Washington DC vacation
January 6, 2014 4:41 AM   Subscribe

We are thinking of taking a family vacation to DC this spring. Our kids will be 12, 15, and 17. We haven't yet decided whether we'll drive or fly (from Boston). How many days would we need to see most of the main sites? Any suggestions for an itinerary? What about a good but not terribly pricey hotel (preferably where we can get 2 adjoining rooms and continental breakfast)? Other tips or resources? I've seen some previous questions about off-the-beaten-track attractions, but we would be very much ON the beaten track. :)
posted by wisekaren to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (36 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend kimpton hotels all time. Sign up for their rewards program and check for rates within a week of arrival. You can often get suites at deep discounts. Might be worth spending just one or two nights there if you want a little bit of pampering without breaking your budget.

If you want budget accommodations, look in the union market area. Not the best neighborhood and kind of far from everything, but it's close to metro.

If you just want to see the smithsonian and memorials and federal government stuff you can do all the major attractions in 3-4 days at a decent pace. Almost everything is within walking distance of the mall or a short metro trip away. There is plenty to do around the area if you want to spend more time, though.
posted by empath at 5:57 AM on January 6, 2014

The good news is that most of the "on the beaten track" stuff is concentrated in one part of town, around the National Mall. (The Capitol, most of the Smithsonian buildings, White House, Washington Monument, war memorials, Lincoln, MLK, Jefferson, National Archives, Mint, etc.) You might also head up to Woodley Park and check out the National Zoo--which, like everything else I named, is free.

Give yourself a couple hours per museum. I'd suggest sitting down with your spouse (and maybe your kids too) to prioritize which museums to check out. For families, I definitely recommend the American History Museum (full of Americana, and usually has an interactive exhibit, sometimes a local actor portraying a pioneer woman, civil rights organizer, what have you--they're always engaging and can answer just about any question), as well as the Air & Space Museum. The American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery (one building, a few blocks off the mall) is a good art museum that won't be boring for the kids. Also, I heartily recommend the National Museum of the American Indian--which, as a bonus, has the best cafeteria of them all.
posted by duffell at 6:07 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're going to be using the metro, you might want to get a SmarTrip card for everyone in the family. You should be able to buy them at any station, but you can also buy them online. The cost of the card itself is $2, but there's a $1 surcharge each way for using paper farecards, so you come out ahead if you're taking the metro for more than one round trip.

The monuments are really pretty at night, and there are "bike the sights" tours that do nighttime monument tours.

If you're on a budget, you might want to sign up for Groupon or LivingSocial alerts for DC prior to your trip -- they often have discounts on tours (including that bike the sights tour mentioned above) and non-Smithsonian museums, like the Newseum.
posted by amarynth at 6:09 AM on January 6, 2014

There are some good private (read: not free) museums in that area as well. The Corcoran Gallery of Art is my favorite DC art museum. I've not been to the International Spy Museum, but have heard it's well done, if touristy. I've heard good things about the Newseum too, and the Building Museum is a gorgeous structure (entrance is free, exhibits are ticketed) which usually has one or two interesting exhibits; sadly, I don't think their Lego exhibition is running anymore.

The Crime & Punishment Museum, however, is a horribly distasteful and tacky place with no redeeming qualities, IMHO.

If you go the paid route, though, probably your best bet for a family visit is the National Geographic Museum. It's in a different neighborhood, but just a short Metro or cab ride away.
posted by duffell at 6:17 AM on January 6, 2014

The last time I was there (with daughter, 17) we visited the Holocaust Museum. It's an intense experience but extremely well designed and presented. It may not make it onto your list if time is limited, but it is worth a visit if you can.

You can balance that with a trip to see Bao Bao, the new baby panda, at the National Zoo.

I found a good deal at a hotel in Arlington, Va., across the street from a Metro station. Not much to look at except office buildings, but we weren't in the room much anyway.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:31 AM on January 6, 2014

I'm going to recommend the Marriott Residence Inns in Northern VA. You can get a two bedroom apartment with a living room and full kitchen. One of the kids can bunk out on the sleeper sofa in the living room.

I believe there's one in Alexandria at $249 a night, it's a steal. It includes breakfast. It's walking distance to the Metro for easy commutes into D.C. A week in April is $249 per night!

To save some money, you can cook in your kitchen, or have food delivered.

I really recommend the Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley tours. Great for seeing the monuments and for an overall view of Washington. I especially enjoyed Arlington National Cemetery and Arlington House.

You'll want to see the Smithsonian Musuems. I love the museum of American History, the Natural History Museum! The Freer Gallary with the Peacock Room is amazing.

I always thought that the Bureau of Printing and Engraving would be too interesting, but I'll cop to being a weird-o.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:40 AM on January 6, 2014

I agree that 2 or 3 days is plenty to take in the Mall area attractions. I'd also recommend the American Art museum. Arlington National Cemetery is also interesting and easily accessible by the Metro. Another travel option to DC is Amtrak (though I suppose the price may not be much different than flying from Boston.) It will be expensive to park in DC and you don't really need a car. The Metro will get you practically everywhere you want to go and there's always a cab.

Be sure to plan an evening to look at monuments even if it's on your own. Visiting the Lincoln Memorial at night is sort of a DC tourist right of passage. The Korean War Memorial at night is also a must see.

Also go now to try to reserve tours for the White House, etc. if you're interested in that. Some you can do online yourself, some you have to go through your representative's office. It might already be too late for some if you're planning to go at cherry blossom time.
posted by sevenless at 6:41 AM on January 6, 2014

Having both flown and driven from Boston to DC, one big thing to remember about the driving is that every hotel in the DC area has pretty steep car parking costs per day, so if you want to drive, factor that into your cost concept. We managed the drive in like 8 hours, but it's all about avoiding rush hour in Boston, NYC, and DC, which can be difficult to do. On the flying side, the flight is quick, but you have to factor in the time to get to and from the airport and choose which airport to fly into. Last time we flew into BWI (because we were first visiting friends who live just outside DC in MD), and to get back to the airport from DC, we had to take a subway to a train to a bus to the airport. Your kids are older (we were doing this with a 2 year old) so they can probably handle all that changing, but then again, mine got such a kick out of the different modes of conveyance that it wasn't too hard, just time consuming. Flying into Reagan may be easier to get into and out of.

As far as hotels go, even the deals are expensive compared to other towns (see the above about $249 being a steal), and breakfast did not seem common. But others seem to have that covered. We stayed near office buildings and near the air and space museum, which was convenient for the museums and whatnot, but on the weekend there wasn't much food open nearby. Something else to consider.
posted by katers890 at 6:45 AM on January 6, 2014

Be aware of the Cherry Blossom Festival March 20 – April 13, 2014: bigger crowds and neat stuff going on but probably more expensive hotels.
posted by exogenous at 6:49 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is there anything that your kids are especially interested in-- dance, theater, history, airplanes...? (Are any of them going to look at universities in DC in a couple of years?) Do any of you like baseball? A trip to Air and Space's Udvar-Hazy center to see the space shuttle is probably worth it if you have at least one flight fan in the family. I love the Freer/Sackler, which is usually far less crowded than the other museums, and they often have excellent special programs for adults and children alike. Your representatives in Congress may have office tours or other perks for constituents who say hi, and you could spend a day in that area to see the Capitol building/Supreme Court/Folger Shakespeare Library/Capitol Hill. If the weather's nice you could drop down to Eastern Market and get far more delicious food than you would anywhere close to the Mall itself. And yes, the monuments at night are spectacular, especially the Korean War. I recommend checking out the online listings for the DC City Paper and DCIST.com during the week or so before coming, so that you can make a note of upcoming events and buy tickets in advance if necessary.

I have flown and taken Amtrak between DC and Boston and I cannot recommend flying more if you have easy and fast access to a Boston airport. I love Amtrak, but it's like an eight hour trip, if there are no delays. If you can fly into National, you'd be easily placed for taking Metro into the city or taking a cab to a hotel in Northern Virginia.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:57 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

For a comprehensive answer, get a comprehensive guidebook (e.g., Lonely Planet). It's far more comprehensive than you'll get here, but not as overwhelming as the entire internet. They have all the basic information, suggested highlights and itineraries, etc.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:07 AM on January 6, 2014

We haven't yet decided whether we'll drive or fly (from Boston).

Fly. Driving is a nightmare, parking is ridiculously expensive, and it's hard enough to find that you'll probably wind up walking a ton anyway. Yes, driving seems cheaper on the up-front, but you're going to wind up spending like $50 a day on parking. For reals. Hotels charge like $40 a night, plus you're going to want to keep it somewhere during the day. So there's like $350 for just one week. That's a plane ticket.

How many days would we need to see most of the main sites?

Two or three weeks should do it. A month would be better.

Seriously though, there's just so much to see in DC that it's less a question of "having enough time to see the main sites" as "having enough time to see the things you really want to see."

Do you like museums? They've got half a dozen you could easily spend a week in. Each. And that's just the Smithsonian museums. If you don't spend a lot of time in them but still want to go, you can probably do two a day, but even just the ones on the Mall would take 3 days or so. Do a day in each and that's your whole week.

Do you like monuments and national park-type stuff? You could spend a week on the Mall alone without even getting to the Jefferson Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial doesn't take very long, but you probably have to walk the better part of a mile to get there. The Washington Monument is closed (on the inside) due to the 2011 earthquake, but there's still WWII, MLK, Vietnam, etc. And the Mall is two miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln, which isn't that far, but it does take a while to get around on foot.

Architecture? The Capitol is a must again, but there's also the National Cathedral out in NW.

Really though, most of the "main sites" are on the Mall, and you can easily do a good chunk of them in a week. It's just a question of deciding which you want to see and what order to see them in. But I'd definitely be sure to plan ahead. Things like White House tours require tickets, which though free, do tend to run out pretty quickly. I'd consider checking with your various congressmen about them, as that's how a lot of them are distributed.
posted by valkyryn at 7:19 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Go during holidays or other times when lobbyists/politicians aren't there. Hotel and airline ticket prices decrease significantly!
posted by Neekee at 7:21 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Since your time is limited, I'd suggest sticking to the Mall museums. The zoo is fantastic, if you're into zoos, but it realistically will take all day by the time you get up there and walk around and get lunch. The Cathedral is kind of hard to get to and not near much else, so you can probably skip that, unless you're really into Cathedrals. A Capitol tour is easy to get and doesn't take long, and it gets you up Capitol Hill--you can take pictures of the Supreme Court and then hit the Library of Congress. But, really, just the Mall museums is probably enough, and you won't have to worry about driving or even taking cabs.

Maybe check out hotels in the Ballston area of Arlington, VA. I stayed in the Holiday Inn there many years ago. I also found the Days Inn on Connecticut Avenue to be reasonable, especially considering the proximity to the city. But it's been, like, 15 years since I've been to either. Avoid the hotels around New York Avenue NE--they might look like good deals, and they look convenient, but getting to the museums and back from there will be a hike, plus prostitutes.

National Airport flights are usually more expensive, but then you're right in the city, right at a metro and cabs. BWI or Dulles will add several hours to both ends of your trip, and will cost an arm and a leg to get to from the city.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:35 AM on January 6, 2014

The zoo is fantastic, if you're into zoos, but it realistically will take all day by the time you get up there and walk around and get lunch.

It's at most a 15 minute drive/cab ride from the Mall to the zoo. If you walk to the Chinatown Metro (just a few blocks from the Mall on 7th street), it's only 4 stops to the zoo. This could easily be done in a morning, even with 3 kids in tow.
posted by duffell at 7:56 AM on January 6, 2014

If it helps with the drive decision: If either of the trips are on Friday or Sunday, I-95 can be truly awful. And if you don't have an EZPass already, definitely get one.
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:12 AM on January 6, 2014

If you walk to the Chinatown Metro (just a few blocks from the Mall on 7th street), it's only 4 stops to the zoo.

Pro-tip - the zoo is equidistant between Cleveland Park and Woodly Park metro stations, but it is downhill from Cleveland Park and downhill to Woodly Park. Good to know when the kids are getting whiny! Both stations have good food options too so you could plan lunch before or after. Another tip for the zoo is check the weather, there is very little shelter in case of rain, heat, or cold. Pick the nicest day for the zoo.

What else are you all into? We've got some non-Mall museums that are also worth a trip if you are into specific topics like Udvar-Hazy if you dig planes and NMHM if you are into body parts.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:14 AM on January 6, 2014

Avoid the hotels around New York Avenue NE--they might look like good deals, and they look convenient, but getting to the museums and back from there will be a hike, plus prostitutes.

This is my neighborhood and I can't second this enough!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:15 AM on January 6, 2014

As a D.C. denizen, I'd encourage you to make an attempt to actually check out some of the neighborhoods of D.C., just because it took me a while to realize, oh, there is an actual city where people live who aren't federal workers or members of Congress. Seeing the Eastern Market neighborhood was helpful for making that realization. Don't worry, there's tons of touristy stuff there too - the market itself is lovely but it's also near the Library of Congress. Maybe try to eat dinner or lunch in a different neighborhood each day, if you can.

The Washingtonian has an annual Cheap Eats issue. In addition to Metro, there are the Circulator bus lines which are great for tourists. Unlike most buses, the Circulator generally comes every ten minutes and all trips are $1, plus it takes SmarTrip. Some people argue that the buses are actually made for tourists because they're bright red and hard to miss, plus the seats make it easy to look out the windows while you're traveling, unlike Metro where you don't see anything. Plus if you want to check out Georgetown, the Circulator makes it relatively easy.

When family members have visited, we've gone to the Spy Museum and the Newseum and people have enjoyed them. Neither are far from the Mall - the Newseum is across the street from the National Gallery of Art. Check out the decks from the Newseum - you can get some wonderful pictures of family members standing in front of the Capitol. The Newseum is a little pricey and overwhelming but I think that if you buy a ticket, you actually can visit for two consecutive days (my sister did when she was here).

Take a look at what time certain museums are open. The Portrait Gallery is open until 7 p.m. The zoo (which I love) is open until 8 p.m. starting in April I think (double-check). And the Corcoran, which I also enjoy, is open and free Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Also, if you can find a deal on it, my husband, in-laws and I recently took a Segway tour of the monuments. The tour guide was knowledgeable and Segways are both fun and nerdy so I'd definitely recommend.
posted by kat518 at 8:17 AM on January 6, 2014

If you're not absolutely set on staying in a hotel you might want to try renting a condo or apartment through AirBnB or VRBO. The rates are a little closer to $250 a night and you'll probably get the use of a full kitchen and more space.

My favorite, and often overlooked museum, is the National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum which is located in Chinatown right across the street from the Metro.

Definitely buy Metro cards, and don't be afraid to use the bus particularly the Circulator bus.

If you go to the zoo get out at Cleveland Park (about a half mile) where you can walk downhill to the zoo. To get back on the red line continuing walking downhill to the Woodley Park Metro station (also about a half mile).

The MARC trains recently started running between Baltimore's Penn Station and DC's Union Station over the weekend ($7 each way) if you want to take a day trip to Baltimore.
posted by forkisbetter at 8:47 AM on January 6, 2014

I agree with Neekee's post, Go on a Holiday Weekend. Even the top hotels offer great deals.
posted by blast at 9:06 AM on January 6, 2014

I'm sure you'll get lots of advice on the sights. This was quite a while ago, but I stayed at the Residence Inn Rosslyn Arlington, which was nice, a great deal and two blocks from a Metro stop.
posted by cnc at 9:22 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

3-4 days should be plenty even if you wanted to take a slower pace.

I'd fly into DCA (locals never call it "Regan" always "National"). If you do drive, park it at your hotel and don't bother touching it again. Plan to do lots of walking and metro.

As far as hotels go, I'd consider staying in Dupont Circle. They're around average prices, but easy metro and Circulator bus access. Plenty of dining options too. It's also a neighborhood where people actually live, so not like the federal district which becomes a ghost town at 6pm.

Do get Smartrip cards. You can even buy them in advance and have them mailed to you. Every family member needs one. They work on the metro and bus. The metro is perfect for tourists, it was really designed with them in mind. Do keep in mind the rule of "Stand right, walk left". If you're not walking up the escalators, stand to the right to let people pass you on the left.

Then, if you're doing this right, you can metro right out of National Airport to your hotel. Easy.

If you do stay in Dupont Circle, go to the Phillips Collection. It's a private museum, but IMHO, the best in DC. The Rothko Room, Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, and Renoir's Boating Party make it worth the admission price.

Consider taking in a Nats game, if any interest in baseball in the family. You can get day-of-game tickets for $5. DC's closest claim to culinary fame is the half smoke. The best of those come from Ben's. While you're at National Stadium, get a Ben's Chili Bowl half-smoke sausage all-the-way and knock that off your list too.

While we're on the topic of food, DC is also known for Ethiopian food, though Boston probably has several Ethiopian places, it was a new experience for my west-of-the-Mississippi relatives.

The Air and Space Museum is a must. The Holocaust Museum is very unique too, and 12 is a good age for it.

I might consider passing on the National Zoo. It's a pretty good zoo, don't get me wrong, and the Woodley Park neighborhood is lovely, but it's not something I'd say is a "must see". The nice thing with everything in DC being free, is you can just leave if it's getting boring or the kids need a break. You don't feel like you need to get your $80 worth out of a trip to the zoo.

I'd also add in a quick stop at one of the smaller Smithsonian's, the Renwick Gallery. Their focus is on American craft and handiwork. They have open crafting sessions, and it's one of the more intimate and unique Smithsonians. It's just across the street from the White House too.
posted by fontophilic at 10:05 AM on January 6, 2014

I'd also add in a quick stop at one of the smaller Smithsonian's, the Renwick Gallery. Their focus is on American craft and handiwork. They have open crafting sessions, and it's one of the more intimate and unique Smithsonians. It's just across the street from the White House too.

I love the Renwick, but it's closed for renovations (again) until 2016.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:10 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do keep in mind the rule of "Stand right, walk left". If you're not walking up the escalators, stand to the right to let people pass you on the left.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
posted by duffell at 10:28 AM on January 6, 2014

Most stuff has been covered, but I'll second the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. We did a tour last year with out of town family, and it was very cool. It's close to the Mall as well, so it's not a hike.

I love the National Cathedral and would usually recommend it enthusiastically, but you should know that they're still recovering from earthquake damage so it's not looking its best. There's netting up inside that's not super attractive and obscures what you can see looking up, and there's scaffolding outside that detracts a little bit from the effect.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:56 AM on January 6, 2014

Just jumping in on a food list - make sure you get Ethiopian food while in DC. Shareable, affordable and delicious! Also, fun to eat!
posted by anya32 at 11:27 AM on January 6, 2014

I'm kind of shocked at the general opinion in this thread that 2-3 days is plenty of time experience everything. We usually spend 4-5 days in DC and always wish we have more (every year, family lives there).

There's a ton to do around the mall. You could easily spend 2 weeks in any of the Smithsonian museums. Yes, they're all very close together, and very convenient, and you can certainly spend time in each in a matter of days. Just realize there's no way you've done anything but barely touch what they each have to offer. I would personally choose 1 or 2 museums that interest you and visit them more thoroughly, rather than trying to race to see them all.

And that's not even taking into consideration visiting the many wonderful neighborhoods that DC has to offer, or spending time visiting the monuments.

There's simply so much to do, and a lot of it is free. Two - three days is plenty of time to have a great trip and make wonderful memories and even get a feel for the city. But don't try to do everything. That's a fools game, no matter what others might claim.
posted by justgary at 11:41 AM on January 6, 2014

One other note on the museums... if you do decide to do a "museum tour," I'd suggest taking a look at the current and upcoming exhibitions and events first. The Smithsonian in particular puts on some really interesting exhibitions, and they're not always where you'd expect them to be.

Smithsonian Exhibitions | Smithsonian Events

Also, the National Mall itself is host to a variety of events throughout the year.
posted by duffell at 11:45 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

It is misleading to suggest that a tourist family of five could go from seeing the Hope Diamond to being in the Elephant House in 15 minutes.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:27 PM on January 6, 2014

The Hampton Inn Whitehouse(http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g28970-d3855872-Reviews-Hampton_Inn_Washington_D_C_White_House-Washington_DC_District_of_Columbia.html) is nice/new, centrally located, and offers continental breakfast.
posted by basketballandinternet at 1:46 PM on January 6, 2014

I'm sitting two blocks from the Mall right now, and have no idea how to answer this question. It really depends on what you/your kids are into, your tolerance for long days, etc. I know plenty of people who come for a day or a long weekend and feel they've gotten their fill, and I know people who've lived here for a decade or more and feel like they haven't scratched the surface. How long do you usually vacation for in cities? Do that.

Don't drive. Even if you want a car while you're here, fly or take the train and then rent. Don't do the I-95 drive to yourself. If you want to save money, stay in the suburbs close to a metro station - there's a cheap Courtyard on the orange line near Dunn Loring, or maybe somewhere like Crystal City or Bethesda where there are lots of meetings and small conventions.

Skip the White House. Seriously. You can't take ANY of your stuff in (a pain when you're travelling), you can't take a camera, and securing admission is a headache. Instead, visit the Capitol Visitors' Center and take a tour from one of their excellent tour guides, visit your representative's office and get passes to go up in the House gallery and watch the proceedings if Congress is in session that day, and take a tour of the Library of Congress (it's a gorgeous building). Your representative's office can also help you with visiting the Bureau of Engraving, the Pentagon, and the Kennedy Center if you're interested, but call them as soon as you know when you're coming - it takes them time to process requests.

Museums are incredibly subjective. If you're only here for a few days, pick one or two that tickle your fancy so that you don't get completely museumed-out. Walking the monuments takes more time than you would think, and there's not a lot to do once you're there besides admire the view, so keep an eye out for discounts for trolley tours/night bus tours/etc.

Spend at least one day not on the Mall. It's a national treasure, but it's also big and flat and kind of monotonous after awhile. The zoo and the National Cathedral aren't that far apart, and if you take a taxi between, you'll see a chunk of Embassy Row. Or, if you're into the shopping scene, you can get to somewhere like Dupont Circle, Georgetown, or Old Town Alexandria pretty easily, and those are all tourist-friendly neighborhoods with decent food options.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 1:49 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

We're just back from 5 days in DC and I highly recommend the Newseum. We ssent 5 hours there and could have easily spent much more. The exhibits are highly engaging but I also found much of it highly emotional. The display of pulitzer photographs is accompanied by video interviews with the photographer that are interesting and at times heartbreaking. We also went to the Van Gogh repetitions exhibit at the Philips Collection that I found really interesting - and if you go don't miss the beeswax room! These were my highlights but the Smithsonians are truly amazing. We spent half a day in the Art Gallery and standing in a room of Vermeeris quite an experience. That same day we visited the Botanical Gardens conservatory which was delightful experience and a great way to get warm. We found dc very walkable and stayed at the Hyatt Washington wchich put us within walking distance of everything including lots of great restaurants. The hyatt was running a special with afantstic breakfast buffet included for 107$. Enjoy!
posted by bluesky43 at 1:55 PM on January 6, 2014

I usually stay at the One Washington Circle Hotel. They have rooms with kitchens, aren't too expensive, and the Metro is a short walk away.
posted by Wet Spot at 2:49 PM on January 6, 2014

This is all so helpful, MANY THANKS! :)
posted by wisekaren at 5:27 AM on January 7, 2014

It is misleading to suggest that a tourist family of five could go from seeing the Hope Diamond to being in the Elephant House in 15 minutes.

I agree that if anyone had said that, it would've been misleading.
posted by duffell at 10:37 AM on January 7, 2014

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