Washington DC has a lot to offer. Almost too much if you only have a few days to see as many monuments and museums as possible. Throw in a high schooler, and the beautiful masterpieces in the Sackler Gallery may be greeted with a yawn and an eye roll over your shoulder. Our teenage son recently toured DC with a Scout group, and in two jam-packed days, managed to hit most of the highlights. Here’s a rundown of his favorite sights, buildings, moments, and monuments to help you plan your next trip to Washington DC with teens.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
No surprise here… he’s a boy, so of course he dug the airplanes and astronaut exhibits in the Air and Space Museum. Most kids love this one, regardless of gender. Here he saw everything from the Wright Flyer and Spirit of St. Louis to World War II aircraft, modern military unmanned aerial vehicles, and artifacts from the Apollo moon landings.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Though this isn’t in Washington DC proper, it still counts. The two hangars serve as a companion to the Air and Space Museum, and are located just south of Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. Together, they house thousands of aviation and space vehicles including a Concorde, the Enola Gay, and a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Another perennial kid favorite, and ours was no exception. One of the most-visited natural history museums in the world, this one contains 126 million specimens. Dinosaurs, fossils, meteorites, gemstones, insects, ocean creatures, birds, and lots of animals and their skeletons. What’s not to like?
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
The boy did pop into the donut-shaped Hirshhorn Museum of contemporary art, but I think he was expecting less oil on canvas and more Chihuly glass. He preferred the abstract pieces across the way in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art.
National Museum of American History
To be fair, he only had time to visit a few of the 11 Smithsonian museums and galleries on the National Mall, so he chose the ones he thought he’d like the most. There are, however, many other museums here that would be of interest to an older kid. In particular, the National Museum of American History displays pieces of true Americana like Kermit the Frog, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, and a fragment of Plymouth Rock. There’s an exhibit that peeks into the everyday life of Consumer Era teenagers of the 1950’s through 1970’s. Modern kids will enjoy making fun of Princess phones and Farrah Fawcett shampoo. They’ll also like the roller coaster ride simulators located on the lower level.
National World War II Memorial
Topping the teen’s list of favorite monuments was the memorial honoring the 16 million people who served in the United States armed forces during WWII. Opened in 2004, the oval, fountain-studded pool is surrounded by towers with the names of the U.S. states and territories.
The homage to Thomas Jefferson made the list as second favorite. Overlooking the Tidal Basin, the domed and columned memorial to one of our Founding Fathers features a bronze statue and carved stone panels with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
Speaking of our 32nd president, his memorial can be found just a short walk away in West Potomac Park. Here, an expansive plaza represents each of FDR’s four terms in office with open-air rooms depicting the New Deal, the Depression era, the destruction of World War II, and the nation’s mourning upon his death. I don’t think the 16-year-old got all the artistic references, but he thought the statues were cool.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Nearby is the memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., which pairs a “Mountain of Despair” with a “Stone of Hope” symbolizing the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. The monument was inspired by his famous speech after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
And who could go to DC without standing at the massive feet of Abraham Lincoln? Any kid who has studied American History will like this place, and should even recognize the Gettysburg Address etched into the walls. Early proposals for the memorial favored a log cabin shrine more befitting of the president’s humble nature, but the Greek Doric temple eventually won out.
Korean War Memorial
Flanking one side of Lincoln’s temple is the triangular memorial to Korean War veterans which poignantly brings to life the soldier in the field. The stainless steel statues represent each branch of the armed forces. They patrol beside a 164-foot mural wall that ends at a Pool of Remembrance.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall
On Lincoln’s opposite side are the iconic, twin black walls of the Vietnam Memorial, which didn’t fail to make an impression on our son. He actually texted to ask if we had any family members who served in the war. (So happy that he’s thinking!) The answer would be yes, but that person’s name is, thankfully, not enshrined on the wall. Even if you don’t have a personal connection to one of the more than 58,000 names, it’s a great teaching moment for the younger generation.
The U.S. Capitol got a thumbs up from the young traveler, as it should. The building serves as both a monument and a working office for members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The original was completed in 1800, but the current structure has been expanded and renovated a number of times.
Fancy Corinthian columns front the Supreme Court building not far from the Capitol on First Street. There are a number of historical, court-related exhibits on the ground floor, including portraits and belongings of former justices, and a large, bronze statue of Chief Justice John Marshall. The building’s well-known, self-supporting elliptical marble staircases anchor either end.
Library of Congress
The official research library of the United States and purportedly the largest library in the world houses research materials from all parts of the globe in over 450 languages. It’s also stunning to look at.
The original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights reside in the National Archives alongside other important documents like the Louisiana Purchase, the Emancipation Proclamation, and a copy of the Magna Carta. (While interesting to look at, they were, apparently, not worthy of an I-phone photo or an Instagram post.)
Arlington National Cemetery’s Changing of the Guard
A visit to DC wouldn’t really be complete without crossing the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery. Former U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft are buried here, as well as astronaut John Glenn and more than 400,000 other veterans.
As an Eagle Scout, our son was especially moved by the formality and reverence of the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The monument is dedicated to American service members who died without their remains being identified.
Lastly, don’t forget to snap a few pictures of other well-known buildings like the Washington Monument and the White House. If you have time, your older kids may also like taking a tour of the FBI building or the International Spy Museum.
And if you really want to get the kids engaged during your trip, nothing beats a good scavenger hunt, especially if it involves beating your little sister to the prize. This interactive Washington, DC Scavenger Guide for Kids may be marketed to a slightly younger crowd, but reviewers say it’s actually good for the whole family, and even veteran visitors to the U.S. Capital will make new discoveries while using it.