I have talked to three long-distance friends in the past four days who are planning their family trip to DC this summer. They’ve all asked how they should plan a visit that their kids will love and if there are any “hidden gems” they should know about.
First of all, as I’m writing this on May 22, 2021, if you’re planning your summer visit for this year, realize that planning is a bit different than in past years. The White House and US Capitol building are still behind fencing, so you cannot tour either one of those right now, although you can view both from a distance.
Most of the Smithsonian museums on the Mall that you could easily go in and out of pre-COVID are just opening this week (Natural History is opening June 18th and Air and Space is opening July 30th) and free timed-entry tickets are required.
Reserve Your Timed-Entry Tickets for Museums 7-30 days in Advance
Museums are open with limited hours and offering free timed-entry tickets to visitors. You can reserve your tickets up to 30 days in advance and I’d suggest you look up the museums you want to visit as soon as you’re within that window for the best chance of getting in.
Some museums, such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Natural History, Air and Space, and the Holocaust Museum, are extremely hard to grab tickets for, so try and get online as soon as the passes are released. Most museums are limiting reservations to 6 tickets.
Smithsonian passes (including for the National Zoo) are released throughout each day, beginning at 11am ET, for time slots 30 days out. https://www.si.edu/visit
Two Smithonsian museums, the National Postal Museum and the Anacostia Community Museum, will not require tickets when they open in August. Kids love the Postal Museum, so that can be a good one to check out, if you’re having a hard time getting tickets to other museums.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is open, free timed-entry tickets are available to reserve 30 days in advance with passes being released at 8am ET. There are also a limited number of same-day tickets available. Reserve your tickets here: https://www.ushmm.org/information/visit-the-museum/admission-tickets
National Gallery of Art, West Building is open (East Building is closed) and requiring free timed-entry passes. Tickets are released each Monday at 10am ET for the following week in 15-minute increments between 10am and 3pm. The NGA is not part of the Smithsonian Institute (many people don’t realize this), so you need to go to their website to reserve those passes: https://tickets.nga.gov/events/1e0d93f1-f20c-dce3-aa67-125ab824fba9
The National Archives are open Saturday and Sunday only for about 4 hours each day, timed-entry tickets are sparse, but if you can grab one, it’s worth it to see the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights! When writing this, only 3 dates in July are available for reservation: https://museum.archives.gov/
Other museums that kids particularly like and you may be interested in that have a bit better availability, but also have limited hours and/or it’s still best to reserve advance tickets include…
International Spy Museum: https://www.spymuseum.org/visit/
Museum of the Bible: https://www.museumofthebible.org/plan-your-visit
Outdoor Places Kids Love
Of course, all the usual memorial recommendations apply that you always hear, seriously all the memorials can be awe-inspiring and an incredible place to visit in and of themselves, but while you’re touring them, you might want to know about some of the hidden gems kids will rave over…
After touring the Lincoln Memorial, jump across Constitution Avenue (across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) and check out the Albert Einstein statue. It’s the only statue in DC that you can climb on. It’s owned by the National Academy of Sciences and rumor has it that if you rub his nose, you’ll have good luck or rub some of his genius off on you! (This is my kids’ favorite spot to visit whenever we go to DC.)
While at the World War II Memorial, tell your kids to look for Kilroy. (Behind the golden gates by the Pennsylvania and Delaware pillars, on the Reflecting Pool side between the WWII Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.)
Although the Korean War Veterans Memorial is mostly under construction from an expansion right now, you can still walk up and examine the granite wall. Ask your kids to look for airplanes, tanks, trucks, and the one German Shepherd in the etchings on the granite wall. (All the etchings are from photos found in the National Archives, so they’re real men and the dog was one of 1,500 dogs in Korea who were used to warn the guards when the enemy approached. If you’re looking at the panels, the dog can be found one panel from the end on the right side.)
Although still closed at the moment, check to see if the Washington Monument or the Old Post Office Pavilion Tower is open for visits. Both of these places give you a great aerial view of the city and are one of my personal favorite activities when I take kids to DC.
Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is an amazing place. Plan to visit to be there during a Changing of the Guard ceremony for an unforgettable experience.
Last, but not least, if you’re looking to see things from a different perspective, check out the Jefferson Memorial or the Tidal Basin from atop a paddleboat. It’s sure to make a memory.
Citymapper is my go-to most recommended transportation app for helping you get around DC. It’s free and easy to use and very accurate when giving in-real-time estimates for arriving buses, trains, etc. I absolutely LOVE the DC Circulator for getting around the National Mall and they are currently waiving their already very reasonable $1/ride fee during COVID. Citymapper will tell you exactly where to go to hop on and when the next bus is coming, as well as where to transfer to the Metro or walk, etc. It’s a great tool to have in your pocket.
SpotHero: If you’re driving into DC, SpotHero is great for reserving a spot in a parking garage before you even arrive. Strategically choose the best parking garage for your needs based on your itinerary that day. Knowing exactly where I’m going to park before I leave my home helps reduce anxiety when driving into the city, especially during peak seasons like the spring and summer.
ParkMobile: If you want to attempt street parking (which I don’t recommend during the busy summer months), you’ll need to have the ParkMobile app on your phone to pay for your parking.
Smithsonian Mobile app is helpful if you do snag tickets to a museum to explore exhibits beforehand.
Printable Activities for Kids
There is great value in having your kids look for something specific when they are visiting “another memorial”. It energizes my kids every time I give them a scavenger hunt or Junior Ranger book, and if you’re going to the National Mall, you have several options.
I have created a free scavenger hunt for the Lincoln Memorial which kids have loved.
My family also loves the Junior Ranger program that’s available at many National Parks. You can print off the one for the National Mall here.
Although not a printable activity, my family has also really enjoyed getting stamps in our National Parks Passport book. There are a TON of places you can visit and get stamps for while visiting the National Mall and pretty much all are open, even during COVID. We bought our book while visiting Arlington National Cemetery in 2014, and books are available to purchase at any National Parks gift shop, then you just get a stamp anywhere you go. (Don’t forget the brand new Eisenhower Memorial just off the National Mall, because it’s not in the printed books yet!) We have the classic edition.