Sep 26, 2008

Creatures of Habit: Washington, DC

Today I've decided to make myself useful and actually write something related to traveling with a toddler. There are entire books written about fun things to do in DC with kids, but those often aren't geared towards toddlers, with their short legs and even shorter attention spans. To date, anything to do with critters of all kinds seem to be a good bet for Bella entertainment. So a lot of the things we do in DC/Northern Virginia when we need to get out of the house are animal-related. And believe me, we pretty much go through this entire list on every single visit.

1. The Reston Zoo
Bella's favorite thing to do at the Reston Zoo is feeding the sheep and goats, especially the babies. Watch out for the poop, which obviously is everywhere, and the semi-wild swans that roam around the place are territorial, nasty, and taller than most 2-year-olds. She's still too little for the pony rides, and there's a snake house that I hear is okay but I never go into, and a smattering of animals in cages and enclosures. There's also a free tractor-pulled hayride through the pasture, where the zebras, camels, various llamas, deer, and a couple of Watusi cows live. When we went last week, one of the llamas (pictured, right) had apparently gotten into a fight with his brother that morning and had his ear bitten. So he had blood and gore dripping all over his face, in his eyelashes, in his pelt all over the entire left side of his body, which really made him look like a (llama) motorcycle accident victim. We went with my mom, who is famous for going weak in the knees at the sight of blood, so I was watching her carefully when Mr. Bloody approached. But all she said was, "I don't know why they can't just hose him down."
Reston, VA. Adults $10, Kids 2-12 $8, Under 2s Free. Closed Thanksgiving to March.

2. Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian
This museum makes it on every single "official" Top Things To Do With Kids in DC list out there - with good reason. The trick for the little ones is not to frog-march your teeny traveler through the ENTIRE MUSEUM - it's huge. We usually spend most of our visit at the Mammals exhibit, although when we went this week, Gabriela pronounced the huge hippo "a little scawy" and instead dragged me off to the North American mammals section, where she seemed to find nothing scary about an 8-foot tall brown bear posed in "attack" mode. The Orkin Insect Zoo is on the second floor, where you can pet some giant pupae (read an old post about Bella mushing a pupa) and watch a tarantula play with its food (otherwise known as the "tarantula feeding") a couple of times a day. Bella's been enjoying the Discovery Room since she was barely a year old, and they have Discovery Stations sprinkled throughout the exhibits-- as you may guess those are places where the kids can touch, poke, and otherwise manhandle all kinds of interesting things. Discovery Room & Station opening hours and tarantula feedings are all on a specific schedule, so make sure you visit the website to find out what the hours are beforehand to avoid disappointment. On the Mall in Washington DC. Free. Open every day except Christmas.

3. The National Zoo
Definitely for days when you and your tot are feeling good-natured and energetic. I conferred with neighbor kids' mom (I guess that would make her our neighbor) and she agreed with my assessment: to maximize enjoyment, think of it as a walk in a nice park, where you might see some interesting animals now and then. The Panda habitat is very nice, and the elephant walk will be pretty cool when it finally opens in 2011, and the O-line (a series of outdoor platforms and cables that the orangutans hang out on) is very cool, but in general there's a lot of walking between animal sightings. It also tends to get overrun on fall and spring weekends. Though we haven't needed a stroller for Bella for a couple of months now, the rental strollers ($3 with a zoo membership, $8 without) definitely come in handy. Entrance is free, but if you drive there, parking is a hefty $15 a pop, but free for zoo members, so definitely check out the memberships and do the math.
Off Rock Creek Pkwy/Connecticut Ave. Free. Open every day except Christmas.

4. The National Aquarium in Baltimore
OK, not technically in DC but it's only an hour away and it's worth the journey. It's a popular destination, so if you schedule permits, go during the week and avoid the holidays. If you must go on weekends or school holidays, buy your tickets ahead of time through their website and save your sanity. Highlights for toddlers: the rooftop rainforest, where Bella loves to spot the brightly-colored birds, but where I tend to tread carefully and keep an eye on my surroundings, as iguanas and little froggies and other beasts also roam free, and have been known to sneak up and freak the hell out of me; the giant donut-shaped tank, where you walk down a circular ramp, surrounded by reef fish up top, and big sharks down below; the stingray pool, which you can view from up top or down below; and the dolphin show, which is actually a lot shorter and less exciting than I remember it being, but that Bella loved just fine.

Inner Harbor, Baltimore. Check website for hours. Base admission $21.95 adults, $12.95 kids 3-11, extra fees for dolphin show and IMAX.

5. Mark's Duck House
Where we go to get our little animal her noodle fix. They have "real" dimsum (ie., with the ladies pushing the carts) during lunchtime, and Mik and my brother dunk everything into their spicy chili oil. Once you see the decor and experience the service, you'll breathe a sigh of relief and not worry so much about the two pounds of noodles and shrimp siomai bits that your little monster has managed to fling onto the floor. The place has obviously seen worse. But the food is real Cantonese, complete with whole roast duck and pig heads in the front window, and absolutely DELICIOUS. Named the Washingtonian's "Best Bargain Restaurant" in 2008.
Falls Church, VA. Visit website for directions.