It may seem like a place that’s mainly for grown-ups and school trips. After all, running the government of a superpower is serious stuff. But Washington D.C. is also home to the International Spy Museum, amphibious D.C. Duck Tours, and tons of other dynamic kid-friendly sights and activities. The best part is, they won’t all break the bank.
There are plenty of things to do (that the kids may even remember) that will run you around $10. Here’s eight top picks for cheap (but awesome) things to do with kids in the nation’s capital.
For more great suggestions for what to do with kids in DC, check out our guidebook Fodor’s Around Washington DC with Kids!—By Kathryn McCay
D. C. Ducks
What do you get when you cross a tour bus with a boat? A duck, of course—that is, a D. C. Duck. Your family can tour the city by both land and water without leaving your seats aboard these unusual amphibious vehicles: standard 2 1/2 ton GM trucks in watertight shells with propellers and seats for 28 intrepid passengers.
During the 1 1/2-hour ride, a wise-quacking captain entertains with anecdotes and historical trivia about Washington’s memorials, monuments, and historic buildings. The captain may even quiz kids about sights along the way. But the part of the tour that quacks kids up the most is quacking themselves—both at tourists in town and real ducks on the water.
Good to Know: The United States Coast Guard requires that the
DUCKS devote one seat per passenger regardless of age, so everyone on board must have a ticket. And, in November and December, request gallery seating for a bird’s-eyeview of the station’s Holiday train exhibit.
Where to Eat: Duck into Union Station, a bustling train station where inaugural balls have been held. More than 35 vendors offer fast food from around the world.
International Spy Museum
I spy. You spy. Everyone spies here. Whether they’re eavesdropping on siblings or searching for hidden presents, kids love to spy. The International Spy Museum takes the art of espionage to new levels for junior James Bonds and young Nancy Drews.
Did you know there are more spies in Washington than in any other city? Crowds of curious visitors walk through metal detectors and watch a short video on espionage before winding through the exhibits. Like little moles, kids can crawl through the museum’s ductwork to peek through the vents. They find larger-than-life-size silver flies on walls that transmit information to undisclosed locations.
Despite all the cool gadgetry that makes kids want to speed too quickly in hot pursuit of adventure through the museum, take your time when you see the replica of James Bond’s Aston Martin sports car. Just like in the films, gadgets galore pop out.
Good to Know: For teens who want to put their sleuthing skills to work, they can crack a safe, conduct a polygraph of a suspect, weigh evidence, and more through Operation Spy. Whether the teens succeed or fail in the "mission," they get hands-on experience in the great game of espionage. Operation Spy costs an additional $10 per person (combination tickets with admission available) and reservations are recommended. Operations run about every 10 to 15 minutes. Also note: Everyone is required to exit the museum through the well-stocked gift shop.
Where to Eat: Spy City Cafe serves killer sandwiches, wraps, salads, and a large selection of sweets.
Six Flags America
Washington is known for its educational and economical attractions. Six Flags America, the capital area’s only theme park, isn’t educational or economical, but it’s plenty exciting.
Actually a combination theme park and water park (dubbed Hurricane Harbor), it contains more than 100 rides, shows, and games spread over 150 acres in suburban Prince George’s County.
On the "dry" side, roller-coaster revelers have seven fast choices. The Wild One is a more-than-85-year-old classic wooden coaster. Roar mixes old-fashioned wood and modern computer technology to produce a thrilling ride.
The four steel coasters are Batwing, Superman Ride of Steel, the Mind Eraser, and the Joker’s Jinx. Coaster traditionalists prefer the jiggle and clackety-clack sounds of the "woodie." Metal coasters follow a more circuitous route, with corkscrew turns and 360-degree loops. If your youngsters aren’t tall enough (all rides, including the coasters, have height restrictions), to Thomas Town, named after the famous tank engine, for designed for the 6 and under set.
Good to Know: Lines form on weekends before the park opens. To avoid crowds, go on Monday or Tuesday, and make a plan on arrival, doing first what most interests your kids. If you’re spending time at Hurricane Harbor Water Park, plan on getting out of your wet swimsuits a bit early. The "wet side" closes one hour before the park does.
Where to Eat: Like in other theme parks, food is expensive. If you bring your own, plan on eating outside of the park. No outside food is permitted, though you can bring in one sealed bottle of water per person. Vendors provide complimentary cups of water and ice. The Johnny Rockets, Heritage House, and Crazy Horse Saloon are air-conditioned.
Glen Echo Park
The carousel alone would be reason enough to visit the historic Glen Echo Park. In the center of the park, the historic Dentzel Carousel offers choices of mounts, which range from a painted pony and a majestic lion to a saber-toothed tiger and an ostrich. Like the carousel, the park offers lots of options for families.
The arts thrive here. The Adventure Theater stages such children’s productions as Go Dog Go, If You Give a Pig a Pancake, and Winnie the Pooh weekends year-round in a 170-seat theater that opened in 2007. At the Puppet Co. Playhouse, nationally acclaimed puppeteers manipulate a variety of puppets in classic plays and stories in a theater that was made specifically for puppet shows. About once a week, the Playhouse hosts Tiny Tots @ 10 for wee ones up to 4 years old ($5 for all ages). Nutcracker, in winter, is one of the most popular productions. Reservations are recommended for this popular puppet place that seats 250.
Good to Know: Whatever event you’re going to at Glen Echo, allow at least an extra 30 minutes. Just stomping over the bridge leading to the park takes time. You also may want to act out the Norwegian folktale of Billy Goats Gruff, toss stones in the creek, and take a spin around the carousel.
Where to Eat: When the carousel at Glen Echo is open (May– Sept), so is the adjacent snack bar. But whether you bring or purchase food, you’ll find enough picnic tables and wide open spaces here to accommodate scores of families.
Kenilworth National Aquatic Gardens
Children like to run through the Kenilworth National Aquatic Gardens, a 12-acre national park devoted to aquatic plants. However, the best way to enjoy this sanctuary is to walk quietly and pause often. Hear bullfrogs croak and birds chirp, search for turtles and frogs among platter-size leaves, gaze on exotic plants and water lilies reminiscent of a Monet painting. A clever game of "I Spy" might slow the kids down enough for the park’s true pleasure—bird-watching. With redwing blackbirds, blue herons, and bald eagles there’s plenty to spy.
Ask your youngsters how cattails and yellow flag irises got their names or whether pickerelweeds and rose mallow shrubs (no relation to marshmallows) look as silly as they sound. Listen to the bullfrogs and watch for turtles sunbathing and crayfish burrowing mud chimneys to escape from turtles and birds, and the beaver dams. Beavers like to dine on the water lilies, which is why the most expensive plants are close to the visitor center.
Good to Know: The best time to visit is 8– 11, when day-bloomers are opening and night-bloomers have yet to close. Water lilies flower through the summer.
Where to Eat: Alas, there’s no food for humans here (only water), and there aren’t any restaurants within walking distance of these gardens tucked away in a corner of Northeast Washington. Pack a big lunch and take advantage of the picnic tables near the ponds.
Wheaton Regional Park
All aboard! A little red replica of an 1863 train chugs along on 10-minute tours through the woods at Wheaton Regional Park, within 10 mi of D. C. But there’s more for kids than just choo-choo rides.
Youngsters can whiz around on a carousel, ride a life-size statue of a camel, or peer over the turrets of a castle in a sandbox that can accommodate a whole class of kids. The playground is packed with bouncing wooden bridges, ladders, swings, mazes, wooden jeeps with bright plastic steering wheels, and straight and spiral slides in all sizes—from less than 6 feet long to more than 60 feet long.
Facilities for sports lovers include hiking trails, an ice rink, tennis courts, baseball fields, and basketball courts. The Brookside Nature Center offers dozens of free and low-cost nature programs throughout the year, including hikes, puppet shows, workshops, and summer camps, but even without a special program, the nature center is a fun place to visit.
Good to Know: If you’re closer to the Potomac, try the 528-acre Cabin John Regional Park. Kids can swing, slide, and climb on playground equipment or watch the Bethesda Big Train baseball team play in a summer league. Facilities here also include a train replica that takes children through the forest and alongside the playground.
Where to Eat: Picnic tables are scattered throughout the park. If you’re planning for a crowd, consider renting a picnic shelter (ParkPermits.org), where you’re guaranteed a dry place to eat, rain, or shine. Westfield Wheaton, about 3 mi away, also has a food court.
Some kids say the Washington Monument looks like a giant pencil. Others think this 555′ 5.9″ obelisk (10 times as tall as its width at the base) punctuates the capital like a huge, partially buried, exclamation point. Visible from nearly everywhere in the city, it’s a landmark for visiting tourists and lost motorists alike and a beacon for anyone who yearns to shoot to the top and survey all of Washington below.
A limited number of free tickets, good for a half-hour period, are available beginning at 8:30 am at the marble lodge on 15th Street, but on busy holiday weekends in the summer, lines may start forming at 7 am. Advance tickets are available from recreation. gov. Arrive at the monument at the appointed time. Although lines to get in may be long, they move quickly. Once you’re inside, an elevator whizzes to the top in 70 seconds, a trip that originally took about 12 minutes in a steam-powered elevator back in 1888.
Where to Eat: You can’t take anything up with you, but a refreshment stand sells ice cream in summer, hot chocolate in winter, and sandwiches year-round.
If the wildest animal your children ever want to see is a computer mouse, Roosevelt Island isn’t for your family. But for kids who believe, as Theodore Roosevelt did, that "There is delight in the hardy life of the open," this sanctuary is a superb place to get away from the city’s concrete, crowds, and cars. If it weren’t for the airplanes from Ronald Reagan National Airport roaring overhead, you might forget you’re in D. C. altogether.
The Island is a little tricky to get to as you’ll need to be driving west on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Leave your car in the parking lot next to the George Washington Memorial Parkway and walk over the bridge to this island wilderness preserve in the Potomac River. The 88.5-acre tribute to the conservation-minded 26th president includes 2 1/2 miles of nature trails that crisscross marshland, swampland, and upland forest. In the center of the island is a clearing, where a 17-foot bronze statue of Roosevelt stands, his right hand raised for emphasis. He is surrounded by shallow pools, fountains, and four large stone tablets inscribed with his thoughts on nature, manhood, state (government), and youth.
Good to Know: To make the most of your visit, pack a backpack with some of the following items for your children: binoculars, a magnifying glass, a sketch pad and crayons or markers, a camera, and plant and animal guidebooks, if you have them. Also, keep in mind: public restrooms close between late October and early April.
Where to Eat: The Park Service requests that you don’t eat too close to the memorial, and there aren’t any tables so you’ll want to bring a blanket if you plan to picnic. Listen to the music of birds and the planes overhead as you eat.
Thinking of a trip to Washington D.C.?
For up-to-the-minute hotel and restaurant recommendations, as well as the best planning advice, check out our Washington D.C. Travel Guide.
Photo Credits: DC Ducks: Historic Tours of America, Inc.; International Spy Museum: Courtesy of International Spy Museum; Six Flags America: by John Athayde
; Glen Echo Park: Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture, Inc.; Kenilworth National Aquatic Gardens: Joseph Fuller | Dreamstime.com; Wheaton Regional Park: Harper Family Home 1870 by Attribution-ShareAlike License; Washington Monument: Washington Monument via Shutterstock.com; Theodore Roosevelt Island: Roosevelt Island_2012 03 04_0102 by Harvey Barrison