Getaway! Wonders of Washington

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A visit to our nation's capital should be on every family's bucket list — it's American ingenuity on display.

Washington, D.C., is one of the “big three” as far as family trips go (the other two of course include Disney World and the very distant Grand Canyon), but what makes it such a smart choice for a family trip is that it’s a virtual walk into American history.  Perhaps best of all, most of the city’s 70 major sites and attractions are free.

I first went with my family when I was 12 — and I remember that visit still — but I also chaperoned my 12-year-old’s sixth grade class trip.  Our entourage included students and a collection of parents and teachers all gung-ho for the five-night foray.  Our school booked a guided tour through the 4-H International Center (where we also stayed), and our itinerary kept us busy morning through evening.  It was terrific and memorable.

If you plan on doing D.C. with your family, learn everything you need to know at the official tourism website,  Getting around doesn’t have to be difficult: the subway system is ultra-clean, affordable and convenient to attractions.  Security is very tight in the city, and you’ll go through many check-points, so travel lightly during the day and most importantly, wear great walking shoes.

It’s impossible to do everything, so pick and choose your destinations carefully — you’ll want to linger longer at certain places, so decide together your priorities in the city.

Here are some great spots we recommend that will engage you and keep you enthusiastic for more:

1) Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

The girls among us wanted to see the Hope Diamond and the exquisite collection of sapphires, rubies, emeralds, pearls and more while the boys gravitated toward the big mammals, snakes and other natural world interests.

2) Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool

Kids must see this true giant, one-of-a-kind 19-foot-high sculpture of the great man himself. You can also head to the Washington Monument for one of the best views in the city, but no, there’s no gigantic sculpture of Washington there!

3) Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

See the original Wright Brothers’ 1903 airplane and the “How Things Fly” gallery with more than 50 hands-on exhibits. There’s also an IMAX theater and the Einstein Planetarium.

4) Tour the Capitol Building

Take a guided tour (reserve up to a month in advance) to see where Congress does its business. The rotunda is gorgeous with richly tiled floors, painted ceilings and historical statues in bronze and marble.  The building, with its many halls and studies, is steeped in history.

5) The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

While adults may wish to experience the whole of this moving museum, when traveling with young children, Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story, is for them. The exhibit presents the Holocaust in ways that children can understand.

6) The White House

White House tours must be submitted through your member of Congress and you need to set it up at least a month in advance of your visit. (Contact Marsha Blackburn — or Lamar Alexander — offices to set the wheels in motion). Tours are scheduled on a first-come-first-served basis and must be submitted up to six months in advance and no less than 21 days in advance. All tours are free.

7) The International Spy Museum

This stop will delight older kids and teens as it allows visitors to go undercover, learning tricks of the spy trade like breaking codes, bugging, disguises and more. It’s the place for learning about the history of spies with all of the artifacts to boot.

8) Mount Vernon

The estate of George and Martha Washington includes gracious grounds and gardens, an orchard and, of course, the house. We all wanted to see George Washington’s tomb, and the kids enjoyed the farmyard with sheep.  Some visitors I encountered had come to Mount Vernon via a day cruise on the Potomac River.

9) The National Zoo

The zoo has more than 400 animals including elephants and pandas plus extras for the kids like animal tracks leading to exhibits. Large and built on a hill, go early because it will get very crowded.

10) Arlington National Cemetery

From the American Revolution to the present day, America’s war heroes are remembered here as well as astronauts, explorers, writers and more.  The best bet for seeing the cemetery is with ANC Tours; that way, you’ll be able to view the graves of John F. Kennedy, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Robert E. Lee Memorial.

In my mind, Washington, D.C., is a required family trip — and there’s so much to see and do that you really must plan carefully. Once there, you’ll be amazed by the sheer scope of American history and ingenuity on display.

Susan Swindell Day is the editor in chief of Nashville Parent and the mom of four amazing kids.

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