It’s summertime in Baltimore, which means plenty of day trips with the kids. And what better place to visit than the Smithsonian in Washington, DC? It’s fun, it’s educational, and best of all for a family on a budget…it’s free!
But don’t toss the kids into the car and start heading to the capital just yet. Like any activity with kids, a trip to the Smithsonian can turn sour if you’re not prepared beforehand. Here’s how to ensure that your day trip leaves the kids – and you – counting down the days until your next one.
Top 8 Tips for Visiting the Smithsonian with Kids
Budget parking time. Although entering the Smithsonian museums themselves is free, getting there is not. If you’re driving, you’ll need to pay for parking. Sure, street-side parking isn’t that expensive, but it can be impossible to find unless you get there very early on a weekend, or extremely early during the week (remember, thousands of people commute to DC every day, so they’ll fill up the spaces quickly). While there are a good number of parking garages within walking distance of the Smithsonian, the ones that are closest may be filled up unless you get there early.
Consider public transportation. Trying to skip the parking woes? You may want to drive to a Metro station and take a subway or bus. There is a Metrorail station, as well as a DC Circulator bus stop, within a short walking distance from the Smithsonian. (Note: The purple bus route only runs on weekends, and only during certain parts of the year.)
Choose museums wisely. Have a child who loves bugs or butterflies? Check out the Butterfly Pavillion and Insect Zoo at the Museum of Natural History. Have a kid who loves dollhouses? Don’t miss the second floor at the Museum of American History with its five-story miniature dollhouse. The Air and Space Museum and the Postal Museum are also winners with most kids. But don’t bite off more than you can chew! It’s better to visit just one or two museums in a day so that kids don’t feel rushed or overwhelmed.
Prepare to walk. The main stretch of museums spans 11 streets, and about a full mile. That means lots of walking – and that doesn’t count trekking to the Mall from wherever you’ve parked. Make sure that older kids are wearing comfortable clothes and walking shoes, and consider bringing a stroller for younger kids who might tire out quickly.
Time it right. Of course, you’ve got your kids’ sleeping schedules to work around. If possible, though, try to make it out to the museums as soon as they open (usually at 10 am). Weekdays are less busy than weekends, so keep that in mind while planning. If you’d like to visit the National Zoo, make it your first visit in the morning to beat the heat and maximize your chance of seeing active animals. (Most animals are more active in the early morning than later in the day.)
Schedule breaks. Bring a few snacks along with you, and make sure to build snack times into the schedule before your kids get hungry. While most museums don’t allow you to eat inside, you can snack on the grassy area between the museums, or even on the steps of one of the buildings. (If your kids are into counting to high numbers, walking up and down the steps can also be a fun “break” activity.)
Don’t forget about lunch! If you’d rather not bring your own lunch, most of the museums have their own cafes or restaurants, including the McDonalds at the Air and Space Museum, the food court at the Ronald Reagan Building, the Cascade Café at the National Gallery of Art, the Castle Café at the Smithsonian Information Center, the Atrium Café at the Natural History Museum, and the Stars and Stripes Café at the American History Museum. If your kids are adventurous eaters, you can opt for the Mitsitum Café at the American Indian Museum, which serves fare inspired from Native American cuisines.
Be flexible. There’s nothing wrong with having only one museum on the schedule and then spending the rest of the day wandering around. There are plenty of sites to stumble on while walking around the Smithsonian: sculpture gardens, monuments, the carousel, botanical gardens. You can even bring some stale bread to feed the ducks in the reflecting pools.
However you spend your time at the Smithsonian, don’t lose sight of the main purpose of these delightful summer day trips. Have fun together as a family, don’t sweat the small stuff, and appreciate the advantage we have of living so close to the capital of our amazing country!