7 tips to make your family visit to National Mall festivals more fun and less stressful

If you are visiting D.C. this summer, you have the chance to be part of some amazing events.

Summer visitors line up to enter the National Museum of American History in 2012
Summer visitors line up to enter the National Museum of American History in 2012

These are unique and historic events happening right on the "front lawn" of the museum—a great time for the whole family. But events of this size offer unique challenges for families planning to attend. Crowds and unpredictable weather can make for a more chaotic day than a usual visit to the National Mall.

Taking a few simple steps to prepare your family will let you relax and enjoy the experience much more!

Coping with crowds

These kind of events draw huge crowds. Before you go, look at a map to familiarize yourself with the layout of the Mall and key landmarks. Luckily, there are some pretty iconic buildings, like the Smithsonian Castle, that help with orientation. With your family, plan a route to your destination and have a meet-up spot in case anyone gets lost or the group wants to split up. Make sure it is somewhere that everyone in your family can easily identify. This is a good chance to have your kids be the navigators and use the map or Smithsonian app so they feel more comfortable finding their way.

Make sure your kids have a way to reach you—and that your phone's battery is full, which may mean bringing your charger along to re-charge during lunch. A friend of mine got temporary tattoos made of her cell phone number and stamped them on her child's stomach. That way, if her daughter got lost, she had the number on her... but not in plain sight! Make sure your child can identify the security officers and Park Police. Every museum has a uniformed security team who are very good at getting folks re-united.

Pro-tip: Before your family outing, enjoy a book together that features helper figures such as police, firefighters, and security officers. Make sure kids can identify these figures in case they need to.

Two National Park Policeman on horseback. Photo by Quentin Kruger, U.S. Department of Energy.
Two National Park Policeman on horseback. Photo by Quentin Kruger, U.S. Department of Energy.

Get yourself here, leave your vehicle at home

Plan how you are getting to the event. I would really discourage driving. There are often road closures for big events, parking can be difficult to find, and crowds crossing the roads can make it hard to navigate.

Metro is a great option since it gets you within blocks of major events. Before you start your trip, make sure everyone knows the stop you are getting off at and has enough money on their farecards for the roundtrip. That way, when everyone is trying to leave, you won't have to line up at the machine to add money! Another smart move is to make sure your whole group is ready to step onto the train before the first half of the group gets on—this way, nobody gets left on the platform when the doors close.

The station managers are very used to helping newcomers to the Metro system, ask them for help if you need it.

Pro tip: Get off the metro at Federal Triangle or L'Enfant Plaza station, instead of Smithsonian. These stations will be less crowded and still put you close to the National Mall.

Chill out in wacky weather

Always carry an umbrella and a sweater. D.C. summers are hot, but that means that a lot of buildings keep their air conditioning cranked! Having a light sweater tucked in your bag will help you transition easily between outside and inside.

D.C. weather is also unpredictable. Even if the forecast is for sunny skies all day, a thunderstorm can sneak up without warning. Bring a light folding umbrella or poncho so you don't get stuck in a downpour. The Kogod Courtyard, a short walk away at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, is a great place to let the kids stretch their legs while waiting out bad weather.

Pro-tip: Smear the family with sunscreen and make sure to wear hats. (Or buy one, they're a great souvenir.)

Demonstrating shea butter at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2011 on the National Mall. Image via Peace Corps.
Demonstrating shea butter at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2011 on the National Mall. Image via Peace Corps.

Stay comfy

Wear comfortable shoes! You may have to walk a few blocks, you might be on your feet for the whole event. The last thing you want is for your feet to hurt!

You WILL get thirsty and hungry

Stay hydrated and bring snacks. Walking around all day, ducking in and out of the humidity... before you know it, you could be really dehydrated. Smithsonian museums don't mind if you bring bottled water in with you and there are water fountains where you can refill.

Out on the go, you can use Tap It to find restaurants throughout the city that will let you refill your water bottle for free (they even have an app). Of course, there are vendors throughout the city advertising "Ice cold water!" so you shouldn't be far from a drink when you need one.

Fireworks erupt over the National Mall, July 4, 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
Fireworks erupt over the National Mall, July 4, 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

On a related note, carry a snack! You might be a few blocks from somewhere to eat, or someone in your group just wants to see "one last thing!" Having a snack on hand will make that do-able. (Please no eating inside the museums, though.)

Plan ahead for bathroom breaks. At large events on the National Mall, there are generally lots of temporary bathroom stations, but, with large crowds, this can still mean long lines. If you are planning to use a bathroom in a museum or nearby building, be ready for lines to get in to the building and a security screening.

Pro-tip: Security officers often know about less obvious bathroom locations and may be able to help you navigate to one with a shorter wait.

Visitors enjoy Innoskate, a celebration of the inventive-ness of skate culture, outside the museum
Visitors enjoy Innoskate, a celebration of the inventive-ness of skate culture, outside the museum

Pack light

Speaking of security... streamline your packing to make passing through security a breeze. Every Smithsonian museum has a security screening where they look through your bags and have you walk through a metal detector. Make it easy by keeping your bags organized, opening them in advance so they can be screened immediately, and checking your pockets for problem items. I often have stuff spilling out of my stroller, but I promise these tips will make things go faster.

Have reasonable expectations
Don't try to squeeze in more than is possible or enjoyable. One mom says trying to attend an event on the National Mall and also visit the Mall museums is "good in theory, horrible in execution." More on museum-visiting logistics in our post "Top tips for a rewarding museum visit with kids."

Looking back on these tips, I can see that it might seem overwhelming, but truly, all this prep will be well worth it. How often do you have the chance to join a nationwide singing of the National Anthem? Or see artisans and musicians of Kenya and China just strolling down the block? Enjoy your visit!

Ask a toddler
Need help getting the most out of museum visits with your family? Ask us a question in the comments below, on Facebook, or on Twitter, and Sarah (with some help from her toddler Ace) may answer your question in a future post.

Sarah Erdman has blogged about why it’s worth it to bring babies and toddlers to museums and how to face challenging topics in museum exhibitions with little ones.

 

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