Washington, DC is not only a beautiful city—it's one of the most educational (and fun!) vacation destinations out there, with an entire National Mall full of free Smithsonian Institution museums to explore. That makes DC an extremely popular choice for family vacations and field trips alike. Case in point: the Metro is crowded with school groups every spring and summer.
If you're traveling to the nation's capital with teens, there are so many museums, monuments, and tourist attractions that middle schoolers and high schoolers might enjoy. But there are plenty of things to do that are purely fun, too, from shopping to biking to lunch at food halls.
See Democracy in Action at the Capitol Visitor Center
Civic-minded teens will be inspired by visiting the U.S. Capitol and seeing government in action. The iconic building itself and grounds are a must-see for tourists. There’s also the new-ish Capitol Visitor Center, which tells the history of the Capitol Building along with the story of representative democracy in the United States. You'll find an exhibition gallery, two orientation theaters, a cafeteria, and two gift shops in the Center. To tour the Capitol's Crypt, Rotunda, and National Statuary Hall, book a guided tour in advance.
Get Immersed in Digital Art
Selfie opportunities are endless at Artechouse, a new gallery where visitors of all ages are invited to immerse themselves in digital art. Located a few blocks from the National Mall, the gallery exhibits mesmerizing light installations and 3D sculptures.
Tickets are $15 and buying in advance online is advised. Just be sure to purchase the daytime admission ticket, because evening hours are limited to ages 21 and up
Spend the Afternoon Shopping in Georgetown
Teens who love malls would be happy to hang out in top-notch DC-area shopping centers like Tysons Corner Center or the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City. But for a dose of history and charm, get a shopping fix in DC’s oldest neighborhood, Georgetown. M Street is lined with both local boutiques and brand-name shops, including some affordable options like H&M, & Other Stories, Forever 21, TJ Maxx, and DSW. Combine shopping with college scouting by visiting nearby Georgetown University’s beautiful campus. Don’t forget to stop and get a cupcake at Georgetown Cupcake (the sweets destination made famous by TLC), Sprinkles, or quirky bakery Baked & Wired.
Blast into Space at the One of the World’s Most-Visited Museum
The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is a perennial favorite with teens and adults, featuring gallery after gallery of awe-inspiring historic planes and rockets — and even a lunar rock you can touch. See an IMAX film, crawl into a flight simulator or be awestruck by the hundreds of artifacts including the original Wright 1903 Flyer, the "Spirit of St. Louis," and the Apollo 11 command module. The museum is free, and lines can be long during tourist season in the spring and summer, so plan accordingly.
Experience the National Museum of African American History and Culture
It takes some advance planning to get into the newest museum on the National Mall, but it’s an incredibly moving experience that teens will remember forever. The best bet is to book free tickets online for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in advance or get in line starting at 6:30 a.m. to book same-day tickets. The sprawling, state-of-the-art museum tells the story of African American life, art, history and culture through artifacts like Nat Turner’s bible, a segregation-era Southern Railway car, and Chuck Berry's Cadillac.
Take a Paddle Boat Out on the Tidal Basin
Teens will agree that this is the best vantage point to view the monuments by far. Burn some extra energy and get out on the water by renting a paddle boat from Tidal Basin Paddle Boats. You’ll get a great view of the Jefferson Memorial and DC's famous Japanese cherry trees. Two-person paddle boats can be rented for $18 an hour, four-person paddle boats can be rented for $30 per hour, and two-passenger swan boats can be rented for $34 an hour.
Explore a Food Hall and Indulge Your Tastebuds at Union Market
It’s off the beaten tourist path, but teens who are interested in cooking and food trends will enjoy exploring Northeast DC food hall Union Market. There are over 40 vendors serving everything from empanadas to Korean tacos to scoops of ice cream. There's plenty for teens to explore and mix and match for a delicious lunch, or stop by for dinner and try to time your visit around one of Union Market’s seasonal drive-in movie events, where movies are projected on the three-story exterior wall of the Market.
Go Back in Time at Mount Vernon, the Estate of George Washington
Teens will get a firsthand view of American history when they tour Mount Vernon Estate, the first president's colonial mansion. Plan to spend at least half of a day in Northern Virginia on the shores of the Potomac River, exploring the mansion, estate, working farm, gardens, and museum. There’s a high-tech aspect that'll grab students’ attention, too: the Education Center’s Revolutionary War Theater 4D experience highlights George Washington's role in the Revolutionary War complete with snow, fog, cannon shots, and other 4D effects.
Pretend to be James Bond at the International Spy Museum
The interactive International Spy Museum is especially popular with teenagers, who can explore the permanent collection or participate in a hands-on experience called Operation Spy. Dive into the world of espionage, viewing everything from a lipstick pistol to the Enigma cipher machine. There’s even an exhibit devoted to James Bond villains.
Take Them Out to The Ballgame at Nationals Park
You could spend a whole day exploring the area around Nationals Park, home to the Washington Nationals Baseball Team. The modern LEED-certified ballpark is right on the Anacostia River, which makes for beautiful views. The surrounding Navy Yard neighborhood is home to a vibrant dining scene and unique architecture in Yards Park. Besides rooting for the home team at Nationals Park, teens will have fun exploring all the wide-ranging concessions options in the stadium.
Make STEM Come Alive at the National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History will appeal to teens with a wide range of interests. Popular displays include dinosaur skeletons, an enormous collection of natural gems and minerals including the Hope Diamond, a 94-foot long model of a giant blue whale, Egyptian mummies, a butterfly pavilion, and much more.
Dive Into Contemporary Art at the Hirshhorn
Teenagers who are interested in art might be fascinated by the Hirshhorn, a museum on the National Mall devoted to modern and contemporary art. Explore the collection via a free, 45-minute tour, which is available daily at 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Work from artists like Picasso, Giacometti, de Kooning and Warhol are on view, along with thought-provoking rotating exhibitions. The museum just unveiled a new cafe in its lobby, Dolcezza Coffee & Gelato at Hirshhorn, with interiors designed by acclaimed Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Learn About the Holocaust and Remember the Victims
Teens will be moved by the permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which presents the history of the Holocaust, the annihilation of 6 million European Jews by Nazi Germany from 1933-1945. Visitors will receive an ID card telling the true story of a person who lived during the Holocaust, which makes this history feel very personal. The museum has welcomed more than ten million school-age children since its dedication in 1993 and serves as a powerful monument to the dangers of unchecked hatred and the need to prevent genocide.
Encounter the Most Memorable Items in American History
Teens can see what they've learned about in history class in person at the National Museum of American History, viewing artifacts dating back to Colonial America. You can’t miss the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, displaying the very flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the U.S. national anthem. There’s so much to explore here, including the dresses from First Ladies, Julia Child’s kitchen, Thomas Jefferson’s desk, and a Greensboro lunch counter where students staged sit-ins for racial equality in 1960.
Hop on a Bike and Hit the Trail
Leave the traffic behind and explore the Washington, DC area's hundreds of miles of scenic bike trails. Teens might like sightseeing on two wheels, so rent a bike through a vendor or try out Capital BikeShare or one of D.C.’s new dock-less bike shares. One particularly scenic bike trail is the Mount Vernon Trail, which starts from Roosevelt Island in Washington, DC and runs along the Potomac River to George Washington's estate at Mount Vernon. It’s a gorgeous way to see the monuments along the Potomac River.
Hurl an Axe for Fun
This is an off-the-wall pick, but teens might get a kick out of D.C.’s newest sports craze: axe throwing. Bad Axe Throwing opened up in the fall of 2017 in Northeast DC, and it involves hurling an axe at a target. Think of it as a hipster version of bowling. Amazingly, teens are allowed to participate as long as they are with a parent or guardian and they can throw an axe safely.