Now that the kids are older and we’re no longer weighed down by bottles and diapers, the hubby and I find ourselves filled with wanderlust again. We’ve been on the hunt for kid-friendly trips within driving distance from Washington, DC. The best part is that our kids seem to have gotten bitten by the travel bug, too. Most importantly, no trip is complete without carefully planned food detours. Listed above are our three favorites along with suggestions on where to eat, and after the jump are photos and tips for making the most of your trip there.
1. NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUM, BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
The five-hour trek from DC up I-95 to Brooklyn might seem daunting, but an overnight stay at a hotel on the way breaks the trip up into more manageable 2-3 hour stretches. We stayed at a roadside Springhill Suites in Bel Air, Maryland on our way up to Brooklyn. The kids love hotel stays, viewing it both as a chance to have a really cool sleepover with mom and dad and to score waffles for breakfast. We look for places with breakfast included so that we can hit the road early in the morning and to avoid hunger and crankiness.
Admission to the New York Transit Museum is $7 for adults and $5 for children ages 2-17 (children 2 and under are free). Upon entering the museum, there’s a series of exhibits explaining the history and construction of the New York subway system, which is really interesting but might fly over the heads of younger ones. The lower level of the museum, however, is a bonanza. It’s a closed but fully operational subway station filled with cars from every era of the New York subway system. Walking down the platform is like seeing a historical timeline on two tracks. Transportation lovers of any age will be in heaven. Be sure to bring your camera to catch shots of your kids ducking in and out of car after car, and pay special attention to the vintage advertising inside each car. Little ones might also enjoy one of the museum’s special children’s programs, so time your visit accordingly.
The walk from the New York Transit Museum to Ganso, a Japanese ramen noodle restaurant, is only two short blocks. Be sure to order a batch of the Ganso wings ($11), a delightfully spicy-sweet-crispy wing. Kids will love the braised short rib ramen ($16), with its fall-apart tender short rib, warm savory broth and sliced hard-boiled egg. The salmon teriyaki bento box ($13) is another good kid’s choice, with a light, syrupy teriyaki sauce glazing a medium-cooked filet and accompanied by bok choy greens and rice. Both dishes are bright and flavorful, yet simple enough to entice finicky palates. The restaurant is spacious, with plenty of family-friendly booths to accommodate larger parties.
2. STEVEN F. UDVAR-HAZY CENTER, DULLES, VIRGINIA
Most visitors to DC make the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in the city a can’t-miss destination, but many of the real stars in aviation history are actually housed in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center right near the Dulles International Airport. This giant space is filled with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling aircraft, including the space shuttle Discovery, which our kids could not get enough of. The hubby was just as enthralled at seeing old warplanes up close (you’ll have to ask him which ones exactly, since my eyes glazed over as soon as he started talking about ballistics and tactical warfare and I’m falling asleep right now just typing about this). Admission is charged by vehicle ($15 for parking upon entrance), so those with minivans can totally score a bargain over Mini Cooper drivers.
We happened upon a paper airplane contest the day we visited, which our kids entered and immediately lost. We viewed this as the perfect opportunity to impart an important life lesson — it’s not about winning, it’s about playing the game. Also, in life, you’re going to lose. A lot. Hey, we’re realists. For those looking for less gravity (yes, pun intended) to their outing, check here for scheduled story time with flight-related stories.
Lunch can be had nearby at Rangoli, a stellar Indian restaurant about a ten-minute drive from Udvar-Hazy. The restaurant has a special kid’s menu with pared-down versions of the restaurant’s most popular Indian entrees. Our kids devoured the paneer makhani ($6.99) , an Indian pressed ricotta cheese in a creamy tomato gravy and served with rice and naan flatbread. Grown-ups can find a good variety of classic Indian curries, such as saag paneer (spinach and pressed ricotta), chicken makhani (butter chicken) and daal (curried lentils) on their popular lunch buffet.
3. NATIONAL AQUARIUM, BALTIMORE, MARYLAND
Ge Ge (my four-year-old son) is obsessed with sea life. He’s been that way since we lived in Charleston and visited the South Carolina Aquarium almost every weekend. He’s aspiring to be a marine biologist or a chef one day, or maybe both. Sometimes he yells out “I wanna eat that!” or “YUMMY!” while pointing to fish during our visits to the Aquarium, so I have to remind him that the aquarium is a place of learning, not a buffet.
The National Aquarium houses some amazing species, including several varieties of sharks and dolphins. The problem is that on weekends, moving through the place can feel a little like swimming upstream a river full of spawning salmon (i.e., super crowded). Then, fortuitously, one Friday afternoon we got stuck in traffic on the way to New York. As we crawled up I-95, the hubby suggested we just hunker down for the evening in Baltimore with an early dinner and trip to the Aquarium, which is open until 8pm on Fridays. Although admission can be kind of pricey, repeat visitors should considering investing in a membership, which makes each individual visit a little less expensive.
As it turns out, the Aquarium is a magical place on Friday nights. The crowds are manageable, and, under the cover of night, the whole place takes on a glowing, ethereal quality. The kids loved meandering through dim hallways usually lit with sunlight streaming in from large plate-glass windows. It was almost like we could see the animals better.
For dinner, we skipped the chain restaurants lining Inner Harbor in favor of Baltimore’s Little Italy just a few blocks away. At Joe Benny’s, a casual Italian eatery, our early arrival (at 5:30 pm) meant we had our pick of seats in the back of the restaurant. The menu, while simple, centers around their in-house baked focaccia bread. When topped with melted fresh mozzarella, grated Parmesan and tomato sauce (as in the Plain & Simple, $10), the breads have a good crunch-to-fluffiness ratio that echoes the finest deep dish pizza crusts. We went nuts for the oven-baked eggplant panini sandwich ($8), which consisted of paper-thin layers of perfectly-cooked eggplant sandwiched with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. The panini bread, pressed crunchy from the grill, tastes like pure melted eggplant joy on the inside.
So there it is. Three awesome kid destinations worth the drive from DC, with three great food detours built-in. Because seriously, no trip is worth not eating well.