Washington, D.C. Museums for Kids | Ciao Bambino!

Visiting Washington, D.C. Museums with Kids

I love planning family trips. Short and long, near and far. But when I started working on Washington DC with the kids, I have to admit it took me a while to get into it. There’s a mind boggling number of choices for families headed to DC, especially when it comes to museums.

The nation’s capital could also be called the museum capital. The Smithsonian Institution is comprised of 19 museums and the National Zoological Park.

Add in a significant number of non-Smithsonian choices like the Spy Museum and the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum and hard choices have to be made. No family can survive 19 museums. You have to narrow down the list.

National Museum of Natural History

Not Your Typical Museums

The idea of museums and kids typically induce a nauseous, somewhat apologetic response from folks. But DC’s museums are anything but typical. They play a pivotal role in making Washington the family-friendly city it is. That makes it even harder to cross some of them off the must-visit list.

I met a boy from Philadelphia one day while waiting for the National Archives to open. I asked him what his favorite part of DC was. I was shocked when he said, “The zoo is the best!”

The zoo, I thought to myself. I didn’t even consider taking my girls to the zoo. His hometown of Philadelphia has a fairly large zoo. I didn’t get why he was so impressed so I asked “Why, the zoo? You have one where you live.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t have pandas,” he said, and suddenly it all made sense. You have to think about your kids when you make your choices, but there are definitely some shining stars among the group.

National Museum of Natural History

National Museum of Natural History

The “WOW” factor is huge in this museum. Just like all the Smithsonian Museums, admission to the National Museum of Natural History is free. No tickets to worry about, just go through security and you’re in. Elephants, Oceans and dinosaurs, oh my. The museum is incredibly visually stimulating, which I think helps cement its appeal to both the young and old. It covers such an vast array of topics, everyone in the family should find something they like.

We skipped the butterflies, but everyone wanted to see the Hope Diamond. After fighting the crowds for a glimpse, we split up. My 10 year-old and I headed to the Bones exhibit, while my husband and 13 year-old went straight to the Mammals Hall.

We all wound up together again in front of the Dinosaurs exhibit with smiles on our tired faces.

National Air and Space Museum

I could see a drop in energy level on the walk to the museum, so when we walked in the door we headed straight for the interactive flight simulators.

Based on their scores, I don’t think either of my girls will grow up to be pilots, but I think their screams got a little louder after every 360-degree roll.  (Ride operators are serious when they ask you to empty your pockets before getting into the simulators). When the ride stopped rolling and came to a stop, the girls were energized and ready to explore the museum.

A few highlights among the thousands of things on display: the Wright 1903 Flyer and  Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and of course the flight simulators, which we did again before we left.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

This is perfect example of where having wiggle room and listening to your kids on the road really pays off. At 10 and 13 my girls have read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and know about the Holocaust. But I didn’t even consider a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, until my oldest asked to go. When I hesitated, she dug in her heels and made her case.

We moved very quickly through the Permanent Exhibition. I’m glad we went, but overall it was too much for her to process. During the visit we discovered the museum’s exhibition Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story. It tells the story of the Holocaust through the voice of a Jewish boy named Daniel who lived in Germany. With interactive elements and plenty of instances in which you are encouraged to touch things, it helps children understand the history of the Holocaust.

The National Portrait Gallery

You’ll probably spend less than a half hour here, but it’s time well spent, and if you need help convincing the kids, be sure to point out the Spy Museum is directly across the street. I’m not suggesting you tour the kids through the entire National Portrait Gallery, but the America’s Presidents Permanent exhibition on the second floor is fun to check out.

There will be many president’s the kids don’t recognize, but they’ll be plenty they do. There’s more than just portraits on display. Be sure to check out the plaster castings made of President Lincoln’s face and hands.

Spy Museum

Spy Museum

Of all the museums, my kids may have been most excited about the Spy Museum. It’s the one all their friends were talking about. It had all the hype.  When you enter the museum, it feels like you’re at Disney World, lines included. The first few rooms are very interactive. You’ll learn about bugs, the spying kind of course, cameras and disguises.

It’s just like the movies. You can even do some spy training if you feel up to crawling through duct work in the ceiling above. I did it and I have to admit it was pretty cool.

Though there is definitely a strong kid coolness factor, as you progress through the museum there is a lot of reading involved. My kids had a great time, but they might have gotten more out of it educationally if they were a bit older. It was also the most crowded of all the museums we visited.  Strollers aren’t allowed so don’t forget the baby sling or backpack.

Whew. Got any energy left. More on must do DC tours with the kids coming up soon.

Relevant Links:

Ciao Bambino recommended kid-friendly hotels in Washington DC

Washington DC family trip planning tips

10 new ways to experience Washington DC with kids

Washington DC with kids, top planning resources

Washington DC attractions, favorite family activities

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