by Carmel L. Mooney
Few family travel destinations offer the educational fun of the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area. Added to the already amazing opportunities for fun learning in this area is the bonus of its location. Half a dozen wonderful quick road trips with DC as the starting hub all offer even more options for fun and knowledge less than two hours away.
My favorite of all and a favorite of my kids’ is George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate. This magical, historical spot is unforgettable as you visit the home of the first president and tour the lovely grounds. Kids enjoy seeing the gardens, the museum, the slaves’ quarters, the horse and tack buildings, ice house, gristmill, wharf, trails, cellars, servants’ areas, greenhouse, and much more, all authentic and from the colonial American period. A new education center with a gallery and theater has opened this fall.
Inside George Washington’s home, families tour the gorgeous house looking out at an unspoiled and majestic view of the Potomac where original trees still stand and George Washington’s actual furniture and books, and personal belongings still occupy the home.
His original bedroom is still on display where he and Martha lived and slept and where Washington died. Docents also fascinate visitors with personalized tidbits and stories of Washington’s history. Docents dressed up in period costumes will answer questions and have conversations with adults and children while staying in character. My kids loved interacting with Mrs. Washington and asking her what life was like 200 years ago.
The nearby town of Alexandria, just ten minutes from Mount Vernon is a must for browsing and lunch where beautiful historic buildings from centuries ago only add to the mystique.
Get on Highway 495, 295, 195, 695, 395, or was it the 95? No, just get a map for sure as the freeways are insane and even the locals joke openly about it! But get on the right one and follow the signs to the Baltimore National Aquarium. This wonderful aquarium is like the east coast version of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Located right in the Baltimore harbor, visitors get up close and personal with aquatic and coastal life including sharks, rays, dolphins, birds, frogs, snakes, and other creatures from the east coast as well as far away places like Australia and Africa.
My kids loved feeding the rays and they enjoyed getting close to poisonous dart frogs, and crocodiles. The new Animal Planet Australia exhibit is great and the dolphin show is similar to what you might find at Marine World or Sea World. To families traveling with kids in strollers or wheelchairs: the place is a nightmare for navigating with them, so plan accordingly.
If getting to see wonderful animals excites your clan, another “must visit” is the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. This free admission zoo is spectacular with all that you would expect to see at any large zoo plus lots more like panda bears and anteaters.
You can even get tickets ahead of time for watching the pandas during feeding time. We didn’t get the special tickets and we still enjoyed watching them play. This zoo is huge and spread out, so plan on comfortable walking shoes. You will probably walk a good two to three miles.
One short but an exciting day trip from D.C. is to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. After driving over the magnificent Chesapeake Bay Bridge and through vast agricultural farming towns, we arrived at our favorite little beach town in Delaware. Sort of like a little Santa Cruz, complete with wonderful beaches, quaint stores, restaurants, lighthouses, and shell shops, this little gem is worth checking out for a relaxing afternoon away from the bustle of cities.
Another day trip is to the beautiful Pennsylvania Dutch Country. You could spend several days experiencing the lovely Amish people, fascinating culture, and breathtaking landscape that make up this haven of beauty. But even if you just have a day, you can enjoy it with Baltimore/D.C. as your starting point.
Some highlights that cannot be missed include taking a real Amish buggy ride at “Aaron and Jessica’s.” Next door at the “Plain and Fancy Farm” you can enjoy a real Amish meal served long-table-family-farm-style and a multimedia movie depicting Amish culture and values.
Browse through the towns of Bird in Hand or Intercourse and enjoy the shops and wares. Kids will love a tour of the Intercourse Pretzel Factory where they can try their hand at twisting pretzels. Also, a ride through the countryside on the Strasburg Rail Road is a must. You can even pick up the train at Cherry Crest farm where farm food, fun, a petting zoo, and a spectacular educational “Amazing Corn Maze” add to the fun for all ages.
If you like theme parks and especially if you like water slides, a visit to Six Flags America in Largo, Maryland includes a 25-acre paradise water park along with amusements and rides.
While visiting the Baltimore/D.C. area you may want to leave all the decisions to the Children’s Concierge, where a personal adventure planner can plan your entire trip with the kids in mind, right down to tailored activities, special tours, walks, bike rides, specially designed Kids packs, customized city scavenger hunts, and games making the most memorable and perfect trip to D.C. of all. These people know kids and cater to their every whim in many major cities like New York and Paris. Leave all the planning to them and you’ll be amazed at what they do.
Of course, D.C. is a mecca for American history and the good news is the kids will have so much fun they won’t know they’re learning. Why just learn history when you can live it? And this is the place! Our favorites in the downtown mall area are the Lincoln Memorial and of course the one and only Smithsonian. With so many Smithsonian museums to choose from, it’s best to pick one or two for an afternoon and focus on those.
We love the National Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History, but there’s no such thing as a bad Smithsonian museum, with nearly twenty to choose from. The National Air and Space Museum showcases 61 aircraft and 51 large space artifacts along with 2,000 smaller artifacts.
Color Me Mine is a great place in downtown Bethesda for kids to let their creative juices flow by painting a bisque pottery sculpture from the hundreds to choose from. If you plan this early in your trip then the finished product is fired while you vacation and ready for your pick up a few days later. They will ship it home if you prefer. They have all sorts of projects and types of finish to choose from, even mosaics. Kids and adults of all ages love it. This is my seven-year-old’s favorite memory of Bethesda.
For places to stay, the choices are equally unlimited. Look for a hotel that is fairly central to everything, comfortable and affordable, and includes breakfast to make your day easier to plan. From your hotel, you can plan to take the Metro into the city like we did most of the time.
Cabin John’s park is a must for little ones with its lush beauty and scene. A small train gives kids rides through this forested park. It’s just about 10 minutes from downtown Bethesda.
Train buffs will love the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum within walking distance of the popular Inner Harbor area.
Another side excursion is to the Shenandoah Valley past all the amazing Civil War trails to the Endless Caverns in New Market, Virginia. A cavern tour is simply unforgettable where stalagmites, stalagmites, calcite, and rock formations and colors are only seen there can be enjoyed by all on a guided tour deep below revealing the geology and history. A great place for boat lovers!
In town by the cavern is a favorite eating place is the Johnny Appleseed Restaurant where homemade apple fritters and apple butter must be sampled.
Washington, D.C. offers FREEDOM at its best with so much to visit, view, and do for free including African American Civil War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington House, Ford’s Theater, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Library of Congress, Lincoln Memorial, National Gallery of Art, Washington National Cathedral, Union Station, U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, and so many others.
Again, I cannot warn you enough about how bad traffic and parking are in the D.C. area. I recommend renting a car but planning on taking the Metro into the city areas as parking is almost impossible. If you must take a car into downtown D.C., try visiting the monuments on Sunday when commuter traffic is not a problem and parking is at least feasible. Excellent bus and public transportation are available and in Bethesda, the trolley is our family’s favorite mode of transportation. It’s free, it’s fast and it’s fun!
D.C. and its outlying areas are extremely hot and humid most summers. Be prepared and if possible, a trip in early fall is a favorite time to visit while avoiding the crowds.
However you do it, just plan on a memorable and educational experience. My kids have never stopped talking about the fun we had on three trips there this year. Get a good map at any bookstore and a guidebook if you want to productively plan the most out of your stay. The choices are a bit overwhelming but wonderful. I recommend at least 10 days to enjoy the area.
Children who visit D.C. leave with a sense of wonderment and an enhanced understanding of American history and government.
Carmel L. Mooney is a mom and travel columnist, travel author, and radio talk show host.