History Lessons at D.C. Museums and Memorials

Don’t know which Washington museums are best for kids from tykes to teens? Read here for age-appropriate recommendations.


Visiting Washington, D.C., for the first time usually includes stops at many major presidential monuments, war memorials and museums. For most kids though, the thought of a trip dedicated to educational enrichment is about as appealing as spending 10 hours strapped in a car seat to view the largest ball of twine. Face the facts now: Although your eyes may become teary reading the Gettysburg Address, your kids will instead race up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial or try to climb on Lincoln’s lap—it being about 10 feet off the ground serves as no deterrent.

Fortunately, most of the key monuments and memorials are located around the National Mall, which includes a reflecting pool adjacent to a large span of green grass lined with trees—a perfect place to let kids run and explore. Keep in mind that the Mall is a very large area. If you want to try to see the monuments and memorials surrounding it, plan to spend the entire day and take into consideration the age of your children and short attention spans. Children younger than 5 will need stroller assistance, and everyone will need comfortable shoes. 

Monuments and Memorials

Ages 4 and up

Lincoln Memorial: As mentioned, kids enjoy climbing the stairs and it provides a spectacular view across the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument.

Korean War Veterans Memorial: Even the very young will be engaged by this powerful memorial featuring the expressive statues of soldiers on the march.

Ages 8 and up

Jefferson Monument: This is considered by many to be the most beautiful monument but it is a long walk from the main area of the National Mall and is best suited for older children.

FDR Memorial: This is close to the Jefferson Memorial and offers a spectacular view of D.C. across the tidal basin.

Washington Monument: An elevator takes you to the top for a spectacular view of D.C. Try to go mid-week to avoid long lines.

Arlington National Cemetery: A moving experience so set aside at least 2 hours to navigate. Located just across the Memorial Bridge in Arlington, Va.

Ages 10 and up

Vietnam Veterans War Memorial: The devastating impact of walking past the names of nearly 60,000 soldiers who died during the war inscribed on black granite will be completely lost on younger viewers but for adults and older students, the experience can be unforgettable.  

World War II Memorial: This memorial can be an excellent experience for students learning about the war and a stunning reminder of its toll as it honors the more than 400,000 lives lost.


The Smithsonian Institution is not a building but actually a collection of museums that also includes the National Zoo. A visit to any of its sites is a not-to-be-missed D.C. experience. For information, check its Web site,, or call 202-357-2700. The institution’s Dial-A-Museum service, tel. 202-357-2020, lists daily activities and events.

All ages

National Air and Space Museum: Planes appear to soar over your head. Crawl into a cockpit to handle the controls or walk through a skylab orbital workshop. With hands-on experiences throughout, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most memorable visits of a trip to D.C.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: If aviation is a particular interest, don’t miss this site near the Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virg. It’s about a 30-minute drive from D.C. but worth the trip to see an actual Concorde, the space shuttle Enterprise and the Enola Gay, which is a moving experience my family won’t soon forget.

National Museum of Natural History: Go on safari and gape at the zebra grazing at the watering hole or go back in time to look a dinosaur in the eye. The many interactive exhibits including the fascinating O. Orkin Insect Zoo and “African Voices,” make this a favorite of young kids and parents alike.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: Younger children are usually best able to understand and appreciate modern art. Let them be your guide to a wonderfully diverse collection. Then, walk through the outdoor sculpture garden in the plaza and enjoy a snack at the café.

National Zoo: The cute pandas are worth a wait in line but the best experience is the newly opened Kids Farm exhibit, which includes a petting zoo.

Ages 4 and up

National Museum of the American Indian: The exhibits alone are not worth the visit, but the Lelawi Theatre’s introduction film, which is projected onto fabric screens combined with attending a performance in the atrium makes the trip worthwhile.

Ages 6 and up

Museum of American History: Walking into Julia Child’s kitchen was a thrill for this foodie and even if you’re rarely in your own kitchen, this is a treat. Parents will walk down memory lane with memorabilia displayed from pop culture icons. However, our 4 and under kids could care less. (Currently closed for renovation. The museum is scheduled to reopen in Fall 2008.) 

National Museum of African Art: Carved wooden masks and interactive exhibits make for a visit fun. Try to sit in on storytelling followed by an art activity.

Ages 10 and up

U.S. Capitol: Free guided tours are available daily. Six months in advance, try writing your representative or senator to attend special morning VIP tours, which includes visits to the House and Senate galleries. Sometimes last-minute passes are available if you stop by your senator’s office. Call 202-224-3121 for the location.  

White House: While contacting your senator or congressman for a tour of the Capitol, also make a reservation for a tour of the White House and submit your information for security screening. The actual tour can be like a cattle call but worth it.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: A powerful, gut-wrenching experience that is a must-see but don’t plan anything afterwards; you will leaved drained and the better for it.  Passes are free, but for timed entry.

International Spy Museum: Newly opened, this has quickly become a favorite. This is not the Smithsonian so prepare to see props within exhibits about famous spies, real and fictional, like James Bond and Maxwell Smart. Visit early evening and enjoy a nearby restaurant in D.C.’s popular Penn Quarter neighborhood.

Destinations: Washington

Themes: Art and Museums, Family Travel, Historical Vacations

Activities: Museums, Sightseeing

User Comments

Love the age breakdown Very helpful to have the information listed by age interest.

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