I don’t usually do trip reports but I found it helpful to read other people’s DC itineraries to know what could realistically be accomplished in a day.
Day 1: Came into Arlington from the north on Hwys 270, 495 (Beltway) and George Washington Pkwy during afternoon rush hour. Traffic wasn't as scary as expected although I don't know how we would have done it without the GPS. At one point we were pulling up to the security booth for the Pentagon before the narrow road made a sharp left turn. No one chased us with guns though so that was alright.
We were generally happy with the Hampton Inn & Suites Reagan National. Service and value was good and it was convenient to restaurants and the Metro. Love the king room with separate bedroom for our family of four. The TA reviews that complain about traffic noise were bang on though. (see my review)
Day 2: Bought 7-day short distance passes at the Metro station. I don't know that we made our money but seeing people lined up at the machines each day as we sailed on through was worth it for us. Took the yellow line to Archives and took a look at the intricate detailing on the Navy Memorial before walking down to the Nat History Museum. Wished we hadn't lingered when the skies opened on us. The water was running a half inch deep down the sidewalks. In spite of umbrellas we might as well have been wading in a reflecting pool as we were drenched from the knees down. Squish, squish, squish through the museums all day.
Did the mammals, bones, mummies, insect zoo, gems and a quick zip through human origins in 2.5 hrs. Our hometown has a museum with dinosaur and ocean exhibits so made some tough calls to save on time. 11 yr liked the gems, 6 yr old liked the insects. 6 year old has also been talking about death ever since we got home. We maybe should have skipped the mummies.
Ate lunch next to the sculpture garden before touring it. Then off to the west National Gallery. The info desk gave us an "Only got an hour?" map. I felt cheesy taking it but realistically, it was already 3:00 and we were traveling with two kids. It...was...awesome! The 6 yr old embraced her role of treasure map reader. Although it was sometimes hard to get her to slow down to admire paintings that weren't on her list. 1.5 hours total.
Day 3: Took yellow line to L'Enfant Plaza as we started the day at the most popular museum -- Air & Space. Actually found Natural History more crowded. Had planned to go 10-1 and then head to the American Indian Museum for lunch but daylight savings time and sleeping long hours to recover from all the walking waylaid our plans all week. So it was McDonalds at Air & Space so we could finish our tour after lunch. Saw almost every room and the boys did a simulator ride. 4 hrs. No time for IMAX.
Then off to the Botanic Gardens. Only a few daffodils and iris blooming outside but inside was gorgeous! They've done an amazing job distinguishing the different environments and the orchid room is stunning. We closed the place at 5:00. Keep in mind that I'm a plant geek and luckily, my kids seem to be, too. The 11 yr old took more photos than I did.
A few steps away was Capitol Hill. Lots of good photo ops. It’s a majestic building. Then headed back to the hotel. Good thing we had leftovers from Kabob Place and Legal Seafood because no one had the energy to go out.
Day 4: The Metro really does work brilliantly. Never waited more than 5 minutes. This was our first transfer of the week as we headed to the zoo. Six hours? Really? It took us 6 hours at the zoo? The morning started with many of the Asian animals not outside because of the cold. (We wore toques and gloves that day. Brrr!) But in the end we saw almost everything. My favs were the orangutans and, of course, the pandas. 11 yr old liked the red panda. 6 yr old announced as we entered the gates that she needed to see flamingos. What? Thank goodness they had a whole flock for her. She was also fond of the zebras and everything in the reptile house. Note: all buildings close at 4:30 winter hours. We had a very sad Boo as we'd promised her a stuffed animal at the end of the day.
Day 5: Transferred to blue line and got off at Federal Triangle and went up the Old Post Office tower. Odd way to get in, through a food court with poor signage. Nice to have some views with the Washington Monument closed. For efficiency, we should have gone to the White House from there. For the sake of Boo happiness, it was back to the Natural History Museum for the stuffed animal she didn't get at the zoo.
Then it was on to miles and miles of walking. Knew we couldn't go up the Washington Monument but didn't expect it to be fenced off so we couldn't even get close. Best photos are from further away where trees hide the construction base. The White House is smaller than expected. Had hot dogs and sandwiches at a kiosk next to the pond. Vietnam War Memorial is stark and impressive. Hung out at Lincoln Memorial for quite a while. A lot of people seem to. Favorite of the 11 yr old. Korean War Memorial really captures the war with the statues and the faces engraved in marble. Reading the carved words of Martin Luther King Jr. is inspiring. The words of FDR are also inspiring although the memorial would be more impressive with the water features operational once spring comes. The Jefferson statue is nothing compared to Lincoln but architecturally I like the building better. With the cold weather the cherry blossoms aren't anywhere close to being ready although even the bare bonsai-like trees make for some nice photo ops with either Jefferson or Washington Monument across the water. Then it was around the far side of the Tidal Basin before collapsing onto the Smithsonian Metro.
Day 6 and Summary: Ate a big breakfast, grabbed some apples and filled our travel mugs for the 9 hr drive north. With the help of the GPS, no trouble getting out of town on a Saturday.
Would have liked to have time for: East National gallery, American History Museum, Spy Museum, Arlington Cemetery, monuments at night. Not being American, our priorities may have been different than other tourists. The day we were running to a Smithsonian in the pouring rain, we passed 100 people getting soaked while lined up outside the Archives. No more than a few people in front of us in any security lines we went through.
Learned: With four people with different interests, museums take longer than you expect. Feet were more sore than at Disney at the end of each day.
Tip: Prioritize each day so if you run out of time it's your lowest priority attraction that gets chopped off the itinerary.