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A Vacation to the Capital

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.

rocks of ages

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.

government 101

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.


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