Long before my son Tim chose as his college The George Washington University, located a few blocks behind the White House, my wife and I had been frequent visitors to the nation's capital. It started with our third date, a student bus trip organized through Temple University. Once we had kids, we kept at it because D.C. is close, the attractions are largely free, and it's impossible to cover everything in only a few visits.
For those travelling on the cheap, it costs nothing to park on the National Mall, although you may cruise for a while before you find an open space, especially on weekends. Climb out of the car and you find yourself surrounded by destinations. Most of the buildings along the Mall are home to various elements of the vast Smithsonian. The Smithsonian consists of 19 different museums, most of which are open every day except December 25th and are free. Everything from Natural History to Aeronautics is covered here. Kids usually like the Air and Space Museum on the Mall's south side, as well as the American History Museum to the north, which is filled with relics of the American experience, from the enormous battle-worn flag that inspired the National Anthem to props from sit-coms, and the top hat worn by Abe Lincoln the night he was assassinated.
Also free are the numerous and stirring National Monuments and Memorials spread out across the Mall's center and west end. Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, and Roosevelt are all paid tribute here, as well as the nation's greatest wars. Along the way, you can catch a glimpse of the White House, thrilling for even younger children. White House tours, however, are ticketed and must usually be reserved well ahead of time. You can contact your local U.S. Representative or Senator's office for help on that. I've only toured the White House once as an adult, but while waiting for entry into the central foyer, Buddy, President Clinton's dog wandered by, happily identified by the staff. Pretty neat!
You will not have time to see all of these sites in a day. You will probably not have time to see a quarter of them, in fact, nor one-twentieth of all the things available to you in the two or three square miles at the city's center. But the Mall, with all its grand museums and monuments, is a great place to start. Bring your walking shoes and follow the weather forecast so you don't wind-up down there during weather extremes. This is important because you'll be spending a lot of time outdoors and on foot. Wear comfortable sneakers and have your kids do the same.
As mentioned, the above exhibits are all free. You can also cut costs by eating cheap. There are numerous snack carts in the area for relatively cheap refreshments. The museums have lunch counters, but they can be a bit pricey.
Thinking Outside The Box (or Mall)
Other free destinations include the National Zoo (also part of the Smithsonian), located a few miles away from the Mall, and Arlington Cemetery where Marines watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and where presidents including Kennedy and Taft are interred. The cemetery is an easy drive across the Potomac River, opposite the Lincoln Memorial. Admission is free, although a tour mobile ticket can be purchased in case you'd like to be driven to all the major sites.
If you've got money to burn, you and your family can choose from numerous other destinations. Ford's Theater, where Lincoln was shot, as well as the Peterson House across the street (where he died several hours later), require timed tickets for a nominal fee. These can be puchased online at home before you go. The nearby International Spy Museum is also fun for the youngsters. Paid admission is required.
But driving around is also fun and costs nothing (except patience during high-volume times), and the sights are many. Come in the spring and you can see the famous cherry blossoms in bloom around the Mall, which is truly Washington at its best (and most crowded). The Phillies also play several times a year just south of the Mall at beautiful Nationals Park. The Sixers and Flyers play road games at the centrally located Verizon Center. Eagles' road games are a little farther away in Landover, Maryland.
The D.C. subway is nice (seriously!)
Most of Washington is easily accessible via the Metro, the city's ultra modern and well-designed subway system. Many of the stations have attractive, high ceilings and the system is well suited for getting you to points of interest. Ask a Metro employee or a seasoned rider with help at the automatic ticket kiosks, if they throw you at first, or just carefully follow the directions. On weekends, there are one-price-only tickets that allow multiple entries and exits---a good bargain.
Driving into Washington can be a challenge, because there are precious few approaches and all tend to have back-ups. But several years of visiting the GWU campus has resulted in this valuable bit of advice: do not take New York Avenue into town. It's almost always a headache. My suggestion: take I-95 to the I-495 Beltway South (Washhington, D.C. Map), and then exit right onto the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. When the New York Avenue exit comes up, stay left and pass it by. You're now on a highway that becomes the Anacostia Freeway. Stay on this until you see the exit for Nationals Park (where the Phillies sometimes play). Take that exit. Drive past the stadium and keep going straight for several blocks toward the capital. If the entrance to I-695 South isn't backed-up, you can take that down a couple of exits and be deposited onto the Mall near the Washington Monument. Otherwise, just keep heading for the Capital Dome and you'll wind up on the Mall's northern end.
There will be traffic this way, but trust me, it's nothing like New York Avenue. On the way, home, it's a little trickier. Take I-695 north (you can enter near the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin), exit left onto Pennsylvania Avenue, and at the end of the exit ramp, make a right and cross the bridge. At the end of the bridge, get into the left hand turning lane and make the left onto the Anacostia Parkway. Then, follow signs for I-95 north. Not sure the GPS will know to take you this way, so bring a map and follow along carefully. Again, you'll find traffic along this route, but it is almost guarenteed to be less than on New York Avenue. Another D.C. driving tip: watch your speed, especially in tunnels under the Mall, or semi-local highways that enter and exit the city. They have cameras that take pictures of speeders, and out-of-state drivers get bills in the mail!
---David MurphyRead more Parenting Perspective blogs by visiting the Parenting Channel on 6abc.com.