We put together an exciting history trip to bring American history to life! From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, I designed the trip to see the most we could see, on a budget, with some science and exercise (hiking) thrown in. Every drive was less than two hours.
To start our history trip we flew into Washington D.C. (Reagan) and took the Metro to our Hotel Club Wyndham in Alexandria, VA. Club Wyndham is a time share that offers extra nights like a hotel. Its a nice spot because it is right on the (free) Old Town Trolley Route. It’s always nice to have a kitchen so we are not forced to eat breakfast and lunch out. The Trolley takes you right down King Street, to the waterfront. There are shops, restaurants and historic spots all the way down the street.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center (located in an old torpedo factory) was fascinating. Dozens of artists were working in there and demonstrated their art form for my kids. We found a delicious, affordable meal at Falafel Inc.
We took the Metro in Washington, D. C. I find it very family friendly. Just don’t stop and accept help from friendly pan handlers. I had made reservations for several of the busier museums. We have done many of the Smithsonian Museums through the years, so we decided to hit a few we’ve never seen and one old favorite. Our first stop was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
I was a bit worried about bringing a five year old in, but she did fine. We rushed past and did not linger at a few of the visually intense exhibits for her sake. The main exhibit can take hours if you read through every section. See as much as you can. You will not soon forget what you see and hear there.
Next we went to the fairly new National Museum of African American History and Culture. This museum is so well done. Head to the bottom floor to start. It is set up chronologically to walk you through the history of African Americans. There are plenty of interactive experiences in both of these museums that children will stay interested for some time. We were stretching our 5 year old’s attention span after an hour, though. We did not get to experience much of the last section in either museum. There is no snacking in any of these museums, which is tough for small children. Be ready to grab a snack as soon as you leave!
Our final museum on this Washington, D.C. leg of the history trip was the newly renovated Air and Space Museum. The makeover looks great! My kindergartener is very interested in all things space, so this stop was for her. One floor of space stuff was perfect for 4:00 p.m. Destination Moon and Exploring the Planets were the galleries we spent our time in. This one has a fun gift shop, too!
It was my birthday so we headed to Georgetown (on the Metro) for dinner and dessert. Curry & Pie, with its Indian and pizza fusion menu is my favorite place to eat. The Saag Paneer Pie or the Chicken Tikki Masala Pie are family favorites. Order anything. Its all good. I dream of it sometimes. Sweet and spicy masala dreams. The chai there is yummy, too.
Levain Bakery is my favorite New York cookie spot. Thankfully they have expanded to Georgetown. They do not disappoint! The cookies are huge. They are the perfect ration of cookie to chip. Which means a lot of chip. It was my substitute for birthday cake and I hope to have it again next year!
We left Alexandria in a rented car (Costco has great car rental deals) and headed to Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington. This was truly the highlight of an already great history trip. Tickets are pricey, so be sure to look for deals around the internet. This was my family’s favorite stop. There was so much to see here. The views are incredible.
The house tour is an additional fee, so I did not purchase tickets for that. However, it was a slow Thursday so we got to join a house tour gratis! Seeing the key to the Bastille, a gift to Washington from the Marquis de Lafayette, was an unexpected treat. We took the walk down to the animal pens and took the shuttle back. Both my teen and my kindergartener thoroughly enjoyed the audio tour of all of the many outbuildings. The gift shop is really interesting as well. My kindergartner asked yesterday, “If George Washington’s house is called Mt. Vernon, what is our house called?” Good question. At the moment “A Mess”.
Our second stop was fast forwarding in time for our history trip, to the Civil War, Manassas National Battlefield, home of the Civil War battles – both Battles of Bull Run. A walking tour is available behind visitor’s center at 2 p.m. There is an app for each of these large, sprawling battlefields for driving tours, or with payment of the admission fee at the Ranger’s station (there is technically the normal National Parks fee, but you are driving on public roads and there is no way for the Park Service to collect) a QR code for an audio driving tour. The GPS takes you to random parts of the park. Head straight to the Henry Hill Visitor’s Center to get the lay of the land.
We stayed the night at the rustic, but hospitable Graves Farm & Lodge in Syria and woke up to the most incredible mountain view. We were there in October and the foliage was breathtaking. There is a store at the bottom of the hill where we bought hearty breakfast sandwiches and local apple cider on our way to Shenandoah National Forest.
We drove through the narrow national park to Shenandoah Caverns, a science diversion on a history road trip. There are a number of caverns in the area that you can tour. This one had a Groupon. Luray Caverns is the better known and well advertised one, but just a stop at the bathroom and I was not impressed. Shenandoah has a number of cave “rooms” to see. It is a pleasant, humid 58 degrees year round in there, apparently. There are lots of fun photo opportunities in there and lots to capture children’s interest. Our guide was very enthusiastic and took his time, sharing lots of information. It was lots of fun. We ate at the attached 50’s throwback diner afterward, specializing in burgers and shakes.
Then we headed back to Shenandoah National Park for the exercise portion of our history road trip, a cruise down Skyline Drive (at least part of it), one of the prettiest drives in the U.S. We entered through the Thorton Gap entrance. It is helpful, for a trip like this, to have the National Parks Pass. We hiked several trails perfect for short legs. The first was the Fort Windham Rocks trail. We went a bit further than the rocks, then turned around and came back the same way.
The second trail was the Fox Hollow Trail. There is a map for kids at the entrance to this trail that lists interesting things to look for. When you are almost back to the trailhead you will see a trail marker that seems to indicate that the Visitor’s Center is back in the direction you started from. Don’t go back that way. Trust me. You just made it back to the beginning of the loop and are almost back to the road. In fact, you can hear the road, if you listen. See the Ranger’s Station at the Compton Gap Parking Lot for bathrooms and snacks. Bring a water bottle.
We stayed that night at Double Tree in Front Royal, at the northernmost entrance to the National Park.
I’ve always had a fascination with the story of the abolitionist John Brown and his last stand at Harper’s Ferry. So this history trip was the perfect opportunity for a visit. We were in for a treat. Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia is a delightful lost-in-time town within Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park. The exhibits explain everything I’ve always wondered about that controversial figure.
The history exhibits are authentic, the views are stunning, the shops are charming, and the hikes are invigorating. You can easily spend a whole day here. The climb to Jefferson’s Rock was perfect for working off the ice cream and baked goods. We definitely want to come back and spend some more time here someday. The Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet here, as well as the Appalachian Trail. It was gorgeous with fall leaves sprinkling the paths.
Antietam National Battlefield was our next stop. This was one was the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. If you have the National Parks pass, get the QR code for the audio tour and drive around to at least a few of the battlefield sites. All of the battlefield have an app from the National Parks Service, if you have room on your phone and cell signal. It helps your understanding of what happened there. It was absolutely beautiful there in October. Such beauty at the site of so much death and destruction is a curious, but comforting thing to see.
Our last stop was Charm City – Baltimore! We stayed at the Tru by Hilton Baltimore Harbor East. It was walking distance right through Little Italy to the Inner Harbor. We had a crab feast at Phillips Seafood, rented an electric scooter to buzz around in for a few minutes, and took a look at the historic naval ships. My kindergartner was into submarines at the time. It was exciting to see the U.S.S. Torsk, a decommissioned sub. We did not pay the fee to board, partly because the young lady in charge sat watching movies on her phone and giving snarky, sarcastic answers to my 5 years olds questions. The Historic Ships are lots of fun to see from the outside, but the whole exhibit is a bit overpriced.
It was more fun for her to rent tiny boats that buzzed around in a designated space along the Inner Harbor and pretend we were pirates attacking the historic naval ships.
We had reservations to see the Baltimore Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum (this was the only place where reservations and masks were still required). The Bells and The Raven are family favorites in the poetry genre. We started reading The Tell-Tale Heart on the way over. My teen finished the end by reading it to herself! We had forgotten how effectively creepy that short story is. My kindergartner did enjoy purchasing a raven finger puppet in the gift shop, though. It is a very small place, but the stories told there, especially the mysteries surrounding Poe’s death, are worth the price of admission for literature fans. They are NARM members, if you have reciprocal museum privileges.
We had lunch at Cheezy Mike’s in the Mt. Vernon Marketplace. There are a dozen restaurants to choose from in that marketplace. We were able to walk a few streets down to the First Washington Monument. Before a monument was built in Washington, D.C., the citizens of Baltimore honored George Washington was a very classy memorial. It costs to climb up to the top (which we weren’t really interested in) but its free to walk around it and into the ground floor. There’s a memorial to Lafayette there as well. I wanted to duck into the free Baltimore Museum of Art on the corner, but I was outvoted.
Our final stop was Fort McHenry National Monument. This is where Francis Scott Key wrote our national anthem during the siege of Ft. McHenry, a battle in the War of 1812. It’s fun for little ones to run through. Inside there are history exhibits and the flag raising and lowering ceremony which is fun to watch. It takes less than an hour to see. The thing that I found most impressive there was a photo of the defenders of Ft. McHenry from 1814 as old men, in the early days of photography.
Of all the places we toured, Mount Vernon was the family favorite. If there is a can’t miss, old George and Martha’s home is it. The Air and Space Museum is second place. Harper’s Ferry takes a close third. Whenever possible, don’t just read history, see it!
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