What to Know for a Family Visit to Washington DC

Washington DC is a city that was practically made for family vacations. With its variety of museums and famous landmarks, it’s a city that can keep a family busy for days. Before you go, keep in mind these things when planning a family visit to Washington DC.

The best time to go to Washington DC

Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC

Washington DC isn’t often thought of as a southern city but come summer the weather is unmistakable. Summer brings with it very high temperatures as well as high humidity which is quite the grisly combination. You especially feel the effects when you’re out walking around trying to see the nation’s capital. It’s even more difficult to deal with when you traveling with your family and the kids tire quickly because of the weather.

Fortunately, DC is a city full of museums (yay a/c), so if you end up visiting during the summer months, that’s one great solution, but if the temps and humidity spike, it will only help so much

It’s best to visit DC during the spring (and maybe catch the cherry blossoms) when the temperatures are cooler. With families, the problem is working around school schedules, which of course makes summer a popular time to visit. But if you have to visit near summer make it early June when it has started to get warm but it hasn’t quite reached the levels it will in July and August.

Yet another option is for those lucky enough to have a day off in the fall, to visit then. The temperatures are often still really nice in October and you get the benefit of the fall colors as well.

Smithsonian Museums are free

Portrait in National Portrait Gallery

Most major cities can be quite expensive to visit and DC is the same in certain areas. One of the most popular things about DC, its collection of Smithsonian Museums, is completely free. This impressive collection of Museums has a bit of everything from history, to airplanes, to gardens.

If you want to spend some time outdoors and still enjoy the free access, the National Zoo is included on the Smithsonian’s roster as well. Kids will like being able to spend some time at this park and appreciate the animals.

Great food scene

Pho at Sprig and Sprout in Washington DC

If you come to DC be prepared to eat and eat well. The food scene in DC is one of the best in the country with an exciting mix of all types of food. Numerous nationalities are well represented. You’ll have the opportunity to try some classic and some new and innovative, including some things that you probably never thought to try.

In addition to the restaurants, there are several markets that you would want to visit as well. This is another great option for the foodies in the family.

Tours of the White House

White House in Washington DC

Another free activity. This would be the highlight of nearly everyone’s trip. It’s nice enough to be able to go near the White House, see it and take a few selfies. It’s another thing altogether to be able to step foot inside the most famous house in the country.

This is quite the attraction, so it’s not that easy to book tickets for. There’s a process for requesting a tour of the White House, and you have to get fortunate. We’ve tried twice and didn’t get selected either time. But it’s worth a shot. It doesn’t cost anything to apply except a bit of time. And if you do get selected, the effort will be well worth it!

Tours of the Capitol Building

US Capitol Building

It’s a bit easier to get inside this landmark, but still, a bit of effort is required. It’s advised to book your reservation ahead of time to make sure that you get the date and time that you want. You can make reservations up to 90 days in advance.

Same-day reservations are available but the availability can’t be guaranteed especially during more popular times of the year. To get the same-day passes some people have had to get on location extremely early, which likely isn’t feasible for a family with young kids (or older kids for that matter). However, if you’re feeling spontaneous the option is there.

Where to stay when you visit Washington DC

Maybe it was where we were trying to stay, but it seemed that we had an easier time getting hotel rooms booked in Manhattan than in DC! Okay maybe it’s not quite that bad, but it’s close. You’ll find soon enough that the hotels in DC are expensive.

Your best bet would be to start searching for deals early, possibly going with some non-cancel rates. Even if you do find a sweet deal for your hotel, before you book, make sure you check for parking rates. Because if hotels are expensive in DC, parking is just as bad.

It was very common for me to be super happy with a great hotel rate only to check and find out the parking would add another $100 or more to our stay.

If you can’t get an early deal you have another option. You can stay across the river in Virginia. The rates aren’t quite as bad as DC and depending on where you stay you won’t have that far to go to get back into the city.

Staying in Arlington or Crystal City could potentially save a few dollars. Even when staying there, you have to watch for parking fees from the hotel. If you’re driving into DC, you’ll then have to tangle with the parking situation which will be a pain, and expensive. In certain cases staying in Virginia can work, but you’ll have to be careful and plan it out and map out the costs.

Sometimes you’ll find that you’re better off just staying in DC.

Airbnb, Homeaway or VRBO is another great option. You’ll want to book well in advance to get some good options and prices in the neighborhoods that you want. If you wait, this can get expensive as well. A benefit is that it’ll be easier to get into the city and take advantage of their great metro system so that you don’t have to hassle with….

Parking is a nightmare

If you don’t have to park in DC, don’t. The metro is a great alternative so it’s the preferred way to move around the city. With so many attractions near the National Mall, it attracts a large crowd and the parking situation is less than ideal, to put it mildly. Actually, it’s a massive pain.

Constitution Ave. in Washington DC

The limited amount of free spots is quickly taken. And even then, there are limits on how long you can park in those spots which are metered (often 2-hour increments and restrictions during rush hour). Since you could theoretically spend the entire day on the National Mall, you could see how this could be a problem.

If you have to park, you could find day parking that isn’t too far from the National Mall and that seems to be a better solution. For one of the days that we visited DC, that was the option that we used and I was more than happy to pay the flat rate and be able to leave our car all day and not worry.

So much to see around the National Mall

There are so many museums up and down the National Mall that a lot of what you want to see is in quite a compact area. For a family, you really could spend at least 2 days on the National Mall alone. This makes it easy to get around since you’ll be returning to the same area. It’s even easier if you use the metro since you can get off and just walk the entire area if you want to.

Free Millennium Stage performances

One of the outstanding landmarks in DC is the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It’s an iconic, magnificent building that stands out. It’s great to be able to get close to such a landmark but it’s even better if you can go inside and see it for yourself.

Hall of Nations at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

For a family, seeing a performance there might be a bit out of your budget. But with the Millennium Stage series, the performances are free! And perhaps as a bonus, most performances are about an hour in length. The performances are often scheduled for 6 pm every day and you can check the Millennium Stage schedule for performers and showtimes. It’s definitely worth the visit!

Georgetown/Georgetown Park

When it’s time to shop, it’s time to head to Georgetown. Not only is the neighborhood charming, but there is plenty to see and do in this famous DC neighborhood. The residential architecture is splendid in itself.

The canal provides lovely photo ops as well as its side streets. The main streets are filled with retail locations both large and small as well as great restaurants.

Closer to the river is a park with a pathway as well as a place to sit near the river.

Enjoy Washington DC with your family

With a little planning, you family will be ready for a fantastic visit to Washington DC. You can even follow this practical 4 day itinerary for Washington DC as a guide.

If you’ve been to DC, what are some spots that you feel are “can’t miss”? Feel free to share them in the comments.


  • Jeremiah Pittmon

    Jeremiah Pittmon is a published travel writer and photographer from Cleveland, Ohio. Passionate about exploring the world with his family, he finds inspiration in all types of travel. Through his blog, smilesonarrival.com, and social media channels, he shares captivating experiences and valuable tips for families who love to travel.

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What to Know for a Family Visit to Washington DC
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