How to have fun in Washington, DC, on a shoestring

Every time I look at the news, it feels more essential than ever to teach kids 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 “National.”

We approached DC with our school-aged children through an early-American-history lens: This is the Declaration of Independence, handwritten in Thomas Jefferson’s immaculate cursive. This is the top hat Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated. And this is where President Joe Biden lives today, where lawmakers agree, and where our democratic government continues.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that DC is essentially a budget trip. Once you get there, virtually everything is free. All the Smithsonian Institution museums, the galleries, the monuments. You have to work to find stuff to spend money on.

just wing it

Vacations only happen when someone researches it, plans it, books it and packs it. (A-hem.) Don’t have the time or 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 hit 11 of the Smithsonian museums in DC within one mile, from Third to 14th streets, between Constitution and Independence avenues. The National Air and Space Museum is closed for renovation until the fall, but there’s plenty of others to choose from.

The National Museum of Natural History is always a hit with kids. There’s something for everyone, from dinosaurs to butterflies to the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond. Expect this museum to be packed.

Sensory overload? Pop into the unique, smaller galleries for a quieter experience. The United States Botanic Garden is stunning. Or try the lovely Freer Gallery of Art (Asian art) and Hirshhorn Museum (contemporary art).

The beautiful thing about DC is that, since all the Smithsonian museums are free, you can dip in, dip out as you please, without the weight of admission tickets. We dropped into the National Gallery of Art literally 15 minutes before closing and that was perfect for the kids’ attention spans.

What to book ahead

The only Smithsonians you need to book advance (free) tickets online for are the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Zoo. As the popular new kid on the block, tickets were required for the African American museum even pre-pandemic.

The National Zoo is home to the unbelievably adorable panda family: Tian Tian (dad), Mei Xiang (mom) and baby Xiao Qi Ji, born in 2020. This year, the zoo is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its giant pandas in residence. Parents, do yourself in favor and stop by an Ikea before you go. Pick up a $3.99 stuffed panda to surprise your kids, and save yourself millions at the zoo gift shop. While the pandas are the zoo’s star attraction, my kids were equally impressed by the extremely long escalator down to the Metro at Woodley Park. (You can easily spend an entire week in DC without a car; the Metro is great.)

Visiting the top of the Washington Monument is an extraordinary experience, and tickets are free but scarce. Online tickets are released daily at 10 am and usually disappear within a nanosecond. After a couple of tries and a cumulative eight hours waiting in line, we scored walk-up, same-day tickets for an incomparable view of the National Mall at 500 feet. It was easily one of our favorite memories from DC

Ask your representative

A lot of people don’t think to contact their member of Congress before heading to DC Don’t feel like you’re imposing on their time; every office has a person in charge of tours — it’s literally part of their job description to hook their constituents up with tickets.

You can fill out an easy “Hey, I’m coming to DC” form on the websites of our state’s senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray. We got a vastly more helpful response, however, from our representative, Pramila Jayapal. Her office de ella keeps an uber-organized spreadsheet of visiting constituents and will promptly and personally update you on ever-changing restrictions. We were impressed.

Jayapal’s district covers most of Seattle; if you’re not sure who your representative is, you can search by ZIP code.

The ultimate coup is snagging tickets to the White House, which reopened for public tours in April after a two-year pause. Ideally, you’ll want to submit a request three months in advance through your representative’s office. To arrange a Capitol building tour, one month in advance is typically enough.

Surviving the heat and humidity

The Founding Fathers argued about where to put the nation’s capital. New York or Philadelphia would have been a logical choice at the time, but Southerners didn’t want the capital in the North. So they settled on a swamp. Thanks a lot, guys.

In late July and August, your fragile Pacific Northwest children, shielded from hardships like heat and humidity, will melt right into the sidewalk. But the cool thing about the sites around the Mall is you can duck into any Smithsonian for free air conditioning.

Plan on nighttime viewing of the monuments: they’re lit up beautifully, it’s quieter and it’ll be a few degrees cooler. Don’t miss the Albert Einstein Memorial on the edge of the Mall, appropriately in front of the National Academy of Sciences.

We saw the monuments at dusk, we saw them at night, but my kids’ absolute favorite was seeing them by water — probably because their little legs could rest. Rent a paddleboat in the Tidal Basin ($32/hour) and put the adults to work pedaling by 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 at Arlington. It is a peaceful and somber place.

Gaining historical context

It was important for me to show my kids historic American artifacts that you can’t see anywhere else. Sure, you could look at a picture of the US Constitution in your social studies book; it’s another thing to see the signed parchment at the National Archives. (Psst, “Pennsylvania” is misspelled on the last page.)

In the National Museum of American History, we saw the actual star-spangled banner that inspired the national anthem. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a must for its searing look at slavery and segregation.

My kids desperately wanted to see Joe Biden ⁠ — I had to explain he’s kinda a busy guy⁠ — so we stopped at the National Portrait Gallery to see the official portraits of every president, even the obscure ones. James Polk? Check.

Ford’s Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, is a 10-minute walk north of the Mall. It is still a working theater today, with a museum downstairs where you can see Lincoln’s bloodstained pillow and John Wilkes Booth’s gun. Chilling. Walk-up tickets are first-come, first served, so we reserved advance tickets for a $3 booking fee to guarantee our spots.

Hungry? Around the Mall, you’re mostly limited to food truck fare. If you go that route, prepare to hunker down 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 frybread tacos, and naturally, my first-grader’s favorite was the fries on the side. You can’t win ’em all.

We tacked on another day to visit Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, across the Potomac River. Admission tickets ($28 adults, $15 youth) and the $40 Lyft ride over were one of the few opportunities we had to actually spend money on this trip.

The bottom line

Wear your good walking shoes!

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