Visiting Washington, DC for a family trip this summer? While the museums on the National Mall get the most attention, don’t overlook an important site in American history. Ford’s Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was shot, is a must-see museum and historical site!
One pro tip – buy your tickets for Ford’s Theatre well in advance. There are only a certain number of tours a day and they sell out quickly. There are several different options for tickets, depending on the time you have available, your interest level, and ticket availability. If you are short on time, the “Theatre with Ranger talk” and the “Petersen House” tours are the absolute must-see sites. The other options include the museum and the aftermath exhibits. If you are very short on time, you can also just do a walk through of the theatre without a ranger talk.
Once you have your tickets, you will need to arrive 10 minutes before your timed entry. Check in with the ticket office and then line up outside for entry. Be aware that DC gets extremely hot in the summer so be prepared with fans, water, and umbrellas.
The theatre tour takes place in the actual theatre where President Lincoln and his wife, Mary, were attending a play on that fateful April night in 1865. If you are there for a ranger-led talk, your family will get to choose seats in the theatre – I recommend heading upstairs to the first balcony and take seats on the left side, facing the stage. That way, you will have a direct line of vision on the President’s box, which is on the right side of the theatre.
The ranger talk lasts 20-30 minutes and is very informative and interesting. My children were spell-bound by the description of that night and all of the little things that did or did not happen that would have changed the outcome. When the ranger gets to the part where John Wilkes Booth jumps over the edge of the President’s box and falls awkwardly to the stage, you could hear a pin drop in the audience! While you cannot actually go in the President’s box, you can see inside the box easily, particularly if you are sitting in the balcony. After the talk is over, you can also walk over to the box and look at the entry door, which was how Booth got access to the President. It gives you chills, walking in the same place.
The ranger is available for questions afterwards and they are happy to talk to your child. My son asked all about Booth’s broken leg and the ranger took the time to really chat with him.
After the tour of the theatre, your tour group will walk across the street to the Petersen House, where President Lincoln actually died. The line usually stretches out onto the sidewalk as the house itself is small and only a certain number of visitors can be inside at the same time. It is worth the wait, however, to see the actual room and bed where President Lincoln died. After hearing about how tall he was, it is interesting to see what seems like a short bed. You learn about how they had to lay him a bit sideways on the bed for him to fit!
If you have time, adding the museum and the aftermath exhibits to your tour are well worth the time. The museum tour will take place before your time in the theatre, as it is housed underneath the theater. The museum contains several artifacts that are amazing, including the gun Booth used, President Lincoln’s clothes, and the pillow where he died that still has the bloodstains showing. There are several videos about the Civil War, why President Lincoln was both loved and hated, and more about the White House during his Presidency. There are several interactive exhibits that make the museum engaging for children. On our last visit, we added the audio guide to enhance our visit and it was great!
The aftermath exhibits are located on the same side of the street as the Petersen House. After viewing the room where Lincoln died, you can enter this part of the museum to learn more about what happened after his death. There is a replica funeral train car to board and a replica of the barn where John Wilkes Booth was captured. My children were really engaged in this part of the museum, especially learning more about the manhunt to find Booth.
After you exit, you will be in the gift shop. Don’t miss seeing the 3-story tall tower of books written about Lincoln. It is really neat to see!
Another option to consider is the one-act play, “One Destiny.” This play takes place in the theatre and is a really cool way to learn about the events surrounding the assasination. It imagines a conversation between an actor and the theatre manager the day after the assasination. My son was spell-bound the entire time!
Ford’s Theatre is still a working theatre so there are other plays held in the theatre at night. While most are not child-friendly, it is worth a look at the calendar during your visit.
To help you plan your trip, show your child the virtual tour of Ford’s Theatre on its website. It has lots of good educational information too.
While in DC, don’t miss this opportunity to walk in the footsteps of one of the most impactful events on American history. Our kids still talk about what they learned here and the stories they were told. It is truly a piece of American history that every American should see.
- Cost: $3/ticket, includes all tours. Purchase in advance here.
- Recommended: ages 8 and up
- Allow for 2 hours to see all four parts of the tour. Museum tour is 30 minutes; ranger talk is 30 minutes; Peterson House tour is 15 minutes; aftermath exhibit tour is 15-30 minutes
- Gift shop onsite
- Transportation: Nearest Metro stop is Metro Center or Gallery Place/Chinatown. Parking can be found in several nearby garages.
- Dining options nearby include: Too many to list! Some favorites include Old Ebbitt Grill, The Hamilton, and Le Pain Quotidien.
- Nearby attractions include: National Portrait Gallery, Madame Tussauds, National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of American History, and the National Archives. Across the street is the Washington Welcome Center, where you can buy souvenirs, tickets for tours, and more.
Books to read:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up:
Are you braving the DC heat and crowds this summer? What site are you most excited to see? Comment below!