Visiting Washington, DC, with kids

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As time-honoured as a family beach trip, a tour of Washington, DC, capitalises at least one summer vacation. It is an educational, and even patriotic, venture that enhances school-aged children's study of history and politics and tickles preschoolers' imaginations. But aggravating factors to the fabled holiday are the summertime crowds and the swampy climate that morphs sightseeing into a sunstroke-inducing march.

Well-meaning advice suggests skipping the most popular spots for lesser-known museums, but why come all this way and not see the Hope Diamond or a lunar lander? Instead concentrate on preferences rather than comprehensiveness and time visits to avoid crowds and the heat of the day. Visit the museums and the zoo early (as soon as they open), eat in the city's neighbourhoods and explore the outdoor monuments in the cooler evening hours (after rush hour, though). Good timing will ensure good times.

The National Mall
The nation's collective front yard, the National Mall is a grassy pedestrian avenue lined by eight free-admission museums of the Smithsonian Institution, established by an English benefactor in 1846. The most popular for families include the National Museum of Natural History, National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History. Their fame means that watching people look at exhibits is easier than looking at the exhibits themselves. But there are unpopular corners in each, like the Moon, Meteorites and Solar System gallery in the Natural History museum. And some museums, like the Air and Space, rely more on atmosphere than text-heavy displays. In the Air and Space's hangar-like building, just look up at the suspended spaceships and airplanes and imagine flight or weightlessness -- no reading required.

Families with young kids often bypass the art museums but the East Building of the National Gallery of Art is a geometric spectacle. A huge Alexander Calder-designed mobile decorates the central atrium and a disco-lit tunnel with a moving sidewalk delivers little feet to the foot of the Cascade Waterfall: falling water and an escalator cousin are preschool pleasers. The modern art collection in this building is equally entertaining for young children who respond visually to the pieces: an appreciation skill some adults have lost.

Eat, Play, Run
The National Mall could easily monopolise an entire vacation but to find additional fulfilment for you and the kids venture beyond the tourist zone to Capitol Hill, a charming Federal-style neighbourhood that has dutifully served as the capital's living quarters for centuries. The Hill's 'town centre' is Eastern Market, a 19th Century-era covered market selling grocery supplies and prepared food. The last of its kind in the city, Eastern Market is especially adored on weekends when a farmers and flea market blossoms in the adjacent corners. Locals, from swaddled to sandaled, make a day of shopping for trinkets and edibles, lunching at outdoor tables or just strolling for the amusement of being surrounded by neighbours and strangers. The market's North Hall is a convenient pit-stop complete with air-conditioning and restrooms.

Stroll a few blocks east to Lincoln Park for a glimpse into DC's recent baby boom. This is the homesteading centre of professional families who refused to defect to the suburbs. Between the historic statues bookending the park are a variety of fast-moving objects: children, dogs, joggers, gigantic strollers, you name it. Two fenced playgrounds are sheltered underneath mighty shade trees. Minding the speeding bodies are the grown-up versions of student-body presidents, save-the-rainforest activists and no-longer-so-Young Republicans and Democrats. It is a great place to exercise the offspring and eavesdrop on the cultural quirks of District residents.

Related article: Exploring America's attic: a guide to the Smithsonian Institution

Older children who have outgrown the running-in-circles phase can plot an outing to an historic statue (choose from Joan of Arc or Winston Churchill, among others) or a home state street. Finding a personal connection to the city in this way is a well-loved pastime of new arrivals, be they elected or self-selected.

Updated 3 August 2012