SmithsonianIt wasn't until College when I spent a semester in London that I realized all museums were not free. This is because everything at the Smithsonian is free. It is, without a doubt, the most complete education you can get for free. History, Culture, Art, Nature, Space, Technology... everything is covered. And it isn't just pictured on the walls, they have activities for kids, family and adults all the time.
While there are obvious options, like the Zoo or the Natural History Museum, I and my kids definitely recommend the following places to visit. The kids are still talking about some.
Natural History MuseumI know I mentioned it as obvious, but I can't overstate how incredible this place is. You should definitely check out the insect exhibit, with LIVE insects. They also have a great butterfly exhibit, but you have to get tickets for a set time. You could spend days seeing everything.
HirshornThe Hirshorn Museum is the best lace for anyone even slightly interested in art. They have a lot of modern art, but also exhibits that will really change your way of seeing the world. Colin and Rachel were really taken by the Andy Warhol: Shadows exhibit, where a painting of the same thing was done in 100 panels, all with different color or lighting. Colin, at 4, wanted to get home so he could color one himself. Rachel wanted a picture of a metal doll, so she could draw it. They were both so taken by the art that they wanted to make it themselves. It was incredible.
SacklerI bet you don't even know this exists. The Sackler gallery has Asian art, with another museum across the garden for African art. What's always interesting about these is that the museum entrance is above ground, but the rest of the museum is set like a silo down 60 feet or so underground. While the exhibits are good, the real difference with the Sackler is that they have a lot of events for kids and families. We went with the in-laws and kids and spent 2 - 3 hours jut taking stamps of the word Love in different languages on Valentine's day in 2012. It doesn't sound great, but it really is an amazing time.
HolocaustThe Holocaust museum always changes my outlook on what we can do as humans. It will be the most depressing thing you do, and you'll remember it for years. It's worth doing, but not with young kids, and generally not unless you're at a place where the depression won't hit you. Remember to get
AquariumDid you even know there was the National Aquarium in DC? I think it costs $10 per person, and is very small. It's also all underground and well hidden. It also often has pop-up events. We saw and touched different bones of fish and amphibians that they brought out on a rolling table.
MemorialsIf you find a nice day, you should walk the mall, from the Washington Monument (definitely get tickets to go up, but there are more impressive high-up places to visit) past the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial, then around Independence Avenue to the George Washington and MLK Memorials.
Off the MallNearby the Washington Mall, but not part of the Smithsonian, is the Old Post Office Pavilion. It has a foo court, which is perfect for a cheap lunch instead of buying in the museums. But also check out the bell tower. It's free, and a simple elevator ride up. In my opinion, it has a much better view of the Mall over what the Monument can offer.
You should also go to the National Cathedral (did you know it's Episcopal, we Episcopalians do know how to go big and get the prime real estate). The garden is awesome for a walk or picnic, and check out the towers, they are the absolute best views of DC.
If you're at the Zoo, or just nearby, make time to see a movie at The Uptown. It's one of the most impressive movie theaters I have ben to. Lots of history, and I love that t has a balcony. I remember my dad taking me there to see Star Wars A New Hope (Episode IV) when I was really young.