Washington for the holidays is a real gift: All the attractions, none of the crowds, and all dressed up for the season.
By Darya Mead
After joining their travels to Bangkok, Guadalajara and Paris, my cousin asked if I would like to accompany her and her twins, now three-years-old, in Washington, D.C., the week before Christmas. Given my love of the “dynamic duo” and her work covering the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I couldn’t help but go along.
I had not been to Washington in a long time and desperately wanted to see both the new African American museum and the official Obama portraits. I hoped if it wasn’t too cold that I could endlessly push the double stroller and meander through DC’s many museums.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the week before Christmas to be a great time to go our nation’s capital: The government is shut down – for the most part – and most kids in the area are out of school. The city seemed not only festive but less hectic than many other times of year. Spring’s cherry blossoms are gorgeous but the crowds are off-putting; And summer in DC can be hot and humid.
At the beginning of winter, you don’t know what kind of weather you’re gonna get but it can be a wonderful time to see the sights. We had hoped to see it snow but only had a few days of frigid temps, but then the weather was actually fine.
I plotted our DC itinerary like a continental invasion and we emerged victorious. The twins and I had about six days in DC, including a few days with other adults and a few where I was on my own with the dynamic duo. Here’s what I learned along the way.
Like our other adventures, I had no expectation that the twins and I would actually explore anything in-depth. I was more interested in covering all the bases and keeping them occupied, fed, rested and warm. In DC, I aimed to do the same: We covered a lot of ground visiting the many monuments and museums.
When we visited the Lincoln Memorial, my cousin’s friend showed the kids a penny, and made the connection with the big man in the chair and the guy on the coin; they were mesmerized. Again and again, we whipped out the pennies to make wishes in the reflecting pools and fountains. The payoff came when at the National Portrait Gallery. On our way to see the more modern presidential portraits, including those of the Obamas, we passed Honest Abe, and the son pointed out that he was indeed President Lincoln. It was a peak educational moment!
Our visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture was hectic. We met my high school friend and local, who helped wrangle the kids while he and I caught up. It is a phenomenal place and one that really demands complete attention and time. We opted to head to the top floor to see the entertainment and culture portion given our limited time and attention span. They particularly loved Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac El Dorado and tried to climb into it. I have to say the guards at all the museums were so wonderful and you could really sense the pride they take in their jobs. More than any other city I have visited, I had a number of interactions where I was so impressed with the docents/ guides and guards.
We visited the National Zoo where we got to see papa, mama and baby panda. The daughter had a marvelous moment with a baby gorilla, where it seemed like their souls met. The mother gorilla was holding her infant right next to the glass. I had a hard time wrangling the twins when they were both out of the stroller, so when the son took off down a big ramp, she shimmied close, and put her hand up to the glass where the baby gorilla reached out to connect with hers. It was a truly magical and I rushed back with her wriggling brother to take it in and capture with a photo.
The zoo’s carousel is adorable and animal statues throughout the park are fun to climb on. The zoo is one of the best I’ve been to and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Did I mention that all the museums and monuments and even the zoo are free? That’s our tax dollars at work, but honestly, it was so refreshing. The free admission allowed us to visit many places in one day but not feel obliged to trudge around and see everything.
Other highlights included the U.S. Botanical Garden miniature holiday train exhibit. We went twice because it was so delightful and the kids loved it! Located near the Capitol Building, this year’s exhibit is called “Season’s Greenings: America’s Gardens!” and runs from November 28, 2019 – January 5, 2020.
I had wanted to do a brief tour of the U.S. Capitol and show the twins the rotunda, but much to my chagrin guards would not let us in with our snack bag and bottles of milk. I asked if I could leave it with security and was told no. I couldn’t believe it. I understood why they might not want liquids inside, but it seemed so unreasonable and exclusionary.
Needless to say that was a low point of our time in town, but we took some kooky pictures outside and the twins didn’t mind; I had already toured the building on my last trip. But parents be warned: absolutely no food is allowed in the Capitol Building. (Perhaps that’s why Congresspeople are so ornery?)
More DC Museums for Young Children
I am a firm believer that you can make almost any place interesting to kids, but I did try to seek out toddler-friendly activities. Besides the zoo and the holiday train exhibit, we enjoyed the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum (although there was some fear of the giant stuffed beasts) and the National Museum of American History, which has a terrific kids area, as well as an epic lunchbox exhibit.
The docents in the Natural History Museum could see I was fatigued. Many were grad students and happily engaged the twins in a number of educational activities while I zoned out for a bit.
We visited the National Cathedral on our last day. I have visited a lot of houses of worship and I really enjoyed this self-guided tour. So many important services have been held there and the building is still being renovated from freak earthquake damage in 2011. The unique needlepoint on the pews were really charming, all festooned with holiday flowers and decorations. The whole place was quite impressive.
It was merry being in Washington during this time of year. The decorations were festive and we came across a few holiday markets with music and food.
Many of the monuments had wreaths and the decorated trees were charming, particularly in front of the Capitol and at the Vietnam Memorial. The views of the Washington Monument in the distance made for extra special photo compositions.
DC is a great place to stumble around, you never know what you will find. From buskers to demonstrators in front of the White House, we happened upon many surprises. When we randomly stopped in the Renwick Gallery to use the restroom, we became mesmerized by a Burning Man exhibit. This, by the way, is another great feature of our capital: You can enter any of these beautiful, public edifices to use the facilities or check out the architecture.
Personally, my favorite surprise was discovering a little holiday ice skating rink. When my cousin’s friend came to relieve me of child-minding, I strapped on my skates and circled the rink, loving my own little magical holiday moment.
Where to Stay
We stayed in at the Fairfax at Embassy Row. Well located, historic with modern flare, the room was enormous and perfect for our motley arrangement. The room overlooked the Indian Embassy and a statue of Ghandi. The kids liked to say good morning and goodnight to him each day. We played gentle soccer with a small soft ball and painted watercolors on my yoga mat.
On one particularly hectic evening, I was getting them ready for a bath. I had stripped down to my tights and camisole to avoid the complete soaking from the night before. When the son – who was obsessed with unlocking doors – ran into the fancy hotel hallway, I scooped up the daughter and ran after him into the hallway. and the door locked behind me.
So there I was amidst all this hotel splendor, framed photos of presidents and fancy decor, stuck with two 3 year olds in my skivvies. Luckily, my cousin’s friend showed up with an extra key card and any embarrassing catastrophe was averted. I was really dreading going down to the lobby in my peculiar state of undress. If I were to go back with my own kids, I would probably do AirBnB, unless a job was paying for a hotel.
We found a yummy, sit down cafe/ boulangerie place called Le Pain Quotidien around the corner and ate breakfast there most mornings. Although it was a chain and a bit pricey, I have to say I enjoyed it immensely and the food was consistently good. Even though the DC museums are free, they really get you on food. We tried to avoid eating at the tourist attractions, as many of the cafeterias are expensive and mediocre. Washington is quite an international city and we had dinner out a few times. We enjoyed Mexican, Thai and various Italian options.
I had this fantasy of taking the kids for a special hot chocolate on a cold day, but that didn’t pan out too well: Between trying to share one cocoa in two cups, spillage and the subsequent sugar rush? Well, live and learn…
One afternoon we met a friend of mine in Georgetown – another great neighborhood to explore – and we enjoyed a midday pizza fest; always a great option with kids. I was surprised that most places were very accommodating to little kids. At a cafe in a sculpture garden, a lady bussing the tables was so charmed by the twins. She kindly helped me clean up our mess and she sat and shared her immigration story with me. She was from Eritrea and overjoyed that I not only had heard of her country but knew about a recent peace accord between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is always so rewarding to have meaningful moments with people on the road; she was lovely!
Our nation’s capital is a great walking city. The layout of the downtown area beckons pedestrian traffic. That said, we used taxis and the metro a few times. Many taxi drivers were Eritrean, as well, and very helpful with the stroller and all my gear. The metro was so clean and fast, I really got a sense of how locals navigate around town. Most of the time I just decided to walk, as our hotel was near Dupont Circle and quite centrally located.
Washington DC is not cheap for food and lodging. These items will be your biggest costs and even with free admission to most attractions, a trip to DC adds up. Depending on your taste, a family of four could easily spend $300-$500 per day all-in. To save money, I always recommend eating out for only one sit-down meal and then cooking or grabbing something fast at the other meals.
Shopping-wise, there is plenty to peak your interest to buy, especially this time of year. I enjoyed the artisanal crafts at the holiday markets and found a number of gifts for my family. Souvenirs from the museums and attractions are hard to resist: I did succumb to some panda and astronaut items for the twins!
What to Bring
California kids are not used to cold weather, so packing the necessary gear was challenging. Make sure to bring extra hats and gloves and chunky socks for little ones; none of the little cotton socks that do any time of year in California are warm enough. The big blanket to cover their legs as we ambled was paramount, and I was glad I had insisted on bringing that. I was, of course, in a sweat, but was constantly worried they were cold. Early winter weather is unpredictable so visitors should pack for anything: sunscreen, umbrellas, long johns and layers!
Planning Your Days in DC
Whether you visit in the snow or sun, on every trip to Washington DC, be sure to pick a few must-see spots and then allow for the rest of the visit to evolve from there. We once happened upon a huge brass band playing in the street performance and another time, a diaper change sent us into a Gordon Parks photo exhibit. DC is so dynamic you don’t need to worry about seeing everything. You will be back.
Darya Mead – October 2019
Growing up in NYC and attending the UN International School gave Darya a head start as a global citizen. But her extensive travel and media experience now takes a back seat to raising two boys in San Francisco. Darya loves the outdoors, cooking, teaching yoga and the fact that her boys have taught her to be a sports fan. Follow her travels on Triporati.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
Your one-stop-shop for 2020 family vacation ideas from all the top travel writers.
An immersive experience delivering far more than snapshots.
Days at sea through Panama's islands of the Caribbean
Stops in Italy, Austria, Czech and Germany please parents and teens, alike.
Les Gets converted “never skiers” into "every-winter" fans.
Two weeks with pilgrims in Northern Spain finds cows, pinecones, flowers, castles, and new friends.
The big-value, small-crowd resorts that Colorado families love
Want to get away – FAR away – this Christmas? If you’re done with the cold, the rain, the snow,…
Bad planning and “bad” luck make for a dream trip
The wonder & variety of a summer road trip through the Golden State, plus Grand Canyon & Vegas
Beaches in Florianopolis. Rivers in Bonito. Waterfalls in Iguazu. Wetlands in the Pantanal...
November is the right time for families to hit “pause,” escape and reconnect.
Washington for the holidays is a real gift: All the attractions and none of the crowds.
Find your next adventure in the pages of ROAM's first compilation
Getaway for a Queen Mary stay in a cool corner of LA.
A splashy week of canal strolls, Genever, raindrops & Dutch autumn
This holiday season, give your family the gift of travel.
Take the grandparents on a cross-state odyssey of Wild West vistas & outdoor majesty
A small-town UFO festival is a little weird, a lot hokey & pretty wonderful
Why even Coloradans gotta do Switzerland.