Want to see democracy in action? Tours are free, but you need reservations.
Capitol: Request up to three months before your visit at visitthecapitol.gov or through your senator or representative. Some same-day passes available.
House and Senate in action: Request gallery passes through your senator or representative
Choose a hotel near a metro stop or within walking distance of your main destinations.
"The L'Enfant Plaza makes a great home base. It's two blocks from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and has an outdoor pool," says Candyce Stapen, creator of the Washington DC with Kids app. (Weekday rates start at $229, weekends at $189; parking starts at $50; package options available; lenfantplazahotel.com; 202-484-1000.)
Parking in DC is pricy and hard to find, so leave the car at home or at your hotel and ride the Metrorail (one-way fares start at $1.60 for ages 5 and up; wmata.com).
Another option: tour on two wheels like the Lacanienta family of Las Vegas, Nevada. "Our kids loved biking between the memorials and museums, and we saw more of the area because it took less time (about three hours to tour the memorials) than walking," says mom Chantelle. They rented bikes and helmets from Bike and Roll on the National Mall (bikethesites.com; 202-842-2453).
On the go: More than 100 food trucks offer everything from crepes to kabobs, burritos to bratwurst (foodtruckfiesta.com).
Sit-down: Capitol Hill's historic Barracks Row district (8th Street, SE) is full of family-friendly options (barracksrow.org). "Ted's Bulletin is a standout, with big booths, a nice kids' menu, and an old-time cartoon playing on one wall," says blogger Linda Samuel of kidfriendlydc.com.
Just desserts: The Sweet Lobby on Capitol Hill recently won the Food Network's Cupcake Wars (sweetlobby.com), but there are plenty of other cupcakeries angling for your vote, including Sprinkles (sprinkles.com) in Georgetown -- sadly, not on the metro line -- and the roving Curbside Cupcakes trucks (curbsidecupcakes.com). Craving cooler fare? Sugar Magnolia, a new bakery in Cleveland Park, near the National Zoo, offers homemade ice-cream sandwiches in eclectic flavors, such as maple-bacon ice cream, bookended by waffles (rippledc.com).
Get there early. Same-day reservations are required at some free attractions, such as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where lines start forming around 6:30 a.m. But even if you can't get in, you can still buy a bag of shredded cash in the gift shop. (moneyfactory.gov; 877-874-4114)
Be informed. There are free festivals and special events every day, including nightly concerts at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage (kennedy-center.org). Find a searchable events calendar, editors' picks, and more at washingtonpost.com/gog.
Follow the (food) rules. Open that bag of chips on the metro and you'll not only get dirty looks from locals, you just might get a ticket. Food and drink are banned in government buildings, too. (And forget stashing stuff outside. That lunch bag in the bushes just might trigger a threat alert.)
1. The National Museum of Natural History is a must-see in DC. Via its new concierge program, you get the lowdown on exhibits from iPad-toting guides. (Free; mnh.si.edu; 202-633-1000)
2. When you visit the International Spy Museum, you'll learn about espionage, the art of disguise, and how to make and break codes. ($20 adults, $15 kids 7 to 17, free for kids ages 6 and under; spymuseum.org; 202-654-0932)
3. Head to the National Zoo around 8:30 a.m. to see the animals in their outdoor enclosures without the crowds. Stay until 10 a.m., when the buildings open, for the full experience. (Free; nationalzoo.si.edu; 202-633-4888)
4. The new HP Social Media Gallery at the Newseum will wow tweens and teens with its interactive displays showcasing the role of social media in global news reporting. ($22 adults, $13 kids 7 to 18, free for kids ages 6 and under; newseum.org; 202-292-6100)
5. At the National Building Museum's Building Zone playspace, kids ages 2 to 6 can don hard hats, build block towers, and drive toy vehicles. ($8 adults, $5 kids 3 to 17, free for kids ages 2 and under; nbm.org; 202-272-2448)
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of FamilyFun