Rockets, lunar landing craft, gigantic jets – there is no denying the (cool) factor of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. One of my sons has actually proposed that his dad take a job providing security there so we could visit at night and maybe meet Martians.

Note to self: check the number of times we let him watch Night at the Museum.

As much as the whole family digs the ‘space place’, I knew it wasn’t the only game in town. So, for a year I made it our family mission to visit at least one new D.C. destination a month. Here are eight great spots – approved by my brood – to check out with family. Bonus – much of it is FREE!

Picnic In The Garden

Dust off that picnic basket that’s been sitting in the basement, pack it with some of the kid’s favorite eats and head out to dine amongst the art in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art.

I can’t think of many other places where you can have PB&J next to a masterpiece by Joan Miró. A picnic in this garden is the perfect way to introduce your kids to art, in it’s many forms. From natural beauty to surrealism, you are literally surrounded by art here.

Highlights

Claes Oldenburg’s Typewriter Eraser, Scale X – this is just too cool to not snap an Instagram shot next to it. Spider by Louise Joséphine Bourgeois is creepy (cool). Tim Burton has got nothing on Ms. Louise. The kids will either love it or loathe it.

Cost: Admission to the Sculpture Garden is FREE. There are four cafes on site should you choose not to pack your own eats. Dishes are a bit pricy though, a slice of cheese pizza will set you back about $6.

Mini-Golf IN The Museum

Tee off INSIDE the National Building Museum. Really! This is so “Night at the Museum” awesome you can’t miss it. The National Building Museum boast two nine-hole mini-golf courses. These unique courses are designed for ages 4 and up, and can even provide the seasoned golfer a challenge with a few of their twists and turns. This is the perfect activity for the dog days of summer as it’s offered in air-conditioned comfort during Museum hours from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

There are also plenty of other attractions at the museum to keep the whole family entertained, including the ever popular Hill Country’s Backyard Barbeque on the West Lawn, and the Building Zone, a hands-on introduction to the building arts designed especially for kids ages 2–6.

Highlights

Golf. Barbeque. Enough said.

Cost: Admission to the Great Hall, Cafe and Store is FREE; Exhibit Admission: $8 for adults; $5 for youth, students, & seniors; $3 a person for Building Zone only; Mini-Golf $5 per person, per course.

National Museum of the American Indian - (cool) progeny

The Ultimate American Tale

The minute it comes into view you’ll realize that the National Museum of the American Indian is so much more than your typical museum. From the tranquil flow of water in the stream that encircles the building, to the fluid sweep of the architecture that mirrors the water, this space has an almost palpable spirituality to it.

Stepping into the Potomac Atrium on the first floor – awash with natural light no matter the season-  one may think there isn’t all that much to see. This space open and inviting, but not packed with tons of items to obscure the flow. Yet somehow it invites you to want to see beyond. My kids were instinctively calmed and also intrigued.

Highlights

Tribal Passport program at the ImagiNATIONS Center. This hands-on program takes kids on a journey spanning the western hemisphere, teaching them about the native customs and cultures of several sovereign Native American nations. As they complete activities in each section, they receive stamps representative of each nation in their passport. Our kids are seasoned – passport holding-  travelers and they delighted in this activity as though they’d actually traveled to each place.

Mitsitam Cafe. Oh. My. Yum! Let your taste buds do the traveling at several stations that offer up the regional delicacies from a myriad of Native American nations. Brave enough to eat Bison? This is the place to prove it. Don’t miss the fry bread or the amazing chayote squash.

Cost: Admission and Passport program are FREE; Dishes at Mitsitam Cafe range from around $4 to $15.

Monkey Around

A zoo is a zoo you say? Okay, I can agree with that – until the orangutan runs by overhead totally cage free. The National Zoo makes my list for this alone. Having grown up with the San Diego Zoo as my “Home Zoo,” I’m not easily impressed by other zoos. This impressed me.

The O-Line as they call it, is the world’s first Orangutan Transport System (OTS), a system of towers and cables that allows the animals to move between the two buildings. Orangutans, the ginger-furred charmers that they are, swing and scramble by at what seems like just a few feet overhead and frankly it is AWESOME!

Highlights

Easy access from from two metro stops (we take the Red Line).

Cost: Admission to the zoo is free. Parking is $22 unless you become a FONZ member, then it’s $16.

Breaking News

Raising an aspiring journalist? Take a jaunt to the Newseum. An interactive, informative and fun destination the Newseum has 15 theaters and 15 galleries. There is easily enough to see and do here that you could easily make it a two day trip. A mix of interactive and historical exhibits, the Newseum quite literally tells the story of the role the news plays in our lives.

Highlights

The NBC Interactive Newsroom lets you “do” the news, allowing you to play the role of a reporter or photographer. Kids really dig this. The grownups will love the Anchorman: The Exhibit where Ron Burgundy keeps it classy.

Cost: Adults (19 to 64): $22.95 plus tax; Seniors (65 and older): $18.95 plus tax; Youth (7 to 18): $13.95 plus tax;  Children (6 and younger) FREE

Road Trip

Hit the road at the National Museum of American History – Transportation Hall. This exhibit is just plain ol’ Americana (cool). I’m in part the product of Stock Car drivers and Master Mechanics. I learned how to change oil before I could ride a bike. Being just feet from a 1903 Winton, the first car driven across the United States, be-stilled my heart. My Beatnik-at-heart teenager was blown away by the 40 foot stretch of Route 66 that is housed in the museum.

Highlights

An overload of Americana. The American Heroes exhibit is a wonderful teaching moment about those who serve our country. A copy of the Gettysburg Address and the Star Spangled Banner are display in the same building as Dorothy’s Ruby slippers.

Cost: FREE

Put Your Stamp On It

What is the hobby of kings? Philately. What, that didn’t answer the question for ya? Then a visit to the National Postal Museum may be in order. Here you’ll find the world’s largest display of philately – or stamp collecting. It is rather awe inspiring to see the amount of artistry that goes into something you lick, stick and mail.

Highlights

The Activity Zone. Here you can get really hands-on with the mail. Test your knowledge in the Post Master’s Challenge, see how fast you can sort the mail, and learn the ABC’s of Stamp Collecting.

Cost: FREE

A Day On The Island

Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson have iconic memorials, but I’ll take Teddy’s Island any day. Theodore Roosevelt Island, a memorial to America’s 26th president, is like a secret garden in the middle of the Potomac.  Conceived a “real forest” and to resort the natural state that once covered the island, this is a monument like no other. There is no visitor’s center, cafe or long line to get in. Befitting the fact that Teddy Roosevelt was outdoors-man and conservationist, the island is a tranquil, invigorating escape from the rush of the city that surrounds it.

Highlights

Hiking trails, native plants and critters. The monument itself is a towering statue of Roosevelt that my kids were convinced was going to come to life at night, snag a car from the American History Museum, and go play golf at the Building Museum with the tribes from the National Museum of the American Indian.

Cost: FREE

 

Images courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian.