Must-See Smithsonian Museums
If you can’t visit all the Smithsonian Institution’s treasures, follow this guide for the best of its 19 exhilarating museums.
While the hit Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is certainly a must-see film, the real life museum has a few must-sees as well. The Smithsonian Institution is not just a museum, but a collection of 18 separate museums, with another one on the way. For those traveling to the area, a Smithsonian visit is the best value in Washington—free!
Fortunately, I live a stone’s throw from our nation’s capital and can visit the museums frequently. Although, unlike the movie, I’ve never spent the night, nor have I ever been involved in a “battle” of the Smithsonian—I have visited them all and have developed some favorites. Here are my top three that are essential for a Washington, D.C., vacation:
1. National Museum of American History
Since you can’t collect a little piece of history from every city and town and put it in one place, the National Museum of American History is the next best thing. If it’s Americana, it’s here. The exhibits range from wars to presidents to sitcoms to iconic heroes and stars. Perhaps the most impressive exhibit is the Star-Spangled Banner, which takes you through the history of the U.S. flag, including the original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the country’s national anthem as it flew over Ft. McHenry in Baltimore. This is a very emotional exhibit for me.
National Museum of American History. National Mall at 14th Street & Constitution Avenue, NW. Tel. 202-633-1000 (general information for Smithsoniam Institution museums). Open every day except Dec. 25. Regular hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Extended summer hours apply to certain days from mid-April to early Sept.; call for details. americanhistory.si.edu
2. National Museum of Natural History
While my No. 1 choice focuses on Americana, the National Museum of Natural History focuses on our planet and all that nature has put on it. We last visited a month ago, and the one exhibit that captured the attention of my three kids (ages 17, 14 and 12) was “Written in Bone.” This exhibit delves into the forensics of history through the bones of the dead. For some additional in-depth education, spend some time in the Forensic Anthropology Lab, where you can mix and mingle with real human bones—hands on! As with several of the Smithsonian Museums, this one has an IMAX theater (additional cost)—you just can’t go wrong with a six-story-tall movie screen.
National Museum of Natural History. National Mall at 10th Street & Constitution Avenue, NW. Tel. 202-633-1000. Open every day except Dec. 25. Regular hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Extended hours in spring and summer; call for details. www.mnh.si.edu
3. National Air and Space Museum
My family and I are travel bugs, and air travel plays a big part in our treks, so the National Air and Space Museum is a natural. Here, you’ll learn the details of aviation from the Wright brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., up to today’s modern aircraft. Star Trek and space exploration are featured exhibits, including a wonderful Star Trek IMAX film (for an additional cost). A good portion of the movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian was filmed in this building, and an impromptu scavenger hunt looking for film scenes is always a lot of fun.
National Air and Space Museum. National Mall at Independence Avenue at 6th Street, SW. Tel. 202-633-1000. Open every day except Dec. 25. Regular hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Extended summer hours apply to certain days from late March to early Sept.; call for details. www.nasm.si.edu
Bonus for Air and Space Fans
If you’re looking to experience air and space on a grander scale, make the trek out to Chantilly, Va., and see the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. In this gargantuan exhibit, take a peek into a space shuttle, walk under the wings of a Concorde supersonic jet and peek into the cockpit of the Enola Gay—the World War II plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in August 1945.
The center also has an IMAX theater (for an additional fee) and an extensive exhibit of U.S. and Russian spacecraft, including satellites past and present. Before leaving, visit the control tower to learn about the hidden side of aviation, and listen in as the controllers at nearby Dulles International Airport (DIA) guide thousands of flights through the complex Washington, D.C., airspace. To take some amazing photos of jets landing at Dulles, plan a picnic lunch by the fountain outside the center—you won’t be disappointed.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly. Tel. 202-633-1000. Open every day except Dec. 25. Regular hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Extended summer hours apply to certain days from late May to early Sept.; call for details. www.nasm.si.edu/udvarhazy
Themes: Art and Museums
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Great to see a short list. One of the hardest parts about DC is trying to narrow down the list of what to see. For the sites, my kids loved "Bike the sites." Also, loved staying at the Lorien Hotel in Alexandria and riding the Old Town Trolley into the "Distric."