Washington DC Getaway With Teens - My Family Travels

Fresh ideas for teens and their folks who are visiting (or re-visiting) the capital of the United States.

We recently explored our own backyard with13-year-old daughter Maddy and 12-year-old son Jamie, and found three museums of interest to older kids and teens, plus a great hotel:

International Spy Museum

Our nation’s Capital fittingly has the largest U.S. museum devoted to espionage. Since launching in 2002, the International Spy Museum has become a major tourist attraction, housed within walking distance to the White House and the FBI (but not the secretive CIA out in Virginia). Upon entering the museum, visitors assume a secret identity, build a "cover" and attend a video briefing on the nature of spying. The "School for Spies" exhibit identifies how spies are recruited and trained and displays the tricks of their trade, including lipstick pistols and microdots (documents as tiny as punctuation marks). Visitors break codes, search for spies and become the subjects of covert surveillance through interactive exhibits with some cutting edge visual effects.

Our kids loved crawling through hidden air ducts and playing with computer games that required them to scrutinize video footage to identify a disguised spy (a young, attractive blonde woman who was transformed into an old, bald guy with a limp). While there is a nod to some "Boris and Natasha" cartoons and the Austin Powers and James Bond movies, this impressive museum delves much deeper and is best appreciated by teenage kids who can slow down and examine detailed exhibits.

The International Spy Museum (866/SPY-MUSEUM, 202/EYE-SPY-U), located at 800 F Street NW is open daily from 10am to 8pm from April through October, 10am to 6pm from November through March. Advance tickets are recommended in spring and summer and can be purchased online.

National Museum of the American Indian

Opened in September, 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian stands out handsomely on the National Mall, near the Air and Space Museum.  Fifteen years in the making in consultation with many Native Americans, it occupies the last open space on The Mall. Carved to appear windswept, the rough limestone exterior is surrounded by forests, wetlands and crops, a "natural" environment. The museum's entrance faces east toward the rising sun, and other features include a prism window, a 120-foot-high atrium called the Potomac, as well as some fountains that kids will find tempting to experience. This re-creation of nature contrasts dramatically with the Capitol Building towering above all only a few blocks away.

We entered the splendid building, spent a moment reading and listening to the words of welcome in hundreds of Native tongues, grabbed a Family Guide at the info desk and headed for the top (4th) floor using the massive elevators.  We then worked our way down, starting at the Lelawi Theater for a brief multi-media introduction to the museum and Native life.

Two main exhibits flank the theater: Our Universe introduces various Native cultures through cosmological themes and exhibits, while Our Peoples offers interactive exhibits giving voice to the past 500 years as Native cultures struggled to survive the onslaught of newcomers.  One level down Our Lives looks at eight Native communities in today’s world, concentrating on those aspects that make up the identities of Native people. (Don’t miss the Bombardier, a combination Hummer/tank/snowmobile that is used for ice fishing in Manitoba.)

By this time we needed a break from exhibits, so we checked out the Resource Center with its hands-on classroom and Interactive Learning Center (computer stations), where visitors can focus on areas of interest (or send an e-mail post card from the Museum, as ours kids did). Down one level is the wonderful Roanoke Museum Store with books, music and toys (thankfully light on junk), while the Chesapeake Museum Store on the Ground level features often pricey jewelry, textiles and other creations. We all loved the best Smithsonian restaurant in Washington: there's is a lovely counter-serve eatery with foods based on indigenous culinary traditions. And French fries. But if your teens want to go casual, the back side of the museum attracts some of DC's most famous food trucks with a variety of ethnic cuisine.

While the sheer number of exhibits is overwhelming, we simply let our kids naturally gravitate toward those that caught their eyes or ears. As we meandered our way down, we ran into numerous cultural interpreters who answered questions and helped personalize the exhibits. And fortunately there were plenty of attractive, safe places throughout the Museum for our kids to take a "culture break."

While the Family Guide is geared toward preteens and is presented as a small scavenger hunt, it does help everybody focus on the meaning of the seemingly "foreign" exhibits. As our final exhibit, we stood under the 120-foot Rotunda on the ground level, the heart of the building, and looked up and around to see where we had been. The prisms embedded in the walls cast small rainbows around us, and we actually began to sense how we "newcomers" are influenced by the hundreds of Native communities and the land they knew long before us.

The National Museum of the American Indian (202/633-1000), located at 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW is open daily from 10am to 5:30pm. Use the L'Enfant Plaza exit of the Metro, much closer to this museum than the Smitsonian Museum stop. Admission is free. (No strollers available when we visited.)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is an intense and moving place, the polar opposite of the many patriotic and celebratory museums throughout our nation’s Capital. Prior to visiting, parents may want to use the museum's website to determine whether their children – or they – are ready to discuss the horrors on display. The site will help families map out which exhibits to visit and if timed entry tickets (required for some exhibits) are needed in advance.

The Museum curators recommend that visitors be at least 11-years-old to visit most permanent exhibits. We chose to focus solely on the excellent exhibit geared primarily toward kids 8 and up: “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story” (no timed entry ticket required).

Daniel’s Story recounts the personal experience of a young Jewish boy growing up in Nazi Germany. Visiting kids and their parents first are introduced to Daniel through a short video and then walk through his house, touching items that were a part of his everyday life, peeking at his diary entries and in his desk drawer, moving windows up and down to view before-and-after scenes. The exhibit chronicles the dreadful march of repression that led millions to their death, including untold numbers of children.

In the end Daniel’s voice commands all to "Remember my story. Remember the children." The exhibit is an excellent introduction to a topic that is difficult both for kids and adults to comprehend and is designed to encourage further inquiry into the wretched acts of Nazi Germany and others.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (202/488–0400), located at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW is open daily from 10am to 5:30pm. Admission is free. For permanent exhibits, timed entry tickets are necessary and must be obtained in advance.

A Stylish and Funky Hotel

The Hotel Monaco is centrally located in the bustling Penn Quarter, near the International Spy Museum, Mme Tussaud's Wax Museum and the National Portrait Gallery/American Gallery of Art where Shepard Fairey's famous Obama portrait (inspiration for his "Hope" poster) now hangs.

Kimpton transformed the Old General Post Office, a National Historic Landmark into a spacious 184-room hotel. The inventive hotel chain was not permitted to make any significant changes during its recent $34 million renovation, so the hotel retains the original, lovely architectural features, such as soaring, vaulted ceilings (18 feet tall!) and spiral, marble staircases.

The colorful, eclectic décor in the common areas and rooms engaged even our "been there, done that" kids. Jamie particularly liked the leopard print bath robes. We liked the fact that a bust of Thomas Jefferson watched over the kids when we left them alone (just as his statue in the Jefferson Memorial overlooks the President in the White House).

Of the several other Kimpton hotels in D.C., the Monaco may be the most family-friendly, due to its large rooms and central location near many attractions and loads of great restaurants. The Monaco engages kids, and the kid in all of us, by delivering a pet goldfish for your stay (upon request) and a welcoming plate of cookies. To attract parents, the Monaco offers bonded baby sitters on 24-hour notice (sometimes shorter), a complimentary evening wine reception in the lounge and coffee in the morning. For a night out, the hip brasserie Poste is a see-and-be-seen Washington hangout with a very cool outdoor courtyard lounge (there is even a kids menu).

The Hotel Monaco (877/202-5411) is located at 700 F Street, NW.  Inquire about packages that may include admission to the International Spy Museum next door for two adults and two kids, with free parking.

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