Kid-Friendly D.C.: The National Mall and Beyond

Ready to make the most of a family trip to Washington, DC?
Two young teens walking along a memorial in Washington DC (Photo: @brightideasfl via Twenty20)
Photo: @brightideasfl via Twenty20

The National Mall is a hub of American political, economic, and artistic history, and is the heart of kid-friendly D.C. Flanked by art and history museums, memorials, government buildings, and even a botanical garden, The National Mall has something for every member of your family, no matter their age or interest. A centerpiece of our nation, your family could easily spend several days traveling along Independence and Constitution Avenues. (Fortunately, the Mall’s Circulator bus will help speed up your travels for just $1.)

Understand first that “Mall” in this case is the long esplanade of grass between the U.S. Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial; all museums are free of charge (though some may require timed entry reservations). Here are some of the best things to do in Washington, D.C., with kids. 

Kid-Friendly D.C. Attractions

Must-see Museums

  • Even if you aren’t big on art museums, you should still make two stops (they’ll take less than 40 mins total) in the National Gallery of Art (like everything else, it’s FREE):  the magnificent Alexander Calder Mobile that hangs in the entryway of the East Wing and the French Impressionist galleries (Van Gogh’s self-portrait and Monet’s Waterlilies) in the northeast quadrant of the West Wing should not be missed.
  • Across the Mall from the National Gallery lies the Air and Space Museum, where all will get a thrill from the Lunar Lander and a walk through an early PanAm plane (NOTE: Air and Space will be closed until Fall 2022).
  • Be sure to book ahead to secure timed entry  for the National Museum of the American Indian, where the whole family will learn about the Native Peoples of our land through history, art, artifacts, and storytelling.
  • Some members of your family might love the First Lady Fashion at the National Museum of American History or a walk through American Democracy.
  • The National Museum of African-American History and Culture (timed entry) offers an experience through African American joy, excellence, resistance, and activism in the context of the discrimination and oppression that has existed in America since the 17th Century. 
  • The Holocaust Museum brings visitors on a journey through the rise of the Third Reich all the way through liberation of the death and work camps. There is an exhibit on the ground floor for younger visitors, since the main museum may be too difficult (due to the nature of the content and some images) for elementary-aged kids.

Must-See Memorials: 

  • The Lincoln Memorial looms large at the west end of the Mall; it’s worth the climb up the steps to stand at the toes of the author of the Emancipation Proclamation. His words are inscribed around him on the inner sanctum walls, and the sculpture itself is worth seeing up close.
  • The Theodore Roosevelt Monument is a powerful one in that it not only highlights his personal journey, but also his efforts to revitalize the U.S economy following the Depression and his war-time decision making. Simply the visual of a U.S. President who was wheelchair-bound is an important lesson and reminder for young visitors. 
  • While your knowledge of the ins and outs of the Korean War may be spotty, the powerful Korean War Veterans Memorial uses depth perception and natural and man-made elements to evoke a deep emotional response to the tasks of soldiers in this sometimes overlooked war. 
  • To see a several-stories tall Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerge from a block of stone surrounded by his words is a moving reminder of how much larger than life this central American historical figure is. Don’t miss the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
  • Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial draws any passerby, and rightfully so. With its mirrored surface, visitors see themselves among the names of 58,318 soldiers who died in Vietnam. Bring a pencil and paper to take home an etching of this essential U.S. Memorial.
  • Nearby, sculptor Glenna Goodacre honors the work of the women of the Vietnam War at the Women’s Vietnam War Memorial, an important reminder of the impact wars have on all of us.

Kid-Friendly D.C. Beyond the National Mall

Visiting the Greater Washington, D.C. area offers infinite opportunities for learning and fun. Step away from history and politics by poking around Eastern Market to check out local eateries and artists or browse your way through the Georgetown Flea Market. Bike, run, walk the C&O Canal for as many miles as your power can take you, and similarly explore Rock Creek Park all the way out into Maryland. 

In nearby Virginia, dive deeper into military history at Arlington Cemetery and do not miss the Udvar-Hazy Center (a bigger, more impressive Air and Space Museum about 30 minutes outside D.C.). At Arlington, take the tram tour and step on and off at your own pace to have time to reflect on the courage of U.S. military enlistees. At Udvar Hazy, be blown away by the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay, and an SR-71 Blackbird, among hundreds of other kinds of spacecraft (FYI, this museum is a supersized version of the Air and Space on the Mall, and should not be missed, even if you think you aren’t interested in aviation – it’s really something else!). 

Kid Friendly D.C. Hotels

There’s no shortage of great hotels in Washington, D.C., but some are certainly more kid-friendly than others. The Capitol Hill Hotel is an all-suite property with pack n plays, high chairs, and rollaway beds available for families and daily continental breakfast. Hyatt House Washington DC/The Wharf is an extended stay hotel with roomy suites (with kitchenettes), a great location, and a seasonally open rooftop pool. Embassy Suites, a reliable family-friendly chain, offers suites with spaces that can be separated by a door for more privacy, plus hot breakfast and a pool (there’s also an Embassy Suites in Georgetown).

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Nina Cohen
Nina Cohen is a teacher, parent, traveler, and writer. She’s lived around the world and is an expert on travel to France, Hawaii, and the Boston-DC corridor.