Washington, D.C. is a destination that brings history to life, particularly for families with teens. A trip to the nation’s capital gives older kids an opportunity to explore iconic American landmarks, monuments, and museums that they’ve learned about in school.
We’ve had Washington, D.C. on our must-visit list for years, and it finally made sense with the ages of our children. Many of the tips we picked up in our travels and share below focus on spots appropriate for teens, but quite a few can be easily adapted for families who also have younger children.
Here’s what families of teens need to know about travel to Washington, D.C., with plenty of recommendations for the best things to do in DC with teens.
Flying to Washington, D.C.
There are three main airports that serve the DC metro area (a region that includes District of Columbia, northern Virginia, and suburban Maryland). Those include:
- Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)
- Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA)
- Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)
DCA is the closest airport to the city and easily served by a Metro stop. With more mobile teens, you may want to consider the two more distant airports if they save your family money on flights. Ground transportation costs will be higher, so factor that into the overall comparison. The public transit options from IAD and BWI are probably too much of a hassle with a whole family, so budget for a shuttle, Uber, or taxi.
Southwest Airlines is our go-to for most travel, thanks in part to our companion pass that offsets some of the cost of traveling with a large family. Since BWI is a Southwest hub, we originally scheduled our flights in and out of Baltimore, Maryland. The price was right and a non-stop is always favorable.
Southwest Airlines made a significant adjustment to our arrival flight so we were able to make a free change into the closer airport at no cost to us. This change also allowed us to arrive earlier, even though we were now on a connecting flight. (See these tips for making the most of a flight change.)
Washington, D.C. with Teens Tickets Required
Many attractions in Washington, D.C. are free to enter, but most of them currently require timed entry tickets. This is particularly true in 2021 and 2022 when capacity is still limited and not all attractions are fully open. Note that some locations use entry times during peak travel seasons only.
Here’s a list of some of the most popular destinations that may require reservations:
- Ford’s Theatre
- Library of Congress
- International Spy Museum
- Mount Vernon
- National Archives
- National Museum of African American History and Culture
- United States Capitol
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- United State Mint Headquarters
- Washington Monument
- White House
Did you find one of your must-visit DC attractions requires tickets or reservations? Comment below to help keep our list up to date.
Best Sights and Things to Do in Washington, D.C. with Teens
Our history-loving teens were ready to explore all we planned for our vacation. We added audio tours to our tickets whenever it was offered and purchased audio tours from outside companies. I felt these extras really amplified the learning and immersive experience.
There will likely be too many places on your wish list to fit in. I gave my kids a list of several museums with brief descriptions and bullet points of exhibits to help me narrow it down.
The following attractions were their top picks in town.
National Museum of American History
This free, no ticket required Smithsonian Museum entertained all of us! From viewing the flag that inspired our national anthem, to seeing George Washington’s uniform, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and the Greensboro lunch counter from the civil rights sit-in—the National Museum of American History has something for everyone.
We toured the entire museum and also enjoyed things of particular interest to our teens such as the First Ladies exhibit featuring gowns from numerous presidential inaugural balls and the exhibit on Latinos in Baseball.
The small intimate Ford’s Theatre is still being used today for live performances. If you purchase tickets for a show you automatically have access to the museum an hour prior to performances.
We chose the audio tour which gave an excellent set up to the events leading up to the assassination of President Lincoln. After exploring the museum, you will go inside the theatre and get an up close look at the Presidential Box where Lincoln and his wife sat that fateful evening.
If you happen to be visiting DC during the holidays, seeing a performance of A Christmas Carol there is especially a treat.
International Spy Museum
From the moment you walk in the doors of the International Spy Museum until your final spy assignment, you are completely immersed in a world of secret ops and undercover missions.
This was similar to the immersion you see at Disney theme parks around the world. It was fantastic and even more enjoyable for teens in Washington, D.C..
Our family loved the hands-on experiences gathering intel and reading about covert operations like the capture of the world’s most wanted criminals.
Teens can roam, read and explore on their own and families can regroup at the end of each exhibit, or meet before heading down to the lower levels. We found going at our own pace and following our own interests to be most beneficial at the Spy Museum.
If you’re bringing younger kids, they will likely need assistance to read and participate in the on-screen activities. (See more to do in Washington DC with younger kids.)
My best tip? If you see an open touch screen, go there first! These are the most coveted spots in the museum and may have a short line but they’re usually worth it.
George Washington’s estate Mount Vernon just outside the city and overlooking the Potomac river was a highlight of our trip.
I expected the tour of the mansion and grounds to be a place celebrating George Washington’s legacy. While it recognizes his contribution to our nation, the tours and exhibits here focus on the hundreds of enslaved people who lived there against their will and under the control of George Washington.
We learned so much from the “Enslaved People of Mount Vernon Tour”, enjoyed strolling the massive grounds and participated in the wreath laying tribute at the Slave Memorial.
Allow plenty of time to travel the 15 or so miles outside of DC, explore the grounds and join tours, as well as dine from the onsite restaurant or food court. Be sure to check the calendar on the website before your visit, as Mount Vernon hosts a lot of seasonal events that can be interesting as well.
Note cell service was a challenge at this location. If you plan to use ride sharing or public transportation, plan your return route or schedule pick ups in advance.
National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum is the Smithsonian home to all things aviation and outer space. Be on the lookout for the Wright Brothers exhibit, Spirit of St. Louis, Apollo 11 Command Module and lunar rock. There is also a large hands-on play area for younger siblings to enjoy.
There’s an auxiliary museum near Dulles airport if you need something to do before or after a flight there. The full size space shuttle in this location is beyond impressive.
This museum is always one of the most popular in DC, but to be honest, it was not a big hit with our group this trip. Because it tends to be one of the busiest museums in the area, I felt the crowds affected our particular visit.
Arlington National Cemetery
Spread out over 600 acres, plan to do a lot of walking on a visit to Arlington National Cemetery or purchase the hop on/hop off tour with live narration.
We chose a previously purchased audio tour which guided us on a walking path through the cemetery’s most notable sights like John F. Kennedy’s gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Our oldest has had a fascination with the Kennedy family since she first learned to read, so this was a very special visit for her. Each of us were captivated by the Changing of the Guard ceremony which takes place on the hour and/or half hour depending on the season.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The sensitive and emotional piece of history shown at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is best explored with teens and older tweens. There is an exhibit especially for younger children as well.
Prepare your teens for what they might see in advance and how to behave with respect. The museum sets up visitors to quickly put history in perspective and encourage reverence.
Reserve tickets about 90 days in advance. These free tickets are required with a small transaction fee. Tickets tend to be released in 90 day blocks on the first of every three months at 8:00 a.m. Same-day tickets are released the day of beginning at 7:00 a.m.
Plan to spend at least 90 minutes here, up to about three hours. There is an onsite cafe before the entrance if you need a meal or snack before coming inside.
National Mall and Monuments
A walking tour of the National Mall and Monuments is likely a must-do on your list, too. We enjoyed early morning walks and late night strolls for lower crowds and beautiful scenery. The monuments are open 24 hours a day and are safe to visit at all hours.
While all monuments are amazing either day or night, there’s a few you might prefer to see illuminated during night time hours:
- Jefferson Memorial
- Korean War Memorial
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
- Lincoln Memorial
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Roosevelt Memorial
Our family’s trip was in the fall, but this spot is a can’t-miss in spring months when the cherry blossoms are in bloom (as long as you are ok with crowds).
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History & Culture is a newer museum in DC that documents African American life, history, and culture in the US.
Free tickets are required to this Smithsonian museum. Tickets open 30 days in advance. Passes are released throughout each day, beginning at 8:00 a.m., for time slots 30 days out. Same-day passes are released the day of beginning at 8:15 a.m.
The White House is one DC sight that needs no introduction, but visiting it requires some preparation and planning. You can request a free tour through your Member of Congress, but plan to request at least 21 days in advance as space is limited. Self-guided tours generally run on Friday and Saturday.
If you’re too late to request a tour, consider a visit to the free White House Visitor Center instead and don’t forget to enjoy the views of the White House from outside.
The 555 foot Washington Monument is hard to miss from many vantage points in the city. Plan to visit the grounds to walk around and see the reflecting pool.
If you want to ascend the magnificent obelisk, you’ll need to request tickets 1 day in advance. This is tricky because there’s a high possibility you’ll be traveling and distracted when these tickets become available. They are sold out in minutes, so be ready and logged into your recreation.gov account.
Others DC Sights to Consider with Teens
- US Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial)
- Bureau of Engraving and Printing (still currently closed)
- American Indian Museum
- National Gallery of Art
- Old Town Alexandria
- Georgetown’s M Street
Where to Stay in Washington, D.C. with Teens
Washington, D.C. has too many hotels and lodging choices to count, so you have a lot of options for a visit. A few hotels to consider – either for their great locations, family-friendly layouts, or iconic DC story – include:
- The Willard InterContinental Washington: luxury hotel is steeped in DC history, just steps from the White House.
- Grand Hyatt Washington: conveniently located at Metro Center where three metro lines cross.
- Hyatt Place Washington DC/White House: Larger rooms, many with additional sofa beds, in a central location at a reasonable price.
- Residence Inn by Marriott Washington, DC Downtown: studios and larger suites available with kitchens, free breakfast, great location
Additional Tips for Washington, D.C. with Teens
A few more quick tips for Washington, D.C. with teens.
- Most facilities require TSA-like security screenings. Be prepared to have bags searched and leave restricted items at home.
- DC is best when walking and using public transportation. The DC Metro (the region’s subway) is clean, easy to navigate, and serves nearly everywhere tourists will want to visit. Plan your lodging with Metro stop proximity in mind.
- If you must drive, download apps that help you access public parking like Spot Hero before your vacation.
- Pack snacks and water bottles in your day bags. After lots of walking, it’s nice to have a few items on hand.
Final Thoughts on DC with Teens
Washington, D.C. works exceptionally well as a travel destination for families with teens and tweens. Our meals consisted of long, in-depth conversations about the things we saw and learned.
As your teens mature into adulthood, this is a great opportunity to spend time together and get to know them as the adults they will soon become. Our D.C. trip will be one we look back on for years to come.
Contributing writer Jessica Sanders loves the beach, Dodger baseball and traveling with her family. When she’s not lounging on the beach or, you can find her writing about her many visits to Disneyland Resort at The Happiest Blog on Earth. Follow along her Disneyland days on Instagram @DisneylandPlan.