Archive for the ‘U.S. Travel’ category

It’s Not All on the Mall: Washington, D.C.’s Hidden Highlights

February 15th, 2016

According to the National Park Service, more than 25 million people visit Washington, D.C.’s National Mall each year — that’s more visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks combined. While a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian museums, the memorials, the White House and the Capitol is a rite of passage for most American families, if they limit themselves to the Mall, they miss out on the many fascinating, enriching sites the D.C. area has to offer. For it’s not all on the Mall: Those willing to venture off the beaten path will have an even deeper appreciation of the history and culture of the nation’s capital.

Lincoln's Cottage in Washington, D.C.

President Lincoln’s Cottage
For an indelible lesson on the 16th president, plan a visit to President Lincoln’s Cottage, a summer retreat located at the Soldier’s Home (known today as the Armed Forces Retirement Home) near the Petworth and Parkview neighborhoods in D.C. Abraham Lincoln spent about a quarter of his presidency here, escaping Washington’s oppressive heat with his family from June to November, holding important meetings, making significant military decisions, commuting back and forth to the White House daily and developing the Emancipation Proclamation. In addition to temporary exhibits, the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center houses four permanent galleries, which provide an introduction to the site: Wartime Washington, Lincoln the Commander-in-Chief, the Lincoln Family at the Soldiers’ Home and History of the Soldiers’ Home. An interactive exhibit gallery, Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions, allows visitors to read digital primary sources in order to get a better sense of the issues Lincoln and his cabinet wrestled with during the war. The guided tour of the cottage, given in a relaxed, conversational style and using multimedia technology, including oral history recordings and video, takes about an hour. The house is mostly unfurnished, so the emphasis is on stories of the Lincoln family and their experiences in the cottage.

President Lincoln’s Cottage is located at 140 Rock Creek Church Road, NW, Washington, D.C. Admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 12, $12 for active duty military and veterans with ID, $12 for National Trust for Historic Preservation members and $7.50 for President Lincoln’s Cottage Members. Advance online ticket purchase is strongly recommended. The site is open Monday through Saturday, from 9:30 to 4:30 p.m — the first tour is at 10 a.m. and the last tour at 3 p.m. — and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; the first tour starts at 11 a.m. and the last one begins at 3 p.m.

Mount Vernon
George Washington’s historic estate is much, much more than a restored house and grounds. Visits begin at the Ford Orientation Center, where a short action-adventure film about Washington’s defining moments vividly brings the legend to life (some battle scenes may be too scary for young children). Head next to the Education Center, where advanced media technology and electronics create a highly interactive experience that will engage children ages 6 or 7 and up, as well as teens and adults. Visitors can sit on a reproduction of the Washington family box pew from Pohick Church in nearby Lorton, Virginia, and watch a History Channel film about the role religion played in Washington’s life and his views on religious freedom. They can learn more about the 316 slaves who lived on the plantation during Washington’s time through interactive texts and period tools, and check out a replica of a cabin at Valley Forge, complete with a groaning animatronic soldier. And there is a “4-D” movie: When cannons fire, the seats rumble and “smoke” drifts through the room and when Washington crosses the Delaware, “snow” falls on the audience. Fog wafts through the theater at three key moments to help dramatize how the Americans used bad weather to their advantage in several battles.

The Museum houses both permanent and temporary exhibits, including fine and decorative arts, books and manuscripts, and the Mansion itself has been meticulously restored to its appearance in 1799. Lines to get inside can be long at busy times of year. Don’t forget to check out the outbuildings, gardens and grounds, slave quarters, slave memorial and of course, George Washington’s tomb.

Mount Vernon, located 16 miles from Washington, is open every day of the year, including holidays. Admission is $17 for ages 12 to 61, $9 for ages 6 to 11, and $16 for seniors. Children ages 5 and under are free to enter. To avoid lines, purchase your tickets online in advance (you’ll save $1 on adult and youth tickets if you do so.) The estate is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through February.

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Cedar Hill, in Anacostia, is the home of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery and became an internationally renowned activist. The house sits on top of a 51-foot hill and has commanding views of the city. It takes about 1.5 hours to look at the exhibits, walk the grounds, take the guided tour of the historic home, and watch the film. The home has been restored to its 1895 appearance and is furnished with original objects that belonged to Douglass.

Cedar Hill is located at 1411 W Street SE, Washington, D.C. There is no entrance fee to the grounds. There is a fee of $1.50 for each reserved ticket to tour the home. Reservations are strongly encouraged. Tours of the home are available at 9 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 1:15 p.m., 3 p.m., 3:30 p.m. (available for walk-ins only; cannot reserve), and 4 p.m. (April through October only). The visitor center and grounds are open daily, except for January 1, Thanksgiving and December 25. Hours vary by season: April through October – 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., November through March – 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Island
Visitors who’ve had their fill of marble hallways and hallowed historic homes will find the perfect antidote on Teddy Roosevelt’s Island, an 88.5 acre island and national memorial located in the Potomac River. Visitors access the island via a pedestrian footbridge, and can choose from the 2.5 miles of hiking trails that loop through swamps and woods and/or pay respects to the “Great Conservationist” in the memorial plaza, which features a 17-foot statue of Roosevelt, large pools of water, huge stone fountains and four enormous stone monoliths bearing some of Roosevelt’s famous quotations. It’s a peaceful, mostly shady respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Island, which is located 16 miles from Washington, is open every day of the year, including holidays, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. There is no fee.

The United States National Arboretum
Another great place to blow off some steam — or just hug a tree — is the National Arboretum, a living museum and research and education facility run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Located on the outskirts of the city, the Arboretum is a 444-acre of tranquility and natural beauty. Grab a map at the Administration Building, check out the National Herb Garden, visit the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum and picnic in the National Grove of State Trees area. No matter what, visitors will want to take Instagram pictures of the National Capitol Columns, 22 Corinthian columns that formed the East Portico of the Capitol building from 1826 to 1957.

The National Arboretum is located in the northeast section of Washington, D.C, approximately 10 minutes from the Capitol Building. There are two entrances: one at 3501 New York Avenue, N.E., and the other at 24th & R Streets, N.E., off of Bladensburg Road. The grounds are open every day of the year except December 25 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except for federal holidays November through February. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except for federal holidays November through February. The Arbor House Gift Shop is open daily Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

— Maura Mahoney

Maura Mahoney lives with her husband, three teenagers and two indifferent cats in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. She is a longtime magazine editor and writer who has worked or written for Reader’s Digest, Mother Jones, Congressional Quarterly, the Baffler, Bethesda Magazine and Grown and Flown. You can check out her writing on parenthood and travel with kids at, and follow her on Twitter @mauramahoney.

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See Philly From the Top

February 8th, 2016

One Liberty Observation Deck, Philadelphia’s newest and tallest attraction, is located inside the One Liberty Place skyscraper (which happens to be the first Philadelphia building to be built taller than the statue of William Penn atop City Hall, constructed in 1987).

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the view from 883 feet high is spectacular, even on a cloudy day, so a camera is a must!

One Liberty Observation Deck

Entrances to the Observation Deck can be found at street level from the 16th Street entrance of One Liberty Place or inside the building near the Food Court. Once inside and after tickets are purchased ($14 for children ages 3 to 11 and $19 for adults), giant greenish blue shoes and legs that reach into the ceiling will greet families. If you look up, a red tail from a kite string can be seen weaving through the ceiling and around those giant legs that may be attached to a certain someone. But watch out because a thunderstorm is rolling in and there may be some thunder and lightning. Young children may be slightly scared of the virtual thunderstorm, but the flashing light and loud rumble only last a few seconds and kids who are told “it’s just pretend” don’t seem to mind.

Stop at the green screen for a family photo op, which virtually sets you within a Philadelphia scene; the photo can be purchased later. Then it’s time to ascend to the top of Philly.

A 75-second, spacious and entertaining elevator ride (24 people can fit inside) whisks guests to the top while watching a video of Ben Franklin’s kite flying over the sights of Philadelphia. When the elevator doors open, finally you see the face attached to those legs downstairs! Ben Franklin’s giant greenish blue head sits proudly atop Philadelphia, observing the city and those who visit his Observation Deck, through his silver spectacles. Mr. Franklin offers some great photo opportunities.

One Liberty Observation Deck

Once you turn your attention beyond giant Ben, a “sea” of Philadelphia is before you. Even on a cloudy day, there are 360-degree views as far as the eye can see. To give an idea, the Limerick Power Plant, which is 37 miles away, can easily be seen in the distance. So imagine the views of the Ben Franklin Bridge, City Hall, PSFS and Comcast buildings, 30th Street Station and the Schuylkill River.

Families will enjoy interacting with the touchscreen displays that can pinpoint different attractions and neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia and beyond to the suburbs and New Jersey. Kids will also love to spot Philadelphia landmarks through the glass windows and of course try to see their own house (if you’re a local, of course).

One Liberty Observation Deck

Philadelphia-centric music and sports or history clips can be heard throughout your stay and there is plenty of room to run if looking out the windows begins to bore the kids. A few chairs and a Flyers hockey penalty box with a bench allow for some sitting. Inside the Flyers Penalty Box, more Philly sports clips can be heard.

Once you’ve had your bird’s eye view of Philadelphia, take the elevator back down and visit the gift shop, where you can purchase the green screen photo that was taken before you headed to the top.

Best Time to Visit
Weekends bring big crowds to this new attraction that opened in November, 2015. But during the week and especially in the middle of the day, you could almost have the whole place to yourself.

The Essentials
Bathrooms can be found on both the bottom level, as well as at the top of the observation deck. No outside food or drink is permitted, but vending machines can be found at the top. A souvenir shop, filled with Philadelphia T-shirts, magnets, hats, games and mugs, can be found at the bottom level.

Tickets can be purchased at the door for $14 for youth (ages 3 to 11) and $19 for adults. For a few dollars more, tickets can be purchased online with a specified entrance time. Group tour rates are also available at a discounted rate.

–Courtney Elko

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“Icky, Creepy, Slimy, Cool” Tour Floats to National Aquarium

February 1st, 2016

If you have a child whose greatest joy in life seems to be chasing their siblings around with whatever insects or frogs they manage to find in the yard, you’re in luck: there’s now an opportunity for them to explore those interests in an educational way. The National Aquarium in Baltimore recently debuted an “Icky, Creepy, Slimy, Cool” interactive exhibit that allows visitors (ages 8 and up) to get up-close and personal with some of the weirdest and most fascinating species at the aquarium.

Kids will love seeing and learning about bats, bugs, snakes, sharks, jellyfish, crocodiles, and a few things you’ve probably never heard of. They’ll be talking for days about the bright, alien-like mantis shrimp and the sharks that can walk on the ocean floor. During the tour, they can (safely) meet and touch some of the animals, and even participate in a feeding if the timing is right.

Currently, the tour is set to take place from 9 to 11 a.m. on February 13 and 27 and March 5, 19 and 26; additional dates will be announced on the aquarium’s website. Tickets include aquarium admission, so you can feel free to wander around afterwards to visit some of the aquarium’s less “creepy” creatures. Book ahead of time to reserve your spot in the tour.

Not going to be near Baltimore anytime soon? See if one of these (less extensive and less “icky”) interactive aquarium exhibits is a shorter commute:

Georgia Aquarium: Here, kids can meet sea creatures in supervised touch pools, including bonnethead sharks, rays, and sea urchins. There’s a playground here as well, with crawl tubes and a whale slide.

New England Aquarium: This aquarium in Boston is home to the largest shark and ray touch tank on the East Coast. You can also schedule a play session with the aquarium’s seals.

The Florida Aquarium: Kids can touch and take photos with juvenile alligators, swim with fish or sand tiger sharks, and pet rays or bamboo sharks in the touch tank.

Aquarium of the Pacific: In Long Beach, California, kids can touch several varieties of sharks, meet penguins or sea otters, or take part in the Seal and Sea Lion Encounter. They can also take several two-hour “Junior Biologist” classes or go on the Wonders of the Deep tour to learn about deep-sea creatures.

Oregon Coast Aquarium: Feel limpets, purple shore crabs, sea cucumbers, and more in the touch pool, watch the wave-crash exhibit outside, and examine small creatures under a microscope at the Ocean Exploration Station.

— Kaitlin Braun

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4 Funky Austin Tours for Families

January 29th, 2016

Austin is a city with lots to offer visitors, and exploring the city can take many forms. Wherever your interests lie — music, art, biking, and even the paranormal — organized tours can help you explore a themed twist.

Austin Food Truck

The Austin Food Truck Crawl
Austin is proud of its culinary experiences, from famous Texas barbecue to cupcakes. One of the most fun food experiences is the Austin Food Truck Tour. Kids love the fun-shaped food trucks and enjoy the quirky themes. It’s an excellent way to see the yummy part of Austin! This 3-hour tour takes you to four local food trucks for sampling.

Normally hosted on Saturdays, the tour allows you to ride from food truck to food truck in an air-conditioned bus, with no worries about long walks for little ones. Try chocolates, breakfast tacos, sandwiches, barbque and even desserts from a “Cupcake Wars” winning bakery!

Peace and Love Zilker Bicycle Tour

Does your family like biking? Try this 1.5-hour tour of Austin. You’ll get the scoop on the city’s history while enjoying the beauty of Lady Bird Lake, named after former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Sites along the way will include Auditorium Shoes, Stevie Ray Vaughan Statue, The Old Railroad Bridge and Barton Springs Pool.

Spirit Expeditions Walking Tour

Think ghosts and haunted spots will make your trip complete? This is the tour you’ll love. Tours leave from Wooldridge Square Park and last 2 hours. Your guide will lead you around town while telling you about the history of Austin. Learn all about the ghosts that seem to visit every major building in town! You can even try your hand at using a dousing rod to see if you can find any ghosts on your own! Much more spooky than scary, this tour is great for kids.

Amazing Scavenger Hunt Adventure
Do you and your family enjoy a game and friendly competition? Urban Adventure Quest’s scavenger hunt will have you exploring the city with clues in hand. The tour starts at the State Archives Library and ends at Lady Bird Lake. You’ll explore the 2 miles in 2.5 to 3 hours looking for clues! Points of interest include: Texas State Capital Building, Driskill Hotel (the oldest hotel in Austin) 6th Street (downtown district), Frank Hot Dogs and Lady Bird Lake.

–Natalie Tanner, The Educational Tourist

Natalie Tanner, The Educational Tourist, has hundreds of thousands of miles under her belt — business trips with her geologist husband to places like Scottsdale, Jackson Hole, New York and Denver — and family adventures to far-flung destinations like Rome, Paris, Tangier, and Istanbul. When she isn’t traveling, The Educational Tourist stays busy planning the next adventure while being mom to two kids, three dogs, Sushi the fisand a hamster. Follow her adventures at The Educational Tourist.

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