A Washington D.C. Family Vacation: Paulano’s Ultimate One-Page Travel Guide

After spending 4 days in Washington, DC with my family, I thought I would take a quick moment to recap some of the highlights and lowlights, and offer a few suggestions to those of you who are thinking of making the same trip.

Tip 1: Use Reagan National Airport if you can. It is only 7 minutes from the National Mall, and the taxi fare from the airport to the hotel was about $11, not including tip. The airport terminal is really nice, and surprisingly laid back.

Tip 2: Stay at a hotel that is as close to the Mall as you can get. We stayed at the Capitol Holiday Inn on “C” Street. It is only a block from the Air and Space Museum, and very close to the other Smithsonian Museums as well. Sure it costs more, but the convenience and time savings is worth it. The hotel itself was just adequate. At the hotel restaurant, be sure to steer clear of the Scampi. For a lite meal, the chicken soup was very good.

Tip 3: Be sure to write to your Congressperson and your 2 Senators, to let them know you are coming to town. They may be able to reserve tour times for you at places like the White House, the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the JFK Center for the Performing Arts, and the Library of Congress. As it turns out, Paulano does not have a lot of clout within the Beltway. He only scored a tour of the Capitol, given by Brianna, an Ellen Tauscher summer intern who was almost as new to DC as we were. The good news was that she related really well to my daughters, and the Capitol Tour was one of the highlights of the entire vacation for them.

Tip 4: Stay away from the shuttle services that continuously run a circuit around the museums and monuments near the National Mall. The Trolley we used was unorganized and overbooked. Every time a Trolley came by, the waiting mob made a wild dash for the Trolley door in hopes of getting on. The courteous, the slow and the unlucky were condemned to wait for the next bus, with no guarantee of getting on that one either. For the attractions that require transportation, such as the National Zoo, Arlington National Cemetery, Georgetown, and the Lincoln Memorial, a family of four can travel much more quickly and comfortably (and perhaps even more cheaply) by simply taking a taxi. Almost everyplace else you can walk to.

Tip 5: Due to large demand, some sites will only admit ticket holders. These sites include the Inside of the Washington Memorial, the Holocaust Museum, the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, and the Supreme Court. The tickets are free, but the process of getting tickets typically involves a family member waking up early on the day you want to go, and standing line. It’s not bad, really. At 6:00 AM, I was first in line at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Or second, if you count the homeless guy in the blue blazer who pretended to work for the Bureau. He kept me (and himself) entertained as he barked orders at unsuspecting newcomers to the line.

Tip 6: The Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History are open until 7:30 on most nights, so make those your last stops of the day. The National Archives are usually crowded, so make that the first stop of your day.

Tip 7: The Museum of American History and the Arts and Industries Museums are currently closed for renovation.

And finally, Tip 8: There is actually too much to see. Don’t spend any more than 2 hours at any single museum, and no more than half an hour at any single monument. Obviously, try to organize each day to minimize walking and backtracking. Things I wanted to see but missed due to inexperience were the National Aquarium, the Crime and Punishment Museum, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, Mount Vernon, Monticello, and the elusive White House.

For me, the highlights were the Lincoln Memorial, the Afghanistan Artifact Exhibit at the National Art Gallery, and the National Zoo. The lowlights were the terrible, embarrassing condition of the National Mall, and the poor customer service skills of nearly every cashier we encountered . All things considered though, DC is a great place for a family vacation.

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