"Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm," John F. Kennedy famously said, an opinion that will ring true to anyone caught in a mob of cherry-blossom admirers or in line outside the Air & Space Museum. The crush is intense, yet the pace is languorous. But JFK's judgment is still too harsh for the city that anticipated the modern theme park. D.C. is a theme city. Like Disney World, Washington did not evolve; it was created for a specific purpose. If, in the course of being the seat of our government, the capital has drawn to it an extraordinary array of cultural institutions, monuments, parks, shops, historic places, and delightful things to do within its relatively small confines, it is not to be denigrated for its compact, bustling glory. It is to be visited, soon and often and with the kids, because Washington really does offer something for all ages.
Washington's compactness is deceptive, and nowhere more so than the National Mall, ground zero of Washington tourism. This is the real Mall of America, never mind that retail bazaar in Minnesota, and it's long, two miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol. All too often, visitors try to walk the whole thing, taking in every significant sight along the way. Mistake.
This hubris will wear out your shoes, your patience, and your children's good will, especially since not all the institutions on the Mall are kid-friendly, touchy-feely wonderlands of fun. They are traditional, hands-off museums with wonderful things to look at, but not much in the interactive department. Taken all together, there's just more on the Mall than normal people can pleasurably absorb in a normal vacation-length stretch of time. So-o-o... the monuments laid out along the Reflecting Pool, west of the towering obelisk, are worth a separate trip. Focus on the east side, pick your shots, but make sure you don't omit these:
The Smithsonian Institution Building 1000 Jefferson Dr. SW; 202/357-1729. The Smithsonian Institution comprises 14 museums in D.C. (plus two in New York City) and the National Zoological Park (which is also not to be missed), but the bit to visit first is its original home, the castle, a wonderful, turrety old pile with an excellent visitors' center. While you're there, pay your respects to James Smithson, the English inventor who bequeathed the money to establish the Smithsonian. His remains are in a crypt in the front left lobby.
National Air & Space Museum 4th Sixth St. and Independence Ave. SW; 202/633-1000 Here's a deeply partial list of reasons why this immense place is the most-visited museum of any kind in the world: the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer, a space capsule you can climb into, an IMAX theater with a screen five stories tall, a moon rock they let you touch, a Cessna whose controls you can work, the Spirit of St. Louis, and freeze-dried astronaut ice cream in the gift shop.
National Museum of Natural History 10th St. and Constitution Ave. NW; 202/633-1000. If the topiary dinosaur and the huge stuffed elephant don't charm your kids right off the bat, try grossing them out at the O. Orkin Insect Zoo. They'll get up close and personal with cockroaches, tarantulas, ants, and bees, guaranteeing delighted cries of "Eeeeewww!" Exhibits in the Hall of Geology, Gems, & Minerals usually don't do much for the younger set, but this one includes the Hope Diamond, a 451/2-carat rock that comes complete with a curse. Even the postman who merely delivered it to the museum is said to have lost his leg, his wife, and his dog; then his house burned down.
National Museum of American History 14th St. and Constitution Ave. NW; 202/633-1000. The big winners here are the hands-on science and history centers. Learn about dry ice and DNA in the first; gin raw cotton and mount a high-wheel bicycle in the second. In an exhibit called "A Material World," the kids can find out what's so special about Electrolux vacuum cleaners and other emblematic objects of our culture. Young fashionistas won't want to miss the first ladies' inaugural gowns.
National Archives Seventh St. and Constitution Ave. NW; 866-325-7208. Famous papers usually aren't much to look at, but anyone old enough to know about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Magna Carta will be thrilled and astounded to see them under one roof.
National Gallery of Art Between Third and Seventh Sts. at Constitution Ave. NW; 202/737-4215. The only Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere is in the imposing West Building, along with works by Giotto, El Greco, Renoir—in short, heavyweights. A little of that goes a long way with youngsters, so make time for Miró, Calder, and especially Roy Lichtenstein's Look Mickey in the I.M. Pei—designed East Building. Outside it, there's a garden with lots of angles and rushing water—good for hide and seek.
Washington Monument Between Independence Ave. SW and Constitution Ave. NW; 202/426-6841. When it re-opens to the public this summer, you'll no longer be able to take the escalator up and walk down. In the new elevators, stand next to a window; as you descend, keep an eye on the monument walls. If you're lucky, you'll spot the stone inscribed with the name of your home state.
Lincoln Memorial 23rd St. NW between Independence and Constitution Aves.; 202/426-6841. There's nothing quite like this imposing shrine to give the family patriotic goose bumps. The view from the steps across the Mall to the Washington Monument is superb.
Jefferson Memorial East Basin Dr. SW, between Maine Ave. and Ohio Dr.; 202/426-6841. An idyllic temple sitting along the Tidal Basin, this is the loveliest of all the monuments. For maximum effect, visit at night and during the Cherry Blossom Festival (this year, March 26-April 9), when the trees are blooming.
Embassy Row Massachusetts Ave. northwest of Dupont Circle. Mansion after mansion, dozens of flags flying in the breeze—looks the way an international city should.
White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (between 14th and 15 Sts.); 202/456-7041.The Visitor's Center is the perfect place to congratulate yourself on having written your senator or representative well before your trip. Clever you, your advance VIP tickets entitle you to a specially guided morning tour of the 200-year-old, 132-room manse. What you see are a succession of grand public rooms: Green, Blue, Red, North, East (where presidential press conferences often take place), and so on, displaying many portraits of presidents and first ladies, and historic tchotchkes in profusion: sets of presidential china, seals of the Colonies, antique furniture.
The Capitol Capitol Plaza; 202/225-6827. Our bet is the kids will last 10 minutes max in either house's visitors' gallery. So, go see the building's other splendors: the little train that takes the senators and representatives on their appointed rounds; the giant statue of King Kamehameha, last king of Hawaii. When the gilded statue first arrived it wasn't wearing any underpants. A pair was added later in deference to the sensibilities of Capitol ladies.
Supreme Court First and E. Capitol Sts. NW; 202/479-3211. There's a gallery for about 250 spectators when the court is in session, but disruptions—squirming children—are not appreciated. If you're lucky you'll be here when a new decision is announced, amid the kind of pomp you thought existed only in costume dramas: black robes, quill pens, functionaries calling out, "Oyez! Oyez!"The spiral staircase in the main hall is sure to provoke interest, if not actual attempts to slide down the thing.
Bureau of Engraving & Printing 14th and C Sts. SW; 202/874-3019. The stacks and stacks of greenbacks will set even young hearts singing. Most excellent souvenir: shredded cash.
J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building 935 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/324-3447. Fingerprinting, handwriting analysis, tales of Capone and Dillinger, spy gear, and of course, pictures of America's Ten Most Wanted. This tour is irresistible.
Library of Congress 10 First St. SE, between Independence Ave. and E. Capitol St.; 202/707-5000. One step into the vast, vaulted Great Hall and any doubts that this is the world's largest library will vanish. There's probably even a section of Pokémon guides.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Between Lincoln Memorial and Constitution Ave.; 202/426-6841. This stark granite wedge will mean more to your kids if you look for a specific name on it .
Korean War Veterans Memorial Between the Reflecting Pool and Independence Avenue; 202/426-6841. A group of 19 poncho-clad infantrymen on the move in front of a polished granite panel etched with soldiers' faces.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW; 202/488-0400. The interactive, personalized approach works best for kids 10 and older (each receives an identification card with the name of a real individual, then follows that person's history through the museum). The danger with younger kids is not that they'll be terrified, but simply uncomprehending. Don't miss the exhibition "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story," designed for families.
Iwo Jima Memorial Junction of Arlington Blvd. and Ridge Rd. The size and grandeur produce awed silences even among the tiny. A long-standing, though false, legend holds that there are more hands on the flagpole than can be accounted for by the six Marines grasping it—better count just to make sure.
Tomb of the Unknowns Arlington National Cemetery; 703/607-8052. The stark marble edifice, containing the bodies of unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War is a sobering sight. The changing of the guard, hourly or half-hourly depending on the time of year, provides a sense of ceremony and tribute. Nearby, pause for a moment by the eternal flame at the grave of John F. Kennedy.
The Awakening Haines Point, E. Potomac Park. A curious group of sculptures depicting an enormous man rising out of the earth, an arm here, a big knee there. Children can climb all over it, and they do.
Society of the Cincinnati/Anderson House 2118 Massachusetts Ave. NW; 202/785-2040. A lovely, big, old Beaux Arts mansion, now home to the Society of the Cincinnati, an elite group formed in 1783 by officers who served in the Revolutionary War. But that's not why you want to go there—the huge collection of toy soldiers is.
Newseum 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 888/639-7386. The mission of this spiffy new museum (opened in 1997) is nothing less than to show the world "how the press works, warts and all." Your kids can pretend to anchor a news broadcast or guest on a talk show (no chair throwing allowed). There's a film called What's News?,Internet connections in the cafeteria, and, outside, a memorial to journalists killed in the line of duty. Spring for the audio guide; it pulls the material together in a way that just zipping through won't.
Washington Dolls' House & Toy Museum 5236 44th St. NW; 202/244-0024. Flora Gill Jacobs opened the museum in 1975 to display part of her extensive toy collection. There's a world of musty games and playthings here, but don't miss the incredibly detailed dollhouses, which are worlds unto themselves. Favorites include a Victorian house with tiny pets and a phone that cranks, a 1904 seaside hotel, and a Mexican mansion with a working elevator.
Titanic Memorial Fourth and P Sts. SW. James Cameron must have seen the imposing statue in southwest Washington, sculpted by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in the 1930's, because the famous scene in his movie Titanic that shows Kate Winslet standing up straight, arms outstretched, copies the pose here.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site 1411 W St. SE; 202/426-5961. Cedar Hill, Douglass's former home, is a beautiful and serene spot with a panoramic view of Washington. The great orator's personal effects—barbells, the desk where he wrote, an early typewriter—illustrate the story of the escaped slave who rose to national prominence.
Four Seasons Hotel Washington, D.C. 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 800/332-3442 or 202/342-0444; doubles from $370.
Latham Hotel 3000 M St. NW; 800/528-4261 or 202/726-5000; doubles from $215.
L'Enfant Plaza Hotel [This property is no longer a Loews hotel] 480 L'Enfant Plaza SW; 202/484-1000; doubles from $149.
Omni Shoreham Hotel 2500 Calvert St. NW; 800/843-6664 or 202/234-0700;doubles from $179.
Fairmont Washington D.C. [This property is no longer known as Washington Monarch Hotel] 2401 M St. NW; 877/222-2266 or 202/429-2400; doubles from $269.
Washington Plaza Hotel 10 Thomas Circle NW; 800/424-1140 or 202/842-1300; doubles from $109.
Firehook Bakery & Coffeehouse 1909 Q St. NW; 202/588-9296; breakfast for four $20. Start your day with a light bite.
Lunch and Snacks
Bread Line 1751 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/822-8900; lunch for four $20. Great for sandwiches.
Pizzeria Paradiso 2029 P St. NW; 202/ 223-1245; lunch for four $30.The best pizza in town.
Xando 1350 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/296-9341; snacks for four $16. A coffee shop for snacks, including s'mores.
Senses [This property has closed]
Jaleo 480 Seventh St. NW; 202/628-7949; dinner for four $60. Tapas—little plates for little people.
Meskerem 2434 18th St. NW; 202/462-4100; dinner for four $55. Ethiopian. Kids will love eating with their hands.
Marrakesh 617 New York Ave. NW; 202/393-9393; dinner for four $100. Dazzling Moroccan food with a show—belly dancers!
Old Ebbitt Grill 675 15th St. NW; 202/ 347-4800; dinner for four $75. Guinness on tap and fresh oysters for you, serious burgers for the small fry.
Asia Nora 2213 M St. NW 202/797-4860; dinner for four $150. Organic Asian fusion—for little vegetarians.
Washington has more than you and yours will be able to see and do in one trip. Planning is essential. Here are some general principles:
1. Leave the car, bring a map. The Metro is one of the great subway systems, clean, safe, even cool-looking; as your train approaches, light panels in the platform floor flash. (When you're around Dupont Circle, stop at the Metro station, take the escalator to the bottom, and then ride back up. It's very steep and 482 feet long—either scary or thrilling, you decide.)
2. Timing is everything. There is no off-season in Washington, but some times are busier than others. In summer, things slack off, but there is a price to be paid. Many government offices aren't in session (which probably won't throw the kids into despair) but, more to the point, the weather in July and August is just disgusting; these months are the annual reminder that the place was originally a swamp. You can still have a fine time, but your hotel must, repeat must, have a pool.
3. Land of the free (admission, that is). Food and hotels are pricey here, but not the sights. The national monuments, zoo (excuse us, that's National Zoological Park), Smithsonian Institution museums, government offices, and Library of Congress are free.
4. The dark side. All the great monuments are both more impressive and less crowded at night.
5. You the people. Write your representative or senator well in advance of your visit. They're eager for you to like them and will ply you with VIP treatment at the White House, the Capitol, the FBI Building, the Bureau of Engraving, the Library of Congress, and Mount Vernon (which, by the way, is full of hands-on stuff for the kids to do while you enjoy the serene, rural beauty and thick aura of history—definitely worth the 16-mile drive out of town). VIP treatment means guaranteed tickets to these attractions without waiting in endless, soul-destroying lines.