WASHINGTON HAUNTS Even on repeated visits, D.C. keeps kids amused

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington again? Our sophisticated friends pounced on us with their "But you've been there so many times!" look. Hadn't we shown our children all the tourist sights before? Wasn't standing in line for another guided tour with tired youngsters just too tedious?

Obviously, they didn't realize that Washington has always held a fascination for me. When I first saw the majestic sight of the Capitol during a class trip to Washington in my senior year of high school, I felt a thrill and pride that is repeated each time I return.

Years later, when my husband and I took our two sons to see the Capitol for the first time, they were as thrilled as I at the imposing historical symbols of our country.

So when the opportunity presented itself to take our 12-year-old daughter, we seized the chance to revisit favorite spots and explore new ones.

There are so many things to see that our plan is only one of several that may work well for you. Of course, you can day-trip from Baltimore, but we planned a three-day minitrip so we could take in more sites and wouldn't be rushed.

Our car remained at the motel, and we used the Metrobus service that zips around downtown Washington. From June through Labor Day, a Tourmobile shuttles visitors in an open-air bus from one tourist attraction to another. On board, guides point out places of interest and give background information. It's a delightful way to see Washington's historic sites and is easy, convenient and inexpensive.

You can set your own pace because you can get aboard a Tourmobile any time you want, and you may get on and off at any of the stops along the tour as often as you like ($8.50 for adults, $4 for children).

Most trips to Washington fall into two categories: the traditional landmarks ("I really saw the White House") and the lesser-known attractions, which also hold great appeal for youngsters.

Our visit (with a side trip to Mount Vernon) included a good bit of walking because we love the sights and sounds of the city. With a map in hand (a must), we began at the Capitol with a free guided tour that lasted about 45 minutes. You can write in advance or stop by your senator's or representative's office for special passes to House and Senate visitors' galleries. We knew our daughter would love the free ride on the miniature subway connecting the Capitol with the Senate Office Building -- and she did.

A short walk away, we coerced our daughter into visiting the National Gallery of Art with promises of a good fast-food cafeteria located inside the gallery. On the second floor, she became intrigued with a student artist who was copying a Raphael masterpiece.

Refreshed, our next destination was the Department of Justice, where the FBI tour is a highlight for children. Located at Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, free conducted tours begin at short intervals on weekdays. The exhibits, laboratories and target range are fascinating and informative.

The National Archives Building between Seventh and Ninth streets and Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues was most impressive. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, in sealed glass and bronze cases, are lowered every night into a bombproof and fireproof vault 20 feet below floor level. Children are intrigued by this dramatic, one-minute operation.

Our second day began with a visit to the White House (open 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays through Saturdays, but try to be in line no later than 9:30 a.m. on East Executive Avenue). You can also write to your congressman in advance for a pass to be admitted to an earlier, more extensive guided tour.

A short visit followed to the Lincoln Memorial, where we all stared at the "tired, distant eyes" and the "giant hands" of this great president. Next, we went to the towering Washington Monument and arrived there early to get in line for the elevator ride to the top. The view of the city is spectacular. Brave souls that we were, we joined others who opted to walk down the 898 steps.

We then arrived at my favorite Smithsonian Institution, the Natural History Museum, where we each rented an Audiowand -- a kind of walkie-talkie guide -- that is activated as you approach the exhibits. Another must-see attraction is the Museum of American History with its marvelous collections and the original flag that Francis Scott Key hailed flying from Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

Tearing ourselves away from this museum, we had some time left to visit the Air and Space Museum. (Who isn't awed by the Wright brothers' plane and Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis?)

Washington at night is beautiful, with national monuments illuminating the sky. We always save time for one night's stroll through this brilliant scene. (If your young ones are not completely exhausted by nighttime, there is a plethora of children's activities listed in the daily newspapers.)

An entire day is necessary to savor magnificent Mount Vernon (and the lovely drive through Alexandria, Va., to the Potomac River). Children love to wander around George Washington's handsome plantation and browse through the surrounding dependencies, like the smoke house, coach house and slave quarters. In the summer, a ferry runs from National Colonial Farm on U.S. Route 1 in Accokeek to Mount Vernon.

Tired but happy, we headed for home, reminiscing about the sights we'd seen and planning our next trip to visit the places we missed this time: Arlington National Cemetery, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Ford's Theatre, the house where Lincoln died, the Zoological Park, and on and on.

If you go . . .

Information: Washington, D.C., Convention and Visitors Association, 1212 New York Ave. N.W., Washington 20005; (202) 789-7000. The Visitor Information Center is at 1455 Pennsylvania Ave., one block from the White House; call (202) 789-7038. For information on the National Park Service, call Dial-a-Park, (202) 619-7275. For Smithsonian information, call Dial-a-Museum, (202) 357-2020.

Accommodations: For a copy of Summer '92 Hotel Packages, a brochure listing discounted rates at more than 80 hotels and motels in the Washington area, contact the convention and visitors association.

Capitol Reservations, (800) 847-4832, is a free reservations service representing 70 Washington-area hotels.

What's new: The Smithsonian Castle Shop, offering merchandise from 15 Smithsonian museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park, opened last month in the Castle (Smithsonian Institution building).

Also new: A 20-minute orientation film at the Smithsonian Information Center gives an overview of the complex. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

Video tour: Washington is featured in a new TraVid Corp. City Update in its VideoGuide Series. "How to . . . Washington, D.C." is a 20-minute non-promotional video designed to orient visitors to the area and the city, with details on sightseeing, dining, entertainment and transportation. It can be purchased at video stores or ordered from TraVid Corp., (202) 363-8300.

Where to eat: Restaurants in Washington's art museums are lovely places to lunch. The National Gallery offers a sprawling cafeteria with an underground waterfall and a white tablecloth option upstairs with a limited menu. The Corcoran serves lunch in its airy lobby. For a picnic, the shady courtyard between the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery would be great.

Families may like the food court in the atrium of the Old Post Office, a wonderful restored Victorian structure on Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the Mall.

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