Frugal and Free homeschool attractions and things to do with your family in Washington, DC!
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Our nation’s capitol is the perfect family destination—it’s a city full of sights of historic and modern significance, educational and fun activities, and a wide variety of family-friendly options. And, as many of the attractions are free, it’s a vacation spot that won’t break the bank.
Here is a breakdown of DC attractions as they might fit into your curriculum:
Great for all ages: Explore flight and space travel at the National Air and Space Museum, either on the National Mall or at their Udvar-Hazy extension out at Dulles Airport (here is where you’ll find the Discovery space shuttle!).
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is home to pandas, monkeys and apes, elephants, and a wide variety of other animals. (There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so be prepared for a lot of walking!)
Rock Creek Park runs through the center of DC and is accessible from the Zoo. There are trails to hike, playgrounds to climb, and a nature center where your family can see exhibits on area animals. Other DC areas where you can explore nature include the US Botanical Gardens, the National Arboretum, and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
Best option for kids under 6: Smithsonian hot spots for the littlest tourists are the butterfly garden and the bug zoo at the National Museum of Natural History.
Best options for kids 6-12: From October to June, elementary school aged kids will enjoy Q?rius, Jr. at the National Museum of Natural History, a discovery room where kids can interact with natural history artifacts and specimens. Head next door to the American History museum and visit Spark!Lab, a hands-on invention workshop specifically designed for kids 6-12. The KID Museum in Bethesda offers STEM experiences for kids 6 to 14 and admission is only $8.
Best options for kids over 12: Q?rius at the Natural History museum is an interactive learning space where visitors can use microscopes, handle almost 6,000 collection objects, solve science puzzles, and meet science experts.
History, Reading, and Civics:
Great for all ages: Many of DC’s most popular attractions lie either on or very near the National Mall, including the Smithsonian, the Capitol building, the National Archives, and monuments including the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the Washington Monument. Entrance to these are free, though some do require advance planning, particularly tours of the Capitol and visits to the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Best options for kids under 6: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History offers one of the only dedicated experiences for children under 6 on the National Mall. Wonderplace is an interactive exhibition place where kids can engage with hands-on activities, exercising their imaginations and having opportunities to touch, climb, and build. Wonderplace is closed on Tuesdays and free, timed tickets are required on weekends. The American History museum also offers the Muppets and a giant dollhouse that are always a big hit with this age group.
On Fridays, visit the Library of Congress’s Young Readers Center for story time.
Best for kids 6-12: Elementary school aged kids will be old enough to appreciate Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, particularly the changing of the guard ceremony, or George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where you’ll find period rooms and historical demonstrations.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum offers a special exhibition for kids aged 8 to 14 that tells the story of one family’s experiences during the Holocaust from the perspective of a boy growing up in Nazi Germany.
Visit the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to learn all about US currency – you can even see dollars being printed! Tickets are needed between March and August, but are free.
The Library of Congress offers family tours geared towards children this age during peak times. You can also head to their Young Readers Center.
Best for kids 12+: Visit the National Archives, just off the Mall, with your teen and view the United States’s founding documents as well as rotating exhibitions. Teens can also better appreciate the significance behind memorials like the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials and the exhibitions at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Ford’s Theater, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, offers tours and museum exhibitions. While tickets are free, they are available same day and are limited—however, you can reserve online for only $3 each. Visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site to learn about Douglass’s incredible life and legacy.
Admission to the Newseum and the International Spy Museum will definitely cost you–$23 for adults and around $15 for kids, depending on age—but are teen-friendly, in-depth looks at the role of the media and clandestine services in American history and present day.
Art, Theater, and Music
Great for all ages: Washington, DC offers world class art museums that offer experiences for all ages. On the National Mall, visit the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshorn contemporary art gallery, or explore other cultures at the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Smithsonian’s African Art Museum.
Off the National Mall, head to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum or the Phillips Collection, where visitors under 18 are free.
The Kennedy Center offers free tours and a lineup of free performances daily.
Best options for kids 6-12: The National Theater offers a lineup of morning children shows, which are free.
Best options for kids over 12: The Washington National Opera offers older students tickets to dress rehearsals for only $15.
Staying in and getting around DC
Fortunately, Washington is a city very well connected to its suburbs via the metro and bus system, so save some money by staying at a metro-accessible hotel in Maryland or Virginia. Many of the area hotels offer free breakfast, so take advantage of this perk before heading into the city.
Traveling on the metro during rush hour will cost up to $5.90 a trip while off peak fares top out at $3.60. Kids under four travel free. TIP: The metro car doors are not like elevator doors—you cannot hold the doors. So be sure to keep your group together, and board/depart the train quickly.
During peak tourist times—late March through Labor Day—lines at these attractions can be long so be prepared with water, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and perhaps some distractions for the kids. Arrive at popular destinations like the Captiol and the National Archives early and visit the museums a little on the later side.
Dining options on the National Mall are limited—the Smithsonian cafeterias are expensive so take advantage of the food carts and trucks that flock to the Mall, especially on weekends, or, if possible, bring a picnic lunch.
Another thing to keep in mind: the Mall is big! It’s a 2.5 mile walk from the Capitol building down to the Lincoln Memorial, which can be a long walk for little ones and adults alike. Be sure to pack water regardless of the season and don’t be afraid to take advantage of the many benches located along the Mall. If your group isn’t up for the walk, there are opportunities to rent bicycles or take Segway tours, or there are the ubiquitous hop-on, hop-off buses. For a cheaper transportation option, take the Circulator bus—it’s only $1!
About the Authors:
Since 2012 Jeff and Katie we have helped over a quarter of a million people navigate DC and find the best things to do alongside hotels. Katie is a kindergarten teacher for over seven years in Bethesda. Jeff spends his time in DC avoiding traffic on his bike. Visit our blog at HotelsNearDCMetro.com