**Special thanks to the Newseum and the International Spy Museum for hosting my family’s visit for review purposes. All opinions expressed reflect actual and honest experiences.**
When it comes to passing the time, families will find that Washington DC offers a wealth of activities. Between the museums, monuments and available tours, the biggest problem families have will comes not in identifying quality attractions, but in narrowing down their itineraries. Having recently returned from a spring break trip to our nation’s capital, I’m here to offer five must-do activity suggestions for families visiting Washington DC. Having done all of these things as well as several others, my family can vouch that each of these were A+ ways to spend our time.
What, exactly, is the Newseum, you ask? It’s a museum dedicated to explaining and defending free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. It includes six levels of exhibits and fifteen theaters. As you might imagine, it’s a sprawling place.
We began our tour on the concourse level with a short film that oriented us to the building and offered tips on what to see. From there, we took an elevator to the sixth floor and stepped out on the deck for a prime view of the Capital Building.
Next, we wandered our way through the exhibits. This wall of newspaper front pages from around the world was awesome. Each one was current to the day; it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to visit that wall on a day that big, global news breaks.
We also got to see this large section of the Berlin Wall.
So many of the museum’s exhibits offered really interesting tidbits on how the freedom of expression has impacted history.
“Louder Than Words” is a temporary exhibit on display through July 2017. Included in the display were Alan Jackson’s handwritten Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) lyrics, scribbled on a piece of paper. And the jeans Bruce Springsteen wore to perform Born in the USA.
Easily the most sobering display was that of the 9/11 Gallery. It features the twisted wreckage of the broadcast antenna from the top of the World Trade Center. Nearby, a multi-story wall showcases front pages covering that tragedy. There are also stations where visitors can write digital messages after reflecting on the display. Some of those messages are projected onto the wall.
If You Go: Don’t miss my hands-down favorite part of the Newseum: the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery. As the name suggests, it’s an awe-inspiring gallery of Pulitzer Prize winning photos displayed with stories from the photographers who captured the moments on film. The photos contained will make you laugh and cry and experience just about every emotion in between.
International Spy Museum
After our visit, my ten-year-old son did not stop talking about the International Spy Museum for a solid 48 hours. Not having ever been one myself, I can’t say with certainty, but I suspect that this particular museum embodies everything that a ten-year-old finds cool. From the moment you enter, the design of the space lends to a very techie feel. That ambiance continues as you board the elevators and transition from the entrance into the exhibits.
As guests enter the museum, they’re asked to assume and study a cover persona; there are several options to choose from. As you progress through the exhibits, you are given several opportunities to “test” your spy skills by putting your cover to the test. Along the way, you also get to see some amazingly cool spy tools and read stories that will blow your mind.
Among the exhibits, you’ll see this Aston Martin DB5 from the 1964 James Bond thriller, Goldfinger.
And this subminiature camera disguised inside a watch.
Girls are spies, too. And they’ve got some pretty cool gadgets in their purses. Like this “Kiss of Death” USSR KGB 1965 issued lipstick pistol.
The International Spy Museum offers an extra special experience for guests over age 12. Operation Spy is a one hour live action adventure gives participants the opportunity to become an intelligence officer on an international mission. Jayce wasn’t quite old enough to take part during our visit but I will tell you that he has made it his own personal mission to return after his 12th birthday just so that he can take part.
Your best bet is to allow two hours to tour the museum, not including participating in any extra experiences like Operation Spy. There’s a great gift shop on the premises to pick up some top-secret souvenirs, too.
If you go: Don’t forget to choose a cover identity at the very beginning of your experience. You’ll have several opportunities to check your spy skills as your visit progresses.
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum
During our stay in DC, we also made a stop in at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. I have to tell you that it was surprisingly entertaining. This place is a social media gold mine when it comes to capturing fun photos. Where else can you snap selfies with any of our nation’s current/former presidents? Yep. Even this guy.
We also ran into Mr. Lincoln, who was eerily seated at Ford’s Theater.
And my current Presidential crush, TJ, or Thomas Jefferson (shout out to America’s First Daughter for making one of our founding fathers relevant for 2017) for those of you who aren’t on familiar terms.
This US Presidential height chart was also really interesting. Apparently Bill Clinton is a giant in presidential standards. Who knew?
In any case, Madame Tussaud’s proved to be a very entertaining and totally fun use of the hour it took us to visit. One of the things the kids loved is that they provided period costumes for dressing up and posing with famous figures. Where else in DC can you capture a photo like this?
Not to worry, though, Madame Tussaud’s wasn’t all politics. They had familiar faces from all facets of American pop culture, including athletes, singers, actors, media moguls and American heroes. We especially found this to be a fun and relaxing itinerary highlight after visiting some of the more formal and/or informative museums in the area. It’s a great way to break up a day and give your kids the chance to get silly.
If you go: don’t forget your camera! And make sure you look around the exhibits to see if costumes are available to use as props in your photos.
For those of you who are a little rusty on your American History, Ford’s Theater is the location where President Lincoln was assassinated. Though it is still operational as a live theater, visitors are also invited to explore exhibits and immersive learning displays throughout the museum.
Although there were several interesting displays in the museum, my hand-down favorite part of this experience was visiting Petersen House, the real-life, honest-to-goodness location of President Lincoln’s actual death. No, really. Guests are permitted to step foot in the actual, physical room where Abrahama Lincoln breathed his last, labored breaths after having been shot at the theater across the street.
The Petersen House across the street from Ford’s Theater also offers a thorough aftermath account of events that followed the Ford’s Theater shooting. It’s really a very good overview of events presented in a very engaging and interesting way that appeals even to elementary school age children. At the close of the tour, guests can see a tower of books that represents the overwhelming quantity of books that have been written about Abraham Lincoln.
No visit to Washington DC would be complete without touring the monuments and memorials on the National Mall. Each holds its own significance, of course, but for my family the most poignant and sobering of them are:
- The Lincoln Memorial
- The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall
- The Washington Monument
- The Korean War Memorial
- The Iwo Jimo Memorial (not located on the National Mall)
The Lincoln Memorial seems to be DC’s most popular one and it’s really no mystery why. Lincoln is depicted as an imposing and stately leader, much like he presumably was in real life. The sheer size of the memorial carries with it an air of awe. Having visited during both daylight and nighttime hours, I would recommend trying to see the memorial during both times.
During our most recent visit to DC, we were treated to the most beautiful sight: a full moon rising behind the Washington Monument. It was gorgeous.
Our visit in March also gave us the chance to see the Iwo Jimo Memorial with a blanket of snow all around.
These were among our favorite Washington DC activities. Hopefully you, too will enjoy visiting our nation’s capital! If you’ve already visited, which DC hot spots would you include on this list?
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Such a helpful article! Loved following along on your family’s adventures. Wax museums are surprisingly fun, aren’t they? Madame Tussaud’s is now on my list.