Introducing guest blogger Kristy Esparza from JJ & The Bug
Washington DC is well known as the capital of the United States. Named for George Washington, the country’s first president, and the seat of the U.S. federal government, the city functions as an important world capital. It is also one of the most visited cities in the United States, often seeing over 20 million visitors per year.
My two sons were born in Washington DC, and I called the area home for over 10 years. Though I worked at one of the Smithsonian museums and spent a lot of time on the National Mall, I also loved discovering the city’s rich history, culture, and natural wonders that most tourists don’t get to see.
This post is part of our Explore My City series – come and visit cities around the world through the eyes of locals
Washington DC Family Activities You Won’t Find in Your Guidebook
If you’re visiting Washington DC for the first time, tours of the Capitol, White House, Monuments, and Smithsonian Museums will undoubtedly be high on your itinerary. There are so many “must-see” sights, that most visitors never get around to seeing the city as locals do. But should you enjoy getting off the beaten path, the following are some of our favorite family-friendly places and activities that offer a different perspective on DC life.
The National Arboretum is a good bet for when you feel like forgetting that you’re in the middle of a city. With over 400 acres of space and 9.5 miles of trails, it makes for a lovely break from the hustle and bustle of city life.
One of the coolest features of the Arboretum is the National Capitol Columns, which were originally made for the east portico of the Capitol building in 1828. As it turned out, the current dome is much larger than the original plan which made these original columns look like they couldn’t support the dome. They were removed and replaced with the current columns in 1958.
The columns were ultimately resettled in the Arboretum in the mid-’80s, carefully placed in their current setting on a knoll in the ellipse meadow. It appears that they’ve been there for ages, and make for a fun and unique DC photo opp.
Museums Off The National Mall
Washington DC is known for its many museums that showcase the history and culture of the United States. While most visitors experience DC museums through the Smithsonian Institution, there are some wonderful lesser-known museums around the city that are well worth a visit. Three of my favorites for families are:
The National Building Museum
This National Building Museum is all about the built environment and the impact that architecture and engineering have on our daily lives and communities. The Museum is well known to locals for its immersive summer exhibits that completely transform its Great Hall every year. Hands-on exhibits like Play, Work, Build introduce young visitors to building professions through architecture toys and hands-on block play.
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is part of the National Park Service and shares the story of the famous American abolitionist, social reformer, writer, orator, and statesman through tours of his final home. The house has been restored to its 1895 appearance and tours offer a window into the life of this transformative American figure and his family. Children can become a Junior Ranger at the site and participate in an annual oratorical contest.
National Geographic Museum
National Geographic is headquartered in DC, and they’ve established a small but unique museum that showcases fascinating people and ideas in the fields of exploration and scientific research.
Visitors get to know the work of National Geographic explorers, conservationists, and photographers through exhibitions that feature interactive learning stations and behind-the-scenes stories. If you’re a fan of National Geographic magazines, experiencing one of their stories through the museum will be a thrill.
The DC area is hot and humid in the summer. Locals and visitors alike can be found splashing around the region in the area’s beloved splash parks. The Georgetown Waterfront Park is a prime destination for overheated families with its expansive lawn and fun riverside location.
On the other side of town, you’ll find one of the area’s largest splash zones at Yards Park near Nationals Stadium. Families love the large shallow canal basin, waterfall, and dancing fountains. Either park makes a great option for splash time and a picnic after a long hot day of sightseeing.
When you first arrive at Glen Echo, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ve time-traveled and landed in an amusement park from the early 1900s. Though visitors can still ride the 100-year-old carousel, other historic structures like the Bumper Car Pavilion have been transformed into a fun setting for family-friendly events and arts programs.
The park is currently home to 13 resident artists and organizations, nature programs for kids, children’s theaters, drop-in family art classes, galleries, and an awesome social dance program set in the beautifully restored Art Deco Spanish Ballroom. Whether or not you have time to take a class, this is a great stop for a spin on the carousel and a picnic near the playground.
Potomac Riverboat Water Taxi
The Water Taxi was always one of our favorite ways to travel between Alexandria and Georgetown, two of the DC area’s most charming historic neighborhoods. Not only is it fun to skip the traffic and relax in the sunshine, but the Water Taxi offers beautiful views of DC and a glimpse into the important role the river plays in the region.
You can also take the Water Taxi to National Harbor, the Nationals Stadium on game days, and Mount Vernon for a unique arrival. With DC’s latest developments along the waterfront, Water Taxi routes have expanded to include The Wharf as well.
Just south of the DC city limit, National Harbor is an expansive 300-acre waterfront destination along a 1.5 mile stretch of the Potomac River. The Harbor is full of popular restaurants and family-friendly activities.
National Harbor is anchored by the Capital Wheel, a 180-foot Ferris wheel with 42 fully-enclosed gondolas. In addition to the carousel and playground, kids love to play on a beach that is home to J. Seward Johnson’s “The Awakening” sculpture which depicts a 70’ giant emerging from the sand. Every summer, National Harbor is also a favorite spot for family-friendly outdoor films along the waterfront.
Imagination Stage was always one of my favorite places to take our oldest son when he was a toddler. I was excited to introduce him to the performing arts and was thrilled to discover this wonderful theater designed just for children.
The mission of the Imagination Stage is to nurture the creative spirit by using theatre to “open hearts, inspire minds, and ignite imaginations.” There are kid-friendly performances for all ages, and a very understanding audience to enjoy them with.
When I first visited River Farm, it felt as though I’d discovered one of the region’s best-kept secrets. It’s my happy place. Owned by the American Horticultural Society, visitors can enjoy 25 acres of gorgeous gardens located on the shores of the Potomac just south of Old Town Alexandria. Once one of George Washington’s farms, the now flower-filled grounds are set within nature in a way that feels almost wild.
River Farm’s Children’s Garden was one of the first public gardens dedicated to children in the country. It’s designed with a range of themes to encourage children to build nature connections through unstructured “loose parts” play. The garden’s miniature scale and multi-sensory features delight kids of all ages.
Leesburg Animal Park
We had been living in the DC area for many years before we were introduced to the Leesburg Animal Park thanks to a neighbor’s birthday party. The park is known for its up-close animal experiences that you won’t find in the region’s larger zoos. Here you can meet, pet, and feed the residents, and hang out with goats, sheep, and llamas.
The park’s smaller size allows for a more customized experience. You can arrange for a private sloth encounter or inquire about meeting any resident animal that piques your curiosity. Jump on a Wagon Ride, ride a pony, or catch a Live Animal Show. There’s something for every little animal lover here.
Barrel Oak Winery
If you feel like spending some time checking out the countryside, the DC region’s wine country is just across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. Virginia wineries are pretty laid back in general, and Delaplane’s Barrel Oak is known as the most family-friendly of the bunch.
Each year one of our favorite family traditions was to cut down our Christmas tree in the quaint nearby town of Middleburg, and then bring the whole family to Barrel Oak for a little fireside picnic. We always visited the day after Thanksgiving and could count on a festive atmosphere with the fireplace blazing and decorations around every corner (and from the ceiling).
Kids and dogs are always welcome here, and families enjoy sunset picnics and fire pits year-round. On select days you can hike the grounds, enjoy live music, or dine on wood-fired pizzas.
About the Blogger
Kristy Esparza started her family’s active travel blog, JJ & The Bug, in the summer of 2020 as they transitioned from an occasional weekend walk to daily outdoor escapes that kept them from climbing the walls of their tiny townhouse. She enjoys getting off the beaten path and aims to make it easy for everyone to adventure together no matter where they are or what kind of gear they’re packing.
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