Washington, D.C. is well known for its monuments and lawmakers, but there’s much more to the area than its statues and politicians. Ask Washingtonians, and we’ll rattle off a list of our favorite bits of history, neighborhood restaurants, museums, theaters and parks. The Trust for Public Land’s 2018 ParkScore ranks Washington, D.C. third and nearby Arlington, Va., fourth for cities with the best parks.
I was raised in D.C. and established my career here, and springtime is one of my favorite things about the city. When it arrives, it colors the city pink with cherry blossoms. I get in my car, open the moon roof and drive through Rock Creek Park, cranking up the volume on Will Smith’s “Summertime.” The beat and rhyme flow with the road, curving alongside thick greenery and slick creek stones, passing joggers and families gathering around picnic grills. The Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium are places to cool down on the woody trails among low-hanging ferns and chestnut oaks, which are some of the oldest and tallest trees in the park.
For a five-day visit to D.C. and neighboring Maryland and Virginia, here are some of my favorite ways to have family fun.
Where to Stay
The Morrison-Clark Historic Inn & Restaurant is a convenient downtown favorite with the feel of home, combining the architecture of two Victorian-styled homes and D.C.’s first Chinese community church and parsonage for a design that blends cultures. The bright orange chairs on the front porch and the brick courtyard make an inspiring and comfortable setting for my writing staycations. For the family traveler, Morrison-Clark Inn features connecting rooms, pack-n-play for babies, babysitting referrals and a doctor on call.
From the Morrison-Clark, historical sites, restaurants, shops and entertainment are easy to reach. The Washington Convention Center, Capital One Arena, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum and the White House are within walking distance. The museums, grassy walks and monuments of the National Mall are near, but for little ones the trek could be exhausting. The Circulator bus costs $1 to ride and is popular with locals and tourists. It loops through downtown and includes stops at Union Station and DuPont Circle.
D.C. driving and walking tour apps are available for download on your phone. Tour buses can be pricey for a large family of travelers. Scooters and ride-hailing services are affordable ways to get around, and many sites are accessible by Metro.
The National Mall is home to treasures of art, culture and history. Hungry from wandering the monuments and museums? The Smithsonian museums also provide great lunchtime dining. My favorite is the Courtyard Café at the National Portrait Gallery. After viewing presidential portraits, I grab a salad and sparkling water and sit in the atrium. It’s a great spot for the little ones to take a break and splash in the Scrim Fountain, with the occasional pigeon claiming a spot to coo.
With a pass to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, enjoy the best meal on the mall: the collard greens, mashed potatoes, pan-fried Louisiana Catfish Po’boy and High Mesa Peach and Blackberry Cobbler dessert at Sweet Home Café.
Pennsylvania Avenue is one of the most history-making streets in all of D.C. The inauguration parade route follows this avenue from the Capitol and passes D.C.’s city hall, Freedom Plaza and the National Theatre on the way to the White House.
D.C. is a top-25 media market, and you can see major events in history through the news lens at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue. The building’s most striking feature are the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution etched into its marble exterior. Inside its galleries, learn about the importance of the free press and First Amendment. Front pages of newspapers from around the world display 9/11 coverage, and the Pulitzer Prize Photo Gallery showcases historical events captured by photographers and photojournalists. At the Berlin Wall Gallery, you and your family can experience this piece of history in a mind-blowing way by wearing virtual-reality headsets while standing in front of eight 12-foot-high concrete sections of the original wall, the largest display of unaltered portions of the wall outside of Germany.
In the afternoon, turn to Washington’s unique Civil War history at the African American Civil War Museum in the historic U Street Corridor. The museum teaches through exhibits and artifacts, plus a treasure hunt and interpretation that allow kids to explore while dressed in Union uniforms.
For dinner, the kids might enjoy a vegetarian black bean, Angus beef, ground turkey or marinated grilled chicken-breast burger – plus potato or sweet potato fries – at Bolt Burger across the street from the Morrison- Clark Inn. For more D.C. flavor, Baby Wale is just around the corner for easy eats, go-go beats and historic posters from bandleader Chuck Brown and band Rare Essence.
The historic Anacostia neighborhood is where you’ll find Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass. The house and visitor center is administered by the National Park Service (NPS) and is frequently visited by kids ages 5-12 collecting badges as part of the Junior Ranger Program.
During his lifetime, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss ending slavery. Both lived in hilltop homes with views of the U.S. Capitol that carry a heritage that seems to still be in conversation with this city of legislators.
From the porch of President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home in the Petworth neighborhood, the U.S. Capitol building dome is visible. Named one of the best off-the-mall museums, the cottage, learning center and grounds are a place of reflection and connection, a place for storytelling. Sitting on the porch steps, try reading a story to your kids.
President Lincoln lived at the cottage with his wife and children during the Civil War, and he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation here. Staff describe the site as a “place of ideas.” Education programs inspire young people with stories. “Lincoln’s Hat” models the president’s practice of storing notes with his ideas he jotted down in his stovepipe hat. “I See the President” invites fourth and fifth graders to re-imagine a story from someone President Lincoln would have met on his route between the cottage, Civil War-era Washington and the White House.
The cottage sits in a reviving business district of neighborhood cafés, shops and sports facilities along Upshur Street and Georgia Avenue. On Georgia Avenue is The Pitch Tavern, known for its chicken wings and sauces, and big screens for sports. Nearby Lulabelle’s Sweet Shop, a candy-colored ice cream and gift shop, boasts a table of purple, yellow, orange, green and pink peppermint sticks, black cherry flavored Sassy Straws at 25 cents each, toys, writing tablets and hand games plus hand-dipped scoops of ice cream and sorbet.
The Baltimore Harbor is a 30-minute drive from D.C. The USS Constellation, an historic tall ship docked in the harbor, is open for children to climb aboard.
Nearby, Port Discovery Children’s Museum offers three floors of play-filled time for toddlers to 10-year-olds. Play, art and exploration equal learning within this colorfully designed kid space. There’s soccer, climbing and discovery. At the play market, kids select grocery items, learning healthy food choices. The Wonder of Water delivers wet and fun learning about evaporation, cloud formation and rain. In the Studio Workshop, kids sit at tables gluing fabrics, paper and shiny decorations. Little Picassos and Romare Beardens sit at art easels, crayon in hand, drawing a sitter or still life.
Just off the beltway, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum at Dulles International Airport in Virginia is an adventure for little climbers. With all those flying machines, including spaceships and war planes and flight simulators, it is the coolest and most fun. I hear kids negotiating with their parents to stay all day. Someone even asked to spend the night. Its companion building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is also fun.
Nearby Splash Down Water Park in Manassas provides a day of water fun for the family. To continue enjoying area park lands, NOVA Parks manages Meadowland Botanical Gardens, a site of 100 acres of public gardens and three lakes. Scavenger hunts to discover nature and plant life can be arranged in advance for little ones.
If your stay includes a Saturday or Sunday, Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md., is entertaining for kids and parents. The 2019 season calendar is online at imaginationstage.org.
Imagination Stage is the largest theater-arts organization for youth in the area and includes a year-round season of shows, classes and camps for ages 1 to 18. There’s no bad seat in the house. There are lap passes, booster seats and floor seating. Equitable access is available for children of all abilities, including a quiet room that looks onto the stage and inclusive programming.
Special weekend theater gets ages 1 to 5 wiggling, whistling, shaking and laughing. Saturday Song Circle is an interactive experience that uses popular children’s stories, songs and musical instruments to get little bodies moving. Sunday Fun Day brings familiar songs such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and stories like “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.”
With so many parks and vibrant walking neighborhoods, D.C. is a fitness city. To explore the city on foot at a faster pace, the District Running Collective (DRC) inspires runners of all backgrounds and experience to learn about D.C. and become part of the community by running it. DRC hosts a free Wednesday Night Run and meets every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Exhale Bar & Lounge on Florida Avenue N.E. and at various locations for Saturday runs. For information or to sign up, visit districturunningcollective.com.
In whatever way you and your family experience my hometown, take as much of it in as you can.
Darlene Taylor is a Washington, D.C. writer, cultural arts advocate and founder of INKPEN, a nonprofit that aims to connect writers and readers.