Ok, I’ll admit Washington DC wasn’t on my personal list of travel destinations but now that we are homeschooling what better way to get a ‘civics and government’ lesson than a trip to DC, right? Sebastian and I both agree this trip was fantastic! By the end, we were so sore and tired from all the walking, but happy and impressed!
Here are a few summary suggestions: 1. Do not rent a car. Stay close to the National Mall. Traffic is bad and parking is expensive. While staying close to the NM may be more expensive, the convenience and access to popular sites is worth it. 2. You HAVE to submit your request to tour the white house 3 months in advance to even get a shot at getting a tour. We were under that window and could not get one. We DID get a tour of the Capitol which I was not that excited about, but would now say was the highlight of the trip. I will elaborate later. 3. DO make reservations and take a tour bus early in your trip. This will give you the lay of the land before you venture out on foot and help you better plan the rest of your time in DC.
HOTEL. I wasn’t sure what to book being a first-timer to DC. I knew I wanted to stay close to the National Mall, close to all the museums and Sebastian wanted a pool. I am a Marriot member, so I do tend to look at their hotels first and found a Residence Inn by Marriot three blocks from the National Mall with an indoor pool. I was able to get it for around $250/night. We arrived at the hotel after a $15 Uber ride from Reagan (DCA) and were promptly checked in two hours early. I was surprised to find a complete kitchen (except oven) in the room! It also had a small 2-seat bistro table, pull out couch, desk, queen-size bed, sink dressing area and bathroom. We were able to use Instacart & Safeway to have groceries delivered to our room. Mon-Wed the hotel did a food and/or drink give-away from 6p to 7:30p and again were pleasantly surprised to find a full hamburger, chips, and drinks bar served on one of the nights. Our room was clean, well serviced, quiet and comfortable. What more could I ask for?
GETTING AROUND. I am so thankful a friend recommended this tour, it was another highlight of the trip. Thanks, Sherry! Ideally, you have temperate weather as the tour runs from 7:30p to about 10:30p with the large picture windows typically open. Our evening tour begun during sunset with pick-up at Union Station, drove East to the Capitol and all along the National Mall to finish up at the memorials West past the Washington Monument. Our driver was entertainingly knowledgeable and stopped to allow us time to explore the monuments. If I would have known how valuable the perspective was, I would have booked our tour the first night. It gave me a comfort level of knowledge that would have been nice to have before tackling the area by foot. If you don’t think the ‘night time’ tour may be for you, you could consider Big Bus tours. We did not use them, but Sebastian wanted to because they were the company with the double-decker, open-top seating. By our last day as the fatigue was really starting to set it, we spontaneously bought tickets for a boat tour by DC Cruises. It was nice to get out on the water as we love boating, but the tour itself doesn’t show you much since most of the monuments are set farther back or off the tidal basin not accessible by boat.
CAPITOL TOUR. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. SUPREME COURT. If you are a Texas resident, book your Capitol tour here and do it three months before your travel date. We did it just over 2 months out and were able to still get the staff-guided Capitol tour, but not the White House tour. We thought we knew where we were supposed to meet for our tour guide, but we were way off. We were to meet at Cruz’s office in the Russell building, 4th floor. This building is near the Capitol, but about a block off. We ended up being about 30 minutes late after initially going to the visitors center inside the Capitol. Cruz’s staff was still more than happy to give us the personal tour despite our tardiness. While politicians may not get a lot of things right, the staff was wonderful to us. It was exciting to see the underground tunnels that the Senators use to get to and from their offices and the Capitol. The architecture, murals, and statues inside the Capitol were beautiful and reminiscent of scenes inside the Vatican. After a great lunch at the Capitol cafeteria, we waited in line to see and sit in on the Senate floor. We only stayed about 10 minutes observing the day’s agenda and then made our way through the connected corridor over to the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress is equally decorated and ornate. The ceiling murals all interconnect by theme. The area of books is off limits unless you hold a library card. You are able to get a card if you are 16y or older with the purpose of research. Finally when you leave the LoC you exit and can walk next door to the Supreme Court. If you take a tour then you can go inside the Justices’ courtroom, otherwise, you can walk up to the entrance. A common theme in all of the buildings is the cherry blossom ceilings. You will see them on the ceilings in a dark pink or light blue and gold in all the buildings.
SMITHSONIAN MUSEUMS. It is such a treat to have so many (19 total) free museums in DC! The Air and Space Museum was running extended hours so we were able to run over our first day and see things like the original 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer, space shuttles, nuclear missiles and so much more. Another day we visited the American History Museum, Natural History Museum, and the Portrait Gallery. This was a lot to see in one day, not sure I would do this many again in one day.
CHERRY BLOSSOMS. We were fortunate to be in DC during the blooming of the cherry trees. We were told by our tour guides that there are 9 varieties and he ID’d two for us. The soft pinkish white petals float around like snow and cover the streets in pinkish-white. It is a lovely sight. While they are all over the National Mall, one of the best places to see them is on the Tidal Basin with the water and various memorials in the background.
WEST SIDE MEMORIALS. The WWII memorial, the Korean Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the MLK Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial are all on the West side of the Washington Monument. The nighttime tour I mentioned earlier will take you by all of these monuments and give you time to get off the trolleybus and explore the monuments. Great way to see them all in one shot. We returned to see the Lincoln monument in the daytime and it was a lot more crowded so the nighttime tour may be the better way to visit.
Expect crowds and lots of tourists. I’m not sure there is any way around it. We saw lots of school groups of mainly teenagers. I was hoping they would thin out after 3p, but no they were still in full effect through the evening hours. Just get a good night’s sleep and pack along your extra patience.
Do save one evening for dinner at the Old Ebbitt Grill. I highly recommend reservations. It is a very old DC tradition around since 1856. No need to dress-up they took us in casual sight-seeing garb. It is an easy walk from the White House so plan your day accordingly and end up here for dinner.
Here is a map of the National Mall area and some things we did not see that I would recommend if you have the time.
1. Mt. Vernon – You will need to buy tickets and from DC is about a $35 Uber ride. A fellow homeschool family and our Capitol tour guide said it was well worth it. I suggest spending a day on this adventure.
2. Arlington National Cemetery – Friends recommended 2 hours. Visit the Kennedy graves, see The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, watch the changing of the guards, and take-in in the overall impact of the cemetery. It is just across the Potomac from the National Mall so an easy taxi ride.
3. International Spy Museum – “It is the only public museum in the United States solely dedicated to espionage and the only one in the world to provide a global perspective on an all-but-invisible profession that has shaped history and continues to have a significant impact on world events.” -from Website. There is an entrance fee, but we have heard great reviews of this museum from several sources.
4. Newseum – A fellow traveler recommended this museum for the amazing photography. You will explore everything from current events to the role of a free press in a free society. Reserve your tickets online.
4. Any of the other Smithsonian Museums such as, but not limited to:
–African American Museum (time passes required)