I keep a list of travel goals and high on this list is the desire to visit every Presidential and First Lady home or site. Living in Virginia, several of these sites are very close by so I hope to cover many of them for The History Mom site. I think it is fun for children to see the homes of our Presidential families and to see how they lived, worked, and played. To start off this series, I had to start with the first President and First Lady, George and Martha Washington, and their home at Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon is located near Washington, DC so it is a great day trip option while you and your family are visiting the nation’s capital. It is about a 45 minute drive from downtown DC, and there are several free parking lots available (note that these lots can fill up quickly on the weekends). Taxis and car hire services can bring your family there easily if you are not driving. With the Metro shutdown during the summer of 2019, your only other options for arriving are by boat or by tour bus.
The Mount Vernon estate is vast and there is quite a bit to do. To prepare for your trip, be sure to explore the expansive and educational Mount Vernon website. This site is fantastic, with virtual tours, itineraries, and lots of helpful information. There are also several special guided tours, including a “National Treasure Book of Secrets” tour so if your family is a fan of that movie, this tour would be worth investigating!
The main places to see on your first visit are the house, tomb, and museum/education center. When you buy your entry ticket, you will choose an entry time for the house tour. Be sure to leave enough time for parking and to get through security to be able to line up for your house tour 15 minutes before the time on the ticket.
You will enter through the Ford Orientation Center. Don’t miss the life-size statues of the Washington family in the center.
This is where you pick up your map of the estate, get an audio tour, and get a copy of the interactive maps for kids. There is a picture adventure map for younger children and a word puzzle adventure map for older children. For tweens and teens, download the Agent 711 app and pick up the corresponding map at the orientation center. These maps are engaging tools that really help bring the estate to life for children and make it fun to see all of the different places.
There is also a 25 minute orientation movie here that you can watch if you have time before your mansion tour. The first 10 minutes of the film has Pat Sajak of “Wheel of Fortune” fame giving an orientation to the Mount Vernon site. The last 15 minutes is an interesting and educational film about the life of George Washington, from his time serving in the French and Indian War to the American Revolution. It is a good film but does have some disturbing battles scenes that aren’t suitable for young children (under 8). While an excellent start to any visit, if you are running short on time, I would skip this film and instead watch the films in the museum/education center at the end of your tour.
As you leave the orientation center, follow signs for “Historic Area/mansion tour” on the brick path and take a right at the intersection to head to the Bowling Green gate, which is a great place for a family picture (once the current restoration work is completed!).
The entry line for the mansion tour is located on the left side of the green as you are looking at the house. Be sure to be here 15 minutes before your tour. If you have time before the tour, walk around the upper garden, which also contains the reconstructed Washington greenhouse.
There is plenty of green space here for your kids to get their wiggles out before heading in the house.
Line up for your house tour and you will be escorted into the mansion. Note that the house tour is not stroller-friendly. The tour line moves quickly and efficiently while you learn about the house and its occupants. Your tour starts in the servants hall, where you learn about the enslaved persons who lived here while visiting the estate.
Then you will proceed into the mansion, which is currently undergoing exterior renovations. While the house looks to be made of stone, it is actually beveled wood painted to look like stone. On my last visit, they had stripped all of the paint (28 layers!) off of the exterior wood and the original wood was exposed. It was very cool to see the original wood from the 1700s!
The first room that you enter is the main entertaining room, the “new room.” Your children will love hearing stories of how the Washingtons entertained guests in this room, which still contains several original art prints of the Potomac River that Washington commissioned. After this room, your tour will go out the door onto the back porch. My sons loved the expansive views of the Potomac River from this iconic back porch.
You will stand on the porch until the next room is ready to be viewed but don’t worry, you can come back later to sit, relax, and take photos.
Your tour will proceed back into the house into the original part of the home, the entry. Off of the entry are several parlors, a bedroom, and the dining area. The most interesting artifact is actually in the entry itself. Be sure to point out to your children the Bastille key given to Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette, which is mounted on the wall between the bedroom and dining room.
Your tour will then head upstairs where there are more bedrooms to peek into, including the bedroom where Lafayette stayed while visiting the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. It is very interesting for kids to hear the stories of the visitors who stayed in these bedrooms and how they could stay as long as they wanted – free room and board! The guides in all of the rooms do a great job engaging children and telling stories that hold their interest.
As you leave the upstairs, your last stop will be outside of the master bedroom, where President Washington died in 1799. After looking into this bedroom, you will head down some very steep stairs to the last room in the mansion, George Washington’s study. The study has a really neat “fan chair” – see if your kids can tell you how it works!
The tour will then head back outside to the kitchen, where you will learn how the enslaved persons woke up at 4 am every day to cook food for the family. We loved learning about how they used sugar from a hard block that had to be cut off in chunks and ground down with a mortar and pestle. Be sure to have your children ask the interpreter how the cooks knew that the oven was hot enough to bake the bread!
This is where your mansion tour will end but there is still plenty to see at Mount Vernon! I recommend taking a left and walking back to the porch area for amazing views and photos of the mansion and the Potomac River. This is also a great place for your kids to run around and get some energy out!
Walk back to the pathway and take a left to look in all of the little white cottages where important work for the estate took place, including the smokehouse, wash house, and stable.
Don’t miss seeing the unique chair carriage near the stable. Your kids might be interested in seeing the dung repository!
Keep walking on the path and follow the signs to Washington’s tomb. This somber site requires quiet and respect so you will want to prepare your children accordingly. There is a guide at the site to answer any questions that you may have.
Don’t miss the engraved initials on the bricks of the site, some of which are from Civil War soldiers who visited during the war!
Don’t miss the Slave Memorial and Cemetery, which is adjacent to the tomb. This is another site where reverence and quiet is expected.
Head out of this area, taking the opposite path from where you entered the tomb. This path will take you back to the main walkway, where you will encounter oxen, sheep, and pigs.
This pathway will take you back towards the museum/education center, which is a highlight of Mount Vernon and a must-see activity.
If you have additional time, I encourage you to head back through the Bowling Green gate and take a right to take the pathway back towards the mansion. As you near the mansion, be sure to look to your right to see the “necessary.” Your children will love seeing these toilets from Colonial times!
Cross in front of the house and take the path by the overseer’s quarters to the blacksmith shop, where your children can see a blacksmith in action. Follow the pathway to the back of the greenhouse, which is where you will find the recreated slave quarters. Seeing how the enslaved persons lived and worked is very impactful, particularly the sleeping pallets for the children on the floor.
Don’t miss the Lady Washington gift shop as you leave this area. It has a great selection of children’s toys and books.
Take the pathway back towards the entrance and follow the signs for the museum/education center. If you have time, the shuttle bus stop located right before the center can take you to two other locations on or near the estate, the Pioneer Farm and the distillery/gristmill. You can also access the Pioneer Farm via walking trails near the Washington tomb area.
The museum and education center is wonderful and very engaging for children. Be sure to give your completed adventure map to the volunteer at guest services for a special prize.
Head into the education center, which is on the left, to see the exhibit, “Discovering the Real George Washington.” This center walks you through Washington’s life, from boyhood to military life to President. It has many artifacts from Washington’s life that you don’t want to miss – see this post for a preview so you can be sure to point them out to your children. Of course your kids will love seeing his false teeth, his sword, and all of the authentic mannequins of how he actually looked through the years.
This amazing center has many hands-on activities and interactive displays for children, including a special “hands-on history” room, where younger kids can color, read books, and see a replica of an American Revolution tent.
Older children, tweens, and teens will love participating in the “Be Washington” interactive exhibit. Taking part in this shows how many difficult decisions he made over the years. To prepare your kids for a visit to Mount Vernon, you can even play this game online before you go!
This center also contains several movies that you will not want to miss. The first movie plays right as you enter and is an entertaining comic book-style movie about a young George Washington. I enjoyed the movie about George and Martha’s life together but children may not find it as interesting. The best and most engaging movie is the 4D movie found about halfway through the center. This 20-minute movie is an exciting movie that brings you right into the battles with Washington. The special effects are fantastic, including snow, smoke, and cannon fire. Note that if you have children under 6 or if your children are sensitive to loud sounds, this movie may be too intense for them.
If you have older children, don’t miss the “Lives Bound Together” exhibit in the museum after you exit the education center. This exhibit explores the enslaved persons’ lives at Mount Vernon and Washington’s changing views on slavery.
Walk down the long hallway that contains fascinating photos from the restoration of Mount Vernon. Did you know that Mount Vernon was the first historical preservation project in US history?
You will end your visit at Mount Vernon here. This is where you can eat at the food court or restaurant, shop in the multiple gift shops, and see additional films in the auditorium.
Mount Vernon is a fantastic and important historical site to visit with your family. Even the youngest of children will get an appreciation of the history of the buildings and the character of the man who led our country to independence. It is a must-see site for any visit to the nation’s capital!
- Cost: $20/adults and children over 12; $12/ages 6-11; free for members
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: Plan to spend 2-3 hours at Mount Vernon
- orientation center-30 minutes (if you watch the film)
- mansion tour-30 minutes
- grounds tour-30-45 minutes
- museum/education center tour: 45 minutes
- Several gift shops onsite including: the orientation center, greenhouse/upper garden area, and the museum/education center
- Transportation: Ample free parking (on weekends, lots tend to fill early)
- Dining options nearby: There are several dining options on the grounds of Mount Vernon. There is a full-service restaurant at the Mount Vernon Inn. There is also a food court in the museum and education center with lots of child-friendly options.
- Nearby attractions include: Gunston Hall, Pohick Church (where Washington worshipped), Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House, Old Town Alexandria, and National Harbor
- Other Washington Presidential sites include George Washington’s Birthplace in the Northern Neck of Virginia and Martha Washington’s birthplace marker in New Kent County, VA
Books to Read:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- Spies at Mount Vernon (The Virginia Mysteries #7)
- George Washington’s Secret Six (Young Readers Adaptation)
- George Washington’s Spy (Time Travel Adventures)
- George Washington’s Socks
- Guns for General Washington: A Story of the American Revolution
- George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War
- DK Biography: George Washington: A Photographic Story of a Life
- DK Eyewitness Books: Presidents
- Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge
- 6 and up:
- Night of Soldiers and Spies (Ranger in Time #10)
- Revolutionary War on Wednesday (Magic Tree House #22)
- I am George Washington
- Who Was George Washington?
- George Washington and the General’s Dog
- George vs. George: The American Revolution As Seen from Both Sides
- The House That George Built
- Founding Mothers: The Women who Raised our Nation
- Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution
Have you been to Mount Vernon? What was your favorite location on the estate?