Best time to visit:
September-November-you don't get to see the cherry blossoms but you won't have to fight the crowds and the weather is fairly mild. The earlier in the school year, the better, since most schools take trips in the spring.
Worst time to visit:
March-September is super busy even during the week.
-The Metro( http://www.wmata.com/) is great for getting into the District and is surprisingly clean compared to other cities' subway systems. Parking is expensive and traffic is crazy so we'd always park and ride the Metro-plus it's fun. If you're flying into Reagan, there's even a metro stop right outside the terminal, so you could be on the Mall in a matter of minutes.
-For the most part, be prepared to do a lot of walking. The mall is about 2 miles end to end.
-There is plenty of handicapped parking. (My SIL had a handicap placard when she came to visit and it was awesome).
Here's our family favorites:
1. Washington Monument: You can reserve tickets for $1.50 online (http://www.nps.gov/wamo/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm) and I suggest doing it as far in advance as possible.
2. Smithsonians: There's so much to see, but if you have limited time many of them have brochures of the "highlights"
Natural History-the best stuff is on the ground floor
Air and Space-You can do quick walk through in about 2 hours
American History-I suggest seeing the Star Spangled Banner and the pop culture room and skipping the rest. (There is a room in the basement about inventions and a hand's on lab that's fun the the kids if you have the time).
American Indian-The funnest food court featuring cuisine from the original "Americans". There's a kid's hands-on room and the movie is pretty cool, but overall I'd skip it
The Castle-Skip most of it, but there is one room with an exhibit from each of the different museums
3. Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/visit/tours/ The prettiest building on the mall. If you have time-take the tour, but at least take a peak
4. The Zoo-Our favorites are the pandas and the Orangutan who climb high above you as the travel between 2 of their homes on the "O" line. Warning: The zoo is on a huge hill. I would start at the top and work my way down. You can actually park at the zoo and since it's an uphill climb from the nearest Metro stop, driving is much easier.
5. Flying a kite on the mall-simple pleasure
6. The Capitol: Plan ahead to reserve a free tour. (http://www.visitthecapitol.gov/)
7. Arlington Cemetery-can't miss. There is plenty of parking. However, they no longer let you drive your car into the cemetary, but you can take a bus tour for $6-7. If the weather's good and your legs are ok, it's not to bad to walk the loop either. If you decide to drive, stop by the Iwo Jima monument.
8. Mt. Vernon: George Washington was the man! We all love this place. You can tour the home, visit the working gardens, and a top notch museum. There's lots of interactive stuff for the kiddos. There's also some great movies, including a 4-D one (it may be a little scary for younger ones, but my kid's loved it). You do have to pay to get in, but I thought it was worth it. They have a food court, but we like to eat at the restaurant that serves up colonial period food like peanut soup.
9. The National Archives: My friend worked on the exhibits-go Stephanie! Kids might be unimpressed, but drag them to it anyway. It's pretty incredible to see those documents that made America great! Go early in the day-it gets crowded and you may have to wait in a long line. There's also some other great hands-on exhibits that were really fun if you have the time. I enjoyed reading the letters that kids have written to presidents.
10. The monuments. Put on your walking shoes and make the loop (don't forget the one's along the tidal basin-FDR's is one of my favorites)
If you still have time:
-Fort Mc Henry-it's actually in Baltimore, but if you're flying into BWI, stop and see where the Star Spangled Banner was born. My favorite military site ever.
-Art museums-we love art, but if you don't have time, just take the "highlights" tour
-Postal Museum-lots of hands on stuff for the kiddos
-The Whitehouse-you need to arrange a visit through your congressman, so plan way ahead. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/tours-and-events)
-The Supreme Court-when court's in session, you can actually go in and observe history in the making (http://www.supremecourt.gov/visiting/visitorservices.aspx). You can get in for an entire session or just 10-15 minutes.
-The Holocaust Museum-There's a children's exhibit on the ground floor, but we never took our kids here. For adults, it is a moving experience and the quietest place in the District. They give timed tickets to see the upstairs exhibits, so go early during busy times to make sure you can get in
-The Botanical Gardens-gorgeous, but probably no better than the one in your hometown
-The National Arboretum-bring change to buy food for the fishes. We love the bonsai trees that are hundreds of years old and seeing the original columns of the white house
The National Cathederal-it doesn't have the history of European cathededrals, but it does have Darth Vadar (http://www.nationalcathedral.org/about/darthVader.shtml)
-The National Harbor-mostly shopping and restaurants (avoid Ketchup-it wasn't good), but my kids love climbing on "Awakening"
-The Bureau of Printing and Engraving-The money factory. The kids thought this was great. It's free, but they give out timed tickets each morning on a first come, first serve basis.
-The Newseum-Basically a museum of all newsworthy events over the past 100 years. They have large chunks of the Berlin Wall, The Unobomber's cabin, and even the DC sniper's car. I enjoyed it much more than the kids. Admission
-Crime and Punishment-I never went but my Hubby and Dad, spent a day there and loved it Admission
-Air and Space Annex-It's out by Dulles and is basically a HUGE building filled with lots of full-sized air planes, helicopters, and even space ships.
-Spy Museum-Our family enjoyed it, but with so much else to see and do for free, I would skip it. Admission
-The Pentagon-If you plan ahead, you can take a tour http://pentagon.afis.osd.mil/tour-selection.html
-Wax Musuem-http://www.madametussauds.com/washington/ Great place to get some pics to try and fool your friends, but I'd place it fairly low on my priority list.Admission
Warning: In our great nation we have the right to gather and protest. Check out the local news to see what protests and rallies are going on, as some might be a great experience while others might be disturbing to your children. Sometimes, if there's an event that's expected to bring hundreds of thousands of people, you may want to change your plans just to avoid the crowds.
Eating: The policy on bringing food and drink inside federal buildings and the museums changes on a regular basis, so I wouldn't plan on bringing a picnic lunch on those days. Most of the museums have cafes serving overpriced, not very good food. Think of it as buying a lunch and getting a museum visit for free. Air and Space has a food court with pizza, sandwiches and McDonald's. There are also snack bars along the mall. If you head up to China Town, the food choices are much better and there is a huge food court in the basement of Union Station.
Security: You will go through security every time you enter a building so pack light.
My favorite event: National Book Festival http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/
Every book lover's dream-you get to spend all day listening to and meeting your favorite authors.
Best place to picnic: Fort Washington. This a a great stone fort that overlooks Mt Vernon from the Maryland side. Since it is not the site of any great battles and 20 miles south of the District, tourist leave it alone and it's fairly deserted most of the time and it is so cool to have an entire fort to ourselves.
Wow! I think that was one of my longest posts ever. I amazed if you made it all the way to the end.
Linking up here.