Toddling through DC
February 19, 2015 6:45 AM   Subscribe

I would like to take my family (husband, myself, toddler under 2) to visit my brother in DC this spring. Help us make it work!

I've never been to DC. My brother is only there for a year for work and travels a lot, so he won't know what the locals may know about the best transit and activities available.

My brother lives in a 1 bedroom apartment near Thomas Circle Park. We could make him sleep on the couch (he's OK with that) or we could find a reasonable hotel nearby. Any recommendations on hotels?

He says that flying into DCA is probably the most convenient to his place, but there are cheap flights to BWI. The tough part here is transit from either airport to where we are staying when we have a toddler (and carseat) in tow. Any advice with this? I know nothing about transit in DC. I live in a smallish city, so I have never used Uber/Lyft before, either.

We're thinking of traveling for a long weekend (maybe Thursday - Sunday) around May 15th, or some weekend in June that isn't the 11th. Are any of those better weekends than others? Really large crowds make me anxious especially when I have a toddler with me, so avoiding the biggest crowds would be nice.

Are there any toddler friendly parks or museums or other activities that we should do? He'll be about 22 months old. The more laid-back and flexible activities, the better.

(We've flown with the toddler before, so we know how to do that part.)

I've never been to DC, but my expectations of "seeing it all" are way way low, as I know how well toddlers behave when bored out of their skulls. So more toddler-centric activities that are DC specific would be best.
posted by jillithd to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (15 answers total)
Best answer: We have done this and had a great time!

Flying into DCA is by far the easiest thing to do, since it's a short Metro ride into the city. You can do transit from BWI or Dulles but it's a big pain. The National Zoo is FREE (as are all the Smithsonian Museums) and really fun. If the weather's nice you can easily spend a day around the Mall - the outdoor sculpture museum is great with kids, there's a carousel, usually the Museum of Natural History is a big hit with little ones. I highly recommend the cafeteria at the Museum of the American Indian. And Pizzeria Paradiso, either the one in Georgetown or Dupont Circle - if you go early it's plenty family-friendly.

Transit tips: A lightweight stroller or a carrier is nice to have for Metro since the escalators are not always working properly. You're not supposed to eat or drink anything on the Metro (and they have famously arrested people for this), but I've heard it's a bit less rigid if you have a cranky toddler.
posted by chocotaco at 7:00 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Cabs in DC are pretty cheap, I've been very happy using them. If the car seat snaps into a stroller, that might be your best bet. Then you can walk and take the Metro.

You can take the 17 bus from BWI to the MARC station, then the Green or Red line into Union Square. Or you can arrange for something like Super Shuttle.

I too was going to suggest the zoo. Another option is the Hop-on-Hop-off trams that take you around the monuments. It's great because if your little guy gets rambunctious, no prob, hop off and run him around a bit.

Have fun!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:05 AM on February 19, 2015

Response by poster: Oh, that's a good point about the carseat! Like I said, I'm entirely unfamiliar with transit in DC so if we don't need to bring a carseat, that would be even better! My brother does not have a car there. I wasn't sure if we'd be mostly cab-based and would need to bring a carseat.

posted by jillithd at 7:11 AM on February 19, 2015

Oh fly in to DCA unless BWI is like 75% cheaper, especially if your trip from BWI involves intersecting with rush hour. After flying with a baby the last thing you want to do is also deal with BWI.
DC is great for toddlers and everything is free.
The zoo is great. Natural history museum is great. Air and space is great. Walking along the mall is great. (Stop by the expensive but fun carousel).
Sunday at Eastern Market is fun.
If you can visit during the week the crowds will be less overwhelming. On weekends bringing a stroller will add to your woes on the metro.
Thomas Circle and that area has 100% changed in the last decade so if anyone tried to freak you out about safety, don't listen to them. There are tons of cool brunch spots and bars and cafes. It isn't as baby centric as other neighborhoods but when I stayed there a few months ago I certainly saw a fair amount of babies.
Have fun!
posted by k8t at 7:27 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

The most interesting Park is Clemijontri. It isn't close, but if you really need a big Park it works
posted by k8t at 7:29 AM on February 19, 2015

Best answer: DCA is significantly easier than the other airports, but yes usually a bit more expensive to fly into. To get to Thomas Circle Park from DCA take the blue line from the airport to McPherson Sq (~15 min) and walk a few blocks north. Will cost $3.15 per person. Should be doable with a couple carry-ons and a toddler but YMMV. Note that in the DC metro system the fare is dependent on your destination rather than being a flat rate like in Boston or NYC, so you must feed your ticket in both upon entering and exiting the system. Note also that the DC Metro has arrested children for eating on the trains, they're much stricter about that than other cities. As a side note if you have Verizon cell phones you should have good service pretty much anywhere on the metro, even underground.

If you opt to fly into Dulles or BWI it will be about an hour drive with normal traffic to get to your brother's, with no good public transit option. RB's sugggestion from BWI will work fine but will be a hassle with a toddler and bags.

DC is (IMO) wonderful for kids because all the Smithsonian museums are FREE and the ones on the National Mall are relatively close together (very walkable). Is your kid tired of dinosaurs at the Natural History museum? Go check out planes and rockets at the Air & Space, or the Museum of the American Indian, or the stuff at the Museum of American History (the original star spangled banner! muppets! Archie Bunker's chair!). All free, so no sunk cost loss. How much walking you want to do is up to you and your toddler. The White House is only about a 15 minute walk from your brother's but most of the museums and such on the mall would be more like a 30-45 minute walk away, so you may wish to take a cab and save your feet for walking around inside the museums.

Visiting in May means you might catch the end of the famous cherry blossoms around the tidal basin just south of the mall (they usually peak in April). I think a walk around the tidal basin that includes the FDR memorial, the MLK memorial, the Jefferson memorial, and the cherry blossoms is DC at its very best, but your toddler might get bored.

The National Zoo is also a wonderful option for kids. It's not as close to everything else but is entertaining enough to fill up a day or at least a morning/afternoon on its own and there are plenty of good lunch options nearby in Adams Morgan. Beware though! Walking into the zoo is a long easy downhill slope, which inevitably means you eventually have to drag your tired kid back up that hill. Plan your exit accordingly.

Rereading your question and thinking about your dislike of crowds maybe you should try the National Building Museum or the Postal Museum, as they are usually a little less mobbed. The Building Museum has lots of touchable kid stuff, it is located in the gorgeous former Pension Bureau building, free for the main hall, $8adult/$5kids for some exhibits. The Postal Museum is next to Union Station, lots of kid stuff, and free (run by the Smithsonian).
posted by Wretch729 at 7:31 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

You're walking distance to the mall (google claims it's about a mile to the natural history museum). The Smithsonian (and other) museums are all there, there are many many weekend's worth to explore in those museums, and much of it should be interesting to a kid that age. Buying lunch at the museums will feel a bit like buying lunch at an airport (more money than you're used to for what you get), but on average the museums will still be cheap entertainment. Agreed that the American Indian cafe is one of the better options.

On preview: second the recommendation of the Building Museum and Postal Museum as being a little less popular but both having interesting stuff for toddlers and grownups alike. Also the Union Station food court is just across the street from the Postal Museum and may be useful.
posted by bfields at 7:38 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can take public transit from the other airports but it would be a huge long pain with a toddler.

FYI... You are not supposed to take strollers on the metro train system escalators, but the elevators (running deep underground to stations) are inconsistent in their operational status. On weekends the metro rail system becomes slower and some stations/sections may be put out if service for maintenance, although if you stay inside the city the effects should be minimal for you. If you hate crowds, avoid metro at rush hours, but most of the time it's not bad.

Bring your walking shoes. I consider Thomas Circle walking distance from the Mall with all the big stuff (Lincoln, Jefferson memorials, White House, museums, etc). There are also plenty of buses, and circulators (also buses but more limited, intended to move people between metro stations), in that part of town. Get yourself familiar with and download one of the bus apps if you have a smartphone.

Also plenty of restaurants west (Dupont) and north of Thomas Circle.

Have fun. :)
posted by zennie at 7:52 AM on February 19, 2015

Fly into DCI, and take either the Metro or a shuttle bus to your destination --- what's their name, Superflyer? runs vans to/from the various airports and your destination address, for around $35-$40 per person, which might be worth it considering you'll be hauling luggage plus that toddler. Yes, you could fly into either BWI or Dulles, but the time wasted transiting to & from those airports (with potentially cranky kid!) makes DCI sound better.

Someone above mentioned the Cherry Blossom Festival: that'll be March 30-April 12 this year, and while it's still too early to tell, the blossoms themselves will almost certainly be gone by the end of April.

If you go to the Museum of the American Indian, there's an amazing restaurant in there: give it a try!

The National Zoo is great for kids, but be prepared for a lot of walking, some of it up & downhill, very little totally flat.
posted by easily confused at 8:00 AM on February 19, 2015

Looks like you will miss the Cherry Blossom festival.

Here is is a list of major weekend track work on the metro. Taking the bus (to the national mall) might also be a good alternative to the metro especially if you have your brother as a "tour guide." Between the metro, busses, and walking (and barring horrible weather) taking taxis would be more of a convenience than a necessity.

Does anyone in your family have any allergies to pollen? If so, you might want to look at this chart before making plans since spring in DC can be brutal for those with allergies.
posted by oceano at 8:09 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Haha.... yes, National Zoo is on the side of a hill (the valley of Rock Creek). All down from the front entrance, all up on the way back. Not a great distance but good to know.

You can take the metro train straight from DCA to a metro station not far from Thomas Circle. Or get in the cab line and cab it. Supershuttle is not a good deal for DCA to central DC; you'd only use it for the other airports and there are no guarantees about timeliness in the "from airport" direction, as you share with others who need dropping off. AVOID.
posted by zennie at 8:20 AM on February 19, 2015

Oh, and Wretch729 mentioned the White House: if you want to tour it, contact your congresscritter for tickets: you cannot just walk up and walk in. And if your congresscritter can't get you tickets because they've given all their allotment away, try the representatives of places like American Samoa or the more far-flung states, places less likely to have a lot of tourists coming here. But apply now.
posted by easily confused at 8:46 AM on February 19, 2015

Best answer: Most Friday nights when it's warm, Hill Country Barbecue sets up on the lawn next to the National Building Museum with food, drinks (beer and sodas) and live music. There are hay bales and picnic tables, and early on it is full of families with kids. I think there's a small cover (or maybe just a wristband they give you if you want to buy beer) but its a fun time on a pretty Friday evening.

If you go to the zoo - take the red line to Cleveland Park and walk DOWN the hill to the zoo. When you leave the zoo, turn left and walk DOWN the hill again to Woodley Park metro - the zoo is slap-bang between them on a hill.
posted by ersatzkat at 10:26 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you plan to use public transit (and you should) then plan to buy SmarTrip cards from a dispenser at the first station you go through. They're $10 and come with $8 in fare value loaded, and can be topped off at farecard machines in every station (better) or on the bus (worse, but doable; cash only on the bus). The $2 you spend just to buy each card would pay for itself through the simpler use of the system even without the $1 surcharge on trips made using a paper farecard (oh yeah, buried lede). SmarTrip cards should also be available for purchase at CVS and Giant stores, but availability can be spotty.

FYI children under five don't need a farecard or bus fare as long as they're traveling with an adult paying full fare (and shouldn't be traveling alone anyway).

Nthing the zoo, AMNH (Sant Ocean Hall is so cool, plus what kid doesn't like dinosaurs?), and Building Museum. Adding: the United States Botanic Garden, just west of the Capitol, which includes a children's garden. Also note that while the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum aren't the most toddler friendly of collections, the Kogod Courtyard in the middle of the building is covered, air conditioned, and usually has a ground-level water feature that kids love to splash around in (it's a horizontal fountain sort of thing, and sometimes it's not running for … some … reason). Just west of the NPG/SAAM building (officially the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture; everybody just calls it the Portrait Gallery, except for the people who still call it the Old Patent Office Building) is Ella's pizza, which has been unfailingly friendly to my young relatives.

There are a whole bunch of hotels near Thomas Circle. I would specifically dissuade you from staying at the Washington Plaza, but most of the others near there should be fine. It's a few blocks north of K Street and so most of the hotels are going to cater to business travelers and might have decent weekend rates as long as there aren't any big events the weekend you pick.
posted by fedward at 1:09 PM on February 19, 2015

Lots of great suggestions above – I would only add that if you dislike the crowds, you probably will not want to come to DC over the long Memorial Day weekend. Weather-wise, May tends to be a generally nice month; last year we had a remarkable string of sterling weekends through May into June, after the polar winter and delayed spring. No guarantees we'll have the same this year, of course, but I always recommend May and October for DC weather.
posted by The Nutmeg of Consolation at 9:39 AM on February 20, 2015

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