Thinking about visiting Washington, DC? You can go whenever you want, but there are certain times that are better to go than others. These tips from an insider will help you know when is the best time to visit Washington DC and the best things to do in DC.
Best Time to Visit Washington DC
Living in the DC area for more than 13 years has given me some insider tips that I like to share. Whether you’re coming over the bridge from the burbs for a visit or a longer trek from out-of-town, the biggest tip is that it’s all about timing. Whether it’s the time of year that you visit or the time of day can mean the difference between a good vs. great trip.
Beating the Crowds
There are lots of interesting things to do in DC and the majority of them are free. That’s great, but it also means the school groups and tourists flock to those attractions. How can you beat the crowds? Most schools in the DC Metro Area end by the third week of June and start again the last two weeks of August. Field trips don’t usually start until school has been in session for a month. That means the weeks before and after Labor Day are a good time to plan a trip.
If you have to travel during prime field trip season, go to the museums later in the afternoon. School trips typically arrive around opening time and have to wrap up by 2pm. That leaves about three hours for roaming the museums without large groups of kids. If your child no longer naps, then you’re in luck since places like the National Building Museum have a room designed for 2-6 year olds. It tends to be less crowded from lunchtime until 2pm. It has some cool installations in the summer.
When to Find Deals
Did you know that the live Butterfly Pavilion at the Museum of Natural History is free on Tuesdays? Tickets start at $5 per person on other days. The paid museums in the area run deals at different times of the year. I recommend checking the individual websites prior to visiting. Certifikid.com, a Bethesda, MD based firm, typically has lots of good deals going on for kid-friendly area activities.
Best Times of the Year to Visit Washington DC
The best time to visit Washington DC if you want great deals on lodging, then visit in August. DC is typically a ghost town in August and not because it’s hot. It’s because Congress is not in session and many locals take their vacations then. Traffic is lighter, crowds are thinner and hotels often have some great deals.
There are several family friendly hotels including Hyatt Place, Residence Inn, Embassy Suites, AKA White House Hotel and Hotel Rogue. Hotel Rogue has a bunk bed room, free evening wine and free wifi for hotel reward members.
Holiday Deals in DC
Looking to change up your holiday location? Thanksgiving is a great time to visit and hotel deals are a plenty. For example, a stay at the Hotel Rouge on October 12-14th has rates starting at $239/night excluding taxes & fees vs. November 23rd-25th with rates starting at $99/night excluding taxes & fees.
Airbnb is an option. Just make sure you book a place within walking distance of the attractions or the nearest metro station. For example, the blue oval on the map is where most of the museums and monuments are located. The prices on the map represent “super host” Airbnb options that are $200 or less per night. As you can see, the closer you are to the oval, the easier it is to walk to those sights.
The other thing to consider if you drive is parking. Most Airbnbs are in residential zones and require a permit for longer than 2 hours. If your rental doesn’t come with parking, I suggest asking the host to see if they can help secure a temporary parking pass for you.
Parking in DC
The downtown area, specifically near The White House, tends to quiet down in the evening so you’ll need to travel to other sections for nightlife and a variety of places to eat. Definite times to avoid visiting DC, due to rates and crowds, include the Cherry Blossom Festival (unless you really want to see them) and a Presidential Inauguration.
Parking at hotels in DC is an average of $40/day plus taxes. There are typically garages nearby hotels that offer overnight parking and sometimes in/out options at a cheaper rate. You can easily find them by using Parking Panda or Spot Hero. If you do want to drive around the city, instead of walking or using public transportation, build in extra time. Street parking is hard to find during the weekdays. Make sure you read the signs. They can be confusing and if you park on a street that has rush hour restrictions (7-9am and 4-630pm) they’ll tow you to a nearby street and give you a $100 ticket.
Things to do in DC
The Capitol Building and The White House are typically on the “to-do” list for most visitors, but you need to put in requests in advance with your Congressional member to see them. The Bureau of Engraving is a great place to learn all about U.S. paper currency. You can see millions of dollars being printed as you walk along the gallery overlooking the production floor!
Most of the museums are part of the Smithsonian collection. They’re free and are open every day (except December 25th) typically from 10am-5:30pm. The African American Museum opened at the end of September 2016. It’s free, but has a timed pass for admission. It books up in advance, so plan accordingly if you want to see it.
Museums outside of the collection include the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Newseum and the International Spy Museum. In my opinion, these museums are better suited for kids over 6.
The National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian collection, is one of my favorite places to visit. It’s open daily from 11:30am-7pm except for December 25th. It’s a great place for kids. There are sections that can usually tie in to something they’re learning about in school, such as Presidents and Martin Luther King Jr. The Gallery has an amazing courtyard for eating lunch.
The Monuments/Memorials are typically open 24-hours a day, 365-days-a-year and are free to see. The Washington Monument does require a ticket to go to the top of it. You can request tickets in advance.
My favorite memorial is the FDR Memorial. It’s located along the side of the tidal basin, has several water features, great quotes along the walls, statues and places to sit. There are fields next to it for the kids to run around and it’s walking distance from both the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
Where to EAt in DC
DC has become quite a foodie town, but not all locations are great for kids. Matchbox, Ted’s Bulletin, Clyde’s and The Hamilton are all places where kids can be themselves and talk at their usual loud level without getting stares from other patrons.
Most of the museums have a food option (I think the American Indian Museum has the best). Outside the museums, I recommend grabbing a meal from a food truck. There are so many different options. You can usually find several parked near the National Air and Space Museum in the L’Enfant Plaza area (D and 7th St SW). You can locate the food trucks through FoodTruckFiesta.com.
About the Author
Jen Spatz-Martin, Founder of Kid Up and Go, hails originally from PA. After living in various parts of the US she decided to plant roots in Washington, DC in 2003. She’s lived in three out of the four DC quadrants and now calls Alexandria, VA home. She is mom to three active kids, including twins, and loves planning new adventures with them whether it’s near or far. When she’s not balancing all that life has to offer, she attempts to figure out how to make life easier for parents both through her site and by sharing travel tips!