Top 5 Things to Do in Washington, DC with Tweens & Teens

Thinking of traveling to Washington, D.C., and have older kids in your travel crew? We’re talking tweens and teens. You know, the particularly choosy (sometimes difficult to please) kiddos. Well, sometimes, a family vacation can prove to be difficult when it comes to picking activities the entire family will enjoy.

So if that’s the case, our friend Shellie Bailey-Shah, Editor of KidTripster, is on the blog today to reveal the top five things to do while exploring our nation’s capital!

Why go?

things to do in washington, dc with tweens & teens

Every American should visit our nation’s capital at least once (if not several times) in his or her lifetime. I’d recommend bringing your kids when they’re in middle school and have had the opportunity to study some U.S. history and government and can more fully appreciate the experience. And let’s be honest, we grown-ups probably could use a refresher civics course ourselves. A visit to Washington, D.C. is just that! Here’s a list of my favorite activities for teens and tweens.

1. Fat Tire Tours

While it’s possible to simply rent bikes from Capital Bikeshare stations or other vendors, I think it’s absolutely worth the money to take a guided tour of the city. I’d highly recommend an evening tour of the monuments with Fat Tire Tours. Hands down, my teenage sons enjoyed this activity above all others while in Washington, D.C. Best of all, our tour was guided by a George Washington University student, majoring in none other than history. The memorable stories and fascinating facts that he shared at each stop really engaged my kids. He also left ample time for photos and exploring.

The tour starts at 6:30 p.m. with the first stop on the north side of the White House. The ride then loops around to the south lawn and onto the National Mall with stops at the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, often-forgotten Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, unique Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, plus the World War II MemorialKorean Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial. By the time the tour rolls up to Lincoln Memorial, the sun is setting over the Mall. While you can take the same tour during the day, there’s something quite magical about seeing the monuments at twilight.

There is safety in numbers, however. So on your way to and from the National Mall and Tidal Basin, you’ll be biking both on sidewalks and city streets, but the guide expertly navigates using the least busy routes. When on the street, the group takes over the lane. Drivers seem accustomed to it, and frankly, anyone who’s driven in D.C. knows that no one goes anywhere quickly.

KidTripster Tip: Even though Fat Tire will allow younger kids, I’d recommend this tour for ages 10 and up, mostly because I think you need to have a certain comfort level riding a bike, especially at the very end of the tour when you’re pedaling back in the dark (with bike lights). We did have parents on our tour who had little ones strapped in bike seats, but after three hours, those passengers got pretty fussy, and the parents were visibly stressed.

2. Washington Monument

While it’s easy to see the imposing exterior of the Washington Monument when visiting the country’s capital, it’s worth the extra effort to arrange a stop inside to learn the history of the world’s tallest obelisk. Not to mention, the views at 550 feet are the best in D.C.! And there’s a surprise on the way down. (I won’t ruin it for you.) But to visit, you’ll need to plan ahead.

The best way to get tickets for the elevator that takes you to the top of the monument is to order them online—up to three months in advance. Even though the timed tickets are free, there’s a small fee to reserve them. It’s worth it! Because if you don’t…

You’ll be like me on Fourth of July weekend, waking up at 4:45 a.m. (at our campground in College Park, Maryland) to arrive outside the Survey Lodge Ranger Station (adjacent to the monument) by 7 a.m. for tickets to be distributed at 8:30 a.m. for that day’s tours. (Did I mention it was raining, and I didn’t have time to pick up coffee or the sense to bring an umbrella?!)

Each person in line can claim a total of six tickets. I was number 73. Fortunately, I snagged four tickets, but not everyone in line was so lucky. On that day, because the monument was closing early, only 600 tickets were given out; normally, there are 800 tickets available, but they go more quickly than you would think. So let me serve as an example of what not to do. Order online!

KidTripster Tip: If you’re hoping to visit the inside of the Washington Monument the summer of 2019, however, you’re out of luck. The elevator is being repaired, and a new security structure is being built. It reopens August 2019, but check the National Park Service’s website for the latest info.

3. The National Museum of American History

My teenagers loved the National Museum of American History. Yes, more than the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History. They spent the majority of their time in the Presidential Gallery where you can see artifacts like the top hat that President Abraham Lincoln was wearing when John Wilkes Booth assassinated him. (I’ll tell you, the hat is not as tall as you may think!) 

I really enjoyed looking at the First Ladies’ inaugural dresses through the decades, including Michelle Obama’s first inaugural gown designed by Jason Wu. You’ll also see the china patterns chosen by each First Family. My boys and I agreed that Nancy Reagan had the best taste in gowns and dishes. See if you agree.

And don’t miss the opportunity to see the original Star-Spangled Banner that continued to fly over Fort McHenry after the British bombardment in 1813, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would later become our national anthem. You and your kids will leave this museum with a greater appreciation for those who had the foresight to preserve our nation’s historical artifacts.

KidTripster Tip: It’s also worth a visit to the National Archives Museum to see (for free) the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. Granted, you’ll have to wait in line to view these documents under glass and in dim lighting. And admittedly, they’re tough to read. But it’s the kind of tangible history that students seem to understand and appreciate.

4. Newseum

Having worked for more than 20 years in television news, I admit to being partial to the Newseum. Though, tweens and teens will find this museum dedicated to our country’s press with its six levels, 15 galleries, and 15 theaters to be very interactive. Don’t miss the 4D Time Travel Adventure, the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery, and the moving 9/11 Gallery.

Because there’s so much to see, you may want to consider taking a 90-minute private tour with your own guide. While it doubles the price of regular admission, you’ll likely get twice as much out of your visit, including the untold stories behind the headlines. 

KidTripster Tip: You’ll want to get here sooner than later, because the Newseum will be closing permanently in this location as of December 31, 2019.

5. International Spy Museum

The new International Spy Museum, which is definitely geared towards older kids and adults, is now open located in the heart of L’Enfant Plaza, just south of the Smithsonian Castle. In addition to learning about real spies, you actually can test your own spy skills as you work your way through the museum.

As part of your admission, you’ll get a code name and an RFID-enabled tracker that measures your performance on the interactive exhibits and gives you a debrief at the end.

Need a place to stay while touring D.C.?

things to do in washington, dc with tweens & teens

Somewhere other than a cramped hotel room? Tripbound offers access to affordable, spacious suites at Wyndham National Harbor in National Harbor, Maryland, just a short 10-minute drive away from the capital. Your kiddos will love the game room Wii consoles and access to movie rentals each night, while you enjoy a Whirlpool tub in the master bedroom to relax your cares away!

Shellie Bailey-Shah is the editor of KidTripster, an online resource that provides information and inspiration to traveling families. Many moons ago, she worked as a first-time television reporter in D.C.

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