America's capital city is a fantastic destination to visit with children in tow. It's filled with kid-friendly museums, has an abundance of parks in which younger visitors can burn off excess energy, and a logical, pedestrian-friendly layout (let's not forget that DC was designed to showcase urban planning at its very best). 

Here are our top tips for exploring the city with children.

A woman and a child at the National Gallery of Art East Building, Washington DC
Take advantage of extended hours at the National Gallery of Art and other museums © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Is Washington, DC, good for kids?

As America's first purpose-built city, Washington, DC, is, in many ways, a dream to explore with younger visitors. It's flat with very few hills, and roads and sidewalks are wide, smooth and well-maintained, perfect for parents pushing strollers. 

Almost all of DC's top attractions are refreshingly accessible – every Smithsonian Museum has ramps, for example, and most museums and major landmarks will have family-friendly restrooms. Generally, you'll almost always be able to enter with strollers, although the White House, which has some of the tightest restrictions, is one of the few places where strollers are on the banned list. 

The large number of gardens and parks means there are endless places for kids to burn off excess energy – the National Mall, for example, has over 20,000 trees and numerous dedicated picnic areas with benches and tables. Thirsty kids (and their parents) are also in luck – most businesses, including restaurants, museums and galleries, will happily top up water bottles, and you'll find public water fountains throughout the city, including 47 on the National Mall alone.

A tactical approach to timing can transform your holiday. If you're visiting during August and September (the hottest months of the year), you'll want to avoid spending too much time outside in the late morning and early afternoon. Take advantage of the extended opening times offered by many museums – crowds tend to thin out after 5pm, and the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery of Art are just a few of the institutions that run so-called "late nights."

Catching public transport

Public transport in Washington, DC, is also incredibly accessible, and all train stations have ramps, elevators and extra-wide ticket gates designed with strollers and wheelchairs in mind. All Metro trains have priority seating, usually next to the train's doors. Almost all public buses have ramps, although if you're traveling with a stroller, check the size – most buses, including the DC Circulator buses, won't allow strollers more than 48" long and 24" wide. 

Getting around DC is easier than you think – here's how

Hiking path in Rock Creek Park during Spring time in Washington DC
Rock Creek Park is a great spot to ramble in nature with little ones © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Best things to do in Washington, DC, with babies and toddlers

National Museum of American History

At the National Museum of American History, parents can take some time out at the Wegmans Wonderplace in the museum's west wing. This baby and toddler-friendly hangout has a playroom, family restroom and nursing area (complete with nursing pillows).

Rock Creek Park

The beautiful Rock Creek Park north of the city center has 1754 acres to explore and plenty of fantastic picnic spots (including several next to waterfalls). Toddlers will love the park's Discovery Room, filled with hands-on exhibits and children's books about wildlife, and many of the trails – including the Edge of the Woods Trail – have been designed with strollers and wheelchairs in mind.

Best things to do in Washington, DC with children

US Botanic Garden

The US Botanic Garden, which is free to visit, has a dedicated Children's Garden where younger visitors can help staff care for the various plants, along with a scavenger trail lined with rare plants – kids who spot certain species can get a passport book stamped.

A boat tour along the Potomac 

A riverboat tour is a great activity for kids, who can tick off the city's famous landmarks as they float along the Potomac. Capitol River Cruises offers a range of sailings, although their 45-minute scenic sightseeing cruise hits all the highlights. Tickets are priced around $25 for adults and $15 for children between three and 12. Kids under three are free.

Paddle boats in the Tidal Basin at Washington D. C. with cherry blossoms.
Tweens and even teens will love paddleboating across the Tidal Basin © Julia Kim / EyeEm/Getty Images

Best things to do in Washington, DC with teenagers and tweenagers

Mount Vernon

Let's face it: teenagers and tweenagers are prone to occasional protestations of boredom, but we've got the perfect solution for anyone who starts to moan about being "museumed out." 

For a change of scenery, head across the water to the Mount Vernon estate, the former home of George and Martha Washington. You can explore the main house on guided tours, watch sparks fly in the blacksmith's shop and stop by the estate's working farm (activities here include sheep-shearing lessons and the chance to pet the ridiculously cute Hog Island Sheep). Not only will you learn about the Washington family – you'll also gain insights into the lives of people enslaved on the estate. The estate is 15 miles south of Washington, DC. To get there, take the metro's Yellow Line to Huntington Station before hopping on the Fairfax Connector bus to Mount Vernon.

The International Spy Museum

Wannabe James Bonds will love L'Enfant Plaza's International Spy Museum, which is filled with interactive exhibits, including ones that encourage them to take part in their very own undercover mission. Our only gripe is that this is one of the few museums that isn't admission-free. Entry fees vary according to the time of year, but children's tickets start at around $19, while adults' tickets start at around $29. Children aged under six visit for free.

Paddle across the Tidal Basin

This is a two-mile-long reservoir wedged between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel. Teens and tweens can hire a paddle boat (from $38 per hour) and admire landmarks such as the Jefferson Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial from the water.

Planning tips

  • Don't underestimate how accessible DC's transport network is – the city's bus and metro system is refreshingly easy to navigate.
  • If you're visiting a museum or gallery, always ask what kid-friendly programs and events are taking place.
  • DC has plenty of places to cool off, including lots of splash parks, such as The Yards Park in the Capitol Riverfront area. There's a large splash pool and brightly lit dancing fountains after dark. Another notable destination is Canal Park Fountains (also in the Capitol Riverfront area), which has numerous fountains and splash pools with stepping-stone crossings.
  • Always ask what kid-friendly freebies are available. For example, staff at the US Capitol's visitor center have stashes of police badges to hand out to children.
  • Whether it's a museum, gallery or landmark, always book in advance if tickets are required, even if tickets are free – you won't just get guaranteed entry but will also cut queuing times.

Keep planning your trip to Washington, DC:

These experiences should be on your DC itinerary 
And these incredible experiences won't cost you a thing
Get up close with nature and more history on these day trips
Get to know DC like a local in these top neighborhoods 

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