IT'S WINTRY outside so the playground doesn't appeal, the Smithsonian's full of roaring school children during most weeks and roaring tourists on the weekends, and your children -- those little bundles of creative energy -- are hovering around the radiant glow of the TV.
What you need are some mild meanders: adventures worth finding the mittens for, but not so glitzy as to outshine the winter holidays. We've found a handful that involve both underwater and elevated travel (but not so long that the kids start to whine), new tastes, sights, sounds and smells (but nothing scary), a little art and history (not too boring), and some ice cream.
All of these work off the Metro, which means the first part of your journey will be mathematical. If you have school-age children, the fare card system is a great way to prove to them that all those arithmetic assignments pay off eventually. You can do this in advance by stopping by any Metrorail station for a free brochure called, grandly, All About the Metro System. It includes complex charts for figuring out fares.
Or you can get a Family Pass -- a good deal for a family of four. With this, you have unlimited travel on any weekend or holiday for $5 -- the day you pick is written on the pass. (The passes are available at the locations listed below but not at other Metro stations.)
We asked Metro officials and Moms for advice on where to take Washington's subway, checked out the destinations with our preschoolers, and came up with quite a list. Our favorite tale came from a mother of three who spent this summer finding all the McDonalds near the subway stops -- the kids liked riding the train, she said, and liked knowing exactly what they'd get at the other end.
If you're looking for something a little more unusual, try:
A LONG, LONG RIDE --
You can take the line closest to you to the bitter end and watch them turn the train around. Kids love it when the train goes above ground in Maryland and Virginia; the Orange and Blue lines go under the river between Foggy Bottom and Rossyln (you can sometimes feel your ears pop). Vienna to New Carrollton (Orange Line) or Shady Grove to Silver Spring (Red Line) both take just under an hour -- too long for a toddler, but a good morning's ride for a preschooler.
via the Red Line. Depending on where you get on, this may involve switching trains at Metro Center -- an adventure in itself. Gallery Place puts you out at Seventh & H streets NW, right near the big red gate of Chinatown. Here, you can have a Chinese meal in one of a half-dozen restaurants; cruise the incense, tea and oriental knick-knack stores; and walk south to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art.
The Portrait Gallery is a repository of heroes; they've got a whole room full of George Washington pictures (including the Gilbert Stuart, which they share with Boston's Museum of Fine Arts), plus a hall of American presidents on the second floor. The first floor includes a hallway of sports heroes, and an unsung cafeteria (Patent Pending) which serves wonderful soup and sandwiches. If it's a pretty day, you can eat outside in the courtyard between the two galleries.
on the Orange and Blue Lines. This is the heart of the office district; you'll get out with a crowd. The Map Store is right next door (1636 I Street NW), full of globes, imitation antique maps and everything you need to plan your next trip.
This stop (and McPherson Square, one stop east) is also a short hike from Lafayette Square, where you can ogle the White House, and a manageable hike to Sholl's Colonial Cafeteria (1990 K Street), an inexpensive place to load up on fried chicken and Jell-O.
via the Red Line. A dignified old lady who's fallen on hard times, the circle is surrounded by gorgeous turn-of-the-century architecture. A quick hike to 21st and Q streets brings you to the Phillips Art Gallery with its collection of Paul Klee and Joan Miro, two childlike artists who speak directly to your little one's heart.
You're also an easy walk away from the Woodrow Wilson House (2340 S Street NW), a 28-room Georgian Revival town house once described by his wife as a "small house suitable for the needs of a gentleman." Here, our 28th president spent his last four years. The home is open 10 to 4 daily, and costs $3.50 for adults and $2 for students and senior citizens.
Down Connecticut Avenue, just past the Metro, is Steve's Ice Cream (1514 Connecticut Avenue NW), a tremendous trough of gluttony.
via the Orange or Blue Line. A short walk from the Metro stop is the market itself, an indoor odorama guaranteed to reach children where they're most vulnerable -- their stomachs. If you can resist the pastries (artfully placed by the Seventh Street door) and wind your way past the meat stalls (buy some kielbasa or chorizo to take home), you'll find produce so beautiful, it belongs in a painting and a fish market full of the kind of things you have to pay an arm and a leg for at restaurants (here, you only pay an arm or a leg). There's a lunch stand with crab cakes in season and sandwiches out of season, too.
via the Blue and Yellow Line. Full of Capitol Hill comers and goers, the airport is a short shuttlebus ride from the subway stop. The main terminal (near the Eastern Airlines desk) has chairs near their wall of windows facing the runway; planes take off roughly every five minutes, a loud experience your younger children may need some getting used to. There's also the baggage area -- fun to watch if you're not anxiously awaiting yours. This would be a good trip to take before subjecting your children to the joys of airplane travel.
via the Orange Line. Known informally as Little Saigon, Clarendon contains some of the area's finest Vietnamese restaurants as well as stores full of rice, silk and teak furniture. Kids enjoy looking at the Pacific Department Store, and go around the corner on Highland Street to the store's My-An restaurant. The owners are remarkably patient with little ones and forthcoming with things like forks for those of us too inept to handle chopsticks. Going west on Wilson Boulevard, the food at Cafe Dalat is just as good.. And if you keep walking, you'll hit the Fu Lo Bakery, full of French/Vietnamese treats.
on the Yellow Line. Near an old railroad station, this stop puts you at the foot of the George Washington Masonic Temple (open 9 to 5 daily). Tours are conducted every 50 minutes and run past a museum, library and halls explaining the Masonic philosophy. The tour includes a terrific observation deck with a view over Alexandria and beyond. The tour may be a bit long for your youngest child, but you're free to wander the first two floors. No admission.
on the Red Line. This stop puts you into the center of Bethesda's hotel and office district. In the winter, weather willing, the ice rink on the Bethesda Plaza next to the Hyatt Hotel will be open for skaters. The plaza is also the site of year-round musical and seasonal events. Four short blocks south on the east side of Wisconsin is Lowen's Toy Store (7201 Wisconsin Avenue NW), where special events (Lego-building contests, parent/teen seminars, musical shows, clowns, magicians) are held for children one Saturday afternoon a month. Lowen's ice cream parlor can be reserved for one-hour birthday parties. Another attraction is Lowen's large salt-water aquarium with exotic residents like moray eels and puffer fish.
Staff writer Larry Fox contributed to this story.METRO PASSES
Here's a list of places where you can pick up Metro Family Passes: Metro Center, 12th & F NW; Western Division Garage, 5248 Wisconsin Ave. NW; Northern Bus Division, 4615 14th St. NW; Southeast Garage, 17 M St. SE; Prince George's Division, 4421 Southern Ave. SE; Montgomery County Community Center, 19366 Montgomery Village Ave., Gaithersburg; Four Mile Run Division, 3501 S. Glebe Rd., Arlington; Arlington Division, 707 N. Randolph St., Arlington; Pentagon Concourse; and Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, 2009 N. 14th St., Arlington. For information on Metro routes and schedules, call 637-7000.