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Dressed to the nines, my youngest son admires his image in the mirror at the Ritz-Carlton in Northern Virginia. We’re headed to a fancy restaurant, and Ross is wearing a suit and tie for the very first time. I thought he might balk at trading in his “skater” attire for fancier duds. Yet here he is, combing his hair, straightening his tie, even fashioning a napkin into a hanky to decorate his breast pocket.

I can tell he likes what he sees in the mirror. I do, too. My little boy is growing up—right before my eyes.

The two of us are here for a D.C. adventure. We’ll see new attractions, visit old favorites, and explore the big city. Besides quality time together, I’m looking forward to showing Ross what marvels exist beyond his pre-teen worldview.

MAKE A PLAN

With all the choices of what to see and do in our nation’s capital, make a game plan before you go. Check out museum websites and let the kids help pick which ones to visit. You may be tempted to fit in as much as you can during your visit, but my advice is to plan fewer activities to avoid burn-out. Plan two or three attractions each day, and if possible, build in food breaks and recreational outings—a park or a playground. Allow for flexibility, and remember to let your kids have time to be kids!

MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS

Here are a few must-see attractions:

  • National Museum of the American Indian – This impressive museum incorporates Native themes into its architecture and features the largest collection of American Indian art and cultural objects in the world. Free entry. www.nmai.si.edu TIP: Check the website for hands-on family programs and storytelling for kids. EAT: Mitsam Café - Try the red bean and alligator soup!
  • National Gallery of Art – This elegant museum with its vast collection of world art will help your kids connect with their inner artist. Free entry. www.nga.gov TIP: Request the kids’ audio tour for ages 7-12, which gives the inside scoop on paintings by the masters. EAT: The Espresso and Gelato Bar on the concourse between the East and West Buildings is a serene place to grab a quick bite.
  • National Museum of Natural History – If your kids like dinosaur bones, they’ll love the 40-foot T. Rex on display. With surprises around every corner, this museum is a favorite with my family. Free entry. www.mnh.si.edu TIP: Check out the Live Butterfly Pavilion, part of the Butterflies + Plants exhibit. Entry fee. EAT: Your kids will love the comfort food at The Atrium Café: BBQ, burgers + tasty grown-up fare for Mom & Dad—think Maryland She Crab Soup!
  • National Air and Space Museum – Embark on a journey from the early days of balloon flight to modern exploration on Mars. Free entry. www.nasm.si.edu TIP: To reduce the chance of crowds, consider visiting during the week and avoid holiday periods. EAT: A food court inside offers fast food options OR stroll outside and buy something tasty from a street vendor or food truck!
  • The National Zoo - Visit Sumatran tigers, giant pandas, cheetahs, and 2,000 other animals at our nation’s zoo. www.nationalzoo.si.edu. Free entry. TIP: Check out the state-of-the-art exhibit Elephant Trails, where visitors can experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the zoo’s Asian elephants. EAT: The Seal Rock Café looks like a West Coast surf shack and features sustainable seafood. Fish tacos, anyone?

TAKE A BREAK

If your children are like mine, they can only take so much art, history, and culture. Do yourself a favor and take a breather at one or more of these picturesque spots around D.C.:

  • Mount Vernon Bike Trail – Rent bikes at the Washington Sailing Marina in Alexandria and follow the trail south along the Potomac River twelve miles to Mount Vernon (worth a visit as well!) or north six miles to the Washington Monument. Next door to the marina, Indigo Landing is an awesome place to eat. www.washingtonsailingmarina.com
  • Rock Creek Park – An oasis in the middle of D.C., this park is perfect for picnics, Frisbee, a hike, or a snooze on a summer afternoon. Free. www.nps.gov/rocr
  • Great Falls Park – Fourteen miles upriver from D.C, this Virginia park is known for its magnificent scenery. Entry fee. www.nps.gov/grfa
  • U.S. National Arboretum – One of Washington’s best-kept secrets, this living museum features bonsai trees, shrubs, and flowers. Free entry. www.usna.usda.gov

Every time I visit I find more to love about our nation’s capital—and more reasons to come back. As Ross and I head home, I realize sharing the city with children makes it even more special. Taking time off from our busy lives can be tough, especially when there’s so much to do. But those daily tasks will never mean as much as enjoying a big-city adventure with my son.

For tourist information, visit www.washington.org

For accommodations, try The Ritz-Carlton, Tyson’s Corner for great weekend rates.

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and co-publisher of Tidewater Family and Tidewater Women magazines. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com