Growing up in Baltimore with a teacher for a mom, I believe I’ve visited every historical, cultural or educational site within three hours of home. For the most part, I enjoyed these childhood cultural expeditions. However, I didn’t always enjoy the subsequent quiz. Dubbed “the ice cream quiz,” this oral exam determined whether the kids earned ice cream after the visit. My dad excelled at collecting obscure trivia from the tour to include in the quiz. The most difficult one I can remember happened at George Washington’s house in Virginia, Mt. Vernon. It was so hot and humid that day, it felt like we’d been walking around inside a mouth. My cousins, brother and I trudged up the hot, dusty gravel pathway as we loudly complained about the injustice of being forced to recall what we’d just seen. At least three of us were threatening to die on the spot of heat stroke, exhaustion and aggravation. With ice cream on the line, I fielded the last question: How many columns held up the south portico facing the river? I scanned my cousins’ blank faces for a hint. Eight? I guessed. My dad paused, then nodded. While 10 seconds before we’d been limp with fatigue, we now screamed, jumped, cheered and ran toward the visitor’s center—our vigor and vitality miraculously restored.
Thinking back, maybe the ice cream quiz wasn’t such a bad idea, after all. Here are a few road-trip itineraries that explore just a few of our region’s plentiful offerings in history and science, listed by how much time you’re willing and able to travel.
3 – 3 ½ Hours
Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestowne Settlement, Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown Battlefield Site, VA
Kids of all ages will enjoy exploring the immersive living-history village of Williamsburg – a town restored and recreated to its colonial-era roots—but those in fourth grade or older will understand more of the historical significance of what they’re experiencing. In Williamsburg, kids can join the Colonial militia, print their own Declaration of Independence or take a ghost tour.
About 10 miles away sits another site significant to our nation’s founding: Jamestown. Be aware: There are two Jamestowns. The Jamestown Settlement is a living-history village (with model Powhatan village) similar to Williamsburg. Historic Jamestowne is the National Park Service-run archeological site of the first permanent English settlement in North America. A rep for the NPS at Historic Jamestowne suggested visiting the living-history village with younger kids, but said a visit to the dig site would be interesting to older children or teens.
Yorktown Battlefield, run by the National Park Service and featuring a Junior Ranger program, is 13 miles from Williamsburg, forming the third leg of the “Historic Triangle” in Virginia. When you’ve soaked up enough history, nearby Busch Gardens and Water County USA offer amusement-and-water-park breaks.
A city seeped in Colonial history, older children will be able to appreciate the Liberty Bell Center, Independence Hall (the closest World Heritage Site to Baltimore) and the many sites in Philadelphia’s Historic District. If the weather is nice, kids can find the “Once Upon a Nation” story-telling benches throughout the district (earning stars for a Colonial flag) and enjoy the Spruce Street Harbor Park. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, head indoors to the Benjamin Franklin Museum, the Please Touch children’s museum or the Franklin Institute science museum.
If you visited Gettysburg when it was primarily a field a in rural Pennsylvania, you owe yourself a return visit. As part of the National Park System, kids can become Junior Rangers by attending hands-on ranger and living-history programs, and yes, taking a quiz in their ranger handbooks. (Ice cream is available—for those who pass the quiz—inside the air-conditioned Visitor’s Center and Museum.)
Steven F. Udzar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport
Most Baltimoreans are familiar with the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum on the mall in D.C., but its sibling museum—adjacent to Dulles Airport in Virginia—is well worth the drive for your child who can’t get enough of airplanes and spacecraft. Adult NASA fans will get goosebumps seeing the retired space shuttle Discovery up close. You’ll also see the lunar module, the Wright Brothers’ glider, the Enola Gay, the Concord and the fastest aircraft ever built: the Blackbird.
Free tours are regularly offered at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. each day, but more tours are added on busier days. Smaller kids might get restless on the 90-minute tour, but future pilots and astronauts grade-school aged and older will be rapt. (When we visited, our tour guide was a retired Defense Department engineer who personally helped design and build most of the planes we saw on the tour.)
60 Minutes or less
The white-marble building facades may never change, but the road trip to our nation’s capital has evolved significantly in the past decade. Like before, the MARC train from Penn Station takes you right to Union Station downtown. But driving—and parking—has never been easier with apps such as Parking Hero and Parking Panda, which allow you to comparison-shop parking garages and reserve your spot in advance. D.C. is near enough that you can plan multiple visits whose itineraries vary by interest—or weather.
The monument tour can be brutal on hazy-hot-humid summer days, and entails a lot of walking for kids. Pack a stroller for the little ones, or consider buying a ticket on one of the “hop on-hop off” double-decker buses. If your child is old enough to ride a bike, Capital Bikeshare lets you unlock a bike from any of its 440 stations in the D.C. metro area, ride it ($8 for 24 hours), and return it to any other station. Segway tours and rentals are available for kids 16 and over.
At the Smithsonian’s kid-favorite Natural History Museum, the Fossil Hall is closed until 2019 for renovation, but during the dino makeover part of the exhibit has moved upstairs to the second floor. The Air and Space Museum, American History Museum are also kid-friendly, and even though it’s off the mall, don’t forget the National Zoo, which is still a Smithsonian museum and free to the public.
It may not require an Act of Congress per se to get into the White House in our post-9/11 world, but the process is pretty close to it: Contact your congressperson several months in advance to request a tour. In addition, if you’re visiting the U.S. Capitol, the National Archives Museum or the Smithsonian’s newly opened African American Museum, advanced reservations aren’t technically required, but highly recommended.
In Our Own Backyard:
Baltimore has so many cultural offerings there’s no reason to pack up the car. The National Register of Historic Places (managed by the National Park Service) lists 43 historic sites in Baltimore, including kid-friendly favorites such as Ft. McHenry National Monument, and the B&O Railroad Museum. Or head down to the inner harbor to check out the historic ships.
Rainy days can be spent at Port Discovery Children’s Museum, the Maryland Science Center, or the National Aquarium. Sunny days can be spent exploring the Baltimore Zoo, the Oregon Ridge Nature Center, the Irvine Nature Center, or the NCR trail, to name just a few.
Plan Your Trip
Historic Triangle, VA
Historic Jamestowne: www.historicjamestowne.org
Jamestown Settlement: www.historyisfun.org/jamestown-settlement/
Philadelphia’s Historic District: www.visitphilly.com
Franklin Institute: www.fi.edu/
Benjamin Franklin Museum: www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/benjaminfranklinmuseum.htm
Please Touch Museum: www.pleasetouchmuseum.org/
Gettysburg Visitor Center and Museum: www.gettysburgfoundation.org or www.nps.gov/gett
Capital Bikeshare: www.capitalbikeshare.com
The Smithsonian Institution: www.si.edu
National Archives Museum: www.archives.gov/museum
U.S. Capitol: www.visitthecapitol.gov
White House: www.whitehouse.gov/participate/tours-and-events
Steven F. Udzar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport: www.airandspace.si.edu
National Register of Historic Places: Baltimore: www.nps.gov/nr/travel/baltimore
Fort McHenry: www.nps.gov/fomc
B & O Railroad Museum: www.borail.org
National Aquarium: www.aqua.org
Maryland Science Center: www.mdsci.org
Port Discovery Children’s Museum: www.portdiscovery.org
Maryland Zoo: www.marylandzoo.org
Historic Ships: www.historicships.org
Oregon Ridge Nature Center: www.oregonridgenaturecenter.org
Irvine Nature Center: www.explorenature.org