*This post was originally written on May 22, 2021. It is being periodically updated as things continue to open. We’ll be updating it for 2022 soon.*
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.
Regardless of when you come this summer, realize that planning is a bit different than in past years. The White House and U.S. Capitol Building are no longer behind fencing, but neither can be toured at this time.
The Smithsonian museums on the Mall that you could easily go in and out of pre-COVID are open (with the exception of the Air and Space Museum, opening July 30th), and starting Tuesday, July 20th will no longer require free timed-entry tickets at most of their museums! The National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Zoo will still require timed-entry tickets. (See below for information on how to request those tickets.)
Reserve Washington Monument Tickets the Day Before
The Washington Monument just reopened (July 14th) and is allowing visitors with timed-entry passes that are $1 to reserve. It is open M-F from 9am-5pm and you can reserve your tickets starting at 10am the day before your visit. You can reserve up to 4 tickets at a time and tickets are needed for everyone, including infants. Reserve your tickets here: https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/234635
Reserve Museum Tickets 7-30 days in Advance
Museums are open with limited hours and require 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 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 for the National Museum of African American History and Culture and for the National Zoo are released throughout each day, beginning at 11am ET, for time slots 30 days out. All other Smithsonian museums in DC will be open without tickets required starting Tuesday, July 20th. Visit this link to reserve tickets and their reopening schedule: https://www.si.edu/visit
The Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian Castle reopen on July 30th, no timed-entry tickets will be required. Two other 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, East Building, and Sculpture Garden are all open! Free timed-entry passes are required for the West and East buildings. Once you have a ticket for either building, you have access to both.
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://www.nga.gov/tickets.html
The National Archives have just expanded their hours. They’re now open daily from 10-5:30pm. Free 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 one date was available for reservation: https://museum.archives.gov/
Library of Congress is opening for visitors on July 15th with limited capacity Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between 10am-4pm, with last entry at 3pm. Free, timed-entry tickets are required and can be reserved up to 30 days in advance. There is a limit of 6 per group. Reserve your tickets here: https://www.loc.gov/visit
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. It’s now open daily from 8am-5pm. The Changing of the Guard ceremony runs every half-hour during the summer months.
Just off the National Mall is the newest memorial…the World War I Memorial. You can plan to visit it on your way to see the White House. If detouring off the Mall, I recommend walking to the White House via 15th Street to see the WWI Memorial on your way and walking back to the White House on 17th Street walk by the Eisenhower Executive Building. Take a moment to explore the Ellipse (the big grassy oval behind the White House, check out NPS’s Ellipse info). Tell your kids to look for the Zero Milestone, National Christmas Tree spot, and look for the high water marks on the Capitol Gatehouse (at Constitution Avenue and 15th Street)…they’re almost as high as some of your preschoolers!
Outdoor Summer Activities (No Tickets Required)
Summer is usually full of fun, free, outdoor summer activities on the National Mall…thankfully, some of those things are still happening!
Library of Congress’s Outdoor Movies on the Lawn every Thursday night, July 5-August 12. This is a free event. More info here: https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-21-033/library-to-present-4th-annual-summer-movies-on-the-lawn
Outdoor Movies on the National Building Museum‘s west lawn for DowntownDC Summer Flicks – CAN I KICK IT? movie series runs through July 27th. This is a free event, movie ratings range from PG to R, so you’ll want to check the schedule here: https://www.downtowndc.org/event/downtowndc-summer-flicks-can-i-kick-it-2021/
Regular summer events that are virtual or canceled this year:
Smithsonian Folklife Festival is virtual this year.
National Gallery of Art, Sculpture Garden Jazz Series of concerts is canceled this summer.
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.
Smithsonian Mobile app is helpful if you do snag tickets to a museum to explore exhibits beforehand.
Parking Apps & Free weekend Parking
I don’t recommend street parking during the busy summer months, it’s just not a way to reliably find parking without spending a ton of time circling around when you could be touring instead. In addition, you have to pay special attention to time limits, days/times you can park, etc.
The exception to my No Street Parking During Summer rule is if you’re driving in on a weekend (without any event or festival going on). If you’re going to be touring the National Mall or close to the U.S. Capitol, then plan to park in the U.S. Capitol’s permitted parking on either side of the Reflecting Pool for free on the weekend. Most people don’t realize that you can park here, so I rarely have a problem finding a spot. Also, Metro station parking is free on the weekend, which is convenient if you’re planning to ride the Metro.
If my attempts at street parking don’t work, I just pull out my phone and use the SpotHero app mentioned below to grab a parking spot and head over.
Here are a few parking apps to help you out…
ParkMobile: If you want to attempt street parking, you’ll need to have the ParkMobile app on your phone to pay for your parking.
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.
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.