Washington DC | Family-Friendly, Educational Travel Destination

Would you believe you can take a family vacation that is both fun and extremely educational? It’s absolutely possible and we have a recommendation for you. Give your family a deeper understanding of America’s history and heritage by taking a trip to Washington DC.

My family decided to visit Washington DC with our two teens between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The holiday week is known for being a good one to visit because the government is essentially closed, but all of the attractions are open. However, this trip would be an excellent option for any time of the year, including spring break, fall break, or summer vacation.

Pit Stops Worth Your Time

Washington DC is about 8 hours from the east side of Indianapolis. We chose to break up the drive into two days, mostly so we could sleep in West Virginia and snap a photo for our 50 States map.

Wheeling, West Virginia

We planned to stay in Wheeling, West Virginia on our drive. By leaving Indianapolis in the early afternoon, we were able to check into our hotel early in the evening. If you visit during the holidays, the Oglebay Resort has an annual light show. This resort offers skiing in the winter, golfing in the summer, a year-round zoo, and more.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania makes another great, educational detour for your drive. The town made famous by the Civil War battle is about 90 minutes north of DC and easy to visit on your way in or out of the city. The Gettysburg National Military Park and Visitor’s Center are the main attractions here and my teens were fascinated by the history. Check their hours if you are interested in tours or visiting the exhibits.

The Visitors Center itself is free, and there are things to see if you just stop in to grab a map of the area. There is also an admission to see a short film, the cyclorama, and the museum. This was an experience worth the time and admission, as we all learned a lot about how this battle impacted the area for years to come.

The shops along the main street of Gettysburg are fun to peruse. We recommend The Gettysburger for a meal!

Getting Around Washington DC



Be aware that traffic heading into DC can be quite heavy. Parking at our hotel was $49 per night. Our teens were stunned to hear this! They have started to earn their own money, so I think they appreciated our decision to park using the Spot Hero app at a garage about four blocks away which came out to about $18 per night. Spot Hero is a fantastic, trusted resource if you also want to avoid high hotel parking fees.

Most of the attractions in DC are close together. Some surface parking is available but none of it is free. If you are using garages, be sure to look at the closing time of the garage so you don’t end up without your car at the end of a long day!

Transportation Options

As far as getting around during your trip, DC is very pedestrian friendly, with a city bus system as well as a subway, the Metro.

While we relied on the Metro heavily, we still walked as much as 10 miles some days! Even if you don’t regularly use a ride-sharing app like Lyft, set one up for your city vacation. You never know when you may just need a ride back to your hotel at the end of a long day.

Things to Do in Washington DC


Smithsonian National Zoo

Like many museums and attractions in DC, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is free and easily accessible via the Metro. However, you do need to register online for non-timed passes for a particular day.

The panda bears are a huge draw, but we also spent a lot of time in the small mammal house and at the prairie dog exhibit.

There weren’t many options for food inside the zoo, so you’re better off scoping out a local place outside the zoo. One option is Duke’s Counter, which is just across the street. Our food was delicious, and the service was good. The 80’s soundtrack was a complete bonus.

Monuments by Moonlight Tours

I recommend booking a Monuments by Moonlight tour at the beginning of the trip because it will inform the rest of your week. We met our tour near the Naval Memorial.

When we arrived, it was a bit overwhelming, because it turns out there are several companies operating this kind of tour, and they all depart from the same place!

We were on a smaller bus, with about 10 other people, which was great. Our tour guide was a DC native and was incredibly knowledgeable. This bus tour is a great way to get to see just about all of the highlights of DC with less traffic and more ambiance. We were able to get pictures of everything we wanted and learn a bit more about the geography of the district.

The National Mall

Of course, a walk to see all the museums and monuments near the National Mall is a must while in DC. Sites like the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Washington Monument are all withing walking distance of one another.

We recommend stopping in at the White House Visitor Center, which was very interesting and the next best thing to touring the White House.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is free, but timed tickets are required. They do sell out most days.

As we were traveling with our teens, we each took the permanent exhibition at our own pace, agreeing to meet at the gift shop when we were finished. Each of us spent time focusing on different parts of the exhibition, and when we were done we talked about what we saw. It was a moving experience and we each came away having learned something new.

As you plan your week, make reservations at the Holocaust Memorial Museum early. Use the coat check for your jacket and bags, as quarters are tight and there is a lot of walking.

Arlington National Cemetery

Our family opted to take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of Arlington Cemetery, but you can always choose to go the self-guided route. The cemetery is easily reached via Metro.

My teens were impressed with Arlington and the history of the grounds. This is still a working cemetery and tourists are rerouted as needed to accommodate burials. There is a lot to see, but a key site is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Time your visit to see the Changing of the Guard.

The Changing of the Guard is an impressive ritual, and very moving. The observers were somber and respectful. Being there gives you a feeling of something larger than yourself.

Ford’s Theater

Ford’s Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, is preserved as a historic site and an active theater. Reserved tickets for this were $5 and timed, so plan accordingly.

You can tour the museum, the box where Lincoln sat the night he died, and the nearby house where he passed away. Live performances still take place here, so check to see what’s playing if you’re interested in seeing a show.

The National Archives

We spent one afternoon on a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the district and chose to stop at the National Archives. We went up to the rotunda and were able to see the original Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

The Archives also contain communications between presidents and heads of state, among other things. My family members all found parts that were of interest and spent about 90 minutes there.

The International Spy Museum

The International Spy Museum has an admission price, tickets are timed, and they often sell out. As you start to put your itinerary together, keep this in mind.

To best enjoy this museum, I’d recommend doing it earlier in the day. This will give you fresh eyes and time to wander through and fully participate in your spy mission. My teens enjoyed the experience and learned some things along the way.

Our kids have described this trip as “epic,” which makes me so grateful. Our days of vacationing as a family of four are dwindling as our oldest prepares to graduate from high school. When a trip goes well, I don’t take it for granted. Washington DC is a good destination for all ages, but I am glad my kids were fourteen and seventeen when we made the trek. Our nation’s capital is a special place, and I encourage you to experience it with your kids.

Need a getaway closer to home? We love Butler County, Ohio!

Indiana children’s museums make great school break day trips.

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