Any advice for family trip to D.C. in April?
March 28, 2016 1:39 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are driving down from New England to Washington, D.C., in later April with our four kids. We'll be staying near the Capitol. Is there anything we should especially know?

We have been there before, but like 20 years ago. Our oldest daughter was there on a school trip two years ago. Kids are 8 to 17; all are smart, curious, and active.

We already have some official tours lined up through our Senator. If the White House tour comes through, is there any alternative to the plan of going there with NOTHING in hand, taking the tour, and then going back to our place to get our bags, snacks, cameras, etc.?

Should we get Metro cards, bus cards, both, or neither? We'll be less than a mile east of the Capitol. My wife's got plantar fasciitis and just expects to be pretty miserable. (I do, too, and just plan to gobble ibuprofen. *shrug*) We'll have a car, but don't plan to need it much...right?

What do tourists miss? What do they do but should skip (e.g., Spy Museum)?

When we were last there, in the summer, everything seemed to kind of shut down at dinnertime when the museums shut, leaving you to choose between a nice restaurant or going home. We'll be in an apartment with a kitchen, which is awesome, but has that dynamic changed?

Thanks for any local advice, or feedback form recent visitors, and thanks also to previous askers & answerers!
posted by wenestvedt to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (36 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Cabs are pretty cheap in D.C. and with a large group it might be cheaper and easier to cab it hither, thither and yon. Not to mention more comfy. Your hotel may have a van that can take you to the location of the day for a $5 tip, and then you can cab it back in the evening. (Or Uber.)

I might line up some movies to see, or plays or concerts for evenings. Maybe the older kids can take the younger out to do whatever, and you and the Mrs. can soak your feet and watch movies on TV. I'd pay the 17 year old to do that. Especially to see some doofus kids movie.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:49 PM on March 28, 2016

Best answer: Hope you have a great time in my hometown of DC!

is there any alternative to the plan of going there with NOTHING in hand, taking the tour, and then going back to our place to get our bags, snacks, cameras, etc.?
Sadly, not that I've figured out. I'd definitely recommend driving down for this one and just giving yourself time to find a parking spot, so you have somewhere to stash everything. When I did it, I just had to wear something with pockets and put my keys in one and phone in the other.

Should we get Metro cards, bus cards, both, or neither?
Yes, get SmarTrip cards for everyone - they work for both metro and bus, including the $1 DC Circulator bus run by the city government that will take you to all the tourist sites, and you can buy them in any metro station. This is now the ONLY way to pay for metro/bus as paper farecards were just phased out.

What do tourists miss?
American Art Gallery & Portrait Gallery, especially the super cool atrium connecting the buildings. Up on the top floor of American Art is some great modern art that kids will love--lots of colors and lights. National Arboretum, Eastern Market, and Union Market since you'll be near all of them where you're staying. National Cathedral if you're willing to make the trek to NW. I've heard the Mansion on O Street is really neat. If the weather's nice, you can follow signs/use an app for a DIY neighborhood history tour.

What do they do but should skip (e.g., Spy Museum)?
Yeah, Spy Museum and Museum of Crime & Punishment would get a pass from me. I wouldn't do Newseum either just because it costs money while all the Smithsonians are free.

When we were last there, in the summer, everything seemed to kind of shut down at dinnertime when the museums shut, leaving you to choose between a nice restaurant or going home. We'll be in an apartment with a kitchen, which is awesome, but has that dynamic changed?
It's sort of true but it varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. Capitol Hill won't be as bad as some of the more office-centric neighborhoods. Use the evenings to go see a play at Source or Woolly Mammoth or catch a Nationals game in Navy Yard.

Also, my pet-favorite topic when it comes to DC is food, which you didn't ask about, but I will link my recommendation list just in case you're curious.
posted by capricorn at 1:51 PM on March 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: For the metro, you can get a SmarTrip card, which lets you go on both buses and subways. I'd definitely suggest that, since there are some places the bus goes that the metro won't, and if you're not wanting to walk twenty minutes, it may come in handy. There's an app called "NextBus" that lets you find your closest bus stop and see what buses go there, where they go, and when the next one is coming.

Have you guys thought about Capitol Bikeshare? If you're planning to be mostly around the Mall area, it's a pretty safe and easy way to get around. Depends, of course, on how comfortable you all are with city biking.

If you'll be there over a weekend and you're staying on the Hill, check out Eastern Market: produce vendors and a flea market/crafts outside, and long-standing vendors like butchers and cheese-mongers inside. Popular with both tourists and locals. Another great market a few miles north of the Hill is Union Market near Gallaudet University.

For evening fun: check out the Kennedy Center schedule. They have free shows every evening at 6. You should also check out the WaPo event listings while you're there, lots of times the museums or other cultural centers will have special events in the evenings.
posted by lunasol at 1:52 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is there anything we should especially know?

Check to ensure you have arranged for overnight parking. It sounds like you have an airbnb or something similar - ensure that you get a residential parking pass for your neighborhood as many residential blocks are parking 2 hours only unless you have a Zone permit.

I don't live in the neighborhood you'll be staying in, but if the parking REALLY gets to be a problem memail me and I may be able to help out.

Should we get Metro cards, bus cards, both, or neither?
SmartTrip card will cover both Metro and the Bus. Download a WMATA app to your phone and you'll have a lot of info on bus lines as well as metro - there are a lot of metro stops now that have converted to only selling cards and will not sell you a plain ticket, so you may be forced into getting a smart trip card anyway.

Uber and Lyft both run well in the city.

If the White House tour comes through, is there any alternative to the plan of going there with NOTHING in hand, taking the tour, and then going back to our place to get our bags, snacks, cameras, etc.?

Cameras, cell phones are allowed. There aren't many storage options nearby that I can think of so unfortunately this might be what you're stuck with.

What do tourists miss? What do they do but should skip (e.g., Spy Museum)?
National Arboretum and the Botanical Gardens are wonderful if you're into gardens and flowers.
Out by Dulles Airport is the Udvar Hazy Air and Space Museum. Fantastic if you like Air and Space Museum. has a lot of cheap tickets for DC ongoing things, including Spy Museum. I agree that Spy Museum is probably a tourist trap, although their gift shop is free to enter.
posted by Karaage at 1:53 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

When we were last there, in the summer, everything seemed to kind of shut down at dinnertime when the museums shut, leaving you to choose between a nice restaurant or going home. We'll be in an apartment with a kitchen, which is awesome, but has that dynamic changed?

I know what you're talking about but what would you like to do during this time? There are a lot of tours that operate in the evenings - for some reason, people think seeing the monuments at night is the coolest thing. Honestly, I don't know how much this thing is but my husband and I went with his parents on a Segway tour and it was a lot of fun. And there are some museums that stay open a little later than the others. The portrait gallery and the national zoo are open until 7:00 p.m., for example. The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage has free shows every evening. You can also find reduced price tickets for shows here. If going to a Washington Nationals game sounds appealing, you should be able to find tickets for cheap on Stubhub or something.

I enjoy the Newseum but I'd see if you could get cheap tickets somehow. That said, I think that if you get a ticket, it's good for two days which is helpful because it's a bit overwhelming. Eastern Market is great - it's close to the Capitol but a real neighborhood. If Capitol Bikeshare appeals to you, plan to bring helmets. Don't miss the newly reopened Renwick exhibit Wonder. It's right by the White House.
posted by kat518 at 2:02 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree that the Botanical Gardens on Capitol Hill are worth a visit. There is a variety types of plants, and it is not very large, so you can get an eye full in just an hour. It is a good change from the museums, which you should also visit.

Consider a walk though the Theodore Roosevelt Island park in the middle of Potomac River.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 2:06 PM on March 28, 2016

Best answer: I drive New England - DC fairly often, so a couple of thoughts on that part of your trip:

If you don't have an EZ Pass, consider getting one. While some tolls will be less if you have an EZ Pass, I think the real benefit is not having to wait in line or carry toll cash.

Also -- if you're not headed to or from a New England destination that's immediately off of I-95, consider crossing the Hudson at the Tappan Zee instead of the George Washington. Both are congested, but the GW is much more nervewracking, and $10 more in tolls.
posted by gnomeloaf at 2:23 PM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is now the ONLY way to pay for metro/bus as paper farecards were just phased out.

I've been there twice this year. Bus still takes money (as of last week even after the farecards came in), but yeah get everyone SmarTrip cards. Get the Citymapper app for your phone and you will be FINE with transportation.

I really like the goofy National Building Museum and a lot of people miss it. The Renwick exhibit is SO WORTH IT especially with kids because they can take pictures and goof around with everything and it looks cool, plus it's literally around the corner from the White House. In the Executive Office Building next door to the WH there is a bowling alley in the basement but I'm not sure what the details are about getting to bowl there (if that is a lifelong dream, let me know, I might know a person).

Library of Congress and National Archives both have nice public-facing stuff and you can just walk on in. I always stop in there and say hi to the Declaration of Independence. DC Public Library isn't that close to where you will be but is a landmark building and a nice place to stop if you are in the area and they have interesting programs a lot of the time. Last time I was there I visited the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House (a National Historic Site) and while I don't know if I'd suggest it, it's in an interesting part of the city that has a walking tour. There are a lot of different African American Heritage trails in different parts of the city.
posted by jessamyn at 2:37 PM on March 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Lots of great advice here, just wanted to step in to point out an "off the beaten path" site worth considering:

Hillwood Estate museum: home to the most delightfully particular hoarder in history, Marjorie Merriweather Post (heir to the Post Cereal fortune). It's in Dupont Circle so you're close to great restaurants and shops. But her collection of art and baubles is at once opulent and wacky, delightfully eccentric, and will likely be fascinating and weird to at least some if not all of the kids. April is a great time of year to explore the 13 acres of gardens which are absolutely breathtaking (includes a Russian style dacha house and an Adirondack cabin) plus there is a cafe. But call ahead to make a reservation for the museum tour, they are a tiny bit strict about that (I showed up once on a whim and they still let me go, but reminded me to make a reservation next time).
posted by nightrecordings at 2:41 PM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

jessamyn's Renwick rec is good: WONDER is really charming, and it sounds like you'll catch it just before it closes.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:55 PM on March 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Despite what you may hear, Georgetown Cupcakes are not the best... the cupcake at Baked and Wired are. This is critical information for your upcoming trip.
posted by cacao at 3:06 PM on March 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Family of 5- just got back from a wonderful week in DC! I (the mom) have a heel bone spur so I'm kind of in the same boat as your wife- I did a lot a stretching and kept the ibuprofen on hand. I used Uber a couple of times that the rest of the group walked. Don't miss the Udvar-Hazy Space Museum! It's worth the drive out there! The Renwick exhibit was great and it only took a short time. We like the zoo much more than expected- wish we had planned more time there. It's a bit of a hike from the Metro so I got Uber (then all the walking around the zoo itself.) We also loved the NPR tour- free but you have to schedule in advance.
We were ready to head back to home base around 5 when the museums closed so it worked out fine. It was actually a pretty good thing and made our trip more relaxing so we weren't overdoing it.
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 3:14 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

We like the zoo much more than expected- wish we had planned more time there.

Yes! I spent yesterday there with my kids. Zoo food options are limited and expensive, and I was glad that we all brought thermoses. Bag search was pretty quick, and bagless folks more or less whisked through; maybe you can bring a couple of backpacks, but not one per person? The zoo is amazing and worth a full day, especially if you want to take your time and observe the animals (lots of outside stuff, but there are a few indoor spaces--apes, reptiles, etc.), with plenty of benches for the footsore. The zoo entrance is about four blocks from the Metro, not so bad upon arrival but longer after a day of walking around.

Udvar-Hazy is a neat place. There's nothing around it in terms of restaurants, iirc, and we were limited to the worst McDonald's I've ever been to because we were hungry and they had the concession, so.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:45 PM on March 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers so far!

We plan pretty well: we have arranged for off-street parking, for example, and we're the sort of people who brought our own bagels and a toaster to Disney World so we wouldn't be slowed down by breakfast (in order to have more time in the park!). And we totally plan to grab an EZ-PASS this week, too.

But that's exactly why I am grateful for first-person advice. This stuff is very helpful -- keep it coming! :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 3:53 PM on March 28, 2016

Best answer: Oh yeah if you've never used Uber or Lyft before they both have some sign up bonus stuff so that you get a few bucks worth of rides (I think for Lyft it was $50 over five rides) which can be exactly the right thing when you are exploring a new city and/or have just HAD IT and want to get home.
posted by jessamyn at 4:39 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

All the government museums are free, you don't need to go to any that cost money, like the Spy Museum or the Newsuem, unless you really want to. I would check out the Library of Congress, personally - I thought it was really cool and pretty. The national art gallery is worth visiting too. People seem to love the Air & Space museum but I can't say it impressed me that much.

The best thing me and my family did by far was a Segway tour. It was so much fun and we got to go all around the city. You'll have to decide if that would be a good idea with your kids. The Segways are easy to use and a lot of fun, but on my tour, we rode straight down the middle of Pennsylvania Ave (there is a bike lane in the middle of it).

For transportation, you can get one SmarTrip card that you all share instead of buying a bunch of separate tickets. Taxis are easy to come by, but good ol' walking will work. I assume your wife knows how to treat her plantar fasciitis, but Dr Scholls heel inserts helped me a lot.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:31 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

We just did the same thing in October, including the apartment in Capitol Hill. We did not have a car. We did NOT get a metro pass, because everything we wanted to see was so close. Our VRBO hosts advised us to use Uber, and that's what we did. We ate breakfast in our apartment or at Jimmy T's. We shopped for dinner ingredients at Eastern Market. We usually took Uber out to the far end of where we wanted to go and then worked our way back down the mall during the day. One day we started at the Holocaust Museum, one day we started at the Lincoln Memorial. We ubered to and from Arlington Cemetery. Our rides were usually under ten dollars. We used the Yelp app to find lunch spots. We took frequent breaks for coffee, treats, etc. There are lots of benches scattered around, Mom can pretty easily find a seat and rest while kids are exploring another museum. If I had kids in tow, I think I would plan ahead what to see each day, concentrating on staying in smaller areas, because man, you can really walk a LOT. We did six miles on our lightest day, but we are not very organized. And we are old, so we learned pretty quickly that wandering around was really not going to cut it. We had a really great time!
posted by raisingsand at 6:35 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

For transportation, you can get one SmarTrip card that you all share instead of buying a bunch of separate tickets.

This is completely wrong. Each of you, including the children, will need a SmarTrip card to ride the trains (and while you can pay cash on the buses, if you're going to take the Metro even once you'll have to have SmarTrip cards, at which point you should use them on the buses too because cash just slows everything down).
posted by fedward at 6:35 PM on March 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

When I lived in DC, I would get my guests through the turn stiles by going through and then swiping each of my friends in. You did not need a card per person, but if that's not the case anymore, then they must've changed it. (I was not implying everyone could ride the train via one fare, it would still be a fare per person, just on one card.)
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:57 PM on March 28, 2016

The cafeteria at the Museum of the American Indian is very good and is always my first choice on the mall. I'm also a big fan of the National Building Museum and the Library of Congress. If your kids like morbid/weird history, i would recommend you all listen to Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation on tape- it goes all over the US but there's a lot about specific places and DC and she talks about traveling and looking for the places where stuff happened. I remember it being ok for kids but check first of course!
posted by betsybetsy at 7:00 PM on March 28, 2016

Best answer: Things tourists do that they shouldn't:
  • The zoo, honestly. Some of it's great, but some of it is just not (the elephants make me especially sad) and if walking is a problem for you then the zoo is maybe not the best choice. I guess if your hearts are set on trying to see the pandas then sure, make the effort. With a limited amount of time I'm not sure I'd spend it there.
  • As noted, the Spy Museum is interesting but not worth the price of admission unless you're an adult who's really into John LeCarré (as much as they try to appeal to kids, I think this is actually their key demo – there's a lot of reading).
  • The Newseum is probably more interesting than the Spy Museum, but again, there's a bunch of other stuff that's just as interesting and already paid for by your tax dollars. If you walk by, though, all the front pages in the cases in front of the building are fun to look at (at least until they just get too depressing) and lookin's free.
  • See "Shear Madness" at the Kennedy Center. See literally anything else instead. Well, except for touring shows at the National Theater. You can probably skip those too.
  • Duck tours, bus tours, etc. Meh.
  • Wait in line for an hour to get into the Archives. Most people just go to see the founding documents, and the line inside is just as long as the line outside, so take whatever you see and double it. If the line is short, by all means, go. If the line is really long, save it for another time. And no, I don't know how to predict when the line will be short. I wish I did.
  • Venture no farther than two blocks from the Mall, and then complain about how expensive all the restaurants are there. The bad news is that the restaurants here pretty much are expensive no matter where you go, but if you do a little research you can find something. Also: install the OpenTable app on your phones and use it to get reservations. Not every restaurant uses OpenTable, but many do, and it will give you a broad selection and a rough idea how much you'll be spending.
  • Set out to walk the Mall without knowing how long it actually is. From the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument along the Reflecting Pool is a mile. From the Washington Monument to the Capitol is another mile and a half. So, if you're in shape and the weather's nice it's a lovely walk (and I've done it multiple times) but the distances are greater than they seem.
In general I'd advise against Segway tours, but in the case of plantar fasciitis I have to admit that might be worthwhile.

Things tourists miss that they should see:
  • Museums that aren't Air & Space. I mean, I like the Air & Space museum, but there are many other museums. Right on the mall I personally like Natural History, American History, and the National Gallery of Art more than the overall experience at Air & Space, but maybe that's just because of the difference in crowds. The Library of Congress is beautiful. I love the Portrait Gallery (officially the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture but everybody calls it the Portrait Gallery).
  • That said: if you've got a car, the Udvar-Hazy Center is worth the trip and the cost to park (admission is free, but parking isn't, and there's no other way to get there).
  • Live theater. There's stuff at the Kennedy Center, which is kind of a pain, but there's also a bunch of stuff downtown. I don't know what you and your kids like, but there's likely to be a good show somewhere. Try Goldstar (a web site and an app) for discounted tickets.
  • I like the Botanic Garden (next to the Capital), particularly the rain forest and the orchid room. It does get busy though. If you care about roses, there's a lovely rose garden next to the building.
  • The Mall at night, especially the Lincoln Memorial. That's my favorite. Climb the steps, read the speeches, look at the view, walk around and look at Virginia, walk back around and look at the view again, and then head back down. I do this every time.
So yes, the museums do all close by 7PM, but there's plenty of theater, there's live music, there are many restaurants, and the weather should be lovely for evening walks.
posted by fedward at 7:35 PM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

An objection to what fedward just wrote: yes, you CAN get to Udvar-Hazy by Metrobus; take the subway to the Vienna stop and the bus from there. Or drive: parking is $15 but the museum entrance is, like all Smithsonian museums, free. And while the Air & Space Museum on the mall has the Wright Flyer, Hazy has the space shuttle.

(MeMail me if you do want to do Udvar-Hazy!)
posted by easily confused at 1:06 AM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

yes, you CAN get to Udvar-Hazy by Metrobus

I have also personally done this! But not via Vienna; I took the Silver Line to Wiehle-Reston East and then Fairfax Connector 983.

In this situation, I would absolutely drive if I had the option (it's a long trip by bus, especially trying to corral four kids on and off), but in case anyone else happens upon this question, it's an easy, if long, option to get to Udvar-Hazy.
posted by andrewesque at 4:27 AM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really like the National Museum of the American Indian, and think it's one of the most lovely underrated Smithsonian Museums. Their cafeteria has many delicious examples of traditional Native American food, which is really different and worth checking out if you're all the slightest bit into unique eats. The Mitsitam Cafe even has its own cookbook. (The museum's gift shop is quite nice, too.)
posted by PearlRose at 8:00 AM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Bikes, bikes, bikes. Great for getting form Capitol Hill to the Mall, but also to get you down to Yards Park and to ride the local bike trails and along both the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
posted by jindc at 9:09 AM on March 29, 2016

Depending on the specific date(s) in April, you might be able to catch a hockey game at the Verizon Center. If you're walking, it's at F & 7th Streets Northwest, and it's on the red, yellow and green Metro lines (Gallery Place-Chinatown stop).

The Washington Capitals are (at the time of this comment) the best team in the NHL by far. They just won the President's Trophy last night (highest points in the standings), and there's still 2 weeks of the regular season to play.

The atmosphere at Caps games is absolutely electric, but tickets and concessions are expensive.
posted by xiix at 12:30 PM on March 29, 2016

Best answer: Depending on how nerdy your children are, I REALLY enjoyed visiting the National Institutes of Health library, and I believe they do daily free tours at 1pm. Make sure to get there early enough to go through the security temporary badge-getting part of the process--my friend and I missed the tour because we miscalculated! (Still saw the library and rare book room though. SO NICE.)

The Museum of African Art might be my favorite of the Smithsonian museums. I like a smaller museum that can really focus its efforts, and also I get sad museum lead foot if I'm in the larger ones trudging around all day. I personally think the Air & Space Museum is incredibly overrated, but it does have the benefit of really kid-friendly. (Your 17 year old may be bored though.)

Also, depending on how far out of the city you want to go, the National Cryptologic Museum near Fort Meade was SO DARN COOL. Don't let the super dry website fool you; it is a surprisingly interactive museum.

Have a great time in DC! It's such a great place to visit!
posted by helloimjennsco at 1:42 PM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, I hate to be a downer but Metro service is considerably, noticeably worse on weekends than it is on weekdays -- Metro does a TON of work on weekends. Headways (the average amount of time between trains) can go from something like 3 minutes during weekday rush hours to as long as 24 minutes during weekends and you'll often end up waiting a long time for trains.

If you're going to Metro on the weekend, it pays to check the WMATA website to see what trackwork is going on; and if you can handle the walk, it's often faster to walk a little farther and avoid transferring. Also, you can check real-time Metrorail and Metro buses if you're in a place where you can time your trip (to avoid, say, heading down to the station just as a train is leaving and incurring a long wait); there are of course a bunch of apps that report the same data.

If your budget allows, I'd tend to spring for cabs/Ubers/Lyfts (or walk!) on the weekends to avoid long Metro waits.

(If you are going before April 17, then ignore all this because Metro is taking its annual break on weekend trackwork!)
posted by andrewesque at 2:06 PM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also chiming in to recommend WONDER at the Renwick. I was just there yesterday, and kids seemed to love the works as much as adults. I've never seen so many people photographing art with their phones in my life (the Renwick posts signs encouraging photography). It's only a handful of installations in different rooms, so not a huge time commitment.
posted by itstheclamsname at 9:04 AM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you go to the Zoo on Metro, get off at the Cleveland Park station and walk south on Connecticut. This station is the one *after* the Zoo station, but the walk is downhill. At the end of your visit, again walk downhill to the Woodley Park/National Zoo station.

Tourists are very grateful when I tell them this, especially if it's summer and/or they have young kids!

Also, the closest stop to Air and Space is the L'Enfant Plaza station, not the Smithsonian station.

The way Metro is these days, I'd recommend Uber or Lyft.
posted by jgirl at 3:37 PM on April 12, 2016

Response by poster: We're back, and it was awesome.

Thanks to all of you for your advice, as well as to a few backchannel offers: D.C. has great MeFites!!

We walked every-damn-where (from 18k to 25k steps per day!), for the most part: the weather warm warm and dry, so this wasn't too bad. We are six people, so we took UberXL rides to and from the Zoo. We rode the Metro only three or four times, I think. The directions on the machines sucked; some guy who looked totally like a hustler explained how to add value to some cards we already had, and then bummed a dollar off of me. (Totally a good deal, BTW: the Metro should hire that guy to write some docs for their crummy kiosks.)

We went to one "major" site per day, plus a smaller thing. That meant, e.g., driving out to Mount Vernon first thing until lunch, then coming back to stop at one of the museum shops and then hit the Postal Museum (one of the biggest hits for everyone, actually) before dinner. Or another day we gave about four hours to a big Smithsonian museums, ate a picnic lunch, and then spent about an hour in the Botanical Gardens.

There were guys with pistols EVERYWHERE, and we got our bags searched every time we went though a doorway. However, we carried backpacks with water and snacks and whole meals with us right past every single "No drinks/No food" sign we saw. (Except the Capitol tour: for that one, we hurried home and emptied our pockets and dropped our bags beforehand.) We ate our own lunch in all the museum cafeterias. Yeah, I know it's their revenue stream and I wasn't playing along; trust me, I made up for it at the gift shops.

We didn't get out to Udvar-Hazy, which I deeply regret.

We did go to Mount Vernon, which surprised me by being very nice.

I noticed on maybe the third day that the Smithsonian gift shops all have these small cards (maybe 3"x2") with notes discussing whatever goods they are next to. Like, at the Postal Museum gift shop, there were cards about the development of mail trucks sitting next to the display of toy mail trucks, and another card describing First Day Covers next to the display of first day covers for sale. They're free, and I collected every one I saw: I have probably fifty of them, and they are totally great: informative, small, simple, and direct. I want to contact their retail people and get copies of all the ones I missed! (And Mount Vernon's gift shop had a few, too: they must be copying.) Anyway, keep your eyes peeled for these, they're totally cool.

We still ended up wandering the streets a couple of evening looking for food. One night we found a pizzeria just past the l'Enfant stop on L street called Pizza Autentica, who was open, they were still open at 6:00pm. Two large pies, please, and while they were cooking we hustled around to the Starbucks at the Metro station to pee. We also brought actual food with us, and cooked decent dinners in the apartment we were renting in Capitol Hill. Another night we ate at Good Stuff Eatery, where the burgers & fries and milkshakes were awesome. We also got food from a neighborhood joint and carried it home one night.

I couldn't find a fitted Nats cap for sale anywhere, so I settled on a Senators cap from the Museum of American History gift shop. I also bought a handsome silk bowtie at the Mount Vernon gift shop, which is a huge place with something for everybody.

The kids were pretty drained at night, so I'm glad we didn't try to schedule evening events -- except for the one night that we drove over to see the monuments at sunset. We found a parking space on Connecticut Ave., literally between the White House and the Washington Monument. We ended up walking around until almost 10:00PM (way past The Princess's bedtime), among crowds of people taking tons of photos. Felt totally safe, too. Anyway, other nights we crashed in the apartment and they watched some TV while we planned the next day and did laundry or whatever.

We only split up the group one day, and maybe we should have done that more, but we packed a lot into every day and wouldn't have wanted to skip anything.

What a great city! Thanks. D.C.!
posted by wenestvedt at 1:39 PM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, also: the bag-check line to get into the Museum of American History at opening time was probably a good hour long...on the Mall side. We hoofed it around to the north side of the building, though, and waited maybe ten minutes. Let's hear it for secondary entrances!

If you can't get tickets to tour the White House -- or even if you do -- the White House Visitors Center is really great. We spent a good hour there, even after we went through the gift shop (which has really nice color pictures, about 11"x14", for only a dollar or two -- we bought a pile of them).

Comparing our own visit in 1997 to what my wife described, the tour of the Supreme Court that your congressperson books for you is basically just admittance to wander around part of the building. *sad trombone*

Touring the Capitol is very cool. The guides give everyone a little radio receiver and some headphones, so that multiple groups can pack into the same space and still be heard. Unfortunately, the main rotunda is draped in sheeting and full of scaffolding until, I think, September of 2016. The Library of Congress's dome, however, should be clear to see, and is possibly even prettier.

Thank you for all the encouragement to see the "Wonder" show at the Renwick. I had to do some serious arm-twisting, and then I couldn't get anyone to leave. :7)

We found packs of free postcards in a couple of exhibits at the Postal Museum, and also one from the Botanical Gardens. My kids considered getting anything for free in D.C. as quite a coup, and there was some gloating when these were shown.

Some penny-pressing machines in D.C. are now $1.01, which is crazy. The clerks at the Mount Vernon gift shop gave my youngest daughter two pressed pennies for free, one of which I think actually showed the Holocaust Memorial. Hmmm...
posted by wenestvedt at 6:09 AM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: One more note, this time about THE PRECIOUSSSSSSS.

Last year I bought a small device, generically called a travel router. In my case it was a $29 thing called a HooToo TripMate Mini, but there are plenty of companies offering items in this space, with more or fewer features.

Generally speaking, the matchbox-size chassis holds a battery, a WiFi hotspot, and ports for USB and an SD card, plus a built-in web & streaming server; there is a simple iOS app for each of the family's devices. In the car, the THE PRECIOUS offers a small WiFi footprint, and every device associates with it. Launching the app allows enjoyment of any video or music files. This translates to less fighting among the kids in the car, no arguments about PvP games, and (sweetest of all to me) no manually loading movies to each device separately in the days before departure.

(Oh, also, you can use it to bridge to another, Internet-connected WiFi network, but I didn't bother while we were driving. It can charge other devices from its own battery. It has an RJ45 jack in case you are in place with only wired Ethernet and want to share that link via WiFi. Etc., etc. There's also the ability to upload files to it from your phone, which allows a backup of new picture or even moving them off to free up space. And also you can store arbitrary files there, which I have been experimenting with so as to provide portable e-book library via Calibre, the TripMate iOS app, and a tool called Calibre2Opds. THE PRECIOUS.)

There are certainly beefier models from the various manufacturers, most of which offer greater capacity in their battery for use as a backup to other devices. But THE PRECIOUS only holds 3000mAh, but it ran for nine hours at a stretch! And for most of that time it was streaming four different movies at the same time, which blew my mind.

God bless these things: I suggest every traveling parent get one -- not because they allow you to abdicate parenting, but because they can help alleviate some of the stress & unhappiness of a road trip (or a rainy vacation day), and also because they offer so many other handy features in one tiny device.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:15 AM on April 28, 2016

Cool! I live around the corner from Good Stuff, which I do not patronize because Chef Spike's businesses are fostering a terrible rat infestation.

Which "local joint" did you go to?
posted by jgirl at 6:53 PM on May 2, 2016

Response by poster: jgirl, that local place was...looks like Seventh Hill:

The kids balked at the "weird-looking" turkey sandwiches, but were very happy by the end. The pizza was very tasty, too; I just wish it was larger.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:53 AM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

For people stumbling on this thread in the future:

The bus still takes money, and that is unlikely to change at any point in the future. It does not give change.

You definitely need 1 SmarTrip card per person on the Metro.

(Also, I agree that the Postal Museum is awesome, and nobody ever expects that!)
posted by schmod at 11:20 AM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

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