How to have a Fun Family Vacation in Washington DC with Tweens
Pleasing tweens and teens isn’t easy – sometimes it seems that it’s their job to be bored. And they are really good at it. They are also really good at staring at their phones. How do you pull them off of their phones and get them to not only look at the world around them but actually enjoy it, too? That’s where I can help. For starters, read my article about how to get tweens and teens excited for Washington DC before you go. And if you need some tips in general for traveling with tweens and teens, read my article about how to have a fun trip with tweens.
Washington DC is an important world city. It has government buildings, museums, and historical sites. If you explain it that way to your tween…you are going to get groans and eye rolling.
So you’ve got to plan ahead to have a fun vacation in Washington DC with tweens and teens. Luckily, it’s not hard! One of the best ways to see any city is to have someone who knows and loves the city show it to you. Washington DC is full of guides and other workers who are passionate about what the city has to offer and can’t wait to tell you about it. As a mom, I was nervous as I pictured standing in front of a monument with my kids, reading to them about “why it’s interesting” out of a guidebook or off of a website. I knew I couldn’t pull it off, and it wouldn’t be fun. So I figured out how to get someone else to do it for me! Read on for specifics.
Washington DC Activities
I have good news for you! Almost all of the sites in Washington DC are free! The government buildings, monuments, and Smithsonian museums are all free to enter and enjoy. If you are a family on a budget, Washington DC is a good choice.
- The Capitol Building is a great place to start. Make a reservation ahead with your congressperson. Click for more info on making a reservation for a Capitol tour. It’s free to enter and to take a tour! If you are too late to book a tour with your congressperson, you can reserve one online. If you are too late for that (as we were since we were going during the super-popular cherry blossom season), not to worry! We just went the day we wanted to go and waited in line for tickets. We only had to wait about 15 minutes to get into the building, and while we waited the very enthusiastic line monitor told us all about the building and its architectural history. Once inside, you’ll have to choose one member of your party to wait in line to get the tour tickets. That also only took about 15 minutes. Definitely, check the website ahead of time for possible closures and for lists of restricted items.
- The Library of Congress is also a beautiful building that is interesting inside. There are free tours here as well. You also can just walk around and see it yourselves. Insider tip: once you are inside the Capitol, you can go through the underground tunnels to get to the Library of Congress. Not only is it cool to see the tunnels (which weren’t crowded at all), you can bypass having to go through security since you have already been through security at the first building. You can save yourself having to wait in line! Always a bonus with kids. Here’s more info on the Library of Congress.
- The White House is at the top of everyone’s list! It can be a challenge to get a tour booked, so check with your congressperson as far in advance as you can. If you are a citizen of a country other than the US, you can still visit. You need to contact your embassy for more information. If you can’t get a tour, don’t worry! There is a visitor center nearby that is also very interesting. That is where our family ended up, as we were too late to get a tour. It has models of the building itself, info about the presidents, some memorabilia such as household items that past presidents have used, plus an interesting short video that is narrated by all the most recent residents of the White House, including the Bushes, the Obamas, and the Trumps. For more info about White House tours click here. It is important to note that there are several restrictions and prohibited items when visiting the White House. Check the website ahead of time. You don’t want to be surprised when you get there. For more info about the White House Visitor Center click here. If you go there, please note that they search your bags on the way in and no food is allowed. It doesn’t tell you that on the website – I was pretty annoyed that we had to dump out the drinks we had just bought and throw away our back-up snacks.
- More government buildings – When you contact your congressperson about tours, you will fill out a form indicating which buildings you are most interested in. The Supreme Court and the FBI building are other possibilities, among others. Choose whatever your family is most interested in. To keep tweens and teens from rolling their eyes, I recommend limiting the total number. We did the three I mentioned. If you drag them to too many, you are going to lose their interest.
- Insider Tip: All of the government buildings that we visited have a gift shop inside. If you’ve got a tween or teen that is into shopping, this is a way to get some interest and excitement going! A little reward for having a good attitude perhaps? Bribery isn’t the best parenting…but we can all use some help sometimes. And, I want you to know that the gift shop at each of these sites is different. They each have items that pertain to the specific site. So if you see something awesome (like the Capitol building Christmas ornament that I wish I’d bought) get it, because otherwise, you’ll have to go through all those security lines again to get back in. And if you have a kid who is not a shopper, like my son, there are other available bribes. Our family bought a different kind of candy at each gift shop. What fun, right?!?
Monuments and Memorials
Washington DC is full of world-famous monuments and memorials. The Washington Monument rises above all, dominating the view of the city. It has an elevator inside, so you can ascend it and be rewarded with a view of the city below. It was closed for renovations when we were there, and is scheduled to reopen this August (2019).
The Lincoln Memorial is many peoples’ favorite. President Lincoln is the favorite president of many Americans and his memorial is stunning. Tweens have learned about him in school, so they will probably be interested to see it. If you watched Night at the Museum 2 like I suggested in my article about getting ready for Washington DC, then they’ve seen him come to life!
We took a bike tour to see the monuments. It was terrific! Our guide was so knowledgeable and made it much more interesting than if I’d been the one explaining things. We saw the ones I’ve already mentioned, plus the monuments of Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Jefferson, FDR, the Vietnam and Korean Wars, and World War II. I HIGHLY recommend doing a bike tour with your tweens or teens. It will definitely increase the amount of fun you can have in Washington DC!
I booked our bike tour on Viator. The company is called Bike and Roll. We met up with Bike and Roll at their location at 475 L’Enfant Plaza. We were provided bikes, helmets, and water bottles (plus we had a snack break later). The ride was easy and flat. It was three hours long, which included stops at the monuments. Our guide would explain the background of each monument, and then we could get off our bikes and walk around. It was really fun and informative, plus we got some exercise! It also was quicker than other modes of transportation. I could just imagine how whiny tweens and teens would be if we were walking that far, or if we were stuck in traffic in one of the many tour buses or even a car. Traffic was backed up for blocks and blocks – Washington DC is not a good city to see by car or bus.
I didn’t realize until I started planning our trip that there are 19 sites under the heading of “Smithsonian!” Before you go, check out the Smithsonian website and decide which sound the most interesting to your family. You definitely cannot drag tweens and teens to more than a few museums! Since they are all free to enter, you have the choice to visit some for a short amount of time without feeling obligated to “get your money’s worth.” Here are the ones we chose:
- American History Museum -This one has some very cool items. Some are related to American history, like the original Star-Spangled Banner that inspired our nation’s song. Others are related to cultural history, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers and the Batmobile! There is something for everyone here. My daughter really enjoyed the display of Julia Child’s kitchen which included an amusing documentary about the chef.
- Natural History Museum – This one has lots of interesting science stuff, plus some special items like the Hope Diamond and some Egyptian mummies. If you are traveling with younger kids, this is a don’t-miss destination. My tween girl enjoyed the gem collection a lot, and my teen boy was into the dinosaurs.
- National Air and Space Museum – Our family is really into learning about all kinds of transportation including space travel, so this was definitely a favorite for us! We spent several hours here, and also went to one of the planetarium shows. Insider tip: They have both planetarium shows and an Imax theater. Both types of shows require paid tickets. We realized that if you join the Smithsonian and get a membership, you get a discount on the tickets as well as the restaurants and the gift shop – and they send you their magazine for a year. The membership is not very expensive, plus it goes to a great cause. You can get info on that right at the museum and make your decision there.
- National Air and Space Museum – Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center – There are now TWO Air and Space Museums. This one is not on the National Mall, it is out near Dulles Airport. We rented a car on our last day and drove out there, then turned the car in at the airport. This museum is very cool if you are into planes and space. The Space Shuttle Discovery is there, as is an SR-71 Blackbird, a Concorde, and the Enola Gay. If you like to see big stuff, this place is awesome! There is an Imax theater at this museum too, so you may want to plan for extra time.
George Washington’s home has been lovingly preserved. If you have time, it is a fascinating glimpse into the past. The mansion itself is beautiful, but there is a lot more to see on the grounds. There is a museum that explains Washington’s life in a fun way that is interesting for kids. The slave quarters are there and have some really interesting information about what slave life was like and Washington’s evolving thoughts on slavery. Did you know he wrote in his will to free as many of his slaves as he could?
There are also buildings that illustrate farm life of the 1700s. His tomb is also there to be viewed. And…there is a great gift shop!
We booked a boat tour from Washington DC to Mount Vernon on Viator. I would highly recommend visiting this way! It is definitely a good choice for tweens and teens. A boat ride is a nice change of pace. It’s a pleasant 90-minute ride down the Potomac. There is a cafe aboard where you can purchase breakfast or lunch, or just a drink or snack. The whole tour ends up taking about half a day. Do be warned: the cafe had plenty of food available in the morning, but on our trip back to Washington DC the pickings were slim. There is also a restaurant at Mount Vernon which I hear has good food. However, that would eat into your time to see the sites.
Insider tip: A boat ride is not only a pleasant way to see the world, but it’s also a way to get some downtime for tweens and teens. The kids can play on their phones or read a book without missing anything important. And yes, there are nice bathrooms on the boat.
Nicole at www.suitcaseandamap.com has a terrific article about visiting Mount Vernon as well as Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. Click here to read her article about Mount Vernon and see her great pictures.
More places to visit in Washington DC with tweens
If you have more time, there are more places to see! The National Archives is the home of The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. It is rather awe-inspiring to see them in person. They also have exhibits at the archives explaining how and why various treasures are preserved.
The National Cathedral is another beautiful building to visit. It’s a bit far from the National Mall. We chose to take the metro to the closest metro station and then took a taxi the rest of the way – that way we saved some money and we saved our feet. It is free to enter, but if you want a tour it is a bit pricey. They have tours of the gargoyles which sounded fun to me, but they weren’t doing tours when we were there. There are some unusual gargoyles at this church – one looks just like Darth Vader!
They are also fundraising to rebuild the part of the cathedral that was damaged in an earthquake a few years ago. It’s a pretty creative fundraising campaign – they are building a model of the cathedral out of Legos, and you can buy a Lego for $2.00. We bought some, of course, and got to put them together under the guidance of a volunteer. Many tweens would find that fun.
Where to Stay in Washington DC with Tweens
We stayed at the Embassy Suites. I would highly recommend it – it was a very comfortable place to stay for a family with two older kids. All of the rooms are suites. Our room had two queen beds in one area, so we were able to put my daughter in her own bed. In the other area, there was a fold-out sofa. It was perfect because my son not only had his own bed, but he had some space for himself. When we had downtime in the room, we didn’t have to have all four of us together in the same space.
There is a really good included breakfast buffet, which is such a great money saver. I really appreciated the omelet bar. Every morning I could get a freshly made egg scramble with veggies – for a mom trying to eat right, it was a life saver. Every afternoon they had a free happy hour, which was fantastic! My husband and I went every day and had free drinks from the bar! Some days the kids went with us and enjoyed the punch and snacks. Other days the kids stayed in the room and relaxed while we had a mini-date. The happy hour was a really nice addition to our vacation.
The Embassy Suites also has a pool and an arcade. We took advantage of both! Both were a great way to work some downtime into our trip for the kids. I took M down to the pool a couple of times just the two of us, which meant T had some time to relax in the room without his little sister around – which was a good thing for all of us. She and I had some quality girl time, and the menfolk got to have some girl-free time.
When you are looking for accommodations for your family, think about what your family needs. What could the hotel have to make life easier? Or does it make sense for you to rent a home or apartment instead? Remember, VRBOis also a great option, and one our family has used for many vacations. Click the link below if you want to search for a home to rent with VRBO:Rent a house for half the price of a hotel®
Where to Eat in Washington DC
Washington DC has an up-and-coming world cuisine presence, but fancy restaurants are probably not what you are looking for when you are traveling with tweens. We like to find food that is tasty, interesting if possible, yet also appropriate for picky eaters. And budget-friendly. We tried several places near the Embassy Suites.
The best was definitely Pizzeria Paradiso Dupont. The pizza was good and the atmosphere was pleasant, both in the restaurant and in the neighborhood. It was about a ten-minute walk from our hotel. If you want happy tweens and teens, buy them pizza.
We also ordered pizza in one night after a long day of walking. The hotel room was a little small for eating comfortably, but it was okay and it was a nice break for the kids to not have to go out again.
We ate at the hotel in our restaurant one night, also. It is called District Tap. The food there was pretty good, and it was definitely convenient. It’s a little pricey though, so we only ate there once.
Down the street, the Hilton Garden Inn has a really good French-style restaurant. We liked it so much, we went twice. The steak frites was delicious and so was the creme brulee! It also looks as if it would be a good choice for a hotel.
One night we tried the Meiwah restaurant, which serves Chinese food. It was okay. The food was not up to par with what we are used to, however, our family loves Chinese food and if you are looking for something to please tweens and teens, it’s okay. And it was really close to our hotel – which is something that pleases tweens. I was going to link it here, but I found an article saying that it is closing this month. Perhaps you could try one of the other Chinese restaurants nearby and comment below for future readers!
For lunch, we usually just got something at the cafeteria of whichever place we were visiting. I appreciated that lunch was so readily available and we didn’t have to go seek it out. The cafeteria at the Smithsonian America History museum was especially good, as they’ve attempted to make a menu with regional American dishes. I had a Navajo taco and thought it was pretty yummy.
The Air and Space museum on the mall had sandwiches and salads for sale, and the other Air and Space museum has a McDonald’s inside.
The best lunch we had was at the Pavilion Cafe right on the Mall. It is situated in the sculpture garden, and has a lovely relaxed vibe. It was a nice escape from the hustle and bustle. They have a nice menu of sandwiches and salads. I had the Asian chicken salad – it was delicious.
Getting around Washington DC
We used the metro every day while we were there. It’s easy to figure out. There are machines at the entrance to all of the stations where you can purchase a card which will be your ticket. Each member of your party needs their own card. Then you load as much money as you think you need onto the card. We were there five full days (hot counting travel days) and used it a lot, and $20 was a good amount. The metro was efficient and felt very safe.
We also did a ton of walking. The interesting sites are mostly pretty close together so it is doable to walk. Like I said before, we biked to see the monuments, which I highly recommend.
We used taxis a few times. Car travel is not that fast since the traffic gets pretty backed up and there are lots of one-way streets which makes navigating the city complicated for drivers. I would definitely NOT recommend driving yourself. Parking is scarce.
Suggested Itinerary for Washington DC with Tweens
We spent five full days there. There is a lot to see, so we had no trouble filling our time. However, three days is probably enough if you just want a taste. If you have three days, I’d recommend:
- Day One: Do the monument bike ride tour (or walk around and see the monuments on foot) and choose one Smithsonian museum (we did the American History Museum first) to visit. If you do the monuments on foot, you likely won’t have the energy for a museum.
- Day Two: Go to the Capitol building (and the Library of Congress if you choose) and then choose one more Smithsonian museum to visit.
- Day Three: Go to the White House in the morning (either on a tour you booked in advance, or go to the visitor center). In the afternoon, choose what sounds best to your family: The National Archives, The Washington National Cathedral, or another Smithsonian museum.
- If you have a Day Four: Do the boat tour to Mount Vernon. In the afternoon, you will have time to do one of the other activities I mentioned that you haven’t gotten to yet.
- If you have a Day Five: You can get to all the places I listed, and maybe even check out the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space museum.
Tips for traveling to Washington DC with tweens and teens – recap
There are several keys to success for traveling with tweens. Let me remind you:
- Prep them ahead of time so they know why they should care. Read my article about getting ready to visit Washington DC with tweens
- Build downtime into EVERY DAY. If you give them some time to check their phones, swim in the hotel pool, enjoy the hotel happy hour, watch TV, or read a book, you will get less eye rolling the rest of the day. We came back to our hotel in the late afternoon every day and chillaxed for a couple of hours before dinner. Give them some time when they aren’t expected to be nice to you because they need it, and maybe you need it, too! (I mean let them be alone, not let them be rude).
- Set expectations for use of devices. In general, the same rules should apply that you use at home – no phones at meals, for instance. But maybe you want to have some special rules for vacation. For example, our daughter wasn’t as interested in the Air and Space Museum as the rest of us were. We expected her to stay with us and “be interested” for a little while, but then I let her find a bench to sit on and play on her phone while the rest of us enjoyed the displays. She had to stay in one place and stay where we could see her – but I didn’t mind her doing her own thing for a bit. Think about how you would handle a similar situation ahead of time. It’s okay that not everyone likes everything – but how will you handle it?
- Don’t forget to contact your congressperson and make reservations for tours!
I hope you found my tips helpful! Comment below and let me know what else you need for having fun traveling to Washington DC with tweens.
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Thank you for this! We are taking our teens at the beginning of October and this has been helpful. I can’t seem to find the boat tour to Mt. Vernon. Disappointed because we wanted to do that.
I’m so glad you found it helpful! I hope that you are able to find a Mount Vernon boat trip. Try the Hornblower website.
Thank you for all of the great tips! We recently tried the boat trip to Mount Vernon and my boys loved it! We never would have known about it without seeing your post.
That’s so great! I’m glad you guys had fun on the Mount Vernon boat tour! So happy I could help.
Such a thorough post. It looks like your family saw so much in Washington DC!
We really tried to make the most of our time there! There are so many things to see!
This is great information! I dont have Tweens yet but this article gives a lot of insight on general information needed for a trip to Washington DC. Thanks for sharing and love the pictures as well. 🙂
I very much enjoyed reading how your adventure went. It made me feel like I was along with you all.
I’m so glad to share it!
What great tips! We recently took a day trip to DC and loved it! My favorite part was definitely the Lincoln Memorial, but it was all very interesting! I wish I had read your post before we went so I could’ve planned ahead better, I’ll have to keep it in mind if we ever go back!
Aren’t you lucky that you can get there for a day trip! There is so much to see.
These tips are amazing. I can’t wait to take my little one to DC when he’s old enough!!!
If you take your son when he’s younger, the National Zoo should also be on your list!
So much information! Thanks!
Washington, D.C. is on our list of places to visit. Maybe we need to visit sooner than later. 🙂
It really is fantastic! I hadn’t realized how much I would enjoy it!