This was a milestone year for our family. Our oldest turned 16 and our youngest turned 13. My husband graduated from seminary with his Masters of Divinity. And it all hit me how quickly time is passing. Y’all. Two more years and my firstborn leaves the nest. While I have raised my kids to leave and I am typically not a sappy mom, 16 has made me want to soak in all the time I can while my crew is all still at home. To celebrate Tim’s graduation and to have a memorable family trip, we agreed that D.C. was the trip to take. We all love history (well, not my daughter so much but she’s a foodie so she’s always up for travel!) and wanted to go somewhere we had never been before.
For months, I researched and planned and talked to everyone I know who has ever been or who has lived there. In fact, I had to preach to myself before we left to take a breath and chill, because things would not go perfectly even though I had planned diligently. Thankfully, the planning allowed us to pull off a wonderful week together. Some things we wish we would have done a little differently but the trip overall was exceptional and we plan to return to do all the things we could not fit in this time.
Now that we are home and have had a few days to recuperate from our trip (hello, vacation from vacation!), I wanted to share some of our tips and suggestions. This is a trip that every family should take at some point and I hope to make it a little easier for you!
OUR WEEK IN DC
Drove to Bristol, TN/VA for the night
Finished last of drive; Mount Vernon; Arlington National Cematary
Monuments and National Mall; Lunch at Union Station; Smithsonian National Zoo; Supper in Old Town Alexandria
July 4th Parade; Smithsonian National Museum of American History & National Museum of Natural History; National Archives; Supper & DC Fireworks – Crystal City
US Capitol Tour; Library of Congress; Stop by Supreme Court Building on way to lunch at Union Station; International Spy Museum; Supper in Chinatown; DC Night Tour
Museum of the Bible; Lunch at L’Enfant Plaza; Holocaust Museum; National Air & Space Museum; supper at The Wharf
Did a little sight seeing in Old Town Alexandria, ate a good lunch then drove to Knoxville
HOW I PLANNED OUR WEEK
1. Choose our Vacation Week
Growing up in small town rural Arkansas where July 4th was the event of the year, it has always been a dream of mine to experience July 4 in our Nation’s Capitol. When we settled on D.C. for our vacation, I still had a hard time deciding to go on July 4 because it is the hottest and busiest time to visit. We decided to tough out the heat and crowds to experience D.C. on Independence Day and I am so glad we made that decision. With that said, I would not recommend going over July 4 if you aren’t just dying for the experience. We would not change going over the holiday, but when we do go back we will pick a different time of year so that we can see the city without all the extra vendors, etc setup for the festivities. The National Mall isn’t nearly quite as pretty when it’s lined with stages and vendors!
We decided to drive rather than fly, because budget! With 5 of us, the expense of flying would have cut into our fun and food money significantly. We decided we would rather drive and be able to do all we wanted to do while there. Figuring the hotel nights, gas and food for driving was still over half less than the cheapest flights I could find. We live 15 hours away from D.C. We split our drive up each way. Going, we drove the first 10 hours to Bristol, then got up early the second day of driving so that we could get to the City by lunch and start our sightseeing. On the drive back, we stayed exactly half way at Knoxville. The drive from where we live is beautiful and well worth the money saved so we were completely happy with this decision. Teenagers sleep and watch movies and eat so they made it fine!
TIP: To keep the teens happy, because there’s just something about getting to get junk food from the gas station, I got $5’s in cash and gave them each $5 when it was time for a rest stop.
TIP: Our total time in DC was just the right amount. We didn’t cram too much in or stay too long. We were exhausted so I don’t think we could have done another full day. We could have probably fit more in, but we were able to enjoy the museums and sights without being overly time crunched.
2. Choose Hotel Location
You will get a variety of opinions on this decision. Many travel blogs I read said to, without question, stay near the Mall for the 4th. And I completely understand why! It’s so crowded that it would be a nightmare otherwise. However, people we talked with who had been before or have lived there suggested staying in Crystal City or Alexandria. I decided to just start searching for hotels and see what I could find for all three options. It is obviously more expensive to stay in city, but more convenient. In order to make our budget work, we chose Embassy Suites in Old Town Alexandria for a couple of reasons. The first being that we have 3 teenagers so the rooms at Embassy are much more comfortable. Secondly, it was significantly less expensive, fitting our budget much better, allowing us to enjoy all the meals and activities we wanted to do. Thirdly, Embassy Alexandria is directly across the street from the Metro stop in Old Town Alexandria. After a long day of sight-seeing, we were so glad we could step off the Metro and right into our hotel without having to walk several blocks.
On July 4, we watched the fireworks from Crystal City so we were able to see what hotel options would have been there. I will say that as far as eating, Crystal City might be a better option. Although I am not sure how close hotels are to the Crystal City Metro Stop. There is a very nice, safe, extensive underground shopping and dining plaza with lots of great dining options. We ate at We The Pizza before heading to the fireworks! We will pick Alexandria to stay again, but weigh your priorities when deciding.
TIP: Read the fine print for daily parking charge. We drove rather than fly so we had our vehicle parked all week. In the city you will pay anywhere from $60-$80 a day or more for parking at your hotel. Our hotel charged half that which was even further savings.
TIP: The Metro and Circulator are the absolute way to go in DC. They are safe and it’s basically impossible to get around otherwise. If you stay outside the city, I would buy the week pass, you’ll use it and save a ton! To use the Metro and circulator, buy a metro card, fill it with money at the kiosk (at every station stop) and swipe! It’s the same card for Metro & circulator. Metro is $3 per ride and circulator $1.
TIP: We were completely happy with our hotel and the location. We will choose the same one when we return. We are actually very glad with our decision to stay out of the city away from the crowds. Alexandria is a beautiful historic town, very safe and the Metro stop being right outside the door is was a life saver after long days. Embassy breakfast is much better than standard hotel breakfast and the extra space is so nice. We booked through hotels.com for a very reasonable price. I shopped hotels.com for several weeks until it hit the price I wanted (I am a rewards member so I receive secret prices and earn free nights which ended up giving my husband and me a free anniversary getaway!).
3. Determined our Activities
As you begin to research D.C., it becomes overwhelming as there are so many sights to see. In fact, it is absolutely impossible to do it all in even a few weeks. So just settle in your mind up front that you will not be able to do it all. How I decided to narrow down our activities was to have each one in my crew choose their top 3 musts. Many of ours overlapped, which was helpful and everyone mostly chose the obvious things so it was easy to begin the planning. The only curve ball was our daughter who only gave us one must which was the Smithsonian Zoo. I’ll share more about that soon! This worked out really well because everyone got a say in the planning and we had no complaining!
4. Planned our Activities
Once I had everyone’s lists of musts, I began to use Google Maps to determine the locations for everything then plotted our days based on what all was within close proximity. This worked well for the most part and we loved every single one of our days. Except Zoo day. I don’t want to talk about Zoo day yet so that will come later!
If you are not an OCD planner like me, let me kindly suggest that you cannot just show up and do D.C. without some kind of plan. You will end up wasting so much of your time. I didn’t want to be too rigid and overly scheduled, but we had a general, flexible plan for each day so that we were able to get in everything.
TIP: If I had to do it again, I would also study the Circulator Map to plot what we visited on the same day rather than plan only based on location. The circulator has a website, I highly recommend researching that!
TIP: When choosing which Smithsonian’s to visit, my suggestion is to visit the ones that most interest your crew. Most everything I read said that Natural History is a must, but we really could have skipped that one, just depends of if dinosaurs etc are your thing! We wish we would have done African American History instead.
TIP: There are security lines to everything, obviously. You are allowed to carry in bottled water, which I suggest carrying because DC is HOT. We each carried a refillable bottle each day. Because bags have to be checked, I was the only one who took a bag and everyone just put their stuff in my bag so that only one of us had a bag checked. I carried a cross body bag which worked out great. Make sure you allow 30 minutes or so in your schedule for security at each sight.
TIP: Do the Night Bus Tour. It is so worth the cost. Every tour bus company picks up at Union Station so that’s a good supper stop!
5. Scheduled our Tours
This can be a little tricky, because you have to put requests for tours in 14-90 days in advance, but you don’t find out until closer to time for the Capitol and White House tour when your times will be. We did not get a White House Tour. I ended up having to switch some things around because of waiting to hear back about tours, so my plan didn’t fit together as nicely as I would have liked. I could have waited to plan out our days but waiting until last minute would have been too stressful for me. In addition, the Holocaust, Spy Museum would have most likely been booked up if I had waited any longer. So you really have to plan in advance then adjust if needed once you are given your Capitol and White House tour times. And we had a fiasco the week before we left with DHS and our foster little so I was relieved that I also trying to plan out our week last minute!
TIP: If touring the Capitol is on your list (and it should be!), contact your Congressman. You can do public visitor tours, but when you go through your Congressman’s office, you get a much better experience! Not to mention, you don’t have to wait in the lines. Plus, when Speaker Ryan is out, he opens us his private balcony (which is the best view of the city you’ll see!) to the private tours!
What sights you will have to book for tours:
>Pentagon (we waited too late and the week was full so this is on our list for when we return)
>*Night Tour (we were told this is a must and I would agree, one of our favorite parts of the week!)
>Holocaust Museum (in the summer you just have to reserve a time)
>White House (conflicting opinions on whether or not you can actually get a tour at this time)
TIP: If you plan to do more than a couple of paid sights, I would recommend looking into a DC Go Card We wanted to do 3 paid sights: Mt. Vernon, Spy Museum and Night Tour. All 3 were offered with the Go Card which saved us almost $200. It all depends on which attractions you choose as to whether or not you’ll see much savings.
6. Research Dining for Each Day
Some of our friends went to DC just a few weeks before us and the one thing they said negatively is that it’s hard to find food. And food is of most importance, especially to my daughter and me! There are actually several locations to eat, but you have to know about them. There are great food trucks around the city. There are several federal buildings with cafeteria’s. There are some Smithsonian’s with cafeteria’s. Our go to lunch place was Union Station because it’s a convenient circulator stop and has a good food court and a Shake Shack. Don’t waste your money at the hot dog and snack carts around the mall. Several federal buildings have cafeteria’s are within a close walking distance.
TIP: If you love seafood, do The Wharf. It’s brand new so not many tourists know about it yet. It’s a close walk from the Holocaust Museum which was conveniently our last day. So we ended out trip with an amazing sunset seafood supper overlooking the Potomac. It was perfect. We ordered fresh seafood from one of the open air markets, they cook it to order then sat at one of the picnic tables down by the pier.
TIP: DC dining is just expensive. You save on so many sights, so just plan for food to take the bulk of your budget. We didn’t get to experience as many food places as we had hoped because our time was taken up getting to places so we had to eat convenient (aka, food courts). Thankfully, we were still able to have a few fantastic meals!
Cafeteria’s & Food Courts:
Union Station Food Court
Reagan International Trade Center
L’EnFant Plaza Food Court
American History Museum
Library of Congress
Old Post Office Pavillion
Our Favorite Dining:
Shake Shack for quick
We the Pizza in Crystal Bridges Plaza
Open Air Seafood Market at The Wharf
Hard Times Cafe in Alexandria
Carmine’s Italian (family style) Chinatown
WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY
1. Getting to the Zoo was a bust, we were all cranky and hot and tired by the time we got there, then we got drenched in a downpour and hardly any animals were out due to the heat/humidity. Needless to say, we were all frustrated with Abbi for making us waste an afternoon at the Zoo! But she loved it and it was the only place she asked to see so it is what it is. If the zoo is on your priority list, and for us we wish we have had the time spent there somewhere else, there are a few things to keep in mind. The closest circulator and metro stop is almost a mile away, uphill. We spent more time getting there than actually there. Also, the habitat is the most amazing we’ve seen and we’ve been to some incredible zoos. However, we were not impressed with the animal selection. Our favorite zoo animals are the arctic animals and they do not have any. For us, the zoo was a letdown. We would have rather had that afternoon for either the Pentagon or the National Museum of African American History and the Bureau of Engraving. We had planned to walk Embassy Row and metro to Georgetown after the Zoo but we were too exhausted from the heat and all the walking so we ended up going back to see a few more monuments then heading to Alexandria for supper.
2. Study the circulator maps better! We figured out the circulator the hard way, unfortunately. The map can be a little tricky to read, so make sure you get on when it’s headed the direction you’re wanting to go. For example, on the Red Route around the Mall, make sure it’s coming not going or you will end up at Union Station rather than the monuments. There are numbers at the stops, so what we figured out very quickly is to pay attention to where on the route the bus is stopping next!
Along with this, I wish we would have rode the circulator around the entire Mall first, before beginning our sight-seeing of the monuments. We had varying advice on the circulator, some saying it was too crowded to use and others saying it’s wonderful. We actually only had one ride where it was crowded, so we wished we had utilized it more on our monument day.
TIP: Once you swipe your card, you can get on and off the circulator for the next two hours for free. Also, the circulator route around the Mall is the exact same route as the bus tours you would pay for. $1 a swipe per person is much cheaper than the $40+ for a tour unless you are just wanting the narrating!
3. Possibly doing our first day a little differently. I did not want to have to figure out the Metro upon arriving Monday, so I planned that day based on not going into the city. Which is why Mt. Vernon and Arlington were our day 1. Now that we know the Metro is so simple, we could have gone into the city on the first day and done the night tour to get our barrings with the city. Many people we met did the night tour on their first night which is a good idea! I don’t know that I would necessarily change the day, but that could be another option in your plan. A good full day would be to do Arlington, Pentagon and Mt. Vernon. Their Metro stops are all right together, Crystal City is in between and has lots of food options and all are around Alexandria.
FAVORITES AND MUSTS
1. Arlington National Cemetery & the Changing of the Guards
The changing of the guards and the Kennedy tomb are absolute musts. Arlington was a very touching patriotic experience.
2. Night Bus Tour
The night tours on on open air buses and the narration is exceptional! Seeing the city lit up at night is beautiful!
3. Monuments: Washington, Lincoln, Vietnam, WWII, Korean, Jefferson, FDR, MLK
It was incredible seeing all of the monuments. We will go to all of them again when we return!
4. Capitol Tour with Congressman’s Office
We went through French Hill’s office and they gave us an incredible tour. We learned so many interesting things about the Capitol, this is a must!
5. Library of Congress
The most beautiful architecture you will find. This is an overlooked stop but an absolute must. We were blown away by this beautiful building. (It’s actually 3 buildings but we only went to the main one. Which you can walk to by tunnel from the Capitol so plan those two stops on the same day!)
6. National Archives
Seeing our Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights on our nation’s birthday was such an incredible experience.
7. Holocaust Museum
I almost couldn’t take in the Holocaust. There is so much information and it is hard to take it in, deeply emotional. If you have younger kids, prepare them.
8. Museum of the Bible
Such a well designed, first class museum. We could have spent an entire day here, but we only had two hours.
9. Mount Vernon
You really have to go if at all possible! This is the estate of George Washington and it has been impressively maintained.
10. Air & Space Smithsonian
We actually wish we had given ourselves more time here and skipped Natural History.
11. American History Smithsonian
There are some parts that we skipped, but just seeing the actual Star Spangled Banner is worth the visit to this museum.
12. Supper on The Wharf
This was our favorite meal! So much fun and such a great way to end our week in DC!
If we had done Pentagon, that would most likely been on our favorites list, as well! We are still bummed about not seeing the Pentagon. The architecture of the city is incredible, enjoy taking it all in!
Ok, so basically we LOVED everything we did, except the zoo! Here’s what will want to do when we go again:
1. Pentagon Tour
2. Bike Embassy Row
3. Museum of African American History
4. Ford’s Theater
*it is actually only a block from Spy Museum so do Ford’s the day you do Spy Museum; we planned on seeing Ford’s, but stayed in Spy too long. Ford’s closes at 4 so we missed it!
5. National Cathedral
6. Bureau of Engraving
If you do plan to visit on July 4, here are a few suggestions!
1. Don’t get to the parade early! We took a chance and didn’t arrive until 11am, the parade starts at 11:45. We found a great spot under the shade! People say to get there at 7am but we opted for some sleep!
2. The parade is almost two hours. Don’t watch the whole thing and use some of that time to get into the Smithsonian’s. The security lines can be a long wait. We picked our parade spot right by the American History Museum, so we only watched an hour of the parade then went to the American History Museum. There was no line wait and we ate lunch in the cafeteria. I will say, yes it is overpriced cafeteria food, however the convenience with Constitution Avenue being closed off for the parade until 2pm was worth it. We ate then toured the Museum and also made a quick stop in the Natural History Museum before the parade was out.
3. Everyone wants to see the National Archives on July 4th, but what we didn’t know is that you can reserve a time rather than stand in line out in the heat for an hour! You will still have to wait once you get in, but it at least saves you some waiting time. But I highly recommend
4. We did not want to fight the insane July 4 fireworks crowd and many of the metro stops are shut down on July 4. I researched other viewing locations prior to arriving, then talked to locals when we arrived in DC. Since we stayed across the river, we opted to ride back across to Crystal City where we ate supper and watched from a neighborhood park, based on local recommendations. I think we could have figured out getting a little closer but we had great views and tons of fun. And it was only two more metro stops to our hotel.
If you would like more details about any part of our trip, please feel free to email me your questions!