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Washington, D.C. on a Budget with Kids

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I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 9.

Visiting the Capitol

Visiting the Capitol

Before heading to Washington, D.C. for 5 days with my family, I researched as much as I could in order to make the most of our time and money. Below you'll find our schedule for our 5 day trip and all the helpful tips I found out ahead of time on food, parking, and more! (Thank you, fellow members of the Classical Conversations Facebook group!) I am also including our favorite children's books, guide books, and YouTube videos we used while preparing for our trip.

If you could only visit one place in Washington, D.C., where would you go?

Museum of Bible - (2 hours but could have spent longer) - This was wonderful getting to see all the ancient artifacts, manuscripts of the Bible, and a village recreated to look like one that Jesus might have gone through! If we had more time, I would have loved to have spent a day there to let my children watch the Drive Through History videos that are showing in most of the rooms. We finished with my children's favorite: the best children's play area of all the museums. Make sure to notice the collection of fragments that purport to be a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the authenticity of some of them are still in question -- which is noted at the museum), 1542 Latin Bible signed by Martin Luther, the first edition King James Bible New Testaments (only 2 are known to exist), and the 1592 Bible owned by William Bradford. *Note added in 2019: This museum accepted donations for entry when we visited, but it now charges an entry fee.

National Air & Space Museum - (2 hours) - If I was visiting for only one day, I would skip this one. While the museum was nice, we have seen more extensive displays. Make sure to notice the 1903 Wright Flyer, Spirit of St. Louis, and Lockheed Vega 5B. (If you are hoping to see the rest of the collection of the museum's planes, you can view them at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, which is free to enter but parking costs $15, and it's at least a solid 45 minute drive from DC.) Tip: The museum has a free planetarium show at 10:30 am. It requires a free ticket, but they go fast. Also, the museum has a side entrance you can use to avoid longer lines at the front if needed. *Note added in 2019: This museum is undergoing major renovations. Check ahead of time to see what sections to plan accordingly.

National Museum American Indian - (1 hour) - I was pleasantly surprised by all that was included in this museum that includes numerous recreations of tribal villages and lots of Indian artifacts. Even though the building is enormous, it is mostly empty space. Tip: On sunny days you can see rainbows spill across the floor and walls of the atrium thanks to prisms set high in a south window.

Botanic Gardens- (less than 1 hour) - This was beautiful! It's filled with a wide variety of orchids and other plants. I thought it was pretty close to the Atlanta Botanic Gardens. Since it has large greenhouse, you can view this in any type of weather. Tip: If you contact the Botanic Gardens ahead of time, they provide free explorers backpacks for your kids to use while there. They includes a magnifying glass, ruler, various samples including cacao, vanilla, etc, and a field journal with things to spot and activities to accomplish (such as measuring 2 species of bamboo to see which is thicker). The bags do have to be returned.

National Gallery of Art, East - (less than 1 hour) - We all agreed we could have skipped this museum had we been short on time. It mostly contains the modern art of the National Gallery of Art. If you are a fan of Alexander Calder, they do have a nice collection of his pieces on the top floor. My children enjoyed the blue chicken in the atrium at the top of the building and also locating a few of the photos they had seen in the children's picture book, Don't Take a Balloon into the National Gallery of Art.

White House - (1 hour of waiting time + 30 minutes inside) - Getting into the White House takes some advanced planning. Four months before we headed to Washington, D.C., we put in a request with our congressmen to tour the White House. A month later we got an email that requested additional information which had to be returned almost immediately or your request would be canceled. A couple weeks before our trip, we contacted our congressman's office again, and they promptly sent us a day and time for our self-guided tour. You can take a camera and wallet into the White House but not much else (not even your purse, water, or stroller). To get there we parked at the far end of the Mall (only $2/hr.) and walked. You only get to walk into 5 rooms, and all but 2 rooms are self-led. We read up ahead of time on what we'd see in those rooms as there are of course no information placards. You can ask the secret service agents questions. I wish I had encouraged my children to each come up with a question to ask ahead of time.

White House Visitor Center - (10 minutes) - Since it is across the street from the White House, we popped into this small museum that contains a few artifacts. If you're passing by, it is worth stopping in, but I personally would not recommend going out of my way to visit it.

Library of Congress- (a bit more than 1 hour) - There are a few tours you can request to arrange with your congressmen, and this is one of them. Our guide talked about the significance of the architecture and art. Unfortunately she was rather soft-spoken, so we could barely hear most of what she said. My husband and I both agreed we should have skipped this tour. You can still enter the library even if you do not have a scheduled tour. Make sure to notice the Gutenberg Bible. Tip: Often, the security line at Library of Congress is shorter than the Capitol building. They are connected via tunnel, so enter the Library of Congress first. Use the tunnel to get to the Capitol to save time. The Capitol building does not allow any drinks or food, and they will make you throw them away if you have them when trying to enter through the tunnel.

National Gallery of Art, West - (2 hours but could have spent longer) - There are so many famous paintings in this building! In each room I told my children to look for the one with a "Director's Tour" badge next to it as it was definitely a famous one. Sometimes I asked my children to point to the prettiest dress in the room or to select which landscape would make the best vacation. My youngest ones searched for dogs. The museum offers free tours. You can stay for part of them and leave easily, which is what we did. Make sure to notice Leonardo da Vinci's painting Ginevra de' Benci as it is his only painting in America. Look at the back of the painting as well as it is painted on both sides of the canvas.

National Archives - (40 minutes waiting + 30 minutes inside) - After so much walking, this provided a nice opportunity to sit and rest on the wall as we waited in line for about 40 minutes to get inside the building. Since there seems to always be a line, it might have been better for us to have scheduled this earlier in the day when the line might have been shorter. If you are limited in time, consider buying a timed-entry ticket that is only $1.50/person so you can bypass the line to get inside. Make sure to notice the Magna Carta and also the other galleries that include rotating documents such as declassified documents, patent applications, or the homestead file of Charles Ingalls (from the Little House on the Prairie series).

Museum of Natural History (2 hours) - This was probably the most crowded museum. My children loved seeing the animals and rocks. We skipped the large section on evolution. Make sure to notice the Hope Diamond. I also thought the mummified bull was neat to see as I've never seen one among the numerous Egyptian displays I have seen. The bottom floor has a nice bird display, which you might miss if you enter on the level with the elephant. Tip #1: The butterfly exhibit is free on Tuesdays (normally $7), but timed-entry tickets are required. Get the tickets at the Butterfly Pavilion box office beginning at 10 am. The tickets go fast! Tip #2: The museum has 2 entrances: one facing the mall and one diagonal from the National Archives. If you arrive just after a busload of 4th graders, you might want to head to the other entrance.

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Hop on/off Tour Bus - (1 1/2 hours) - A number of people suggested starting the trip with a Hop On/Off Bus Tour and staying on the bus for a full loop to hear all about the city without having to wear out our legs. We got a Groupon for DC Trails, which starts at 9 am before the museums open. I would not recommend them! Our guide mainly told us the hours of operation of the buildings as we passed by. I was so disappointed! The second guide was not much better. At the end of the day we did have an older man as our guide, and he actually shared stories and historical information. I wish we had been on his bus to begin with! The DC Trails buses took about 45 minutes to arrive at a hop on/off destination as they only had 4 buses in service, and their arrival app times were inaccurate. While waiting for one of the buses, another family did share that they thought the night tour was worthwhile. Tips: Old Town Trolley Tours had the most buses in service followed by Big Bus. If you are simply looking for transportation, stick with the Circulator bus (only $1/ride or less if you get a daily pass) or Uber.

National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Museum of American Art - (2 hours) - We were able to review quite a bit of American History while walking through these two museums, which are connected by a fabulous courtyard. The courtyard is covered and has a small water area for the kids to play in. It is the perfect spot for a picnic lunch! Tip: Do note that this museum does not open until 11:30 am.

Ford's Theatre and Museum - (10 minutes) - Because they were preparing for a show, we were not allowed to enter the theater. Had we come earlier in the day, we would have been able to enter it. I guess we should have called first to find that out. They did require timed tickets, but there was no line. We just walked up to the ticket booth, got the tickets, and handed them to the park ranger. The museum in the basement is rather small. It has the gun Booth used to kill Lincoln, a pillow with Lincoln's blood on it, and a few other items. The house across the street is currently closed for renovations. I personally would not go out of my way to visit this, but it is worth stopping by if you are in the area.

Monuments: Jefferson, Lincoln, & Korean War Memorial (10 minutes at each) - I'd planned for us to use the bus tour to get off at more of the monuments, but the inconsistent bus arrival times made us decide to limit our stops. We got off and on at the Jefferson Memorial and then off and on for the last time at the Lincoln Memorial, which is right next to the Korean War Memorial. If I could do this over again, I would have had us head here around 8 am and park at the metered parking next to the Lincoln Memorial. Then we could have walked the loop around to see most of the monuments before the museums opened. Tip #1:Visit the National Park Service Booths to get free Junior Ranger Program booklets for the kids that make the monuments more meaningful (and are simply fun to fill out). Tip #2: The Einstein Statue is across the street from the Vietnam Memorial. If you look down at the floor, all the metal spots are stars that make up our solar system. If you stand directly in the center of the circle and face Einstein and talk in a normal tone, your voice will echo back to you but nobody else around you can hear it. It is also probably the only sculpture in the city that children are allowed to climb on.

Embassy Row & Dupont Circle - As we were driving to and from the National Cathedral, we enjoyed seeing the various flags and statues along Embassy Row. We also noted Dupoint Circle, which was designed by the same men who created the Lincoln Memorial.

National Cathedral (1 hour) - We attended an Evensong service (starting at 5:30 pm), which included the choir singing and the organ playing. At the end of the brief Episcopalian service, we all sang Amazing Grace. Afterward, a sweet and friendly church member invited us to their church dinner and gave our children a personal tour of the cathedral. Wow, that was so nice of her! This was a delightful way to end the day! Check their website for service and free concert information. Make sure to notice the Space Window (which includes a piece of the moon), the clear piece of glass in the rose window (to remind us that God is still creating), and the main pulpit (at which Martin Luther King preached just before he was assassinated).

Monuments at night (30 minutes) - A number of people recommended viewing the monuments when they are lit up at night. My children agreed that the Korean War Memorial looks rather creepy as the soldiers look like ghosts. The Lincoln Memorial was also beautiful to see lit up in the darkness. The Vietnam, Roosevelt, and WWII are also lit up nicely at night.

National Zoological Park - (1 hour) - We headed to the zoo as soon as it opened at 8 am and got to watch the 3 pandas much on their breakfast lunch of bamboo. It was almost eerie just walking into the zoo without paying a fee and then to not see many people. I think we saw only about 5 people in the first 30 minutes. I read that the parking lots fill up by 10 am, though you can also get metered parking spaces on nearby streets. The zoo is on a hill & the pandas are near the top of the hill, so that's where we started. We only saw a few animals as we were mainly there to see the pandas. Parking costs $25/day, though we left before 9 am and the gates were up with no one to pay. I'm not sure if that's always the case. Make sure to notice the panda bears.

Peirce Mill - (10 minutes) - Because we had time to kill, we stopped by this grist mill, which is on the corner of Rock Creek Park. My children enjoyed seeing the water mill on the old grist mill. We later read that you can go inside after they open at 10 am, and 2 Saturdays a month they have special activities including showing the grist mill in action.

Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens - (2 hours) - Because we can get in free using our NARM museum and AHS garden reciprocal privileges (you can read more about that at my post Free Museum, Zoo, Garden, & Park Tickets) and because it was rated so highly on Tripadvisor .com, we visited this former home of Marjorie Post, who used to be the head of Post cereal and then General Foods Corp. The home includes an extensive collection of Russian art (including Faberge eggs), jewels, and French art. The greenhouse has gorgeous orchids. The gardens were beautiful even though it was mid-March. I can only imagine how beautiful they would be in the spring & summer. I wanted to go on the free tour that lasts an hour, but my husband didn't agree to that. This was one of our favorite places we visited, but I personally would not have wanted to go if it was not on our reciprocal privileges list. Make sure to notice the Faberge eggs, stunning jewelry in her bedroom, and the gorgeous chandelier in the entry way.

Phillips Collection - (30 minutes) - Again, because we can get in free using our NARM museum reciprocal privileges and because it was rated so highly on Tripadvisor .com, we visited this smaller art gallery that has 1-2 pieces from a number of modern artists (Picasso, Monet, Rothko, etc.). It is currently being renovated, so we saw only a small portion of the full collection. My husband and I were divided on whether or not we thought this was worth visiting. He sad it was. I would categorize it as a time-filler considering what you can see at the National Gallery of Art. A plus is that we got a free 2 hour parking space on the street in front of the museum. Make sure to notice Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party.

National Arboretum - (30 minutes) - We all agreed that this was not worth the drive. It was neat to go to, but I would recommend it if you have limited time. Maybe our opinions might have been different if we were there in the spring. My children were fascinated by the concept of them having a tree to represent each state. It is mostly a drive-through type of place with a small Japanese garden area you can walk around. Make sure to notice the Yamaki Pine. At almost 400 years of age, it is one of the world's oldest bonsai trees and is also a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during WW II. My children enjoyed reading a picture book about it before we left for our trip: The Peace Tree From Hiroshima by Sandra Moore.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception - (30 minutes) - We also agreed that this could have been left off our must-see list. It is definitely beautiful and reverent to see. It is the largest Catholic church in America and even has a crypt and some chairs used by Popes when they visited the basilica, which opened up the opportunity to discuss the history of popes with some of my children. Everyone in my family agreed that if we had to choose between visiting the National Cathedral or this basilica, we would all prefer the National Cathedral. The National Cathedral was built in a Gothic style with lots of beautiful stained-glass windows. This basilica feels more modern and focuses more heavily on mosaics. Tip: If you do visit, it might be worthwhile to also stop by the nearby Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America which was built to resemble the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It also offers tours of their catacombs.

National Museum of American History - (1 1/2 hours though we could have spent more) - Because we still had extra time, we parked in the metered parking along the Mall and visited the National Museum of American History. We were all pleasantly surprised and decided we were coming back the next day (which had been our original plan anyway). This was one of our favorite museums. In addition to viewing the Star-Spangled Banner flag, we really enjoyed the top floor exhibit of The Price of Freedom, which focused on American History (mainly through wars) and included numerous historic artifacts and weapons. Make sure to notice the Star-Spangled Banner flag, George Washington’s military uniform, Edison’s first successful light Bulb, Abraham Lincoln's top hat, & the John Bull locomotive. The ruby red slippers from the Wizard of Oz were being restored when we were visiting.

*My husband first got our timed entry tickets for the Bureau of Printing & Engraving while I unloaded the kids from our vehicle.*

Smithsonian Visitor Center (the Castle) - (20 minutes) - Since it opens at 8:30 am, we headed to the Castle after parking along the Mall and then getting our timed entry tickets for the Bureau of Printing & Engraving. It has a small gifts shop, a few artifacts, and a pretty garden in the back. It also includes a room with a few items from each Smithsonian Museum so that you can get an idea about which museums you might want to visit...or avoid. We chatted briefly with a docent or tour guide who told us there is a tunnel that connects the Castle to the Museum of Natural History, but there isn't one connecting the museums to the National Archives since it's not a Smithsonian Museum. (I guess National Treasure wasn't 100% accurate.) He was also happy to share "true" ghost stories if you would like to hear them.

Bureau of Printing and Engraving - (1 1/2 hours) - To get a tour, you must get timed-entry tickets that morning starting at 8 am. We heard they run out by 9:30 am. I think some of my older children enjoyed the tour. My husband definitely loved it. All I saw were machine parts rolling & printing.

Freer | Sackler Galleries - (45 minutes though we could have spent a touch more time there) - I was again pleasantly surprised by all the Asian artifacts housed in this museum. What I especially loved was that they had numerous signs that were quick to read that taught us a bit about the importance or history of the items. Make sure to notice the Peacock Room.

National Museum of American History - (1 1/2 hours) - Because the museum has a fun children's play area, my kids begged to return. We split up. I took the youngest ones to the play area while the other ones got to see the exhibits we didn't make it to yesterday.

Capitol - (2 hours including waiting time) - This was another tour arranged with our congressman, though you can also show up and schedule one...if you want to wait in a long line. Unfortunately our scheduled tour was in the afternoon on a Friday, so we did not get to see the chambers. The tour was wonderful but rather short. Be sure to visit the museum as it has a few neat artifacts. We pointed out the Supreme Court Building across from the Capitol. Tip #1: You cannot take food (except baby food) or drinks into the Capitol. If you have water bottles, just empty them before going through security. Tip #2: A secretary at the Capitol told us that congressmen/women love for their constitutes to visit when they are in Washington, D.C. You can easily schedule an appointment if they are in their offices. Tip #3: Someone shared that the cafeteria is a great place to buy lunch for a reasonable price (around $5-$8).

Arlington National Cemetery & Pentagon - We drove by as we headed out of town.