Our history with DC
Before I jump in, I should preface this by stating that Rich and I are fairly familiar with DC and the surrounding area. Because my father was in the reserves, my family spent many weekends and school vacations in DC. I've also visited as an adult, with and without Rich. Rich has family in the area. His brother lives in Arlington, mere miles from the White House, and I have a good friend from high school who also lives nearby.
How long did we stay?
Unfortunately, we were only able to visit for three full days. Rich had work meetings Tuesday evening that he could not miss so we left Wednesday morning and headed back home Sunday morning as school started back up again on Monday. We were able to see and do quite a bit, but three days isn't enough time to see everything.
How did we get there?
We drove! We live 425 miles from DC which really isn't too far of a drive. The fact that we have to pass through some very busy areas (hello, NYC) can make or break that drive though. We used the Waze app, which really did help us out, especially on the drive back home. Lots of folks were heading home on Sunday.
Where did we stay?
We spent our first two nights with my BIL and SIL. They have a beautiful house in Arlington and were gracious enough to host us (and help out with some planning.) This was perfect as it gave the girls time to spend with three of their cousins.
We then moved to a hotel in DC. When you have more than two kids, staying in a hotel becomes tricky. We really like staying at a Hyatt Place when we can find one. (This is not sponsored.) Their hotel rooms are spacious and provide enough sleep space for all of us. We had two beds and a sofa that turned into a bed, which the girls always refer to as "the private bed." There was fighting over who would be sleeping in the private bed this time because everyone wanted to share a bed with Mommy or Daddy and no one wanted the private bed. Except for me. Hyatt Place hotels also offer a free breakfast with hot foods such as waffles or pancakes and eggs or egg sandwiches and bacon. It's pretty decent and a huge time saver in the morning.
We stayed at the Hyatt Place, White House. It's located three blocks from the White House (hence the name) and was a fairly convenient location. Our room was clean and looked like it had been recently renovated. My only complaint is that the bathroom door was a bit funky. It was one of those sliding doors and even though it was frosted glass, it wasn't very private. There was also a huge gap between the door and the wall so someone in the sink area could see in to the toilet. Almost like a stall door. It was fine for us but I could see family/friend situations where it would be a bit awkward.
How did we get around the city?
There's a lot of walking involved in a trip to DC. To get from Point A to Point B, we either drove our van or walked, or a combo of both. We still need a private place where we can cath Anna so when we're out and about, having our vehicle nearby is most helpful. There are a ton of cabs, so if you are a smaller group, grabbing a cab would be an easy thing to do. And of course, there's the Metro.
According to Rich's Fitbit, we walked between 6 and 7 miles on our first two days and 4 point something miles on our third day. I'm not going sit here and tell you that my sweet, little family didn't mind all the walking. It's particularly taxing on Anna, especially when it's warm outside, which it was during the first days two of our trip. Otherwise, I made sure that the girls had packed comfortable sneakers and we took plenty of breaks. Having water, sunscreen and sunglasses is also very important.
I know some people swear by packing everyone's clothes together by day. Personally, I don't want the kids rummaging through the suitcases and I'm not going to guard the suitcases handing out clothes whenever someone needs to change. The girls wanted to pack their own clothes and I wasn't going to argue with something that will save me time. Between all the suitcases and travel bags we own, we managed to find something for everyone. And because we were driving, we didn't really have any space constraints or have to worry about checking in bags at the airport. I wrote out a list that told the girls what to pack (3 short sleeve t-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts, etc.) and they did. Easy. When they needed to change from shorts to pants (at night) or into pajamas, I didn't have to be involved at all.
I like to think that when it comes to vacations, Rich and I are a good mix of planning and flexibility. You need to be flexible, especially when traveling with kids. If you're planning a trip to DC with kids, ask them what they want to do and see while there. The girls did have a list:
- White House
- Lincoln Memorial
- World War II Memorial
- Washington Monument
- Korean War Veterans Memorial
We also talked about some of the museums. During a library visit a few weeks prior to our trip, the girls (all on their own) found Washington, DC books for kids. This was such a great idea as it gave them the opportunity to preview our trip and think about places they would want to visit.
This piece of advice seems obvious but check websites for operating hours and other information as you plan your vacation. For example, the National Museum of Natural History actually provides a chart showing you the quietest times to visit.
The most important advice I can provide is to start planning early. There are tours of government buildings that are open to the public but you must request access months (I think most are 90 days) in advance for security clearance purposes. I completely dropped the ball with this but my BIL, without knowing I had dropped the ball, sent Rich an email about a week before we left saying he got us into a tour. Which was awesome! There are other tours which may only hand out tickets first come, first serve in the morning. Plan all that out in advance!
I did bring my DSLR camera. I can't imagine not bringing it and my big, heavy lenses. For one tour, cameras with detachable lenses were not allowed. Gah, it was such a weird feeling for me not having my camera. I did limit myself to two lenses - my 35mm and my 14-24mm. (You can read about my camera equipment here and my new 35mm lens here.)
I can count the number of strollers we saw during our trip on one hand. That's not to say that the city isn't stroller-friendly. In most families, the youngest children were elementary school aged. When we visited in 2011, we only went to the zoo. That's it. No museums, no monuments. The girls were four years old and we knew we would return when they were older and could better understand what they were seeing.
This is very much a city vacation. If you're not used to city driving and parking, you may want to consider alternatives. DC is a commuting-friendly city. There are plenty of cabs and the Metro, in addition to walking.
The busiest time of year is mid-March through October. Yeah, so half the year. Personally, I'd rather deal with some crowds versus walking around outside all day in 35 degree weather. (It can become quite humid and hot in the summer.)
Pack umbrellas if you have room. Everyone should bring two pairs of comfortable walking shoes. I specify two because (just like Disney) if you are caught in the rain, you're going to want to have a dry pair of shoes to wear. Even with umbrellas, your shoes can easily become soaked.