In 2018 we split a week’s time between the nation’s capital and the historic state of Virginia. From the Smithsonian museums, to the homes of presidents, to the Jamestown colony, to the monuments of DC we traveled our way through this 400 years of American history.
- Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum
- Spy Museum
- Mount Vernon
- Jamestowne Site
- Colonial Williamsburg
- National Gallery of Art
- Lincoln Memorial
- Manasses National Battlefield
- James Monroe’s Highland
- Arlington National Cemetery
- Alexandria, VA
- Hyatt Place Sterling/Dulles
- White House Tour
- Crowds at Museum of Natural History
- Inability to see even more
- Day 1: Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum
- Day 2: White House & Spy Museum
- Day 3: Mount Vernon, Jamestown, and Williamsburg
- Day 4: Smithsonian Museums & Lincoln Memorial
- Day 5: Manassas, Monticello, and Highland
- Day 6: Chesapeake, Alexandria, and Arlington
Day 1: Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum
Trying to visit all the museums, historic sites, and monuments in Washington D.C in a week’s time is a fool’s errand. Trying to do so while also incorporating time at numerous stops in Virginia is even more so. I had been to D.C. twice before in my life and was eager to bring my family there to explore the museums and see the monuments, but I also really wanted to see many places in Virginia that I had always read about and looked forward to one day seeing.
So I put together the best plan I could that would cover as much territory and as many of the ‘Must Sees’ for my family. There would be zero time to waste.
As soon as we were on the ground at Reagan National Airport we grabbed our bags, got our rental car and drove off to our very first museum stop of the trip. The Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum.
Attractions: Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum: 5 Stars
I have been to the Air & Space Museum on the National Mall twice (the last time in 1999), but I had never been to the newer Udvar-Hazy museum which houses much bigger air and spacecraft a few miles outside the DC center. In my opinion, the UH museum is the better of the two.
We spent about 3 hours at the museum despite being tired from traveling and it was every bit worth it. My kids actually ran excitedly down the from the doorway to the exhibit floor once they saw all the planes and spacecraft.
The museum houses the Space Shuttle Discovery, an SR-71 Blackbird, and numerous aircraft dating back to the earliest days of flight. We also went up to the observation tower which provides an interesting look at air traffic control.
Now that we were exhausted and had spent a fair amount at the gift shop, we headed to Sterling, VA to our hotel.
Lodging: Hyatt Place Sterling/Dulles North: 5 Stars
There are a lot of advantages to staying in DC itself since many hotels are near metro train stops and you can pretty much see the entire city that way. But since we were renting a car and wanted to explore Virginia too, we wanted to find a place that was less expensive with free parking and provided easy access to both DC and the rest of Virginia.
Sterling is a great place to stay being 45 minutes from the national mall and full of good hotels and restaurants that cost less than half of what the hotels in DC cost. It is also much quieter, and let’s be honest, probably a bit safer than the streets of DC for a family.
Hight Hyatt Place was a perfect stay for us. The room was nice and comfortable with plenty of space. They served a great breakfast every morning that saves us a ton of time and money in the morning. And we could walk to any number of restaurants nearby. And parking was free.
Restaurants: Miller’s Ale House: 4 Stars
After checking in we went the half block to this brewpub in Sterling. The food was quite good and so was the beer and service. I would find out the next day when I checked my wallet that I left my bank card there and after calling them was relieved to hear they had it safely in their possession.
We were pretty tired by that point and had an early day planned so we headed back to the hotel to sleep.
Day 2: White House & Spy Museum
To get into the White House you have to request passes from your congressman. After acquiring those a few weeks in advance we left the hotel and drove quickly to find parking near the White House.
Attractions: White House Tour: 2 Stars
Wait, what? I’m giving the 200 year old presidential mansion 2 stars. The place where Lincoln slept and FDR gave his Pearl Harbor radio address. Yes, I am. Here’s the deal.
Every American should go to the White House once in their life. If you went when you were too young to remember it, go again. But then don’t waste your time on it again unless things change substantially.
The bottom line is this. You will spend 45 minutes in the security line from hell then be herded quickly through a few rooms without a tour guide and out the door. Seriously. You will have to go out of your way to get the passes by contacting your senator, go through every possible security measure by grouchy secret service members, then once you are in have about 5 minutes to look at a few rooms they allow you to see as a visitor then poof, out the door.
Truthfully, the only other time I did the White House tour was in 1996, and it was a much better experience. The lines and security were simple. There was a tour guide to explain the rooms and the portraits. You felt like it was worth it. Now? It’s not. 9/11 changed America and the security needs and the tour guides I guess are a casualty of budget cuts.
After the highly disappointing White House tour we headed off to a more fun and kid-friendly place, the International Spy Museum.
Attractions: International Spy Museum: 5 Stars
The ISM is not one of the Smithsonian museums but is a privately run museum in downtown DC. It is great for all ages and I highly recommend it. There are tons of exhibits covering all aspects of espionage and even James Bond. We learned a great deal at the museum and my five-year-old, Evan, had fun crawling through the air shafts. I don’t have any photos from the museum but it’s not because it wasn’t great.
After going through the museum and realizing shortly thereafter that I was missing my bankcard, we headed back to retrieve it in Sterling and called it a day.
Day 3: Mount Vernon, Jamestown, and Williamsburg
Our next day would involve quite a bit of driving so we set off right after breakfast for our first big stop of the day.
Attractions: Mount Vernon: 5 Stars
One of my enduring memories is seeing my two kids running and playing on George Washington’s lawn. Oh to be young and carefree.
Mount Vernon is a must visit when in the DC area. You’ll learn a great deal more about the first president and Revolutionary War general and see what life was really like for the noble Virginian. One takeaway of mine was how industrious and skilled the people of the colonial era really were. Much of the house was built by George Washington himself. Also notice how there are fireplaces in every room. What would now would be a luxury was at the time a necessity.
Foloowing our visit to Mount Vernon we proceeded south to our next stop. Colonial Jamestowne
Attractions: Historic Jamestowne: 5 Stars
If you’ve noticed we are history buffs and the opportunity to visit the site of Jamestowne was something we weren’t going to pass up. The site of the first English colony in Virginia is on a sublime stretch of land by the James River. You’ll see the ruins of a church, graves, and some reconstructed building and even cannons (a favorite of my kids on any trip). I wish we had had more time for the glassblowing exhibit and to see the nearby Jamestown Settlement.
Jamestown Settlement is not the same as Historic Jamestowne. Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum that shows what Jamestown colony would have been like if we could time travel back to 1607. You’ll want to see both. We will have to return.
It was time for dinner and we had set our minds on Williamsburg for dinner, so we continued on to our next stop.
Attractions: Colonial Williamsburg: 5 Stars
This trip is really wracking up the 5 Star reviews. Colonial Williamsburg is a ton of fun and there are endless exhibits up and down the streets. Best of all the structures are all authentic and well-preserved from the 1700s. We watched a colonial march reenactment and the kids had fun playing in the stocks. Spend enough time there and you’ll be going to the ‘necessary’ to relieve yourself and spelling words with ending ‘e’s. Of course we weren’t going to miss out on tavern food.
Restaurants: Josiah Chowning’s Tavern: 5 Stars
There’s nothing better than having a big mug of ale while dining on colonial era dishes in a building that is 300 years old. That’s what you get at Josiah’s in Williamsburg. The wait staff truly stay in colonial character the entire time so if your five-year-old mentions airplanes the waited will look perplexed and assume you are from the future.
After our dinner and a bit more strolling we headed back to Sterling for the night. With a big day in DC planned for tomorrow we’d need a lot of rest.
Day 4: Smithsonian Museums & Lincoln Memorial
On Day 4 our goal was to see a few more Smithsonian museums as well as some of the DC monuments. Since three out of four of us were first time visitors to DC we would prioritize on the Museum of Natural History and go from there.
Our first museum stop was not actually the Museum of Natural History but the National Gallery of Art.
Attractions: National Gallery of Art: 5 Stars
I am an art lover and enjoy making my own art as you can probably tell by the content of the site. Unfortunately I don’t always go to art museums and come away inspired. That is not the case with the National Art Gallery.
This is one of the best art museums in the world. Expect to see jaw-dropping works of art. This is not the home questionable modern art with a piece of carpet tacked to the wall or stacked shop vacs (yes, these are real art pieces in real museums). This is the place where some of the most incredible artworks (paintings and sculptures) you’ll ever see are on display.
After enjoying the art of the NAG we proceeded on to the Museum of Natural History.
Attractions: National Museum of Natural History: 4.5 Stars
Ok, let me tell you something about my experiences here. I visited three times in my life. The first two times were in 1996 and 1999. I spent hours at this museum and was completely inspired and learned a great deal. I will never forget seeing a collection of shrunken heads and being both shocked and amazed.
Since then a movie called ‘Night at the Museum’ came out and this museum has seen a massive uptick in crowds. We really wanted to see this museum thoroughly but just couldn’t. We were dodging people and waiting just to read placards. It took an hour just to see the gemstones (including a certain blue diamond).
The best part of this experience was the Human Origins exhibits which provides a look at how humans evolved from the earliest hominids to our modern form.
This is a 5 Star museum but you might want to come midweek at a time of the year when travel is particularly light, otherwise it will just not be a 5 star experience. We were there at spring break time so we were amid a crush of tourists.
Because a light rain began to fall after exiting the NMNH we decided to return to the car and find lunch before returning to the National Mall. The rains didn’t really subside until mid afternoon when we finally had a chance to go to the Lincoln Memorial.
Attractions: Lincoln Memorial: 5 Stars
Another moment of this trip that I will never forget is my two boys reading the engraved Gettysburg Address on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial. Of all the monuments on the national mall this is the one that I would consider the most ‘can’t miss’ for first time visitors.
I think one of the saddest aspects of modern America is that anyone could attempt to ‘cancel’ this most courageous of American presidents. The Gettysburg Address really is the greatest speech in American history and we’re very lucky to have had such great leaders at such critical moments in history. America could have turned out like so many failed countries if the wrong people didn’t step up at the right time.
Ironically I think the second greatest speech in American history was made from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a hundred years after the Gettysburg Address.
Unfortunately cold weather and tired legs prevented us from seeing more monuments on the National Mall, but we’ll be back. I’ve seen most of them but really wanted to see the newer World War II memorial which didn’t exist when I last visited. Next time.
Day 5: Manassas, Monticello, and Highland
Day five would be another journey into Virginia. We had a busy day planned so we set out early despite the cold windy weather.
Attractions: Manasses National Battlefield: 5 Stars
Just in case you forgot, I’m a history buff, so I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to go to this important Civil War battlefield not far outside Sterling, VA.
I think by now you think I am incapable of giving anything other than 5 stars. But I can and do. Check out my rating of the White House tour (if you forgot).
So two things are readily apparent when you arrive at this battlefield. They have done a great job of both keeping original structures and landmarks in place, they’ve added cannons at locations to help tell the story, and the museum provides a good explanation of the events of the day.
This was the first major battle of the Civil War and moment when people realized this was not going to be an easy war for the North to win. The South had better generals and a greater resolve to fight. One general in particular stood out on this battlefield and that was Stonewall Jackson. The great tactician would lead the South to victory for two more years in Virginia until fatal shot ended his life at Chancellorsville. You have to question whether Lee might have won at Gettysburg had Jackson been there as well.
Following our cold, windy visit to Manasses, we continued on Charlottesville and the home of President Jefferson.
Attractions: Monticello: 5 Stars
The weather in Charlottesville was noticeably warmer, thankfully. This was a house that I had wanted to see from the time I was in grade school and wrote a report about President Jefferson and became a fan of the 3rd president.
Monticello is an amazing place and testament to the genius of Thomas Jefferson. The first presidents were not content to do one thing with their time, but were often architects, brewers, writers, farmers, and more as well as being brilliant politicians. You will see all of that first hand at Monticello.
In today’s world I think there is a decided lack of appreciation for just how wise and forward thinking the founding fathers really were. They made decisions that put in place the framework for the country that would come to be. Jefferson is one of those great, forward-thinking men that came at the right time to lead our country through to independence at great personal risk. That’s one the motivations I have for taking my boys to these places of American history.
My family was quite enjoying our time visiting presidential homes. The next stop came after lunch when my wife decided to check out yet another presidential estate, from another important Virginian.
Attractions: James Monroe’s Highland: 5 Stars
I had never heard of Highland before we arrived there. The crowds were much less than at either Monticello or Mount Vernon, but you will come away with an appreciation for President Monroe and see a more humble but beautiful presidential estate.
Highland provides a tour of the small home where you will learn about Monroe (and the Monroe Doctrine), and allow you time to amble about the various buildings and consider what life would have been like almost 200 years ago.
Following our time at Highland we were ready to drive back to Sterling and plan out the last day of our trip.
Day 6: Chesapeake, Alexandria, and Arlington
We really didn’t have a plan in place for our last day. We were curious to see Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay for the first time and drove off to discover both as best as we could. We ended up going nearly directly straight east and found ourselves at Beverly Triton Nature Park.
Attractions: Beverly Triton Nature Park, Maryland: 3 Stars
I really think another time of year this park would have been nicer, but with the leaves off the trees and largely overcast skies it was rather cold and gray and somewhat depressing. I did see an osprey, however.
We really wanted to find a beach and headed south but did not find any real luck. The coastline in the area of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland seemed utterly inaccessible and not at all enjoyable or scenic. After an hour of trying to find a good area of coastline along the shore of the Chesapeake we decided to return to the DC area for lunch.
Alexandria, VA is a very cool colonial town and I was sure that we could find a good place to eat and drink beer before we decided on our next stop. We succeeded.
Restaurants: Fish Market Restaurant, Alexandria, VA: 4 Stars
The Fish Market was a great place for food and drink in historic Alexandria. We had a relaxing and quiet lunch and plotted out our next destination. In the end it we decided that we should go to nearby Arlington to pay our respects to the nation’s veterans.
Attractions: Arlington National Cemetery: 5 Stars
Arlington isn’t a fun place, but it’s a good place to take kids anyway. It’s a place to pay respects to the soldiers who gave their lives to defend freedom in the United States and abroad. We watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and found the original Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (pictured). We also saw the Kennedy graves and Arlington House, the home of Robert E Lee before it was confiscated in the Civil War. The house was under repair work so we couldn’t enter as I did in 1999.
After a few hours at Arlington our trip was effectively complete. We headed back to the hotel to prepare to leave the following day. We had seen and done a great deal and had a lot of fun too. I was happy to know my kids had experienced and learned so much and had traveled to the nation’s capital at a younger age than I had.
I can say with certainty that you cannot see all that Washington DC has to offer in museums and historic places in even a month, let alone a few days. Adding to that all that Virginia has to offer and we really scratched the surface. We really need to give Maryland another look as well, with better planning. And even West Virginia is just a short drive away. But we’ll be back again to explore some more. And again after that.