Every time I watch the news, it seems to me more essential than ever to teach children about our democracy. The heart of our democracy is the other Washington: Washington, District of Columbia. DC is an easy direct flight from Seattle to Dulles International Airport or Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which many locals still refer to as “domestic.”
We approached DC with our school-age children through an early American history lens: it’s the Declaration of Independence, handwritten in immaculate Thomas Jefferson cursive. This is the top hat that Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated. And this is where President Joe Biden lives today, where lawmakers meet and where our democratic government continues.
It also doesn’t hurt that DC is essentially budget travel. Once there, almost everything is free. All Smithsonian Institution museums, galleries, monuments. You have to work to find things to spend money on.
just the wing
Vacations only happen when someone searches for them, plans them, books them and packs them. (A-hem.) Don’t have the time or the patience? Then DC is perfect for you. You can just show up and have a perfectly fun time wandering from museum to monument all day, all for free. Even the National Zoo is free.
You can visit 11 of DC’s Smithsonian museums within a mile, from 3rd to 14th Street, between Constitution and Independence Avenues. The National Air and Space Museum is closed for renovations until the fall, but there are plenty more to choose from.
The National Museum of Natural History is always a hit with children. There’s something for everyone, from dinosaurs to butterflies to the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond. Expect this museum to be packed up.
Sensory overload? Enter the single, smaller galleries for a quieter experience. The United States Botanical Garden is beautiful. Or try the beautiful Freer Gallery of Art (Asian art) and the Hirshhorn Museum (contemporary art).
The nice thing about DC is that since all of the Smithsonian’s museums are free, you can dive in, dip to your heart’s content, without the weight of admission tickets. We entered the National Gallery of Art literally 15 minutes before closing and it was perfect for the attention of the children.
What to book in advance
The only Smithsonians for which you need to book tickets in advance (free) online are the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Zoo. As a popular new kid on the block, tickets were required for the African American Museum even before the pandemic.
The National Zoo is home to an incredibly adorable family of pandas: Tian Tian (dad), Mei Xiang (mum) and baby Xiao Qi Ji, born in 2020. This year, the zoo is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its resident giant pandas. Parents, do yourself a favor and stop by an Ikea before you go. Get a stuffed panda for $3.99 to surprise your kids and save millions at the zoo’s gift shop. While the pandas are the zoo’s star attraction, my kids were also impressed with the extremely long escalator to the subway at Woodley Park. (You can easily spend an entire week in DC without a car; the subway is awesome.)
Visiting the top of the Washington Monument is an extraordinary experience, and tickets are free but rare. Online tickets are posted every day at 10 a.m. and usually disappear in a nanosecond. After a few tries and a cumulative eight hours of waiting, we scored same-day walk-in tickets for unparalleled views of the National Mall from 500 feet away. It was easily one of our favorite DC memories
Ask your representative
Many people don’t think to contact their congressman before traveling to DC. Don’t feel like you’re taxing their time; every office has a visitation person – it’s literally part of their job description to connect their constituents with tickets.
You can fill out an easy “Hey, I’m coming to DC” form on the websites of our state senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray. We did, however, receive a much more helpful response from our representative, Pramila Jayapal. His office keeps a super-organized spreadsheet of visiting voters and will quickly and personally update you on ever-changing restrictions. We were impressed.
The Jayapal District covers most of Seattle; If you don’t know who your representative is, you can search by postal code.
The ultimate shot is snagging tickets to the White House, which reopened for public tours in April after a two-year hiatus. Ideally, you’ll want to submit an application three months in advance through your representative’s office. To arrange a visit to the Capitol building, a month in advance is usually enough.
Survive heat and humidity
The founding fathers argued over where to place the nation’s capital. New York or Philadelphia would have been a logical choice at the time, but Southerners didn’t want the northern capital. So they settled in a swamp. Thanks a lot, guys.
In late July and August, your fragile children in the Pacific Northwest, sheltered from hardships like heat and humidity, will melt on the pavement. But the cool thing about the sites around the mall is that you can walk into any Smithsonian to enjoy free air conditioning.
Plan a night visit to the monuments: they are beautifully lit, it’s quieter and it will be a few degrees cooler. Don’t miss the Albert Einstein Memorial on the edge of the mall, directly across from the National Academy of Sciences.
We saw the monuments at dusk, we saw them at night, but my kids’ absolute favorite was to see them by the water – probably because their little legs could rest. Rent a pedal boat in the Tidal Basin ($32/hour) and put the adults to work pedaling past the iconic Jefferson Memorial.
If you don’t mind walking, Arlington National Cemetery is less than a mile from the Lincoln Memorial. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Kennedy family is also buried in Arlington. It is a peaceful and dark place.
Get historical context
It was important to me to show my children historic American artifacts that you can’t see anywhere else. Of course, you could look at a picture of the US Constitution in your social studies textbook; it’s quite another to see the signed scroll in the National Archives. (Psst, “Pennsylvania” is misspelled on the last page.)
At the National Museum of American History, we saw the actual Stars and Stripes that inspired the national anthem. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a must-see for its searing look at slavery and segregation.
My kids desperately wanted to see Joe Biden — I had to explain he’s a little busy — so we stopped by the National Portrait Gallery to see the official portraits of every president, even the most obscure ones. James Polk? To verify.
Ford’s Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, is a 10-minute walk north of the mall. It’s still a working theater today, with a museum downstairs where you can see Lincoln’s bloodstained pillow and John Wilkes Booth’s pistol. Cooling. Walk-in tickets are first-come, first-served, so we pre-booked tickets for a $3 reservation fee to secure our seats.
Hunger? Around the mall you are mostly limited to food truck fares. If you go this route, be prepared for a week of hot dogs and bring a bag of prunes. The best museum cafeteria food, hands down, is at the National Museum of the American Indian. We tried bison burgers and fried bread tacos, and naturally, my freshman’s favorite was the side fries. You can’t win them all.
We tacked another day to visit Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, across the Potomac River. Admission tickets ($28 adults, $15 youth) and $40 Lyft ride were one of the few opportunities we had to spend money on this trip.
The bottom line
Bring good walking shoes!