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Washington, D.C. for a Great Family Vacation and All-American Fun

Teeming with history, our nation's capitol has sites and surprises kids will love, from the National Mall and museums to a zoo, planetarium and 'wax' White House

Whether it's presidential elections, hot political debates or just fascination with those big white buildings, kids get curious about how the United States is governed. Instead of explaining it to them, why not show them by planning a visit to Washington, D.C.?

For traveling southeast Michigan families, this destination gets big points for a variety of museums, parks and things to do – including loads of free attractions. And, since it hosts millions of tourists each year, everything is fairly accessible and kid-friendly. Get your bearings here for a "capitol" time.

National Mall

Start your visit with a trip to the National Mall. Along the "mall," you'll find several famous sites, such as the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and others. It's like a huge outdoor museum to walk along the mall's monuments – but, unlike an indoor museum, your children won't feel confined – and whispers are definitely not required.

Take in some truly spellbinding scenery, too. Especially around March and April, cherry trees are a big deal in D.C. (it even hosts the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival). The trees have become a welcome sight in and around the Jefferson Memorial since they were first given to the United States as a gift from Japan in 1912.

Prefer a little guidance? See the National Mall with DC by Foot. This walking tour company gives free tours that are suitable for children, with guides tossing in games, trivia and fun facts. Besides the mall, its other offerings include a Lincoln Assassination tour, Arlington Cemetery and Capitol Hill. Gratuity is recommended. It also offers for-charge sightseeing, including Ghosts of Georgetown and twilight bus tour.

Museums galore

The museums in D.C. not only pay homage to political history but cultural highlights, too. Where else can you find exhibition spaces that include stately art of past presidents – along with cultural icons like LL Cool J? Here, you'll find it at The National Portrait Gallery.

And don't miss out on the Smithsonian. With its variety of museums, it offers families an amazing look at history at an affordable price: free. There's a Smithsonian-affiliated institution to pique just about any child's interest. Start with the National Air and Space Museum, which catalogues the beginning of the space program. At one exhibit, your child can pilot a plane and bring it in for a landing (don't worry: even though the simulation feels real, it's not).

The National Museum of Natural History gives your kids a feel for another kind of flight – butterflies. Its pavilion lets little ones roam among several varieties. And the National Museum of American History brims with all things U.S., from advertising and clothing to popular entertainment and transportation. See the original "Star-Spangled Banner" and glimpse Dorothy's ruby slippers, all in one place.

There are plenty of other national museums you can visit with your kids. If one doesn't pan out, head to another without worrying that you've wasted any money.

Zoo and planetarium

Take a 20-minute subway ride from the National Mall to visit the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, which was created by an act of Congress in 1889. Today, the zoo houses more than 2,000 animals of 400 species (again, it's free!). Little ones will love the mash-up of pizza and agriculture at the Kids' Farm. Here, they'll meet a variety of farm creatures and see how one of their favorite foods is made in the Pizza Garden. There's a Giant Pizza Playground, too!

For another outdoor perspective, visit Rock Creek Park, home to the only planetarium that's run by the National Park Service. Peep online in advance for a schedule of its free shows.

Wax White House

One of Washington, D.C.'s most prominent landmarks is also one of the most difficult to get into. That's right: There's not really a welcome mat outside of the White House. To tour inside the President's residence, you'll need to plan ahead. To arrange a tour, you have to get your local congressman to write you a letter.

Instead of worrying about getting inside the real White House – which, even if you have reservations, can be canceled at any time – visit the next best thing: Madame Tussauds version. In this wax museum, you can get your picture taken in the Oval Office or even next to a president or two. While tickets can be pricey for a whole family, the pictures are worth it.

Madame Tussauds is located in the Penn Quarter section of Washington, D.C., also home to the International Spy Museum and more museums. Keep in mind that these spots are better for older children.

Government fun

Luckily – pending any major events going on – you can take a free tour of the historic U.S. Capitol. Give kids a chance to gawk at the ornate ceiling of the rotunda, right under the dome – which connects the House of Representative and Senate. Talk about being right in the middle of things! You'll need to make a reservation in advance (which you can do online). Typical hours are 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. It kicks off with a 13-minute film and lasts about an hour.

Swing by the National Archives, too, to check out the original "John Hancock" on the Declaration of Independence, suggests the area's online tourist hub, Destination DC, in its guide to 100 free (and almost free) things to do. Photo ops also abound, it notes, from a shot with FDR's pup Fala at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial to the Washington Monument, the iconic ode to George Washington.

A few travel tips

Depending on your plans, Washington, D.C. can be an affordable destination. If you stick to national museums, you won't pay anything for admission fees. Hotel rates can be higher during high-traffic times (including March/April, when the cherry blossom festivities are in high gear).

Leave your car at the hotel and use the safe, clean public buses or Metrorail. Better yet, hop on the tourist-friendly transport circulator for $1, which stops at all the major attractions.

In warm weather, you'll be able to balance indoor time at museums and national sites with outdoor time at parks and on walking tours.

And, with so much to do around D.C., you shouldn't try to jam it all into one trip. Instead, plan to visit the nation's capitol again – and again – to see everything the area has to offer!

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