Washington, D.C. - Beyond the Mall

Jane Hawes
The Great Hall at the National Building Museum

Let's face it: Many kids are going to make the iconic eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C. (and you probably did, too). They'll stay in a hotel on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. They'll be shuttled back and forth to the National Mall, where they'll visit Smithsonian museums, the various monuments, maybe the White House, possibly the Holocaust Museum. They'll visit Arlington National Cemetery and, if they go to a Catholic school, they'll visit the National Shrine. (The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, as it's formally known, is the largest Roman Catholic church in North America.)

So why, when you go there as a family, would you visit the same places? Step out beyond the usual, using our handy guide to Washington, D.C. - beyond the Mall!

Washington National Cathedral (3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016; 202-537-6200; cathedral.org; hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1-4 p.m. Sundays for visitors but worship services begin at 8 a.m.; cost: Mondays-Saturdays $11 adults, $7 ages 5-17, students, seniors, active military and veterans, free for ages 4 and younger, and free on Sundays for all) The Cathedral, situated atop a high point in the city, doesn't just have amazing views: It is one of those awe-inspiring structures that has to be seen to be believed. The Children's Chapel is built on a scale suited to a 6-year-old. The gargoyles and stone carvings in the wall range from cats and alligators to frogs and Darth Vader! (Take the special gargoyle tour, offered May through September.) There's even a rock brought back from the moon embedded in the center of the gorgeous stained-glass Space Window. They've also got a great little café in a building next to the beautiful Bishop's Garden.

The National Building Museum (401 F St. NW, 20001; 202-272-2448; nbm.org; hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays; cost: free admission to the Great Hall and building tours, while fees for the exhibition areas are $10 adults, $7 ages 3-17, students and seniors, free for ages 2 and younger, or $3 per person for the Building Zone only) A building about buildings might seem a bit odd, but inside this extraordinary structure - seriously, the Great Hall is cavernously huge and amazing to eat lunch in - you'll find the Building Zone, which ranks among D.C. parents' favorite indoor play spaces for kids ages 2-6 (last entry is at 3:15 p.m. each day). For older kids, $3 will get you a Tool Kit to borrow and use throughout the museum for construction, design and investigative activities.

The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage (2700 F St. NW, 20566; 202-467-4600; kennedy-center.org/millennium) Looking to experience big culture but without shelling out big bucks? Local arts lovers know that you can enjoy world-class entertainment every day at 6 p.m. on a small stage set up in the Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center. Check the website to see what's available: It ranges from classical to rap music, ballet to jazz dance, comedy to musical theater, and everything in between. No tickets are required and seating is first-come, first-served, which means line up as early as 5 p.m. to get a seat (but the wait is worth it). Free guided tours of the center are given on the hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Afterward, enjoy the view of the Potomac River and Georgetown from the center's terrace.

Smithsonian's National Zoological Park (3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, 20008; 202-633-4888; nationalzoo.si.edu; mid-March to September hours: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, October to mid-March: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, closed Christmas Day; cost: free) One word: pandas. The National Zoo is most famous (and rightfully so) for its giant panda habitat, which has helped save this endangered species. But the zoo also has been instrumental in saving other species such as Asian elephants, the golden lion tamarin monkey and the black-footed ferret. You'll see these and about 300 other species here. A word of warning: The zoo is built into the side of a pretty steep hill. Going downhill from the Connecticut Avenue entrance is a breeze. Climbing back up? Pace yourself.

National Geographic Museum (1145 17th St. NW, 20036; 202-857-7700; ngmuseum.org; hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, closed Thanksgiving and Christmas days; cost: $15 adults, $12 students, seniors and military, $10 ages 5-12, free for ages 4 and younger) The Nat Geo offers amazing photography exhibits (of course), but also some very innovative multimedia exhibitions, which change regularly (last fall's Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archeology deftly mixed movie lore and serious science). You can also enjoy films in the 3-D theater (for an extra $7 per person), plus a free movie is offered most Tuesdays at noon (check the website for the schedule). They've also got a great courtyard for enjoying a packed lunch or snack.