The National Arboretum is an oasis of trees and nature in the heart of downtown Washington. Tour the grounds by foot, bike or tram tour. And don't miss the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (open daily 10-4) and the transplanted National Capitol Columns.
The National Arboretum is quite large. On our hour and a half visit, I feel like we barely scratched the surface. It is so large that it makes sense to drive around the arboretum. We parked our car near each of the features that we wanted to visit and took a short hike around the area. It was difficult to figure out where to go - even with a map. Maybe a trip to the Visitor Center would have helped.
The entrance near the bonsai gardens is easily accessible from the Balt-Wash Parkway. If you are only going to see one thing, stop by the bonsai gardens. Even my young preschoolers could see why each of these trees were a work of art. One tree looked like a snake/dragon, another like a mushroom - it's great to get the kids imagination going.
We drove past the columns - we will stop there next time we visit. They are impressive - laid out like Roman ruins.
We parked at the children's garden and walked around for a bit. We weren't terribly impressed, but maybe we missed something.
Finally, we drove to the Asian Collections. It seems like this a very popular area and for good reason. It is on a hill and will require walking steps and relatively steep hills back to the car. It was a great place to spend an hour or so enjoying nature.
When we visited, there wasn't much in bloom. I can't wait to visit in the spring and see the different flowers blooming in the garden.
Edited to Add: This is an excellent place to visit in the Fall. Even the bonsai trees are colorful in late October. The Capitol Columns are one of the highlights of Washington DC in the fall.
We visited in early November. While most of the trees in Maryland had already lost their leaves, the Asian Collection at the National Arboretum was not as colorful as I expected; it was very green. I guess our timing was off. The Japanese maples outside the bonsai museum were very colorful though.
My family - ages 5 to grandparent visited the National Arboretum when the azaleas were in peak bloom. The hike through them was amazing. But even when the blooms aren't out, there's a fantastic bonsai display, a great children's garden (where kids can dig, water, and sometimes pick!), and the pond on Azalea Hill was loaded with chirping frogs the day we were there. For 2013 - the koi pond is closed! You can still sit on the veranda and enjoy a picnic, but the fish are no longer there while the pond gets rebuilt.
A few minutes' drive from downtown Washington, D.C. is a sprawling garden that pays homage to nature's bounty within the United States and around the world. Each season brings its own unique reasons to visit the Arboretum, fall colors and the cherry blossoms of the spring being the most attractive. The exhibit my kids enjoyed the most is their extensive bonsai collection. Room after room is filled with mind-bogglingly creative interpretations of trees.
Somehow the miniature sizes of the trees that they've seen only in massive sizes in real life seems to draw the kids. The thrill of seeing a pint-sized oak never seems to wane.
If you find yourself having to deal with a rainy day and you're all museumed-out, the bonsai exhibit at the National Arboretum is the place to go!