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Homeschool on the Road: What to See in Washington DC

Part of what I love about homeschooling is our ability to travel to the places we study. Since this year we completed Classical Conversations Cycle 3, which covers US History and Geography, we once again planned our spring break vacation around our learning! Here’s our homeschool on the road – what to see in Washington DC travel guide based on our most recent trip!

What to See in Washington DC

A Homeschool What to See in Washington DC Travel Guide

If you’re hoping to see the Cherry Blossoms, they only show up for a couple weeks sometime around March/April. It’s very unpredictable – last year the blossoms were not out at all, but this year they were in peak season and it was lovely! Hotels will likely be more expensive or harder to book if you wait till last minute during Cherry Blossom season. The weather can be a bit raw (it was chilly and overcast every day). If it wasn’t hubby’s school vacation week, I would probably have chosen another time.

The great thing about Washington DC is all the Smithsonian museums are free. So enjoy them any way you like – spend a whole day, or visit a few exhibits and hop to another museum. On this trip we visited:

What to See in Washington DC American History MuseumThe National Museum of American History. The Price of Freedom exhibit contains an extensive display of every major US war since the French and Indian to the present. The boys loved the interactive displays where they could pose with a Revolutionary War Redcoat popping his head out of a house. Or view a recreation of World War II soldier’s bunkhouse. There are actual jeeps and helicopters in this exhibit! We saw everything from George Washington’s sword to pieces of the World Trade Center. I enjoyed watching the TV screen collage of the Vietnam War era which blended pop culture with news feeds. We toured The First Ladies exhibit which showcases over two dozen gorgeous gowns and chronicles the changing role of America’s First Ladies through history.

We spent time at The Star-Spangled Banner exhibit which shares the history of the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key’s anthem lyrics. The massive flag is in a dim, climate controlled room and you can’t take photos. But there’s an interactive digital display of the flag where you click on various sections of the flag image to learn more about the flag’s construction and history.

The number of exhibits at this museum is staggering! I wish we’d spent an entire day here or come back a second time. Visit the museum online to get learning resources and take virtual tours!

What to See in Washington DC Air and Space MuseumNational Air and Space Museum. Children of all ages will enjoy even the lobby as there are huge planes and other ships suspended from the ceiling. It’s an impressive entryway! We toured the Apollo to the Moon (look for the astronaut monkey!), Pioneers of Flight (see the Red Baron here!), How Things Fly (extremely interactive!), and the Space Lab (a quick walk-through inside a space shuttle). Usually, this museum has a gigantic McDonald’s cafeteria, which although I’m not a fan of fast-food, is impressive to see it in operation; it was closed at the time of our visit. Which was how we ended up at the…

National Museum of the American Indian for lunch! While we didn’t tour the actual museum, we ate lunch in the Mitsitam Cafe (native Delaware and Piscataway people’s word for “Let’s eat!”). They serve indigenous cuisines of the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, MesoAmerica and the Great Plains. You’ll find traditional fry bread and corn totopos or contemporary items with a Native American spin—like buffalo burgers! Note: this is a pricey cafeteria (3 taco-like items and 2 sodas was $45!), but if you want to immerse yourself American Indian culture via food, it’s an interesting spot to dine!

Washington DC Portrait GalleryNational Portrait Gallery. We didn’t have time to truly enjoy this spot, but it’s a fabulous place to “rest your dogs.” Washington DC is no joke for the feet. Our boys had a hard time with the extensive walking, so we walked (haha) to the National Portrait Gallery’s Kogod Courtyard to eat our lunch. What’s so special about this courtyard? Personally, it was the quiet! There’s a hush as you enter this massive enclosed space. You can’t hear street sounds, just trickles of water. Soft light filters from the undulating glass canopy overhead. It’s a restful place for families with small children. Kids will love to kick their shoes off and walk through the water scrims which are four flat water features in the floor. I wish I’d thought to check this gallery’s website before to know we could’ve done a short tour of the President’s Portraits – but as the kids were worn out, we decided to move on.

What to See in Washington DC Sculpture Garden

A walk through the Sculpture Garden can be done any time you’re touring the downtown area. We saw Roy Lichtenstein’s illusionary House I, that seems to move as you walk by! We had just created pop art drawings after Lichtenstein’s style in our Classical Conversations Great Artists study this year, so the boys were excited to recognize a familiar artist! The Sculpture Garden is a fantastical walk through interesting artwork in a range of styles and forms.

What to See in Washington DCWhat to See in Washington DCWhat to See in Washington DC Natural History Museum

The National Museum of Natural History simply must be on your DC trip list. Here you’ll walk into a foyer dominated by a huge elephant, tour the magnificent gem exhibit, the Hope Diamond, and of course see the dinosaurs. Currently the large dinosaur / fossil exhibit is under reconstruction but a smaller exhibit shows the Last American Dinosaurs. The ground floor Sant Ocean Hall is a wonderful treat to walk through and learn how our vast oceans (which are really one big ocean!) connect with every part of our lives.

What to See in Washington DC National Zoo

This year the National Zoo was a bit of a disappointment as the weather was too cold for the animals to come out, we arrived too late for the pandas, and many exhibits (like the Kid’s Farm and Pizza Farm) were under construction. Basically we hustled through the reptile house and rode the carousel, but ordinarily you’d see the pandas, exotic birds and more. Check the zoo website to plan your visit otherwise you may end up disappointed like we were – our visit three years ago was a much better experience.

The day we left we stopped at the National Archives. Reserve a time slot for a self-guided or docent guided tour, or wait in line and hope for the best. When we arrived at 9:45 a.m. on a Wednesday the line was short. We got in to the Rotunda viewing area quickly. We viewed the original Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and U.S Constitution (no photos). Since we had just memorized the Preamble to the Constitution this year, this was an exciting stop for us. These documents are enormous in real life! We were saddened to see how faded and worn these documents appear, and grateful our children could view them.

On our previous trip to DC, we booked an evening bus tour of the monuments. However, with the kids being older and not free, we didn’t want to spend the money. So we took a self-guided monument tour, which I will share in a separate post!

Where to eat in Washington DC

Since we rented an apartment, we made a lot of meals “at home” which saved money, time, and hassle. I packed a cooler with easy breakfast and lunch items, plus some freezer meals for little prep. We did try a few eateries, like the Museum Cafe, and these two favorites:

What to See in Washington DC Bens Chili Bowl

For a cool spot to eat, definitely check out Ben’s Chili Bowl. Delicious Chili Dogs, Chili Rice Bowls and more fast eats on a budget! This historic eatery has been visited by so many celebrities, that I was shocked the owner took the time to come talk to us and pose for a photo! Truly a lovely lady!

What to See in Washington DC Founding FarmersWhat to See in Washington DC Founding Farmers

For a farm-to-table dining experience, try Founding Farmers which serves delicious breakfasts! It’s on the pricey end, and there may be a long wait if you don’t reserve (yes, even for breakfast, make a reservation!).

We also took a day trip out to Mount Vernon, which you can read about here! [COMING SOON]

Getting around Washington DC

What to See in Washington DC Cherry Blossoms

You have several choices for getting around Washington DC as a family. Your choice may depend on the time you have available, your funds, and also the number of people in your party (and whether they require car seats or not). Here are some options:

DC Metro – Washington DC’s subway system is clean, organized, and runs on time. At any station, purchase a MetroCard for each person (no sharing cards!) for $2 each (don’t lose them!). Load your card with the amount you’ll need (check rate charts in the station), or load up for multiple trips. Prices are based on time of travel as well as length of trip, and can range from $2-4.50 per person. While riding the Metro was fun, it often left us with a quarter to half mile walk to our destination, so we only did this a few times.

Uber – By far our favorite method of getting around the city. As a family of four with no car seats, Uber is a convenient option because we can use the smallest vehicle. Simply download the Uber app (referral link) and request a pickup. You’ll see your exact fare cost before confirming your ride. Your Uber ride arrives within a minutes and takes you doorstep-to-doorstep. No hassle of figuring out where you’re going. With each trip costing $8-14 for our whole family, Uber was faster and cheaper (or the same) as the Metro and spared us the extra walking. Get $1 off Uber rides with the Ibotta app (referral link).

Drive and Park – We sometimes drove our car and parked on the side of the road. With GPS apps, this is easy, but depending on traffic, and parking availability, could waste time. Using the ParkMobile app on my iPhone helped us locate and reserve parking spots on the main drag. Parking is for 2 hours at a time and cost about $2.50/hour. After two hours you have to move your car to a new “zone” and pay again. Pay attention to the parking restrictions signs very carefully!

More Travel to Washington DC posts:

What to See in Washington DCHave you been to Washington DC with your kids? What are your favorite spots!?

Emily Oberton

Monday 27th of August 2018

Wonderful article! We recently returned from a fun-filled trip to DC, and we went to many of the must-see places you listed. One that I would add - and this was the HIGHLIGHT of the trip for our kids - was the National Building Museum. Every summer, the museum has a kid-friendly, hands-on exhibit. This summer, the museum had an enormous play house structure made of plastic and Styrofoam. There was even a giant plastic ball pit that looked like a swimming pool.

Darla at HeartWork Organizing

Wednesday 9th of May 2018

Perfect timing. I needed a little inside info on exactly this trip for kids. Thanks for sharing.