"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.