Some of my most enduring memories from early childhood were formed from experiences in and around Washington D.C. Born in the area and living there until I was five, I spend many of my formative years around the nation’s capital, so many of my ideas of what young kids should do for fun were built there. It seemed the perfect place to bring my just-about-three-year-old twins for a bit of early summer fun in the sun.
Early May is a great time to visit the capital. Tourism doesn’t fully pick up until the summer and the oppressive heat that sits over the city in the full on summer is less common. Plus, some of the best events the area has to offer like the air show at Andrews Base take place in the warm sun. It’s also the perfect time to get outside at the huge national zoo and take in some meals at the great outdoor offerings from some top notch restaurants. Even if one of the late-spring rain storms rolls through, there’s plenty to do inside with some of the best museums in the country, particularly the Air and Space Museum. The region has really upped its game with high quality restaurants and craft breweries too, so there’s a ton for parents to see and do too between taking in all the animals, airplanes, and rocketships. It was perfect for us to take our family on a quick weekend break.
I vividly recall trips as a young child to the national zoo, the air and space museum, and the air show. In fact, other than a few memories of our house in Maryland, these are pretty much the only memories I have of being around and under the age of five. Perhaps they solidified strongly because they tended to be the ones my parents took pictures and videos – with the giant 80s camcorder. Regardless, those memories stuck in my head and always emerged when I thought about my own experiences when considering what to do to share experiences with my boys. So when we decided to go, I asked my parents to come along to reminisce on our childhood memories, and of course to help watch the boys a little too.
We built up our plan around the Andrews Joint Force Base Air Show. Back in the 80s, you could drive right up to the base and walk on, but these days due to growth and security concerns, we had to park over at the Washington Redskins’ arena and take a shuttle over. Thankfully the boys loved the time riding the bus and we timed it well enough that helicopters were flying over us for much of the ride, so there was plenty of entertainment. It would have been nice to be able to bring our own food and drink for the boys, but at least there were refill stations for water bottles and plenty of food and drink for sale at not-too-outrageous prices. We even discovered a tent with some local area craft brews and had an awesome IPA, perfect in what turned out to be a pretty hot, sunny day.
The air show is the perfect experience for kids. There are numerous massive planes, smaller jets, and helicopters to get up close and explore. The boys climbed on board almost all of them, but particularly loved the helicopters where they could climb around on the seats, the cargo areas, and play with the controls – thankfully all disabled or they might have flown away. Throughout the day there were tons of aerial shows from helicopters flying in formation to mock WW2 dogfights and strafing runs complete with actual explosions, a jet truck, stunt planes, and the famous high flying acts of the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels. It felt like there were always multiple planes in the air doing amazing things to watch while we waited in short lines to get on various planes or to get food.
There’s plenty to do beside the planes too. Aeronautical themed bouncey houses, a rock climbing wall, and trampolines were there to entertain kids. Inside the hangars were more displays including ones from NASA that featured controllable Lego Mars Rovers to drive around and other STEM friendly activities. One hangar included several drone themed activities including the racing league and a real life Predator Drone. We thought we would spend a couple of hours at the show and head back to the hotel for a nap, but there was so much to do and the boys loved it so much we stayed right up until dinner.
We couldn’t take a family trip to Washington “ABC” as the boys started calling it without an important member of of family, the dog. Finding an affordable family and dog friendly hotel close to the city isn’t easy, so we chose the Country Inn & Suites out by the base. It ended up being quite convenient for drives both to the base and into the city itself. While nothing to rave about, it was a comfortable place for the whole family, made better with little touches like a library of books for borrowing which included children’s’ books that helped us get the boys to bed at night. They also absolutely loved the included breakfast, especially the waffles with some strawberries.
We also couldn’t miss another of the experiences that stuck in my memory, the national zoo. I distinctly remember numerous sweltering days under the hot DC sun watching the lions, bears, and monkeys at the zoo with my family. As a parent, discovering that the zoo is actually free was a huge benefit considering how expensive zoos around us tend to be. The national zoo may be the one place where you don’t get what you pay for, since it’s an incredible zoo for free. There are a ton of animals and houses, so there’s no chance of getting bored. We arrived in the middle of a rain storm and while we did get a but wet running from the parking lot, we were able to stay dry and defrost a bit in the awesome and unique Panda house. The zoo is probably most amazing for the wide selection of animals on exhibit and the huge number of indoor exhibits in the houses where you can get up very close. Our boys loved seeing the Pandas, Lions, Sea Lions, and birds.
The final can’t miss site I just had to take the boys to, probably the one which had made the biggest lasting impression on my childhood, is the Air and Space Museum. Housing numerous artifacts instrumental in the history of flight and space exploration like the Lunar Lander, Wright flyer, and Spirit of St. Louis, it’s impossible to visit and not be inspired about math and science. The boys were mostly interested in the hands on exhibits that demonstrate the physics of flight and the planes and space craft they could go on. I suspect they’ll enjoy it more when we inevitably re-visit when they’re older, but they had a blast just running around and seeing the planes and rockets. I don’t know if it inspired them, but considering they continued to talk about the spaceships and rocketships for several days, I think it made an impression.
A visit to Washington also has to involve several stops at the excellent restaurants in the region. An excellent example of the region’s cuisine and food is at the Walrus Oyster and Ale House in National Harbor. The area itself is a pretty recent addition to the area with a ton of new retail and dinning space as well as public space for concerts and events throughout the summer. The Walrus showcases the excellent seafood of the area with everything from delicious local oysters to fresh caught fish and combines it with some southern favorites like hushpuppys and okra. The beer menu is off the charts with a ton of craft selections, many of which are local. The space is perfect for families too as there is a nice patio in front and big tables where even cranky kids who are tired after a long day of exploring the area won’t be a nuisance.
Another fantastic example of the type of cuisine the region is rapidly gaining fame for it the similar mix of southern comfort and elevated new American style at Succotash, right in the middle of Capitol Hill. Housed in a huge old bank complete with vault doors and a huge sunroof and atrium, it’s less stuffy than may appear and is great for kids. The menu is expansive and offers a ton of options, making it perfect for brunch when no one can decide what to get. The cocktails are superb too, especially at brunch where the bloody Mary just can’t be beat. Kids will love the baked mac and cheese, some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and probably the cheesy fries too.
Sometimes parents just need a break after a long day of kids’ activities in the sun. On these days, we like to get takeout or delivery and eat together in the hotel room, having a little family picnic. Aatash on the Hill, a highly rated Indian restaurant near Capitol Hill made for the perfect family dinner in the room. We were able to get some incredible samosas and butter chicken for the boys and some spicy and flavorful succulent lamb and paneer for us, though it was so good the boys even gave it a try. With the dog cooped up in the room for most of the day, it was a great way to spend time all together and decompress from our long weekend seeing so much in town. The portions were so big we even brought some home too.
Washington DC was even more family friendly than I remembered it from my childhood. There were plenty of great attractions and events to occupy us for the entire weekend and the boys loved seeing so many huge planes, helicopters, spaceships, and rocketships, plus the animals too. They wouldn’t stop talking about it for the entire next week, so we had to find a way to show them more planes the following weekend. The drive down was well worth it for the great experiences, and to relive some of my favorite memories from childhood. I’m glad I was able to share these with them and to get to spend the weekend together with family making our own new memories.