The Ultimate Washington DC Family Vacation Itinerary for 1-7 Days
Look no further for the best all-encompassing Washington DC family vacation itinerary for spending 1 to 7 days in the nation’s capital!
With its multitude of free, hands-on museums, kid-friendly attractions, and a plethora of American artifacts, Washington DC is an iconic and fun family vacation destination.
In this article, we include all of the best things to do in Washington DC with kids as well as provide tips on where to stay, and how to get around.
Here’s how to plan the ultimate Washington DC family vacation and what we think is THE BEST 7-day Washington DC itinerary when visiting Washington DC with kids.
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Tips for Your Washington DC Family Vacation
A family trip to Washington DC is a US bucket list destination for many American families.
If you’re thinking of visiting, it’s important to understand the general layout and to know what there is to do there before your arrival.
Though the capital of the USA is a popular tourist destination, knowing what to expect will make your family trip less stressful as well as ensure that you see and do all that is of interest to you.
Here are a few travel tips for your Washington DC family vacation that’ll help you prepare before you go.
1. Understand the area and have a plan for each day.
The District of Columbia (in between the U.S. states of Maryland and Virginia) was set aside as the nation’s capital so that the federal government would not be located in any single state.
National symbols such as the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House are accessible to visitors, along with dozens of other tourist attractions, which include world-class museums and important monuments – study ahead of time which places require reservations to attend.
When planning your Washington DC family vacation, refer to a tourist map of Washington DC in order to understand the layout of the main tourist area.
Keep in mind that even the most seasoned travelers will be not able to see and do everything on their Washington DC family vacation.
Between the city’s enormous size, the time it takes to explore the many, huge museums, and the multitude of things to do both day and night, it’s hard to do it all in one trip.
Our advice is to build a Washington DC itinerary that includes 3-5 activities each day – as you’ll find in our detailed itinerary shared below.
Group activities together based on their proximity to one another so that you do not waste time and energy zig-zagging back and forth.
In addition, be sure to be flexible in allowing time for rest breaks, meals, and snacks.
2. Prepare for a lot of walking.
When planning your Washington DC family vacation, know ahead of time that you will be walking a lot.
Like seriously, a lot.
The most popular area for tourists to visit in Washington DC is the National Mall, an outdoor landscaped park that encompasses all of the memorials, monuments, and museums.
It is centrally located in Washington DC and stretches over 2 miles from the Lincoln Memorial on the west end to the U.S. Capitol on the east end.
In other words, it is a large area to cover for both kids and grownups alike.
Make sure that everyone has comfortable walking shoes, such as tennis shoes or sandals with adequate support.
And if you are debating about bringing a stroller, do it!
Both the mall area and all of the museums are stroller friendly.
Additional planning tip: Though strollers are permitted in all of the museums, no strollers are permitted in Ginny Ruffner: Reforestation of the Imagination.
3. Visit on weekdays and in the early morning or evening.
The National Mall receives over 24 million visitors each year.
It is the most crowded on the 4th of July, Memorial Day weekend, during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and for major political rallies and special events.
In addition, there are always more visitors on weekends and during school and public holidays.
The best way to avoid crowds on the National Mall is to visit on weekdays, early in the day, or in the evening.
I personally prefer to visit the monuments, in particular, in the evening as they are even more special when lit up at night.
Finally, early morning and evening temperatures are much more appealing when visiting Washington DC with kids, as daytime heat and humidity can be unbearable during the summer months.
4. Seek out designated kids’ areas.
Depending on the ages of your kids, you will definitely need to seek out age-appropriate activities to keep everyone in the family entertained.
Toddlers will love the designated kids’ area called Wegman’s Wonderplace found at The National Museum of American History and the imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the National Museum of the American Indian.
Another great place for toddlers and small children is the immersive, hands-on Play, Work, Build installation at the National Building Museum.
Along with the monuments and museums, teens and school-age kids will especially enjoy a U.S. Capitol Building tour, the Library of Congress, Ford’s Theatre, Mount Vernon, The White House, and Arlington National Cemetery.
Children young and old will love the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, the National Children’s Museum, the National Zoo, and the huge wading pool and water features at The Yards Park.
Here’s a list of our must-see museum artifacts when visiting Washington DC with kids:
- Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights at the National Archives Museum.
- The space shuttle Discovery at The National Air and Space Museum.
- The Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History.
- Dorthy’s ruby-red slippers, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, the original Kermit the Frog puppet, Old Glory American Flag, and The First Ladies exhibition at the National Museum of American History.
- Visualizing the 3-tiered bronze-colored exterior as well as Muhammad Ali’s headgear at the National African American History Museum.
5. There are very few food options on the National Mall.
When strolling around the National Mall you will not find many family friendly food options.
You will, however, find occasional hot dog carts, ice cream trucks, and food trucks that line 14th street (the main street between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian museums.)
Though there are some restaurants near the National Mall, we’ve found the most convenient options when visiting Washington DC with kids are at the food courts and cafeterias inside of the Smithsonian Museums.
Simply pop into one of the museums (which are free to enter) and follow the signs to their in-house cafes or eateries.
Check out this Smithsonian dining guide for hours, availability, and options.
If you don’t want to worry about where to buy food at all, pack your own meals, snacks, and water and have a picnic in one of the many open green spaces.
Additional planning tip: Though visitors are permitted to bring food and beverages in sealed containers (inside a backpack or other bag) into the Smithsonian museums, they may not be consumed in the museum.
Places like the Capitol Building and other government buildings do not allow outside food and drink inside, so do plan accordingly.
6. Know the ‘ways to save’.
One of the best things you’ll find about your Washington DC family vacation is that most of the monuments and museums are free to visit!
There is no admission charge for the U.S. Capitol Building, Library of Congress, Smithsonian museums, or to view the monuments and memorials (which is great if you’re visiting Washington DC on a budget!).
The International Spy Museum and George Washington’s Mount Vernon currently charge $20-50 each for an adult. Guided tours at any of the Washington DC attractions also charge a fee per person.
You can save money by purchasing tickets online in advance.
Other ways to save money on your Washington DC family vacation are to stay in hotels outside of the city limits, eat hotel room meals whenever possible, pack your own portable snacks, and walk whenever possible.
How to Get Around Washington DC
The easiest way to get around Washington DC is by using Metro, DC’s public transportation Metrorail and Metrobus system.
For more information on its stations, fares, maps, and schedules visit Metro’s official website at www.wmata.com.
Uber, Lyft, and taxis are also readily available in Washington DC, at a much steeper cost.
We do not recommend renting a car when visiting Washington DC with kids, as both driving and parking are challenging if you are not familiar with the city.
If you are staying outside of the city and have a rental car, however, drive to the nearest Metro station, park, and then ride Metrorail into the city.
Once in the area of the National Mall, The White House and U.S. Capitol Building, as well as the museums and monuments, are best seen on foot.
The exception is Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial for which I would recommend taking an Uber or Lyft.
Best Places to Stay in Washington DC for Families
If you want to stay within the city and potentially avoid having to rent a car, I recommend staying in a hotel that is within walking distance of the National Mall.
Convenient, family-friendly hotels in Washington DC include:
- Residence Inn by Marriott at Washington, DC National Mall – 5-minute walk to the National Mall, indoor pool, kitchens with full-sized refrigerators/freezers and microwaves, complimentary evening reception, and complimentary buffet breakfast.
- Hampton Inn Washington DC/White House – 10-minute walk to the National Mall, complimentary breakfast and an indoor pool, and several dining options nearby.
- Holiday Inn Washington Capitol – 5-minute walk from the National Mall, outdoor rooftop pool, and an onsite convenience store.
- Washington Marriott at Metro Center – 10- minute walk to the National Mall, heated indoor pool, onsite restaurants, and a Starbucks.
If you’re open to staying outside of the city and taking the Metro into the heart of Washington DC, consider staying in its surrounding cities.
Hotels near Washington, DC in these areas sometimes have free parking and are usually more affordable than those downtown.
- Hotels in Alexandria, Virginia (Home of the free King Street Trolley)
- Hotels in Bethesda, Maryland
- Hotels in Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia
Washington DC Family Vacation Itinerary
Here’s our suggested itinerary for spending up to one week in Washington DC with kids.
These day-to-day itinerary suggestions are based on our personal experiences and require a full day of touring beginning at approximately 9 AM and going strong until the evening.
No two Washington DC family vacations will be the same, however, so use these itinerary suggestions as a guide.
You’ll need to adjust your itinerary as needed to account for the weather, where you stay, how much time you spend at each attraction, and the varying interests of your family members.
How many days do you need in Washington DC?
Ideally, I recommend spending 5 days in Washington DC, and 2 days exploring the surrounding area such as Gettysburg and Charlottesville, VA (home of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello).
At a minimum, I suggest that you need at least 3 days to see the best of Washington DC, especially if you’re traveling from a distance and want to make the most of your trip.
What’s the best time to visit Washington DC?
The best times to visit Washington, D.C., are during the months of September to November and from March to May.
Visiting during the spring or fall will allow you to avoid the sweltering summer heat and humidity, as well as avoid the high tourist seasons.
If you’re able to sneak in a visit during late March to early April, you’ll be able to enjoy the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
This is a gorgeous event and celebrates the blossoms opening up on the Yoshino cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC.
Washington DC Itinerary 7 Days
Here’s how to spend up to 7 days in Washington DC with kids.
The physical locations of the Washington DC attractions that are listed fit into the flow of this itinerary. If you choose to substitute a different attraction, be sure to adjust the timing of your itinerary accordingly.
Stick around to the end of this post where you’ll find our free printable Travel With A Plan itinerary planner to take notes on while planning your trip!
Day 1 – U.S. Capitol Building & Smithsonian Museums
The National Mall is the best place to start your Washington DC family vacation.
It’s a large public park with the US Capitol Building on one end and the Lincoln Memorial at the other, with several monuments and museums in between.
Make advanced reservations to start the morning off with a tour of the U.S. Capitol Building (open Monday-Friday only).
Next, take the walking tunnel from the Capitol Building to visit the Library of Congress, the children’s library in the basement, and its gift shop.
Spend the afternoon visiting as many of the free Smithsonian Museums that you have the time and patience for.
Fun ideas for kids include the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the National Museum of Natural History.
Spot out the artifacts listed above in Tip #4.
Day 2 – The White House, Monuments, & Memorials
Start the morning off with a private tour of The White House (this must be pre-arranged through a Member of Congress).
Afterward, make your way to the Washington Monument.
If you’re interested in going to the top, timed tickets to ride the elevator to its 500-foot observation deck may be obtained in person or online.
I definitely recommend purchasing them ahead of time online as walk-up tickets sell fast.
Spend the afternoon at the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, as well as visiting the Thomas Jefferson, FDR, Martin Luther King Jr., Korean, Vietnam, and Lincoln Memorials.
Stick around long enough to see these memorials (especially the Lincoln Memorial!) lit up in the dark.
Day 3 – Museums
Start your morning off by visiting the International Spy Museum.
This world-class museum is entertaining for both adults and kids of all ages.
Next, spend the afternoon visiting the United States Holocaust Museum (decide based on the ages of your kids – this may be too sensitive for young children) and a few more Smithsonian Museums.
Don’t forget to stop into the National Archives Museum to see the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
When you need a break from the museums, consider renting a paddle boat on the Tidal Basin to get a unique perspective of the Jefferson, Dr. King, and FDR Memorials.
The Tidal Basin paddle boats are seasonal, and reservations are recommended.
Day 4 – Arlington National Cemetery & A Theatre Production
Visit Arlington National Cemetery and witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.
Keep in mind that this cemetery is enormous and that its walking distances and hills require moderate physical exertion.
An alternative to walking and a great option when visiting Washington DC with kids is the interpretive bus tour.
The tour is a live-narrated, hop-on/hop-off tour that makes four stops: President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, John J. Pershing’s gravesite, Memorial Amphitheater (Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), and Arlington House.
Tickets may be purchased inside the Welcome Center at the box office or online at www.arlingtontours.com.
After leaving Arlington National Cemetery, stop at the Iwo Jima Marine Corps War Memorial.
Finally, go to an evening performance at Ford’s Theatre or The John F. Kennedy Center – depending on which scheduled performance you’re interested in seeing.
Day 5 – Mount Vernon
For your last day in Washington DC with kids, I recommend venturing out to visit Mount Vernon which is located 13 miles south of DC.
Mount Vernon is the former plantation and burial place of George Washington, the American Revolutionary War general and first President of the United States.
Now a National Historic Landmark, visitors can tour George and Martha’s mansion, its expansive gardens, Washington’s tomb, the slave memorial, and a still-working farm.
In addition, make sure you take the path down to the waterfront and go inside their 16-sided barn.
I also highly recommend visiting the Revolutionary War Theatre found at the onsite Education Center.
Here, you and your family can watch historical moments of the Revolutionary War come to life through a 4D theatre experience including animations, falling snow, theatrical lighting, fog, and live-action sequences.
Day 6 – The National Zoo & Rock Creek Park
Spend 3 hours visiting Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
Here you’ll see wallabies, Asian elephants, emus, giant pandas, and other amazing animals.
There’s also a playground, squirt zone, carousel, and several dining options.
Afterward, visit the nearby Washington National Cathedral and then wind down at Rock Creek Park.
Rock Creek Park, known as “The Oasis in the City” is a stunning National Park that allows you to escape the bustle of the city.
Here, you’ll find old Civil War forts, colonial houses, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, golfing, and gorgeous scenery including rugged forests, a creek, and Boulder Bridge.
Day 7 – Explore the Surrounding Area
I can’t call it “The Ultimate Washington DC Family Vacation” without mentioning a few important attractions in the surrounding area.
If you have more time, or are perhaps heading into Washington DC and passing through these areas, here are my additional recommendations.
We loved exploring Monticello, the mountaintop home of Thomas Jefferson, visiting the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, and finally, spending a night in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Touring the 6,000-acre Gettysburg Battlefield National Military Park, going to the Gettysburg Visitors’ Center & Cyclorama, as well as doing a walking tour of the National Cemetery (site of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) were all unforgettable, and highly impactful experiences.
Any or all of these historic sites will make an excellent addition to your family trip to Washington DC.
Washington DC Itinerary 5 Days
If you have 5 days in Washington DC, I recommend enjoying days 1 – 5 as listed in the above 7-day Washington DC itinerary.
Washington DC 3-Day Itinerary
If you only have 3 days in Washington DC with kids, I recommend enjoying the activities listed in days 1, 2, and 4 of the above 7-day Washington DC itinerary.
Washington DC 1-Day Itinerary
If you only have one day in Washington DC with kids, I recommend starting your day off with a U.S. Capitol Building tour and then briefly visiting the National Museum of American History, the National Archives, and the National Air and Space Museum.
Finish off your one day in Washington DC with a stroll around the National Mall and by viewing all of the monuments and memorials (open 24 hrs/day and frequented by visitors up until 11 PM).
Please ask in the comment section if you have additional questions about visiting Washington DC with family.
And as always, here’s our Travel With A Plan printable itinerary planner!
Download or print this planner straight from our blog to take notes and begin planning the best family vacation yet!
*Before leaving, be sure to check our Travel Resources Page to find exclusive travel discounts and to book hotels, rental cars, and guided tours.*