5 Tips for Your Next Family Trip to Washington, D.C.

It’s almost impossible to run out of things to do and places to explore in our nation’s capital.

Giant panda Bei Bei at the National Zoo

Photo: Skip Brown, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

The Washington Monument may be closed till spring 2019 while its elevator system is updated, but new attractions and special events add to the perennial appeal of the nation’s capital and make for a fun family trip to Washington, D.C.

1. Experience Panda Mania and More at the National Zoo

Chinese giant panda Bei Bei (whose name means “precious treasure” in Mandarin) turned 2 in August, and his antics are sure to amuse animal lovers. Meanwhile, Sumatran tigers Sparky and Damai were introduced last fall and their courtship blossomed over the winter. Another must-see: Nutmeg, a 4-year-old mother red panda and her cub, 6-month-old Jackie.

Helpful Tip! Arrive near the 9 a.m. opening time to beat crowds. The zoo and the other D.C.-area Smithsonian Institution museums offer free admission, a boon for family budgets.

2. Plan Ahead to See D.C.’s Tourist Magnets

To tour the U.S. Capitol (it’s free), reserve through your senators’ or representatives’ offices, or online at visitthecapitol.gov. And The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September 2016, is so popular it requires free timed entry tickets, available at nmaahc.si.edu. Artifacts range from slave shackles, to a silk shawl given Underground Railroad icon Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, to one of Michael Jackson’s fedora hats.

Helpful Tip! Advance timed entry passes for individuals are released on the first Wednesday of each month, but limited same-day timed passes are available online starting at 6:30 a.m. Walk-up passes might be available weekdays, starting at 1 p.m.

Rock and roll exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Photo: Alamy

3. See What’s New at the Newseum

Considered one of the most interactive museums in the world, the Newseum has seven levels with 15 galleries and 15 theaters to help visitors experience the story of news. Exhibits include a 9/11 Gallery, a Berlin Wall Gallery with eight concrete sections of the original wall and a Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery with photographs dating back to 1942. The newest exhibit—”1968: Civil Rights at 50″—explores the tumultuous events that shaped the civil rights movement in 1968.

Helpful Tip! Plan your family trip to Washington, D.C., to coincide with the free July 4 fireworks display and concert on the Mall.

4. Hit the Mall

Cruise through the National Mall on a bicycle rented from Bike and Roll. Breeze past the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and other awe-inspiring landmarks. Back at the Mall, make a beeline for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to gaze at the Wright Brothers’ 1903 plane and touch a moon rock.

Helpful Tip! If the space shuttle Discovery is on your must-see list, check out the museum’s second location near Dulles International Airport.

5. Have a Family Play Day by the Potomac

National Harbor, just outside Washington, is becoming a destination for families. Ride the 180-foot-high Capital Wheel or take a spin on a merry-go-round. Kids enjoy an “Urban Pirates” cruise, dressing in buccaneer gear and waging squirt gun battles with marauding “pirates.” Check out the Vegas-style MGM National Harbor resort containing millions of dollars’ worth of stunning contemporary artwork and take selfies in the Conservatory, decked with seasonal displays that might involve 200,000 flowers.

Helpful Tip! The Metro doesn’t go to National Harbor, so take a cab, Uber or Lyft, or use Potomac Riverboat Company ferries running from Alexandria, Va., and D.C.’s National Mall area.

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Heidi Kazemi, AAA Travel Counselor, Roseville, Calif.

Customization is always my top priority when planning a client's vacation. I ask about their family and where they've been before. Their preferences guide our planning so the vacation is perfectly tailored for them.

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