Admission to Smithsonian National Zoological Park is free. // © 2015 Keryn Means
Feature image (above): In additional museum and park visits, a stroll past the White House is a must-do activity when in Washington, D.C. // © 2015 Keryn Means
As new residents of the D.C. metro area, we have learned more than a few things about the city while wandering with our two boys. First of all, get a good GPS — your phone will do. It’s easy to get lost due to the city’s four geographical quadrants (Northwest, Northeast, Southeast and Southwest), which each vary greatly in size. For instance, it’s possible to end up on the opposite side of town if you didn’t notice the word “Northwest” in the address.
Visitors will soon discover that D.C. is not a concrete jungle. There are parks, arboretums, vast grassy lawns and squares that children can play in while parents get their bearings (and wonder how they ended up at the White House when they meant to go to the Jefferson Memorial). There are also a plethora of museums, many of them free. As a result, it can be daunting to decide just where to start.
To help clients plan their days in D.C., we highlight five of the best spots to entertain kids (and parents) of any age.
National Geographic Museum
Although not one of the free museums, the National Geographic Museum is worth the price. Until approximately mid-April, the museum hosts a Spinosaurus exhibit that wows visitors both young and old. The arrival of this bag of bones was especially important for the city since the National Museum of Natural History is undergoing some major renovations in its National Fossil Hall, causing its dinosaurs to be moved to a temporary exhibit called "Last American Dinosaurs" until 2019.
The interactive exhibits at National Geographic Museum are designed to engage children as young as 2 years old as well as older siblings and parents who want to read the plaques and watch the films highlighting the creatures in the exhibit. Exhibitions rotate throughout the year, making it a great museum to discover over and over again.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
If jet fuel and space exploration are up your clients’ alley, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum should be their next stop. Delve into the history of America’s path toward commercial aviation and the country’s first steps on the moon. There are plenty of hands-on activities to engage children, plus a few aircraft and spacecraft to climb through — young explorers can click each button and twist every knob in sight.
When the kids are ready to get up close with even more massive mobiles, drive down to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. Inside of a huge airplane hangar, families can browse a 1903 Wright Flyer, a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a Concorde, the Discovery space shuttle and the engineering models of the Mars Pathfinder Lander and Sojourner Rover. Essentially anything that couldn’t fit into the downtown museum is now on display at this location.
Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Not everyone can take hours of airplane and space chitchat, which is why families should mix things up with a visit to Smithsonian National Zoological Park. This free zoo is a great place to let the kids run off some energy as they bounce from one animal enclosure to another.
On rainy days, there are plenty of indoor exhibits to duck into and opportunities to meet reptiles, birds and cuddly orangutans. Volunteers are always nearby with animal hides for curious children to touch and extra information for budding zoologists to absorb. The pandas are the big draw, but don’t forget about the rest of the creatures (about 1,800 of them) who call this zoo home.
United States Botanic Garden
Sometimes you really do just need to stop and smell the roses — even in the middle of the city. United States Botanic Garden is situated next to the Capitol building. Breathe in the smell of dirt and water as beautiful blooms stretch toward the sun. Marvel at the rare and endangered plants or the approximately 5,000 orchids on display.
The seasonal Children’s Garden allows kids to get hands on with the plants using tools and watering cans. Thi.s is one of the few spaces that permits children to touch the flowers — gently — in the garden; it’s hands off everywhere else.
The National Mall is where to find loads of families bouncing from one museum to another, but there is a not-so-well-kept secret in this grassy field: the Washington Monument. From the base of the monument, visitors can peer over at the White House gardens and fly kites on a warm breezy day. The monument recently reopened to visitors, and it's now possible to ride an elevator to the top and get the lay of the land. Tickets are free but still required to enter.
In the summer months, go up to the top of the monument at night to see Washington, D.C., lit up and showing off her sights. While mom and dad are up there, they can go ahead and give themselves a pat on the back. They just snuck in a few history and science lessons during their family vacation — without the kids even realizing it.