Welcome to America's front yard.
That's the National Mall's nickname in Washington, D.C.
This beautiful, 3-mile-long expanse bordered by the Potomac River and Capitol Hill is home to the Smithsonian museums, the famous Reflecting Pool, memorials to U.S. presidents and to those who died in wars. This is also where families often head first when visiting the nation's capital (www.washington.org).
Fall is a great time to visit Washington. Hotel rates are down as much as half, and the summer humidity has disappeared, along with the crowds.
Another plus: There's probably no city with more free attractions - more than 30 of the city's 50-plus museums are free. "Frommer's Washington, D.C. with Kids" points out that there are plenty of fun things to do: Water the plants in the Children's Garden at the U.S. Botanic Garden, trace your family tree at the National Archives, and visit the Smithsonian Institution's 19 museums and galleries.
Let's not forget the Smithsonian's wonderful National Zoo (nationalzoo.si.edu) with its resident pandas. The zoo has also just unveiled the new American Trail exhibit, where you will be transported to the Pacific Northwest and meet California sea lions, beavers, bald eagles and two American gray wolves.
Every child has to find something compelling at one of the Smithsonian museums. How about a 70 million-year-old dinosaur egg (National Museum of Natural History, www.mnh.si.edu) along with the O. Orkin Insect Zoo, where kids can climb inside the replica of a termite mound.
Touch a piece of the moon at the Air and Space Museum, where the history of flight hangs above you - the Wright Brother's airplane, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the plane Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in.
The Smithsonian museums can be overwhelming, but since they're free, visit and take a break out on the National Mall, or come back another day.
I love that you'll find special Discovery Stations with interactive activities. For example, later this month the exhibit "Moving Beyond Earth" at the Air and Space Museum will allow visitors to give commands to a robot used for space exploration. At interactive kiosks, kids can take turns being mission control's flight director.
I also love that the Smithsonian offers a kids website (www.si.edu/kids) with fun online activities, including a "Virtual Dinosaur Exhibit," "Mr. President," where you can learn about each of our nation's presidents and "Meet Me at Midnight," which magically transports you to the galleries at night.
At the National Museum of American History, don't miss the original Star Spangled Banner and the interactive exhibit that surrounds it. The museum is filled with all sorts of things that Americans have used at home, work and play - military uniforms, a World War II Jeep, Edison's light bulb, Jim Henson's Kermit the Frog and Oscar the Grouch.
Let's not forget the Smithsonian's art museums. Visit the Freer Sackler Museums of Asian Art, where you can listen to stories or make your own art project through the ImaginAsia program. For teens, there is an ArtLab at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/home/#collection=home).
Wear comfortable shoes and before you go print out family guides for each museum. For example, the National Air and Space Museum has one guide, "I Spy in the Sky," for young children and another, "Looking at Airplanes," for older kids, airandspace.si.edu/visit/guides/selfguides.cfm). The 10 Tips for Visiting Smithsonian Museums with Children (www.si.edu/content/pdf/visit/smithsoniankidstips.pdf) can also help take the stress out of your visit.
And keep it fun; leave when they've had enough.
Welcome to America's front yard.