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by Susan Flynn
There are proud-to-be-an-American moments – the sight of fireworks shooting into the sky on the Fourth of July; the singing of the Star Spangled Banner at a baseball game; feeding your ballot into the box on Election Day.
But nothing makes patriotism come alive – and goosebumps a constant companion – like a trip to Washington, D.C. Something as simple as racing my daughter up the Supreme Court’s marble steps was nothing short of exhilarating. There’s a palpable sense of awe in this city that makes you feel energized – and grateful.
My husband, two daughters (ages 10 and 13) and I recently visited for five days. While the eight-hour drive from Boston is do-able, we opted for a one-hour flight on Southwest Airlines from Manchester, N.H., to Baltimore. We took a 45-minute commuter rail train to Union Station and walked about 10 minutes to our hotel, Fairfield Inn & Suites in the Chinatown section. It’s priced right, includes a great breakfast and is within walking distance to the major museums and attractions.
We knew from the onset that we all had different goals. The teenager didn’t want the vacation to be too educational. The 10-year-old wanted to visit the F.D.R. Memorial (she had recently done a report on the 32nd president). My husband longed for uninterrupted hours in the Smithsonian museums. And I dreamed of a tour of the Lincoln Memorial at night, and the chance to eat out a lot.
I’m happy to report that everyone’s wishes were granted. That’s the great thing about Washington, D.C.; the nation’s capital really offers something for everyone in the family. And most all of the museums are free! (Just stay away from the Smithsonian cafeterias – we spent $80 one day on lunch. Talk about out-of-control federal spending.)
Washington is also a great city for walking, with some of the most pedestrian-friendly crosswalks we’ve ever encountered. But be forewarned, there’s a lot of walking. Maps can be deceiving and make it appear that one Smithsonian museum is right next to the other. And once inside, the museums require lots more walking.
That’s why we splurged one day on a pedicab ($20, including tip) for the trek from The White House to The Capitol. The city’s subway system, The Metro, is also easy to navigate – and so clean. And taxis are reasonable – sometimes cheaper than the subway.
Here’s a look at our favorite highlights, as selected by the 10-year-old, the teenager, the dad and the mom.
The White House
We weren’t organized enough to make the required reservations with our congressman weeks in advance, so our tour consisted of peering through the wrought-iron fence and swiping a souvenir blade of grass. The president’s home is smaller than my daughter imagined. We pictured President Obama inside eating dinner with his wife and two daughters (same ages as our girls). And one of our favorite photographs from the trip is our 10-year-old doing a cartwheel in front of the home of the most powerful man in the world. 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, 202-456-1414; whitehouse.gov
Smithsonian National Zoological Park
There are 5,000 animals on display, including the celebrated pandas. But the favorite destination, by far, was a visit with the friendly orangutans in the Think Tank. The orangutans demonstrate their problem-solving skills with the help of trainers, and one even engaged in a tug-of-war game with my daughter. 3001 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-633-4888; nationalzoo.si.edu
The confections tasted as good as they appear on the popular TV show DC Cupcakes, which is filmed here. Were they worth the one-hour wait in line and $2.75 per cupcake? She says yes! At least the staff passes out water while you’re waiting. Try the key lime and carrot cake varieties. 3301 M St., NW, 202-333-8448; georgetowncupcake.com
Perhaps our kids are biased having a mother as an editor and a father as a newspaper reporter, but it’s cool to visit a place where members of the press are the good guys. My daughter loved the gigantic glass elevator, the outside terrace with a view of The Capitol, and the many interactive games. One lets players first be a photojournalist capturing a dramatic river rescue, and then an editor who decides which image to put on page one. With her sister (who got a bad case of the giggles), they played the role of TV news reporters reading from a teleprompter. 555 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, 202-292-6100; newseum.org
To have a basketball team with a losing record is tough for a fan, but great for a tourist. My daughter and husband were able to score two tickets – six rows from center court at the Verizon Center – for only $100. Let’s just say that would not be possible back home with the Boston Celtics. 601 F St., NW, 202-628-3200; nba.com/wizards
National Museum of American History
This is the Smithsonian museum most like People magazine – lots of celebrity. We saw the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the original Kermit the Frog Muppet, and more than two dozen gowns worn by the First Ladies, including the sparkling ivory, one-shoulder inauguration ball number worn by Michelle Obama. 1400 Constitution Ave., NW, 202-633-1000. americanhistory.si.edu
For anyone accustomed to shoe-horning their way into Fenway Park, walking into beautiful Nationals Park is a revelation. Because this baseball field is 24 feet below street level, you can get off the Metro and walk directly into the park through the expansive main concourse. No stairs, no ramps, no escalators. Nationals fans lack the intensity (insanity?) of diehard Fenway fans like my husband, but maybe that’s a good thing. 1500 South Capitol St., SE; washington.nationals.mlb.com
Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
Like all of the Smithsonian museums, the sheer volume of displays can be overwhelming. But the sense of history is thrilling, starting with the actual 1903 Wright Flyer that those intrepid Wright brothers managed to somehow get airborne. Peering inside the tiny interior of Friendship 7, the 9-foot-tall Mercury spacecraft in which John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth at more than 17,500 mph, you can’t help but be swept up in the wonder of space travel. Independence Avenue at 6th Street, SW, 202-633-2214; airandspace.si.edu
In a city full of grand monuments and huge museums, the theater where Lincoln was shot is all about intimacy. You can sit in the balcony a few feet away from the box where the president met his fate and just picture John Wilkes Booth leaping to the stage, breaking his shinbone and shouting, “Sic semper tryannis” – “Thus always to tryants.” 511 Tenth St., NW, 202-347-4833; fordstheatre.org
The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
This little sanctuary is beautiful and serene, with more than two dozen sculptures scattered around a circle-shaped fountain that offers plenty of places to sit and people watch. A small café serves sandwiches, pastries and coffee. We especially liked the sculpture Thinker on a Rock by Barry Flanagan. It’s a hard place to leave. 9th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW, 202-737-4215; nga.gov
Walking Tour of the Monuments
After being lead tour guide for the family, it was nice to let someone else do the work. A personable tour guide from DC by Foot led our group of about 50 to the World War II and Vietnam Veterans memorials, the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. She shared interesting tidbits, pointing out the snipers who stand guard on the top of The White House, and the story of a cat who survived a 160-foot jump from the partially-constructed Washington Monument in the 1880s. The only cost is the tip you choose to give at the end of the night. 202-370-1830; freetoursbyfoot.com/dc
OK, a subway system may seem like an odd top pick, but it’s exceptionally clean, convenient and efficient. We bought the one-day MetroRail pass for $9 per person, which allows unlimited rides. The very steep escalator ride down to the stop at the National Zoo is better than some Disney rides. And, finally, aboard the Metro is where a kind and strong (dare I say handsome?) 20-something male pried the closing subway doors open after I accidentally got off at the wrong stop. Yes, there are still heroes at work in Washington, D.C. wmata.com
Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper. For more information on Washington, D.C., including suggested itineraries for families, visit www.washington.org
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