We love, love, love the free Smithsonian museums to visit while in Washington DC with kids. The granddaddy of them all is the National Museum of Natural History, which is definitely worth half a day of your time. While planning our DC trip, I doubted whether we’d want to make the stop; I knew the museum was great, but reasoned that we have toured numerous museums of natural history in the US, from Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum to San Diego’s The Nat. But at the insistence of my son, we went, and we’re so glad we did.
There’s so much going on in this museum. The first level (actually called Level 2; the ground floor houses the IMAX and cafe) houses the permanent Mammals Halland Ocean Hall, each excellent in their own right, but what wowed us most was the Hall of Human Origins. This exhibit documents the ‘birth’ of homo sapiens from their ancestors and follows the path from earliest man to present day, including adaptations and population changes. It concludes with impacts of humans throughout the ages, both good and bad. It made all of us think, from the youngest to oldest.
Upstairs (Level 3), their dinosaur wing (called the National Fossil Hall) is under renovation until 2019, but in the meantime, the Rex Room downstairs by Mammals offers a window into the work ongoing by museum staffers. During our visit, we watched their 3-D printers create model triceratops.
The Minerals and Gems Hall houses to the Hope Diamond, definitely worth checking out (though my kids thought it would be bigger!), and adjacent, the live Butterfly pavilion (extra fee) and live bug zoo (included) lead to the Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt exhibit (on indefinitely display). This may have been our second-favorite stop, where we learned the ancient Egyptians sometimes mummified animals like cats and even bulls in addition to humans. There are actual mummies here (one of which is a small child), so sensitive children may need to be warned (or skip it).
We spent three hours touring exhibits and another hour eating at the cafe, and still didn’t see everything. When you arrive, expect a short delay at the security point.
Date last visited:
Distance from the interstate:
Minutes from I-66 and I-395. Close to I-95.
Free. IMAX movies are extra. Butterfly exhibit is approximately $6 per person, and requires timed ticket in summer.
Hours of operation:
10 am to 5:30 pm daily, except Christmas Day. Extended hours are possible in summer.
There are two cafes in the museum. The main one is a large cafeteria with the usual: burgers, fries, pizza, sandwiches, grab-and-go items, and snack foods. Expect to pay premium prices. The second is a natural cafe with healthier options, located one floor up. It’s much smaller, but also seemed to be less crowded. Tip: No matter what we do, we always bring water bottles and refill them at water stations. We save $10-15 per meal by not purchasing drinks, and save from adding to the plastic bottles piling up, too.
The museum is located at 1000 Constitution Avenue, Washington DC. Get off at the Smithsonian Metro stop, or walk from most points on the Mall.
Wondering where to stay in DC? Check out our review of Grand Hyatt Washington.
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