*This post was updated January 2017.
Visiting the Nation’s Capital is a wonderful opportunity to see history come to life, spend time in amazing free museums, and enjoy the view of the monuments that make the city so special. There is so much to see and do, but if often can be overwhelming for the first time visitor. For this reason, I decided to focus this blog post solely on tips and tricks to help make the most of a visit to DC. You can read my Guide to Visiting Washington DC page for recommendations and information on favorite museums, walking tours, food and other must-see attractions . And be sure to let me know if you have any other helpful tips to add to the list.
Best Time to Visit the Smithsonian Museums. The Smithsonian Museums are free and awesome, but can often be very crowded. If you have never been to DC, it's helpful to know which museums are the most popular. I put together this infographic that shows the top 5 Smithsonian Museums, according to the most recent visitor statistics from 2015. If you are visiting one or more of the five shown below, Tuesdays and Wednesdays mid-day are usually the least crowded days, with Saturdays being the most crowded day to visit. Allow at least half a day or longer in each museum for the best experience.
Extra Museum Activities for Kids. Before you go, get online and print out select pictures from the museum websites, glue them onto index cards, and challenge your kids to be the one to find them in each museum. It’s a cheap scavenger hunt that is sure to keep them entertained. Or buy postcards from the museum shop before you start your tour. Finally, don’t forget to stop by the front desk at each museum to see what other resources are available for kids and families.
Head Outside in Between Museum Visits. Break up your museum visits with some outside activities on the National Mall. You can download different Junior Ranger books or pick up a copy from a Park Ranger. There are some great scavenger hunt-type activities that kids can do related to all the nearby Memorials. Visit the National Park website for a complete list of all the Junior Ranger Programs in DC. Also, depending on the time of year and the weather, the area near the Washington Monument is a great place to fly a kite!
Plan Ahead. It’s definitely worth the small convenience fee to reserve tickets online for some of the more popular attractions. At the National Archives, you can reserve tickets ahead of time, and then skip the outside line (which is almost always wrapped around the block during tourist season). For other places like the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, arrive before 9 on weekdays to get free tour tickets. Again, spending some time on-line before you visit may save you hours of waiting in line.
Look for Deals. You are probably wondering if it is worth paying admission for attractions when there is such a variety of free museums around the city. I would definitely consider visiting at least one of the paid museums, such as the Newseum or International Spy Museum. During the summer months, you can often find deals or discounts. For the past several years, the Newseum has offered up to 4 free kids admissions with the purchase of one adult ticket. Places like the Spy Museum or Madame Tussauds sometimes participate in Groupon deals, so try to get on their mailing list several months before you go.
Take Advantage of Metro. With new Metro stations in Northern Virginia, there are more options for hotels if you don't want to stay in the city. For certain attractions, such as the National Zoo, taking Metro is definitely your best option. It will be helpful to visit the Metro website before you come to town to become familiar with the system and to find out the latest delays and track closures. The lines are all color coded and the maps are pretty easy to read. Keep in mind that kids four years or younger ride free (up to two per paying adult). And as a local, I will tell you that if you are heading to the National Zoo on Metro, get off at the Cleveland Park station so that you don’t have walk half a mile uphill (important if you are pushing a stroller!)
Read Reviews. When we travel, I rely heavily on online reviews, particularly from my favorite review site Trip Advisor. To me, it’s essential for hotels, restaurants and paid attractions. There is nothing worse than spending a ton of money only to have a bad experience.
There IS an App for That. In today’s technology driven world, there are so many helpful apps for the family traveler. It's might be a good idea to download one or two apps ahead of time to make your visit run more smoothly. Check out this article written by a fellow travel blogger, for a list of Top Washington, DC Mobile Apps to get started.
Other Helpful Hints. Here are a few more tips that you might find helpful.
I'll close with one last tip, for those with a sweet tooth. If you decide you just have to have that cupcake from the famous Georgetown Cupcake, be sure to call ahead. With enough notice (typically by 5 p.m. the day before), you can skip the line and pick up your order. Visit their website for their specific policies. Happy travels!