Looking for things to do in DC with toddlers that are free and cheap? We were deliberating about where to go on vacation that didn’t involve an overnight flight and wasn’t too long. We decided to go to Washington DC from Vancouver. Washington DC may be a HCOL (High Cost of Living) city ($4.99 package of bacon compares to Vancouver’s bacon prices, but this was at Safeway) but it’s a great place to visit as a tourist and can be very budget travel friendly. Here is a list of things to do in DC with toddlers that won’t break the bank.
Transportation To/ From the Airport
Since we stayed downtown, we were able to take the Metro from the DCA airport (Ronald Reagan Airport) into down. It was only a 15 minute train ride, and each way only cost $2.45USD. Children under 5 years old do not need to pay. You do have to pay $2 for the SmarTrip card but you can reload it. The $2 for the card does not seem like it is refundable. The SmarTrip card allows you to just tap for the train, the bus, and other public transportation in Washington D.C.
Unfortunately I lost my SmarTrip card TWICE so that wasn’t very frugal.
Alternately you can take an Uber Carseat, which is super handy so that we didn’t have to take a car seat with us. It’s not super cheap but a good option if you need to get somewhere not accessible by public transportation. You definitely pay a premium (about $10USD each way) compared to getting a regular Uber but car seats are required in DC.
Toddler Friendly Attractions in Washington DC
Washington DC is well known for their children friendly attractions and travel budget friendly attractions. Many of the museums and attractions are free for the public. Seriously, the best thing about free museums and attractions in Washington DC is that if my toddler doesn’t do well in a museum, it wouldn’t be much of a loss to leave the museum and go somewhere else. Better than paying $30+ per adult for admission only to have to leave after 30 minutes and a toddler melt down!
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo– One of the things we’ve been looking forward to is the zoo, our toddler has never been to one but loves looking at animal pictures in his books. The Smithsonian National Zoo is one of the few free zoos in the United States. The Smithsonian National Zoo is free to the public and is open from 8am to either 5pm or 7pm every day (depending on the season). You can even plan your trip by inputting the date you’ll visit to see the hours the National Zoo will be open. It is easily accessible by the Metro Red Line with a stop at Woodley Park/ Adams or Cleveland Park Station (it was a 10 minute walk). The zoo is huge, we spent about 2 hours here and didn’t get get to see the kid’s farm area!
The Tidal Basin– Although we missed the cherry blossom festival by two weeks, this is still a lovely place for a stroll. The Lincoln Memorial and White House are also near this area and are free attractions. There is elevator access at the Lincoln memorial. The monuments like the Thomas Jefferson Memorial are free and are open 24 hours. For more information about what you’ll see on your own walking tour, check out this page about the Monuments at the Tidal Basin by Cherry Blossom Watch. It was a bit difficult to get here by Metro and there’s a lot of walking involved. We took a free bus (in March 2019 anyway) called The Circulator to get back.
National Air and Space Museum– The Air and Space Museum is a very popular free attraction especially for families and is also in the Tidal Basin vicinity. They are open from 10:00am to 5:30pm every day except for Christmas. There are story times geared towards children age 2-8 with stories about space read by museum staff. Here are their updated hours for story time. We didn’t get a chance to go here (was going to go after the Tidal Basin, but my toddler was having a MMD (major melt down) so we needed to get back to the Airbnb to nap, pronto!).
National Museum of American History– This is probably one of my favourite things to do in DC with toddlers. Wegmans Wonderplace ‘welcomes curious kids age 0-6’ and is a 1700 square foot interactive museum space for little ones. They are open from 10:00am to 4:00pm daily except they are closed on Tuesdays. My toddler LOVED it here. There was so much to do for him and he happily entertained himself for 1.5 hours, he especially enjoyed ‘shopping for produce’ in the interactive play space. There were lots of other little toddlers playing in the play space but it didn’t feel crowded. Outside of the Wegmans Wonderplace it was pretty child friendly too, there was an exhibit on American transportation through the years with trains and a bus to board. It was very well done.
Smithsonian American Art Museum– We wandered into this museum because it was along the way and because it was free. Our toddler didn’t fare so well with the quiet exhibitions and wanted to run around and make noises instead. We did find a nice conservatory/ courtyard called the Kogod Couryard that had a beautiful orchid garden and a cafe that he could run around at (no touching the orchids though!) and a beautiful water scrim (you can look like you are walking on water, literally!). He enjoyed splashing in the water and we grabbed him out of it just before he was about the sit down (in the water). Here are some other family activities (meant for older children) from the SAAM.
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Hockey Lover Husband Friendly Attractions in Washington DC
My husband has been a Washington Capitals fan since he was a teenager- except he hasn’t been to Washington DC until now. He also watched the pivotal Las Vegas Knights vs Washington Capitals playoff game during our YOLO Vegas trip last year (where one hockey ticket was $1160USD!). It was a great experience and the Washington Capitals ended up winning the 2018 Stanley Cup!
So I thought it was apt that if we are in Washington DC we have to watch a hockey game. We bought some nosebleed seats at the Capital One Arena (children under age 3 are free and you don’t need to buy them a ticket). For a list of the cut off for free NHL game admission for children, check out this list here (it generally varies between age 2 to 3). The tickets were $50USD each and we bought two. It was close enough to our Airbnb apartment that if our toddler melted down or absolutely refused to wear his sound protective ear muffs, I would just walk home.
In addition, the Washington Capitals have free practices and morning skates (lasts 30 minutes, a warm up) at the Medstar Capitals Iceplex. They update their schedule monthly. You can watch the team play hockey and practice. FOR FREE. FRONT ROW. It is in Arlington, about a 15-20 minute drive from the District. We bought some souvenirs to try and get their signatures but there were too many people on the Saturday when we went. It was still really cool to be about 1 foot away from Ovechkin though (behind the plexiglass). Here is the calendar for the Washington Capitals morning skate times and practice skates.
As you can see, even though Washington DC is a HCOL area, there are many budget friendly activities to do and attractions to see around the city that are free.
Have you been to Washington DC?
Are there other things to do in DC with toddlers that you would recommend?
GYM is a 40 something millennial writing about personal finance since 2009 and interested in achieving financial freedom through disciplined saving, dividend and ETF investing, and living a minimalist lifestyle. Before you go, check out my recommendations page of financial tools I use to save and invest money. Don’t forget to subscribe for a free dividend yield spreadsheet and the free Young Money Bootcamp PDF.