August 20, 2017

Washington, DC: One Day, Three Family Museums

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National Museum of Natural History

On Sunday, I took the older girls (ages 6 & 7) into Washington, DC with big plans to take the Tourmobile bus on a sightseeing trip around the city. It was supposed to be relaxing, going from stop to stop and getting offer where we pleased. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way since Sunday happened to be the day of the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally and Tourmobile neglected to tell me that they had canceled bus tours for the day.

Well, I am not good with back up plans and sat for a good 20 minutes thinking about what to do next. We could go all the way home (45 minutes) and watch TV, we could try to find some fun activities on the way back to our town (I briefly considered the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a worthwhile annex to the National Air and Space Museum), or we could stay put knowing we wouldn’t be able to leave for several hours.

We decided to stay in the city and took the Metro train from Union Station (where we were to pick up the Tourmobile) to the Smithsonian stop, a 12-minute trip that required us to change trains. It was a hot, hot day (unseasonably hot for May), and I knew the girls were not up for a lot of walking in the heat, though they did enjoy the adventure of the subway.

Getting off at the Smithsonian stop as a good choice, and an ideal stop for families because it’s central to many museums and activities that are well suited for school-age kids (as well as those who crave air conditioning). So here are a few recommendations for you:

National Museum of the American Indian: This was the furthest museum from the Smithsonian stop (maybe five minutes on foot) and a good first stop since we were able to backtrack to the subway. My seven-year-old, Clare, studied several American Indian tribes in school this year, so it was fun to learn about how the tribes have changed over time.

Be sure to take in the 13-minute “Who We Are” movie in the Lelawi Theater on the 4th floor. A 45-minute guided tour also sets off twice a day (an extra morning tour is added on the weekends). The café is over-priced ($4.95 for a cup of buffalo chili), but the menu is Native-inspired so it’s somewhat of a culinary experience (they also have chicken fingers and hamburgers, just in case). Stop by the information desk for a free family activity guide, which is ideal for younger children.

National Air and Space Museum: If your kids like planes, satellites, planets and space shuttles, this is wonderful place to stop. It’s also one of the most popular museums in Washington, DC, so expect crowds and try to get there early or late (hours are 10-5:30 daily, extended hours in the summer). Take a tour, watch an IMAX movie or climb aboard a flight simulator.

Kids will also enjoy dozens of gadgets that teach the four principles of flight: weight, lift, thrust and drag. If you think you’ll take in an IMAX movie, or even a show at the Albert Einstein Planetarium, check out the schedule ahead of time and purchase tickets online to avoid lines.

National Museum of Natural History: Your kids will love the huge elephant in the rotunda as they enter the museum, as well as all the amazing exhibits on everything from mammals and dinosaurs to the Ice Age and the earth and the moon. You can even see the world-famous Hope Diamond in the gems and minerals exhibit.

This is another wildly popular exhibit, and it was very crowded when we arrived near 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. There are lots of short movies (read: nice places to sit down) and interactive exhibits for kids. You’ll find an IMAX theater here too with three different movies playing every day. Stop by on Tuesdays to visit the Butterfly Pavilion free of charge.

While we didn’t make it to the National Museum of American History or the Hirshorn Sculpture Garden, these are also fun stops with kids and are very convenient to the Smithsonian metro stop (less than a five minute walk). Plus, your kids will love the Smithsonian Carousel. It’s just $2.50 per ride.

If you choose to eat near the museums, remember that it is expensive. If you’re open to picking up lunch from a street vendor, you’ll find a bunch along Independence Avenue (in front of the Air and Space and American Indian museums). We got ice cream from one of these carts, and it was actually half as much as it was from vendors on the other side of the museums that face the National Mall.

Have you been to Washington, DC? What are some of your favorite places to visit downtown with your family?

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