National Museum of the U.S. Navy

The National Museum of the U.S. Navy is located deep within the heart of the Washington Navy Yard in SE Washington. Not visible from the street and not widely advertised, this fun, free museum is great for children, but often overlooked as a destination even by those who have lived in D.C. for years.

The museum contains exhibits covering the Navy’s role in pre-20th century wars, beginning with the American Revolution going through World Wars I and II. Children can marvel at both planes and submarines suspended from the ceiling.

On the ground are model ships ranging from huge to small and the always popular cannons. My children enjoy looking at the exhibit tracing the history of diving and giggled over the many crazy contraptions that allowed underwater exploration in the days before modern SCUBA equipment was invented.

Interactive exhibits abound, including a periscope that allows children to peek at what is going on outside (which my daughter adores) and an exhibit on buoyancy that teaches children about venting, which could keep my son busy for hours. My children also love wandering though the Arctic Expedition exhibit where visitors view a tent and other objects used by the Navy on various polar expeditions.

The clear hit among young visitors, however, is the opportunity to sit on one of several gun mounts and get the enemy in their sites. Fortunately, most contain space enough for two or more children to step into the role of a sailor from yesteryear at the same time, so waiting is all but eliminated. Just outside the museum is Willard Park which contains displays of additional cannons and armaments.

Older children will enjoy completing the Scavenger Hunt that asks children to look for specific information in the exhibits, such as “Why did WW II submarines surface every night?” and “What would you take on expedition to either [the North or South] Pole?” Cards entitled “In Harm’s Way” geared towards older children are scattered throughout the museum with additional information and ideas for furthering learning at home.

The National Museum of the U.S. Navy frequently hosts special events for children. While these are not necessary to enjoy the museum, they tend to be well executed and fun. My family has enjoyed making Sailor’s Valentine’s out of seashells and engaging in activities related to American Girl doll stories. Check the museum’s website for information about when events are held.

The National Museum of the U.S. Navy is a destination unto itself, but if you visit between March and October a stop aboard the USS Barry is a fantastic accompaniment to the museum and where admission is free. You may also want to combine your museum visit with a walk a around nearby Yards Park, especially in summer when the fountains and canal are open for water play.

Admission to the museum is free and it is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm and on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 10am to 5pm. The entire museum is flat and stroller-friendly. There is a place to leave strollers and coats for those who would rather explore without them. The museum is accustomed to little visitors and has many stepstools available for children to use to get a better glimpse of the exhibits and artifacts.

The National Museum of the U.S. Navy is located on the grounds of a working Naval Base and getting there can by trying if you do not know what to expect. Although there are several entryways into the base, all non-military visitors must use the entrance at 11th & O Streets, SE regardless of whether they are walking or driving. Once you enter, your first stop is to the Visitor’s Center where you must show your ID. There, you will be given a map to the museum and a pass to get you past the guards.

Free parking is plentiful on the base on weekends. Although the museum’s website says that no parking is available during the week, I confirmed with several employees that parking is available on the base during the week but is extremely limited, especially before 1pm. There is plenty of metered parking within a few blocks of the 11th & O Street, SE entrances as well as a couple of parking garages. The museum is also accessible via the Eastern Market (Orange/Blue) and Navy Yard (Green) metro stops. There is a kid-friendly food court in the Navy Yard that is open to the public on weekdays.

To access either the USS Barry or Yards Park you will need to exit the Navy Yard and will not be permitted back in without making another stop at the Visitor’s Center. Note that the USS Barry is not stroller-friendly. You need to climb very steep steps to board the ship and there are lots of steps on the ship as well. You may leave your stroller at the base of the steps before boarding.

Nearly everyone I know who has visited the National Museum of the U.S. Navy has wished that they had visited sooner. Don’t wait any longer!

Photo by Jamie Davis Smith

Photo of author

OK Editorial Team

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