Washington DC is a lot like London in that you can nip in and do what you need to in a couple of days, or you can linger there for weeks and still find things to do. As the capitol city of the United States it has the obvious governmental and political sites worth seeing, but offers a whole lot more besides. And, best of all, most of the things you will likely want to do in the city are completely free.
With 800,000 people making their way into Washington DC every day for work, the city is at a standstill during rush hour. City car parks fill by 7am and by 9am your chances of a short stay on street spot is slim. With that in mind it makes sense to either arrive early and shell out around $25 – $40 for a day’s parking, or park out of town. I chose the latter, opting for a $4.50 all day fee at a close metro stop: Rhode Island Ave.
Washington DC metro is ancient but slick. Hopping off and on is easy and cheap with an average journey within the city being about $3 with kids under 5 free, unlimited day tickets are $14. Journey times are around 10 minutes seemingly wherever you want to go.
The city is designed to be walked, and is pristinely clean, sidewalks are plentiful and the grass is manicured to absolute perfection. It is without doubt a gorgeous city to be in complete with historical buildings, statues, and world class memorials. However, it is a big city, and walking from one place to another can take a while and little legs will give up long before you make it. Below is the walking tour tried and tested with my 4-year-old and taking in some of the city’s best memorial sites.
Morning. Total cost $0.00
Walking tour good for little legs: 2 hours
Start at the Metro Center and walk on to Lafeyette square, check out the protests and get the obligatory White House photograph. Walk on and around to the front of the White House before heading over to the Washington Monument. Follow the route on to the WW2 memorial and go along the side of the huge pond. There were ducks here, I wished we had brought bread for them. You pass the Korean War memorial on the left and then end up at the huge stepped building at the end which is the Lincoln Memorial. If you started this walk around 9am, now would be the perfect place to stop for a picnic offering great views back across to the monument. From the Lincoln memorial, if the kids are fully recharged you should head around the tidal basin for the gorgeous pink blossom. If they are beat, head towards the Vietnam memorial and about 10 minutes up the road to Foggy Bottom metro station.
I chose this little walk because for the most part my son could walk in front without holding my hand or could run around on the grass trying to catch squirrels or birds. When he needed a rest we could just lay on the grass and relax. Once at the national monument there is virtually no traffic for the remainder of the walk making it not just quiet and free from hustle, but at times quite intimate.
Late morning/ early afternoon: Total cost $0.00
Take the Metro to Woodley Park/Zoo, a short journey and stopping point for the National Zoo. Free entrance and relatively small, the zoo is home to a selection of probably the animal’s kids most want to see with a few Pandas thrown in for good measure. Just opposite the zoo entrance is a Seven Eleven firing off hot dogs and big gulps for $1.89, for a super cheap, super unhealthy, but super hit-the-spot lunch. For the health conscious there were other stores selling other stuff.
It took us about 90 minutes to get around the zoo (you can rent strollers/carts for $10) and was very busy with school trips. It is the first time my son has ever seen a panda and he was completely mesmerised and convinced it knew Kung Fu, as it sat there munching on sugar cane oblivious to the attention it had garnered.
From the zoo we headed back down towards the Mall, and to the metro stop: L’Enfant Plaza. Just around the corner is the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. Entrance is free, and my son was blown away by the planes hanging from the ceiling, fantastic exhibitions and rockets. There is a lot to see and do and set over 2 floors if you are a plane spotter you could probably spend a good few hours in there, everyone else will need around 90 minutes.
Continuing on down the Mall you can head into any of the many museums and (if booked ahead) governmental buildings. There is so much to see and do, older kids might like the spy museum, grandma might like the National gallery of Art and had I not had my 4 year old with me I would have liked to visit the holocaust museum. Point being, just pick up a tourist map of the city in any gas station and tailor where you will go accordingly.
Eventually you will come to the reflection pond and the stunning US capitol building. The streets nearby are lined with food vans serving up just about every cuisine imaginable set to the backdrop of perhaps the most significant building in the entire United States. If, like us you are blessed with blue skies and scorching sun you will have had an immersive, yet exhausting day.
At this point my 4 year old was beat, the enthusiasm in him had waned and he was more interested in snuggles and being carried than seeing anything else.
One day in any major city is never going to be enough and you are further limited if young kids are in tow, nonetheless, if you should find yourself in such a position this should help in ensuring you see the best bits and do the best kiddy things without spending a single dollar… Well, except for travel and food. All that included I spent less than $20.
Metro Tickets: $6.80
Food & Drink $8
Entrance Costs: $0
Total = $19.30