Visiting the world’s largest museum complex might seem like anathema to kids. But don’t let that put you off going to Washington DC. Far from being dusty, dingy and dull, the Smithsonian institution Museums are utterly riveting and could easily consume three or more days of your holiday with barely a yawn or a shuffle of feet.
Combine the US Capital with some free-spirited roaming in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and then head north for a good drenching at mighty Niagara Falls. From there, either loop south to New York for a head-spinning finale of shopping and sightseeing, or strike east towards New England where the beaches of Cape Cod and Maine beckon.
Lying at the heart of Washington DC, the National Mall is the epicentre for sightseeing in the capital. At one end, you’ve got the US Capitol (aoc.gov) and at the other, the Washington Monument and White House. While all three landmarks are worth at least a walk- past, it’s the treasure trove of museums lining each side of the Mall that will fascinate children.
Pick two or three that particularly appeal, and intersperse them with less brain-curdling stuff, like a visit to the National Zoological Park (nationalzoo.si.edu) with its giant pandas, gorillas and tigers, an outing to the National Theatre (natiorialtheatre.org) which holds free shows on Saturday mornings, or a day trip to Rock Creek Park and Nature Center (nps.gov) which has trails for walking, cycling and horse riding.
No visit to Washington DC is complete without experiencing at least one of the Smithsonian Institution’s 14 museums (open daily from 1000-1730, admission free). The National Air and Space Museum (nasm.si.edu) is a head-spinning, neck-craping shrine to flying. Exhibits range from the original 1903 Wright Flyer to the command module of Apollo 11. You can handle a lump of moon rock, take a virtual journey through space and race paper darts.
If your kids want more, a separate branch of the museum, the Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles f international Airport, has a vast hangar where pride of place goes to the Space Shuttle Enterprise. More winged wonders can be seen in the butterfly garden outside the National Museum of Natural History (mnh.si.edu). Inside you’ll find a ‘natural selection’ that would have made Darwin go weak at the knees.
Must-sees include the imposing African elephant in the Rotunda, the 15-m-long northern right whale suspended in the Ocean Hall and the wonderful dioramas in the Hall of Mammals – where you can experience a thunderstorm and crawl through an arctic snow tunnel. Dinosaur nuts won’t be disappointed either.
As well as Allosaurus, Diplodocus and a digitally restored Triceratops, you’ll find a life-size model of a pterosaur with a 12-m wingspan and the jaws of a prehistoric shark, Carcharodon megalodon, with 15-cm-long teeth.
Have a peep at the palaeontologists at work in the glass-enclosed FossilLab, then do a spot of detective work yourself in the hands-on Discovery Room. Other museums with stimulating children’s programmes include the National Museum of the American Indian (nmai.si.edu) and the National Gallery of Art (nga.gov).
From Washington DC, head 120 km westbound on 1-66 and you’ll reach Front Royal – starting point for the spectacular Skyline Drive. This 170-km route undulates across the forested ridges of the Appalachian Mountains in Shenandoah National Park.
Be sure to take a walk in the woods, even if it’s just on the Limberlost Trail (milepost 43), a gentle 2-km stroll that’s accessible to all. At Waynesboro, the road continues south on the 755-km Blue Ridge Parkway through the Great Smoky Mountains.