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Washington D.C. Museums for Families

Washington D.C. is chock-full of museums. They are all first rate and best of all they are free! During our visit we concentrated on the three biggest museums with the most appeal for young kids. Our trip was in November so the museum cafes came in handy for lunch; if you visit in warm weather you can take advantage of the grassy areas around the museums for picnics. Be sure to check individual museum websites before you go; exhibits (even entire museums) frequently close for renovations and repairs.

National Air & Space Museum. This is a great place for space-loving kids. Our sons loved all the model aircraft (including the Spirit of St. Louis and the Wright Brothers 1903 flyer) hanging from the ceiling and displayed on the floor. Our daughter was most interested in the displays on the solar system, including a scale model and interactive stations where you can quiz yourself with space trivia. There’s also a space rock kids can touch, spacesuits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and popular IMAX and planetarium shows. The gift shop offers a good variety of space-themed toys and books. There is a small food court inside the museum and the kids’ meals came with space toys.

National Museum of Natural History. This museum is extremely popular and it’s well worth it to arrive right at opening time to beat the crowds. Try to get a map ahead of time and visit your top priorities first, especially if you’re visiting on the weekend. For our kids the dinosaurs were the biggest draw. Among others, the museum boasts a 90 ft long diplodocus skeleton and a towering Tyrannosaurus Rex (these may be scary for the younger ones so prepare them).

Besides the dinosaurs, our daughter loved the fantastic rock and gem collection. There’s a whole room devoted to jewelry, much of it previously belonging to royalty. The biggest attraction in this section is the stunning blue Hope Diamond, kept in a revolving glass case that’s perpetually surrounded by tourists. Other popular areas of the museum include an insect zoo full of live insects, a discovery room with hands-on activities, a display on life in the ancient seas (complete with some pretty scary skeletons of real sea monsters), and a room full of meteorites. The gift shop yielded great souvenirs, such as sparkly rocks and “Hope Diamond” jewelry.

National Museum of American History. This museum is closed for renovations until the fall of 2008, but we were able to see some of the more popular exhibits in their temporary home at the Air and Space Museum. This museum is probably best for slightly older kids, who will be able to relate to what’s displayed. The self-proclaimed “Nation’s Attic” has the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, a collection of First Ladies ball gowns, President Lincoln’s top hat, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, the Kermit the frog puppet, and Seinfeld’s puffy shirt, among other treasures.

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