You love the stuffing out of them, but admit it: Kids can make exploring any city challenging. Luckily, there’s a wide range of activities in Washington, DC for kids. Top of the list of family-friendly things to do in Washington, DC is the capital’s peerless collection of museums. Many of the institutions along the Mall, such as the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History feature hands-on children's areas and kid-focused tours, and the Potomac is dotted with superb walking and biking trails, boat tours and more.
Fun activities for kids in Washington, DC
Until 1968, Glen Echo was a popular amusement park just a trolley ride from Downtown. Today, it is preserved by the National Park Service (2pm weekend tours) and run by a non-profit group as a site for theater, art and dance. It also has a playground, picnic tables, plenty of places to explore and a charming 1921 carousel.
The gem at the heart of the Museum of Natural History is a state-of-the-art IMAX cinema and an 80,000sq ft brushed steel and granite Discovery Center housing a cafeteria and exhibition space. The rotunda, too, is an impressive structure, dominated by an eight-ton African elephant. In 2003, the museum’s restored west wing opened its glistening, 25,000sq ft Kenneth E Behring Hall of Mammals, featuring interactive displays alongside 274 taxidermied animals striking dramatic poses.
If your idea of a fun museum experience includes adopting a cover and memorising your alias’s vitals—age, provenance, travel plans and itinerary (you’ll be asked questions later)—you’ve come to the right spot. Testing your sleuthing abilities, along with gawking at an array of spy gadgets, including KGB-issued poison pellet shooting umbrellas and Germany’s Steineck ABC wristwatch camera, adds up to fun for some folks—many of them under 20. James Bond junkies will be in heaven—the groovy silver Aston Martin from 1964’s Goldfinger assumes a central spot on the circuit. Not surprisingly, the museum has proved a huge hit since it opened in 2002; consider booking tickets in advance.
Air & Space tops visitors’ to-do list, year in, year out. The imposing Tennessee marble modernist block, by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, incorporates three skylit, double-height galleries, which house missiles, aircraft and space stations. In the central Milestones of Flight hall, towering US Pershing-II and Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles stand next to the popular moon rock station, where visitors can stroke a lunar sample acquired on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. The 1903 Wright Flyer—the first piloted craft to maintain controlled, sustained flight (if only for a few seconds)—and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis are both suspended here. Permanent exhibitions in the museum detail the history of jet aviation, space travel and satellite communications.
The free-admission National Zoo offers a diverting escape. Particularly during the off-season, when the paths are not cluttered by pushchairs, the zoo offers a perfect (albeit hilly) stroll, away from the bustle of Connecticut Avenue. Tree-shaded paths wind through the margins past the various animals. The stars are two pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, brought on ten-year loan from China in 2001; their cub Tai Shan was returned to China in 2010. The panda habitat is part of the Asia Trail, which links the habitats of sloth bears, fishing cats, red pandas, clouded leopards, Asian small-clawed otters and a Japanese giant salamander.
A privately run collection, the National Building Museum produces smart, noteworthy exhibits focusing on architects and the built environment, both contemporary and historical. However, the main attraction is without doubt the building’s Italian Renaissance-style Great Hall, with its central fountain and eight colossal 75ft Corinthian columns: visitors crane their necks for a vertiginous look at the ceiling 15 stories above. Among the exhibitions, House & Home discovers the history and many meanings of "home", both physical and cultural, with an array of all things household, from household goods and decorations (including a poster of Farrah Fawcett and a fondue set), to building materials to mortgage papers.
The line of stands by the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance, filled with copies of today’s front pages from newspapers around the world, draws passers-by to this museum dedicated to journalism and free speech, which opened in 2008. The museum’s mission is further clarified by a huge marble tablet stretching most of the height of the striking, blue-gray rectilinear building, engraved with the words of the First Amendment, guaranteeing free speech. One of the world’s largest glass hydraulic elevators speeds visitors straight to Level 6, and one of the city’s most magnificent panoramas (there’s a clear view of the Capitol from the terrace), as well as a display of more than 80 front pages from around the world.
On Good Friday 1865, President Lincoln was enjoying a comedy in Ford’s Theatre when actor John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box and shot him. Wounded in his dramatic leap to the stage, Booth escaped painfully on horseback, only to be killed by US troops 12 days later. Today, the still-working theater, which underwent major restoration in 2009, looks as it did that day. Also the subject of a recent revamp, Ford’s Theatre Museum tells the story of the Lincoln presidency, from his arrival in Washington to his assassination, through tableaux, artifacts and videos. Exhibits explore life in the Lincoln White House, his cabinet and, of course, the Civil War, highlighting key events and Lincoln’s role, and including his speeches.