Notes about our trip:
Our Itinerary was planned around tours scheduled through our congressman's office. As a result, it doesn't always have museums and monuments located next to each other, which logistically would make more sense. I had to factor in walking time, tiredness and breaks for a 10 year-old and a 6 year-old. Also, we stayed with friends and ate breakfast and dinner at their house each day, so we only ate lunch out. As a result, there are no restaurants on our itinerary for breakfast or dinner, nor do I have a recommendation for a hotel in DC. (I did, however, add some restaurants that our friends recommended and/or people on our tours recommended. I also noted that other families that took tours with us stayed at hotels in the Penn Quarter section.)
Pull your kids out of school and go off-season. (If you have kids, I suggest May.) Our congressman's office told us the busiest times for tour requests (and therefore long lines everywhere) are April (spring break), June and July. You could actually see Washington in fewer days if you came in May when the weather is nicer, there are fewer lines and when there are fewer requests for tours from your congressmen. You would get to see everything you wanted, when you wanted and in lovely weather. That is a big factor since most of your sightseeing will involve you being outside. (In Florida, our standardized tests are in April and not much really gets done in May anyway. It would make it an easier and faster trip versus the summer or Spring Break.)
Call both your representative's offices to get tours as soon as you know when you are going. I followed the rules, went through our local congressman and requested tours six months in advance and we still didn't get a tour of the White House. Since they don't tell you until two weeks before you arrive whether or not you get the White House Tour, I would contact your senator's office (he has more clout anyway) as well. Other congressmen in your area also might have spots, but they want you to go through your representative first. They all can get you tours at the Library of Congress, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Capital and the White House. We got all but the White House tour.
Call the Archives to get a free guided-tour and avoid waiting in the long lines. (See my trip plan for the number.) Our tour started 15 minutes before the building opened. We walked right into the rotunda, saw the documents and then had a guided tour of the building after. We saw lines wrapped outside the building all week with people just waiting to get into the building, let alone the second set of lines for the rotunda. If you can't get a tour, I would recommend getting there before the building opens to get in line outside. We never saw a time when there wasn't a line.
Go online to get free, timed-entry tickets to the Washington Monument and Holocost Museum. (See my trip plan for the website.) I made the mistake of waiting to get tickets for the monument since I didn't want it to conflict with a White House tour if we got one. But by the time we found out about the White House tour, they were sold out. (We didn't try to get tickets to the Holocost Museum because our children are still too young. But we were assured is it the same way.) Get these as soon as you know when you are going.
See the monuments at night or take a Monuments by Moonlight Tour. It was stunning and completely worth the price. The driver knew exactly where to park and look at things. I will never forget being on the mall, watching the sun set on the monuments and then seeing them lit up at night. They all line up. My pictures are fabulous. If you are a photobug, you really want to do this tour or go yourself and hang out there at night.
Daytime versus Nightime tours: We did both the day time and the night time Trolley tours and there was SIGNIFICANT overlap. Same history, same everything for the first hour. Here s is the difference: The day time tour goes all over DC, including Arlington and the Museums, and lets you get off and on at your own pace. The night time tour, covers only the mall, the monuments, Arlington and the Iwo Jima memorials. However, the nigt time tour has scheduled stops (for X-amount of minutes) at the FDR memorial, the Korean/Lincoln/Vietnam Memorials and at Iwo JIma. Even though it goes through Arlington, it's closed so it only goes through the Freedman's village section, which is the only section the day time tour doesn't cover. We really enjoyed both, but if I had to choose just one, I would do the night time one and deal with getting around to the museums and other areas via metro, which is what we did the rest of the week anyway with no difficulty.
Eat in the Pavilion Cafe in the National Gallery of Art Sculture Garden. It was literally an oasis of great food, jazz music playing, while you eat surrounded by art. There is tons of shady seating around the fountain too. It is conveniently located next to the Musuem of Natural History and across the street from the Archives. If you are at either of those places before lunch, this is the place to go! It was one of the greatest tips I found on the message board.
Go to the Stephen F. Udvar Hazy Center (part of Air and Space) at Dulles. It was amazing. It's a couple of hangers full of planes, a space shuttle with satellites and astronauts hanging from the ceiling. There are so many old planes hanging from the ceiling they look like toy planes. My kids got ride in a space shuttle simulator ($7) and loved it. The Enola Gay is on display there. Also, you can take the elevator to the tower and listen to the air traffic control tower at Dulles (live feed) and watch the planes land. My kids thought it was great. It's not on a metro stop, so you would have to take a bus or your own transportation. But it was worth it. Highly recommend.
What to Bring:
A DC book with maps. I recommend Top Ten Washington DC Eyewitness Travel Guide (Paperback by DK) This one had both a metro map in the back flap, as well as, a great locator map that had all the big sights, monuments and museums. It is very compact, light and has everything you need.
A camera that takes pictures in low light without a flash. Most of the museums will only let you take pictures without a flash. My digital has a low light "recital" setting that let me do this. Many other folks on our tours couldn't take any photos inside.
Very good walking shoes. It should go without saying, but everyone needs a great pair of walking shoes and socks to prevent blisters. (Crocs and flip flops really wouldn't make the cut. I was glad I held my ground and didn't let the kids bring them.)
One adult-sized backpack for everyone. You will have to go through security metal detectors everywhere. It was easier for us to have only one backpack to be searched that could hold an umbrella, baggie with bandaids and ointment, shout wipes, water bottles, granola bars, guide book, maps and gift shop purchases. This worked better for us than the kids carrying their own, escecially since we would likely be carrying them anyway when they got tired! The did enjoy buying ($4) a little side carrier/bag on a string around their neck that let them carry their own money, dollar store poncho pack, a granola bar and gum. It was so small that the secuity people didn't need to search it.
Things you need to know about DC as a parent...............
There are very few bathrooms. The mall and the surrounding buildings were built at a time when bathrooms evidently were not a major priority. For example, in the museum of Natural History, this is only one small bathroom on the entire second floor and it is located in the very back of the Egyptian exhibit, which you have to walk through to get there. There is normally one bathroom near (not close to) the entrance of the buildings, but don't forget you still have to wait in line to get in, go through security, have your bag checked before you can go find the bathroom. We all had been drinking water to stay hydrated, so we quickly had to develop a routine of going to the bathroom when we entered a musuem and when we exited, since we didn't know when we would see another one. (You do a lot of traversing the mall and we did not see any public restrooms, nor where there any restaurants on the mall that you could pop into to use their facilities.)
Use the metro and maybe even the metro bus. It was safe, clean and easy to use. Keep the kids close during rush hour, since they pack themselves in like sardines. We took it everywhere. There was always someone there to help us figure out how much to put on our fare card and what to do. We only messed up once when we got on a shared line. It gets a little tricky. You have to pay close attention to which color train is arriving. But other than that, it was easy to figure out. We didn't try the DC connector or metrobus, but they all looked clean, safe and mostly empty. *Threre is no food or drinking allowed on metro, so as a result, there are no food places or bathrooms in the metro stations. (You can get of at Petagon City where I was told there was a whole mall there, as well as in Union Station. But they are not located in the actual metro station.)
There are very few restuarants or actual places to eat on the mall. Many of the museums had a food court with burgers, dogs and pizza. There were plenty of hot dog vendors on the corners. But as for healthy, or even sit-down type of food, you have to leave the mall area. That can be difficult when you are running to catch another tour on the other side of the mall. (Things are much farther apart than they seem on the map.) There were tons of places to eat near the Chinatown/Gallery Place metro stop. But that's long blocks away from the mall. We were forewarned of this and packed lots of granola bars and nuts to carry us through until we could eat somewhere. But it was a lot of food court eating. The two exceptions are the Cafe in the NGA Sculpture Garden and the cafe in the Native American Indian Museum. We at the garden and it was FABULOUS. Highly recommend. Escpecially on a beautiful day. We ran out of time and didn't eat at the Native American museum and deeply regreted it. We at in the basement cafeteria of the congressional offices and it was awful. I would definitely not recommend it.
Things are much farther apart than they seem on the map. Those are enormous buildings on very long blocks. Take that into account in the time you allot to get somewhere and then go through security. I believe the Trolley guy said it's 2 miles from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Once you get down to the Lincoln Memorial, the nearest metro stop is way back near the monument at Smithsonian Station or over by Federal Triangle. Either way, it's far. I would recommend starting your day with this walk instead of trying to tackle it when you and the kids are tired.