There comes a time where most parents aspire to recreate the family vacations of their youth. Interestingly it is not the warm memories of bonding and sing-alongs that drive this mission, rather the horrifying flashbacks of urban fathers wrestling with tent poles, being stuck in the middle seat or having to share a rollout bed with a grubby little brother. The grainy Kodak photos of awkward adolescent misery instruct us to know better, yet we persist in this self-inflicted initiation to the complete parenting experience.
Seduced by this ritualistic urge, Mom Interrupted and the self-appointed “Dad All Over It” decided to replicate my family's 80’s March Break trip to Washington D.C. While we knew that we wouldn't be able to drive in two tandem Volkswagen vans, containing eight cousins and four parents in total, we were pacified knowing that we could create enough chaos amongst the five of us to create memories for the next generation. And so, channeling the mighty Griswolds, we embarked on a six-day road trip that our children will undoubtedly remember with perhaps a grimace and lots of smiles.
Washington D.C. is rumored to have been built on a swamp. Whether true or not, this explanation is frequently used to justify the intense summer heat and mild winters. Luckily, the South beats us to spring, making most March visits ideal for sweatshirts, raincoats and maybe even shorts. The city is blissfully walkable so comfortable shoes are a must. Consider embracing the current backpack trend as being hands free makes getting around so much easier. Bright raincoats and t-shirts are of real assistance when tracking your crew in a crowd. (In no way does the writer endorse dressing the entire family in matching outfits and will not be held responsible for robberies and ridicule stemming from this poor decision.)
Although accessible by plane, likely train, and maybe even boat, we chose to drive to D.C. from Ottawa. Minor stressful moments at the border included watching the boy child shove an entire foot long meatball sub into his mouth, to avoid confiscation, and enduring a certain eldest’s glass-breaking recitation of our Miranda Rights.
To break up the trip, we included a visit to the Hershey Factory, located in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Once adjusted to the sensation of a selfie stick snaking over my shoulder every five minutes, the drive became quite smooth. The highways were easy, because I wasn’t driving, and plentiful billboards showcasing poetic verse such as, “Every Colon Deserves a Happy Ending” added to the scenery. A stop at one particular truck stop gave us hours worth of open, educational conversation to help pass time through the aptly named Endless Mountains.
After researching hotel prices and the amount of physical space provided, we decided that the best plan for our family of five was to book a vacation rental from VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) www.vrbo.com . I was initially skeptical of this plan, and the tagline, “located on an historic alley”, did not soothe my active imagination. Luckily for my husband, we pulled up to a beautiful refurbished carriage house near Logan Circle. The unit had two bedrooms, a kitchen, living space, a large bathroom and free parking. A nearby grocery store allowed us to easily load up on snacks, breakfast foods and wine. Laundry and a stocked coffee maker iced the cake. The one small flaw with our rental, uneven stairs, proved to be a great source of comedic entertainment as we took listening to each other fall up to our rooms. Although the price ended up comparable to hotel rates, we gained space and saved tons of money on food and parking.
Our hosts warned us that public transit and parking can be expensive and challenging in D.C. and suggested using Uber for excursions to more distant places. Due to our location, we chose to stay parked and attack the city on foot. I am a big fan of walking a new location to see things that might otherwise be missed. One trip highlight was seeing a presidential motorcade go by. As a Canadian living in Ottawa, used to our Prime Minister’s low key presence, it was breathtaking to witness the silent closed off streets, followed by the rush of approximately sixteen black vehicles swerving and racing past.
Walking is also a great time for talking, listening and working on life skills like personal space and body awareness.
Food can seem scarce around the National Mall. Luckily a smart friend directed us to the Cascade Café located in the National Gallery of Art. The Café is cafeteria style, has many menu options, tables and bathrooms. Outside of the Mall, we enjoyed lunch at both Cosi and Panera Bread. These healthy sandwich shops were quick and very tasty. Two of our favorite picks for dinner were Ted’s Bulletin and Matchbox. Overall we found portion sizes to be quite generous. It might be a good idea to check with your server prior to ordering, especially for the kids.
Washington D.C. has an abundance of things to do with kids and most of it is free!
The Smithsonian Institution is comprised of 19 museums including the National Zoological Park. The museums are open every day of the year, except for Christmas Day, and entry is almost always free. This means that if your toddler freaks out, or your tween collapses, nothing is lost. You can move guiltlessly from museum to museum and even revisit your favourite. All of the museums we visited were geared for children and encouraged hands-on learning. Get there early because they do get busy and have a lot to see. Two a day seemed to be our limit and none of us nap. Although some of us wanted to…
The National Museum of Natural History
This incredible building can initially seem overwhelming. Planning your visit with some help from the information desk can really pay off. We received great tips and even free tickets to the Butterfly Pavilion. Our brood particularly loved the dinosaur exhibit, complete with working fossil lab, and the mummies. Staff manning Q?rius carts offer additional teachable moments throughout the museum. The Butterfly Pavilion is so interactive that staff request visitors to check for “hitchhikers” upon exciting.
This one merited a repeat visit. With hundreds of rockets, spacecraft and planes I truly thought my husband, I mean kids, would never call it quits. What I loved best was being able to observe the size and construction of famous spacecraft, gear and suits throughout history.
The zoo was one of the only places we drove too. Parking is extremely limited so go early. There may also be an opportunity to reserve parking in advance, but we didn’t discover that until after squealing in on one tire. Clean, lush, educational and environmentally minded, the zoo is home to 400 species of well-loved animals.
The spy museum is well worth the ticket price. Our visit was so lengthy that I dodged security to inhale a granola bar, for fear of fainting. The only museum dedicated to espionage in the United States, this dark and very cool looking space houses exciting historical artifacts, such as the Enigma machine. There is also a healthy dose of James Bond along with activities, videos and fascinating displays. I personally loved the wall of weapons. Lipstick pistol anyone?
One of the best things we did was to book a two-hour group walking tour of the National Mall with a company called Free Tours By Foot. The tour was led by a strict and hilarious woman who peppered us with tons of great information while we checked out sites like the Washington Monument, White House (from a distance), WWII Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This was a great way to learn and anything but boring. Plus, having someone else assertively lead the pack gave few options to potential whiners or stragglers. Bring some cash, unless you are a really fast runner, as the expectation is to pay what you wish.
Washington D.C. is a vibrant city of beautiful architecture, culture and heaps of history right at your fingertips. I was also delighted to learn, from the local gentleman assisting my descent from an eleven-foot fence following an unfortunate key situation, that Washington D.C. is no longer the murder capital of America. As guests, the streets seemed clean, safe and surprisingly quiet. All of this made for a great trip and we may actually need to look for other opportunities to scar the children. Luckily I have a few more ideas…