Washington D.C. is chock-full of historical sites. You could spend days, weeks, maybe months exploring everything there is to see. We have a toddler in our crew, so that isn’t happening. But I still want my youngest kids to learn about women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, World War II and September 11. What better way to start a conversation than to have a kid point at a statue and ask, “Who’s that?”
Here are my top don’t-miss sights in Washington D.C. for those times when you don’t have a week to spend wandering museums, but you want your kids to know that it wasn’t always peace, love, and video games in our nation’s history. Obviously this is not an exclusive list, and there are other important museums (the National Museum of the American Indian comes to mind), but these are specifically lessons I can teach with short visits to monuments that don’t require full museum visits.
Quiz: where around the National Mall can you find monuments dedicated to women? Answer: practically nowhere except the the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, located on Capitol Hill, a short walk from Union Station.
Here’s a spot that doesn’t get nearly enough press or visitors. It is a small museum, located in the house that was the epicenter of the struggle for women’s rights and the home of the National Women’s Party. Be sure to take the tour; the park ranger that took us around was incredibly knowledgeable. Remind yourself and your kids that it took over 70 years from the time Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others gathered at the Seneca Falls Convention to declare that women were autonomous individuals who deserved the right to vote, until the 19th Amendment was passed. Learn about what it took to finally get both Congress and President Woodrow Wilson to support women’s suffrage. See Susan B. Anthony’s desk. And learn about Ava Belmont and Alice Paul, after whom the monument is named. This historical house is gorgeous both inside and out, and it’s pretty special to walk on the same floors as these she-roes of the women’s rights movement.
World War II
The World War II Memorial is just as majestic in person as on television and in pictures. Walk slowly and read the inscriptions: it’s a great way to discuss with your kids why there was a war and the ways Americans contributed to the war effort. It has a huge fountain that encourages people to dip their feet in (but not walk in or play in, so watch the toddlers.) It is a big, wide open space kind of memorial, in the middle of the Mall, that would be a good place to take a break for a bit.
If you have older kids and enough time, delve deeper into the darkest part of that time in history and visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a short walk from the Mall.
If you have time, and children who will act remotely respectful, and you can get in, you should definitely go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The NMAAHC is beautifully and cleverly designed: on the upper floors, there is mention of the Civil Rights and references to difficult history, but also a lot of fun cultural items. (Chuck Berry’s car! Michael Jordan’s shoes! Oprah’s dresses!) The lower floors host a chronological walk through history, starting in the 1400s and progressing through the history of slavery and the civil rights movement. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions and be able to discuss these issues with your children.
This museum is famous for having some of the best food around in their Sweet Home Cafe, and I can attest that the shrimp and grits was delicious. Check their website for current advice on how to get in; at the time of this writing they are still experimenting with requiring free timed tickets that you have to request online versus allowing people to walk-in on weekdays.
If you don’t have time/can’t get in/don’t have kids capable of behaving well in museums, at minimum visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial located along the Tidal Basin. The design is based around a line from his “I Have a Dream” speech that includes the words “out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” It features Martin Luther King Jr. emerging from stone and looking out toward the Lincoln Memorial. Be sure to read the quotes along the walls on both sides of the memorial. From here, you can continue to walk around the Tidal Basin to the FDR and Jefferson Memorials.
The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial is a tribute to the 184 people who lost their lives at the Pentagon in the attacks on September 11, 2001. It is a beautiful and somber place. It features one bench for each victim, with their names inscribed on them, each with a small pool beneath them. The benches are arranged by birth year, starting with the youngest victim at age three, birth year 1998. It is a good place to sit and contemplate; not such a good place to let your kids play tag.
Getting there is much easier by Metro than by car as there is no public parking. Get off at the Pentagon stop and walk clockwise around the Pentagon until you reach the Pentagon Memorial.
Bonus Tip: The Best Places to Eat near the National Mall
The National Mall is HUGE, exhausting, and has cafes inside some Smithsonian museums, but they aren’t cheap. If you are going to eat inside a museum, the Sweet Home Cafe inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Mitsitam Cafe inside the National Museum of the American Indian are both famous for having great food.
However, if the kids are hungry and you don’t happen to be inside one of those museums, your best bet may just be the Old Post Office Pavilion, located just a short walk from the Mall. Something of a cross between a historical spot, a mall, and a food court, it’s super family friendly. Grab a bite to eat at one of the many affordable restaurants, which feature everything from pizza to Mexican to Chinese food and beyond. Wander the shops if you’d like, but kids especially will appreciate going up the Clock Tower that stretches 315 feet into the air and offers some stellar views. The Clock Tower is also home to the official Bells of Congress and these giant bells are sure to impress children. Bonus, you can even sneak in a quick history lesson as the building was built in 1899 and was the first government building to have its own electric power plant.
Another affordable option, the USDA Cafeteria (literally the staff cafeteria inside the Department of Agriculture) is open to the public. It’s just outside the Smithsonian Metro exit at 15th Street and Independence Avenue. You do have to find the magic portal inside the huge building (Wing 3, the door faces Independence Avenue) to enter, and you do have to show a picture ID, get a visitor badge, and go through security screening. But that was super quick the day I was there, and presto: a GREAT place to eat with kids.
This cafeteria is much cheaper than any of those cafes on the Mall, and it has a wide variety of options, including pay by weight buffet. I love these with littles because you can let them eat totally random items such as cantaloupe, potstickers, and cottage cheese and only pay for what they will actually eat. They have something to please everyone, and plenty of tables. Sit for as long you like, until your feet stop hurting and you are ready to go explore again!