the seasonal Christmas experiences start the day after Thanksgiving, so it’s perfect timing to enjoy them.
About This 3 Day Itinerary for Washington DC
For this trip to DC, we wanted to fit in a few holiday experiences as well as visit the top Washington DC attractions including memorials, museums, and of course, a taste of local culture.
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and left after lunch on Wednesday, so had a full three days of exploring.
Depending on your schedule, you may need to be flexible with how you do this itinerary. You may need to adapt it to fit your circumstances. Use this as a guide and inspiration, and juggle it around as you see fit.
I’ve also included some tips with alternative suggestions (basically what we would have done differently). We make the mistakes so you can save time and money. You’re welcome!
Day 1: Sunday Afternoon in Georgetown
Downtown DC is pretty quiet on a Sunday, so we decided to explore Georgetown located on the Potomac River in Northwest Washington, D.C.
Georgetown is regarded as the oldest neighborhood in Washington DC and is filled with colorful row homes, cobblestone streets, good shopping, and delicious cupcakes.
It made for the perfect first stop as we just wandered around and took it all in, and stretched our legs after a five-hour drive from our home in Raleigh, NC. Here’s where we went.
Stop 1: Lunch at Thunder Burger & Bar
Sunday brunch was still happening when we arrived rather late at 2pm at the Thunder Burger & Bar on Main Street. That suited us as we were all famished after a food-less drive.
Craig chowed down on their Breakfast Burger topped with Virginia ham, grilled pineapple, and over easy egg – just like we do in Australia.
My Shakshuka was delicious! The Mediterranean spices in the meatballs were so flavorful, and almost tricked me into thinking I was eating a falafel but with a much better texture.
The girls happily shared a huge plate of Chicken and Waffles with a double thumbs up. And for a DC restaurant, the prices were quite reasonable.
Stop 2: Wander the Georgetown streets
One of the best free things to do in Georgetown, especially with older kids, is to just roam around the streets, do some shopping, look at some holiday decorations and see what you can discover.
The intersection of M and Wisconsin Avenue is the heart of Georgetown, with boutique-lined streets extending in all four directions.
We happily followed the girls into big-name stores like Urban Outfitters and Glossier, but also independent stores like the cute Bridge Street Books.
As new kitten owners, we stopped for a while to gaze at the kittens through the window of the Crumbs & Whiskers Kitten & Cat Cafe.
Turn down some of the side streets and cobblestone alleys to see what you discover. Like this illuminated butterfly garden, we found it on the grounds of a historic church.
Stop 3: Sample Cupcakes at Baked & Wired
We had memorable cupcakes and coffee here a few years ago, so of course, we knew this would be a DC highlight for our kids!
Baked & Wired is a family bakery making small-batch baked goods and delicious craft coffee. Lining the counter is a wide variety of cupcakes with flavors like flapjack, the great pumpkin, dirty chai, and red velvet. They even have vegan and gluten-free options!
Kalyra says don’t miss the Tessita cupcake, a vanilla cake with dulce de leche filling, topped with chocolate hazelnut satin frosting.
I find their cupcakes to be the perfect moist texture and not sickly sweet despite the abundance of creamy icing on top.
You can either eat in amongst beautiful portraiture adorning the walls or take them to-go as you walk along the cute Georgetown canal pathways to admire the historic colorful houses and Christmas lights.
Stop 4: Visit the Old Stone House
The Old Stone House is the oldest structure on its original foundation in Washington, D.C.
This pre-revolutionary colonial building is quite small with not a lot to see. You can visit the lower floor of the building which has some exhibits in what was once the kitchen.
I found the exterior gardens to be quite lovely. I enjoyed sitting here finishing my coffee and cupcake!
Stop 5: Ice Skating at Washington Harbor
Just a few steps from Georgetown on the Potomac River is Washington Harbor’s Holiday ice skating rink.
Ice skating has become one of our holiday traditions since we first did it at Bryant Park in NYC for Christmas.
I’m not sure if the ice-skating rink was rough or if I was just rusty, but it felt like skating along a gravel pathway at first.
Pretty soon our skates warmed up to it as the ice became more worn down and we stayed up and skated for about an hour. The only thing missing was Christmas music!
This ice-skating rink is Washington DC’s largest. Alternatively, the ice-skating rink in the National Art Gallery sculpture garden comes highly recommended, but it had not yet opened for the season.
HOT TIP: Get here at dusk. The crowds will be less, and you’ll get pretty sunset colors. I loved the striking views of the Watergate Hotel (yes, the SAME place as Nixon scandal) all lit up at night.
Stop 6: Dinner at Agora D.C.
We took an Uber to Dupont Circle as we thought it was a vibrant place to hang out and Georgetown got really quiet once the sun went down.
Dupont Circle was a flop on a Sunday night, but we found a great restaurant a few streets back that was only a 15-minute walk from our hotel.
Agora D.C. is a family-owned Mediterranean Mezze Restaurant. It’s inspired by the rich culinary traditions of Turkey melded with flavors from Greece and Lebanon.
Aromatic, Spicy, and Delicious with a soft ambiance and a quite affordable price, especially with their share plates.
I was still full from our late lunch so was more than satisfied with an Htipiti appetizer of roasted red Pepper, Feta, Thyme, Olive Oil, and a bowl of delicious brussels on a bed of lemon yogurt, urfa peppers, and golden raisins.
There are a variety of flatbread flavors the kids will love and Craig enjoyed a plate of Kofte: minced lamb and New York strip patties with Cack, Sumac, Onions, and tomatoes.
I also had a glass of Lebanese Syrah – my first ever Lebanese wine and I was impressed with this smoothness.
Day 2: National Mall by Bike, Spy Museum & Holiday Markets
One of the best things to do in Washington DC is to tour the National Mall. You could easily spend a full day here as it’s surrounded by some of the top attractions in DC.
If you don’t know anything about the National Mall, it is not a shopping mall, but a never-ending expanse of land encompassing inspiring monuments and museums that are administered by the National Park Service.
This striking “America’s front yard “stretches for nearly two-miles and has the Lincoln Memorial on one end, the U.S. Capitol Building on the other, museums lined on either side and the Washington Monument piercing the sky in between. The White House is also just off the Mall.
Touring the Mall is an incredible lesson in history as some of the US’s most iconic memorials tell the story of the people and events that shaped the nation.
On the other half of the Mall (the eastern side) are some of the world’s best museums.
But as we only had three days in DC, we needed a way to see as much of the National Mall as possible in such a short time. You can read our full guide to the National Mall here.
Cycling Around The National Mall
Ok. So if you’re going to incorporate museums and memorials with a teen and tween, you better somehow find a unique and memorable way to do it.
I knew bike riding around the National Mall would be it.
Granted, they complained as soon as they found out. Craig spoiled my surprise by telling them the evening before. I was going to tell them by handing over their bike helmets at check-in to avoid stretched-out periods of complaining.
I became enemy Number One, until they got on the bikes, experienced the fun of it, and realized just how much worse it would have been if we walked around that Mall instead.
We only managed to explore half of the Mall on this day in Washington DC (between 10am-3pm) and that was on bikes!
We rode around the tidal basin, stopping at the memorials along there. We then visited the Lincoln Memorial, before riding down to the Washington Monument.
We took a quick break after that with lunch from the many food trucks lined along the streets. I can’t say it was fantastic food, but they are cheaper and faster than the restaurants nearby. (Perhaps pack a picnic!)
After lunch we rode back around stopping at a few more memorials before dropping off the bikes at 3pm.
NOTE: we rented bikes from Unlimited Biking located near Tidal Basin. You can rent by the hour, or a day pass – which we recommend if using them to tour the National Mall. They also have guided biking tours and segway tours. You can also rent electric bikes, but since the ride is flat, I don’t think it’s necessary.
National Mall Memorials
All of the memorials in the western half of the National Mall are FREE.
There’s not a lot to read or do here except reflect and enjoy the tranquil beauty of each memorial. I’m impressed at the effort put into all of them.
Plan your stops around your pre-booked tour of the Washington Monument. We booked ours for 12pm, but in hindsight, 9am would have maybe been a better time.
Also, if you don’t want to bike or walk the National Mall, there are guided tours you can join which take you around in a bus.
These memorials below are listed in the order we viewed them on our bike ride.
Stop 1: Thomas Jefferson Memorial
One of my favorite of the Washington memorials for its architectural beauty (especially amidst the backdrop of the blooming cherry blossoms) is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin.
It stands as a symbol of liberty and has marble steps leading up to huge ionic columns housing a bronze statue of Jefferson looking out over the Washington Monument.
The walls are inlaid with excerpts from his letters, speeches, and the Declaration of Independence.
Stop 2: Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial
Definitely the most unique of the memorials is the one in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four terms in office from the Great Depression to World War II.
I loved its tranquil nature set back into the forest on the banks of the Tidal Basin with waterfalls, statues of FDR (with his dog) and his wife Elanor and famous quotes etched into the brown marble walls.
Stop 3: Martin Luther King Memorial
As the Lincoln Memorial was the place of MLK’s most famous speech, “I have a dream”, it makes sense that his MLK Memorial is located quite close to it.
The memorial, unveiled in 2011, is based on a line from the speech, “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
The huge (oddly) white granite statue of Dr. King is the stone of hope and the two pieces of granite near him are depicted as the mountain of despair. Along the back is a black wall with quotes of MLK reminding us to keep working towards inclusion for all.
Stop 4: Lincoln Memorial
One of the most famous memorials in the world is the Lincoln Memorial with its white, larger-than-life, marble statue of the larger-than-life President Abraham Lincoln looking directly over the reflection pool past the Washington Monument and to the domed Capitol building.
My girls recognized it as soon as we walked to the reflection pool as the place from Forrest Gump!
This is one of the best views in Washington DC and a great place to reflect upon what Lincoln stood for and how he helped change the world for the better.
Stop 5: Vietnam Veterans Memorial
I often feel quite emotional walking up and down the black wall of the Vietnam War Memorial looking at the seemingly endless list of names etched into the wall of the thousands of members of the U.S. armed forces who fought, died in service, or were listed MIA during the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands as one of the most visited and moving memorials on the National Mall
Stop 6: Korean War Veterans Memorial
The Korean War Veterans Memorial is equally striking and unnerving with 19 stainless steel statues of soldiers on patrol.
It’s the intensity of their faces that makes you feel like you’re being hunted in the jungle during wartime.
The mural wall behind them – similar to the Vietnam war memorial – has real-life photographs of the 2,499 men, women, and dogs who served in the war. It’s quite a sight to see.
Stop 7: World War II Memorial
One of the most poignant of the Washington DC Memorials is the World War II Memorial at the bottom of Washington Monument hill.
Opened in 2004, it honors the spirit and sacrifice of the 16 million men and women who served overseas and the more than 400,000 that perished.
There is so much to see and reflect on in this popular memorial. There is a beautiful fountain at its center, which 56 granite columns forming a semi-circle around.
They symbolize unity among the 48 states, seven federal territories, and the District of Columbia. There are two 43-foot-tall arches on opposite sides: the northern arch represents victory in the Atlantic, while the southern arch symbolizes victory in the Pacific.
Stop 8: Climb to The Top of the Washington Monument (12pm)
Did you know you can go up to the top of the 555 ft high Washington Monument? Even though your 360-degree views of Washington will be through tiny windows, it is well worth it.
This monumental obelisk was built to honor George Washington and still, today stands as the world’s tallest freestanding stone structure.
A lift will take you up to the observation deck where you can see nearly 25 miles in every direction. Spot the landmarks like the U.S. Capitol, the White House, Arlington National Cemetery, the Pentagon, Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington National Cathedral.
There is also a small museum with information about the building of the monument and a statue of Washington at the bottom of the lift.
Don’t close your eyes when going back down. It will slow down twice to give you a glimpse of the interior walls, which are lined with commemorative stones.
Like most of the monuments, memorials, and museums in Washington, this tour is free. Although, if you book ahead online – and I recommend you do – you will have to pay a $1 booking fee per ticket.
Tickets for the following day are released at 10am each day, and it’s like trying to grab Taylor Swift tickets. I arrived at 10am on Monday and could see the tickets available quickly counting down. I managed to get 4 tickets for midday.
If you don’t get any, they release some tickets on the morning of, but you will have to line up outside the monument quite early. All tickets for the day were gone when we arrived at midday.
You can also book tickets exactly 30 days in advance of your tour date.
NOTE: The following guided tour of the National Mall by bus includes entry to the Washington Monument. It’s also handy for those who don’t want to bike or walk the National Mall. Reserve your place on the tour here.
Stop 9: Stop for a view of the White House
Want to visit the White House? Especially to see the beautiful Christmas decorations? Craig and I did it in 2014 after being invited by the White House for their first-ever travel summit. It was one of the top highlights of our 12-year travel blogging career.
As this was a last-minute trip to DC, we missed the opportunity to book a tour to visit the White House. You can reach out to your local representatives to tour the White House, but it must be done at least 21 days in advance and no further than 90 days in advance.
As I said, we make mistakes to help you avoid them! But, if you’re planning to visit DC for the holidays in 2022, you’ll be too late. But not if you’re planning to travel in 2023.
We rode from the National Mall around the Ellipse – where they were putting together their Christmas tree to the back gates of the White House.
You are quite far from the house here but get the classic view of the White House and its semi-circular portico overlooking the large expansive South lawn.
TOP TIP: Go around to the front of the White House on H Street that overlooks Lafayette Square. You can get much closer to the house and get a very different and beautiful view of the White House’s northern facade.
I really enjoyed standing here and contemplating life in the White House and all it takes for a person with a dream to actually make it there.
Note: this street can get closed off at any time. We went at 5pm and the Secret Service officers shut it down. Given the number of helicopters roaming the skies, we figured President Biden was about to leave the building.
You can go a block back on the northern side of Lafayette Square and still get views. We also saw a reporter (I think from CNN) film a political segment from here. Look up to the roof and see if you can see the snipers! Kind of creepy, but our inner spies also find it kinda cool.
We returned at 7am to H Street and had the entire north side view of the White House to ourselves.
Stop 10: Coffee Break at Colada
How have I never had Cuban coffee before?
After dropping off our bike rentals in the District Wharf area – which looks like it would be a lot of fun at night, especially in the summer – we had 30 minutes to rest before our next top Washington DC attraction.
We stopped at the vibrant Colada Shop café and bar where I decided to try a café con leche, which if you don’t know is espresso, steamed milk, sweet Cuban crema.
I loved the fresh zing it gave me without the heaviness of a milky latte.
As it’s near the bike rental stop, this could also be a good place to have breakfast before your bike ride. They also have other locations around DC.
Stop 11: International Spy Museum
When we asked our Instagram community what are the best things to do in Washington DC with kids, the vast majority said, “International Spy Museum”.
There were no complaints of boredom for the two hours we spent there refining our spy skills, learning about espionage, the importance of intelligence gathering, and the lives of real-life spies.
The museum is engaging from the start by giving all visitors a special undercover spy mission. You’re given an alias and a mission, all recorded on a card which you use on stations situated around the museum to use your spy skills to uncover mission clues, crack codes, and solve the mystery – you even get to create your own digital spy disguise.
While it was fun to be a pretend spy, after learning about the life of spies, and the risk of coming to torturous ends, it’s not something I ever have an interest in being!
Stop 12: Explore the Downtown Holiday Market
Kalyra said the Downtown Holiday Markets were her favorite thing to do in Washington DC. Teens are always going to love the opportunity to shop for their interests.
The Holiday Markets are in Penn Quarter just north of the mall until Dec 23rd. You’ll find more than 70 local artisans and exhibitors including black and minority-owned businesses.
There are food vendors with tasty treats like donuts, empanadas, and German food. Live music was also playing and there were interactive light displays lining the markets.
We loved them. and picked up some beautiful drawn prints from Marcella Kriebel and some Christmas advent calendars from the German stall.
Stop 13: Dinner at Pi Pizzeria
For an affordable family dinner, you may enjoy eating at Pi Pizzeria, which was only a block away from the Downtown Holiday Market in Penn Quarter.
You can customize your own pizzas or choose from their unique specialty deep crust or thin pizzas. They are large enough for your family to share at a great price and they also have gluten-free pizzas.
And, they poured us really large glasses of chianti. A glass of chianti with pizza reminiscing over a fun day riding around DC and pretending to be spies was filled with warm holiday cheer.
Day 3: Capitol Hill & National Mall Museums
After cramming a lot into day two, we decided that day three should be spent exploring the other half of the National Mall (the Eastern side) that incorporates the U.S. Capitol and the world-famous Smithsonian Museums.
Here’s what we got up to on day three of our Washington DC vacation.
Stop 1: U.S. Capitol Building Tour (9am)
The U.S. Capitol Building is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world and the center of American democracy. No trip to Washington DC would be complete without paying a visit to the place where laws are debated and bills passed on behalf of the American people.
Unfortunately, thanks to the January 6th storming of the Capitol, our girls were excited to visit Capitol Hill just so they could see where it all happened. (They definitely were NOT in approval of what happened!)
As we’re also planning to become US citizens, and they learn so much about the branches of government in school, I know this would be a great Washington attraction with kids.
A guided tour of the US Capitol starts with an informative 13-minute film called “Out of Many, One,” which shares the history of this building and branch of government.
The 45-minute tour then continues through the building to the Crypt, the Rotunda which is under the stunning Capitol dome, and the National Statuary Hall, which is filled with statues of important leaders in history (not necessarily politicians).
A public tour of the U.S. Capitol is free. Reserve your tickets in advance. But, if you don’t mind long lines, there are limited same-day tickets available.
If you want to visit the House and Senate galleries or watch Congress in session, you must book this beforehand by reaching out to your local Congressman.
We had time after the tour to wander the grounds of the US Capitol and take photos. They were putting up the Christmas tree, which is really beautiful at night when lit.
Stop 2: Library of Congress (10:45)
Even if you are not a book nerd or care about Congress, it’s worth visiting the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building) just to see the elaborate design of the interior.
I only reserved a timed entry pass because it was right next to the Capitol Building, and as it’s the largest library in the world, I thought my book-loving teen would love it.
I think I loved it more than her!
The Library of Congress is home to over 164 million items including books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, and films which are housed across three buildings on Capitol Hill.
The Thomas Jefferson Building is where tourists tend to visit. There are a few exhibits you can see inside, but mostly you’ll be gawking at the architectural beauty of the Great Hall with marble arches and columns. Every inch is covered in decorations from many US artists and sculptures, brightly painted walls, and ceilings.
You can view a rare and perfect copy of the Gutenberg Bible, which is the first Bible printed using the printing press.
There was an exhibit showcasing stunning photography amassed by the library since the 1800s. We particularly loved this Royal cat and dancing grandmother!
A highlight was seeing Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of 6,400 books that founded the Library of Congress. He sold them for $24,000 back in 1800.
And don’t miss the main Reading Room, which you can overlook from the second level of the building. Spend time looking at the ornate painting on the ceiling and the figures surrounding the paintings. There is an information plaque that describes the symbolism of the art.
I only found this out after our visit, but you can get a library card from here, which can give you access to the Reading Room.
Read our complete guide on the Library of Congress: things to do and see.
Admission to the Library of Congress is still free, but you will need to make reservations before arriving.
NOTE: You can do a paid guided tour of the Capitol Building and Library of Congress. It also includes a stop at the Supreme Court and the ability to relax as your guide shares the history and insider information. You also then won’t need to worry about reserving tickets in advance or waiting on long lines as your entry is included in the tour. Book your spot here.
Stop 3: Lunch at Capitol Hill
Lunch options aren’t great right on the National Mall. You really have to walk a few streets away. Although I have heard the café inside the US Capitol is actually pretty good and you may get to rub shoulders with some important politicians. Good or bad? You decide!
We walked 15-minutes down into Capitol Hill. I thought it might be more of a fun neighborhood to check out than it was.
In hindsight, I may have skipped it and just grabbed lunch at the Capitol to save on time and lots of walking. But we did find a great lunch spot and coffee there.
District Taco (656 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) is a chain so you will find them around DC. The food was delicious, and relatively affordable, and I loved how customizable all their dishes were.
I was so happy to eat delicious nachos and have the ability to pick off or replace the ‘Pick de Calle’ with tomatoes and salsa (I cannot eat raw onion and remain happy).
Around the corner from District Taco is Peregrine Espresso, which has outstanding coffee. We relaxed here for a bit soaking up local life and planning the second half of this day in Washington.
Stop 4: See the Tropics in the U.S. Botanic Gardens
Back to the National Mall with our first stop at the relaxing United States Botanic Gardens. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1820, the U.S. Botanic Garden is the oldest continuously operating botanic garden in the United States
There is a conservatory and outdoor gardens to explore.
The rainforest was one of Kalyra’s favorite things to do in DC – except dressed in our winter clothes, it was so stiflingly hot that we couldn’t stay in for too long without stripping down to nakedness.
The dome inside The Tropics rises to 93 feet and has a mezzanine level from which you can view the jungle canopy. It was truly beautiful and a happy place for me.
There are a “Season’s Greenings” holiday display now until Jan 2, 2023, G-gauge model trains will run in the gated outdoor gardens and the Conservatory will feature poinsettias, holiday decor, and D.C. landmarks made from plants.
Stop 5: Explore the Smithsonian Museums
You’ll really want to plan well for which museums to explore along the northern half of the National Mall. There is a Smithsonian Museum to suit any kind of interest and style – and they are all FREE.
The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, with 21 museums and the National Zoo (also free to enter).
The most popular ones require timed entry passes. We missed out on visiting the Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History & Culture because we did not realize this, and all passes were booked out!
These were two of the museums most recommended to us. As a way to avoid missing out, you can join this paid guided tour of both these museums which guarantees you entry.
As we are not huge museums people, I knew, the girls especially, would not appreciate me adding too many museums to our Washington DC trip.
We chose a couple and basically just popped in to see an exhibition or two in each one. So, plan accordingly based on your interests and travel style.
Here are the museums we visited.
National Museum of the American Indian
We went straight to the 4th floor of the Our Universes exhibit, which focuses on indigenous worldviews and philosophies related to the creation and order of the universe—and the spiritual relationship between humankind and the natural world.
I wish I had more time (or preferably solo time) to really soak up the varying tribal philosophies.
For those with younger kids, the interactive, family-friendly imagiNATIONS Activity Center provides young visitors a lively space with a wide variety of learning experiences.
Another possible change to this day’s itinerary in DC would have been to eat lunch at the Mitsitam Café inside the museum. It features Native foods found throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
I really enjoyed the Hirshhorn Museum, which features international modern and contemporary art and a unique cylindrical building designed by Gordon Bunshaft.
We just chose the top floor and loved the striking Pickett’s Charge panorama by Mark Bradford that wraps around the outer edge of the floor.
It’s a collage of colored paper that turns the historic Gettysburg Pickett’s Charge cyclorama (which we’ve experienced) into a series of eight powerful, abstract paintings. Each is about 45 to 50 feet long and 12 feet high.
I also really enjoyed the Guerilla Girls exhibition Put it This Way speaking out for equality and inclusion for female artists.
A reader also recommended that the timed passes to the exhibit. One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection, is worth getting (especially for the gram photos!).
Out the front of the gallery is the 1.3-acre sunken Sculpture Garden which features works from multiple artists. of Auguste Rodin’s most famous sculptures, entitled The Burghers of Calais, can be found here.
Even the trees were selected for their sculpture-like qualities and in the garden, you’ll find Babylon weeping willows, copper beeches, weeping beeches, Japanese black pines, and dawn redwood trees.
Be sure to stop by Yoko Ono’s Wishing Tree where you can whisper your wish for peace.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
The Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art is a wonderful oasis in the middle of a tiring Museum Day.
Enjoy works of modern sculpture as you slowly wander through the 6.1-acre garden. There is a café where you can rest for a while, and as mentioned previously, an ice-skating rink during the Holiday season.
We were so exhausted by the end of the day that we enjoyed using our $100 hotel credit to eat at the Lady Madison restaurant in our hotel. It was my favorite meal of our trip in DC.
The bacon cheeseburger was delicious. They set the bar for what a burger should taste like in a land of burgers. Our waiter, Abdul was so lovely.
Day 4: The Ford Theater + Alexandria
The last morning of our family trip to DC was all about President Lincoln and a stopover for lunch before our long drive home.
If you have a morning free after spending three days in Washington DC, here’s how you can spend it.
Stop 1: Breakfast at Lincoln’s Waffle Shop (8am)
One of the most popular – and affordable – places to eat breakfast in Washington DC is Lincoln’s Waffle Shop.
We planned it for the last day as we had booked into the Ford Theater Museum across the road at 9am.
As you can imagine, you’ll find a menu full of waffles and your typical diner-type breakfast food: grits, potato hash, over-easy eggs, sausage, and bacon.
I found it very tasty and loved how the sausage was not your typical diner, weeny-in-size, and cardboard in taste.
I also enjoyed how this restaurant was a pleasant mix of tourists and locals – groups of construction workers and police officers getting a hearty start to their day.
Stop 2: Tour Ford’s Theater
I wasn’t sure if Ford’s Theater would be worth it, but given we’d heard so much about Lincoln during our time in DC – one of the greatest Presidents of all time – we’d be remiss not to visit the place where he was shot and later died.
After he was shot in the Presidential suite of the Ford Theater by Booth, he was taken across the road to a boarding house to die 9 hours later in dignity.
A visit to Ford’s Theater – a national park – allows you to see both.
The tour starts in the museum where you learn more about Lincoln’s family, the Civil War, and the timeline of his death. You then visit the theater to see where he was shot. If you’re lucky, there may be a rangers talk on, which I found informative and bought the assassination to live.
You then visit the Peterson House across the road to see the room where Lincoln died and to learn what happened to all those involved in the assassination.
It was very similar to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Make sure you book your tickets in advance for this. We went in at the opening and when we walked out an hour later the line outside went all the way down the street.
They have timed-entry tickets every half hour, which are only $5.
A limited number of free entry tickets are available at the box office on a first-come basis.
A fun thing to do with kids in DC during the holidays would be to see A Christmas Carol performance at Ford’s Theater. In hindsight, I wish I did this, especially after visiting the Museum.
WARNING: Not all stops on the site are included with every ticket. Pay attention when booking your tour. I don’t think it’s worth visiting unless you can see all the exhibits, especially the theater.
Stop 3: Visit Alexandria, Virginia
We decided to stop in at Old Town Alexandria, 15-minutes south of DC in Virginia on our way home to Raleigh as my research told me that Oprah thought this was the most “Christmassy town in the US.’
The girls were quite upset we stopped here, as they wanted to get home to their kittens, and there were very few Christmas decorations up yet (pre-Thanksgiving).
Alexandria is a nationally designated historic district founded in 1749, most noted for its rich history and beautifully preserved 18th and 19th-century architecture.
Old Town Alexandria is home to independent restaurants, boutique stores, and historic museums, with a modern waterfront area alongside the Potomac River.
It was a little underwhelming, but I would like to return and explore more deeply another time.
We didn’t spend too much time here. We explored the main street, had a delicious coffee at Misha’s (which also had delicious sausage rolls made just like back home in Australia), and a hearty Irish lunch at Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub on King St.
We certainly needed it as the drive home took us almost 7 hours thanks to holiday traffic!
This may be something you want to skip on your DC family trip, depending on whether this is on your way home or not.
You may wish to visit Mt Vernon if you have more time in the afternoon. It’s meant to be very beautiful during the holidays with its Candlelight tour and decorations.
OR, you just may want to take your weary feet home to your kittens.
Top Tips for your Washington DC Vacation with Kids
Use this map to help you with your planning. Save a copy and adjust as you see fit. This will help you plan out your days, so you spend less time walking around. After you’ve done that, check out these other tips for visiting Washington DC:
- Book your top Washington DC attractions in advance. They are popular and will book quickly, especially during holiday season. Even though many of the museums and government attractions are free, many require timed entry passes. Your pre-booked tour times will determine how you schedule your days.
- If you are driving up from the South, give yourself extra traffic time as the stretch between DC and Richmond has to be one of the worst in the country. We’re currently sitting in traffic on our way home and we’re already 90 minutes delayed and circumnavigating around country roads – still the fastest way!
- If you’re visiting DC outside of the Holiday season, most of these attractions and tours are still relevant! Just substitute something else in for the Holiday attractions we experienced.
- Food is quite expensive in Washington DC, so we have mentioned a few places we thought were affordable and worth visiting. It was hard to find something in between awful fast food and expensive restaurants. I am gluten-free which means it’s hard to find easy breakfast options like bagels or muffins from the many bakeries around. I hope you can!
- If you plan on visiting a few paid attractions, you may save money with a Washington DC Sightseeing Pass. For example The International Spy Museum, guided bike tour of the National Mall, and a trip to George Washington’s Mt Vernon are all included on it, so it will save you money on your entrance passes.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
On this short 3-day family vacation to DC, it was ideal to choose a hotel within walking distance to the National Mall.
After applying our strategies to save on accommodation, we found the best deal via our American Express Gold credit card with their Hotel Collection.
If you stay more than 2 nights, you get a $100 credit to spend on qualifying dining, spa, and resort activities. You also get a room upgrade – if available- and it was to a deluxe queen.
We booked a room at The Madison on 15th street only a couple of blocks away from the White House.
We could walk everywhere – Georgetown was even a 3-minute walk from our hotel.
The room was comfortable but most important of all, was the convenient location.
Parking in DC
If you’re on a USA road trip and driving to DC, make sure to research the cost of parking at your hotel. Most have valet parking only and charge on average around $65 per night!
As we arrived on Sunday, street parking was free. So we parked the first night on the street and then moved it to a parking garage the next morning, which only charged $32 overnight (this does not include in and out privileges).
There are plenty of parking garages downtown that will have deals like this. Note, most are closed on a Sunday. (But you get the free street parking if you can jag a spot).
Once you park, you should not need your car for this trip. You’re better off taking an Uber/Lyft or riding the DC Metro.
Final Thoughts On This Washington DC Vacation
So there you have it, this is how you can spend three days in Washington DC with your tweens and teens and as you can see, there’s quite a lot to see and do.
I highly recommend hiring bikes and cycling from A to B on your trip. We were only able to cover all the stops we did on day two because we were able to cycle between them.
If you don’t feel like cycling, you will need to be prepared to cut a few things off on day two of this itinerary.
We hope that you found this guide useful and that it helped you plan your DC vacation. But, before you go…
Don’t forget Travel Insurance!
Travel insurance is the first thing we purchase before booking a trip so we’re protected should something go wrong while we’re waiting for our trip to begin! Thankfully travel insurance can be really affordable.
We are ambassadors for Allianz Travel Insurance and recommend them for your travel insurance plans. Consider their OneTrip Prime and OneTrip Premier travel insurance plans for a ton of Smart-Benefits.
We personally have an annual plan as we’re frequent travelers. We love packing our bags and walking out the door knowing we’re always covered.
The free Allianz TravelSmart™ App makes it easy to manage your Allianz Travel Insurance plan on the go. It also has features to help you track flights, get updates about events that may impact your travels, and handy emergency numbers for the destination you are traveling to.
Here is a handy guide on what to know before buying travel insurance and things you may not have known about travel insurance.
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