Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

This summer we’ve been lucky to have several sets of cousins come to town for a visit, each marveling at how lucky we are to live so close to the Smithsonian. And they’re right. Some of the best museums in the world are local and they’re free. But as much as I love spending an afternoon walking around one of the museums, I wasn’t so sure about going with young kids. One trip to the National Museum of Natural History though, with my 3 year old daughter, and I’m already planning my next trip.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is the perfect choice for a first museum for young children. With dinosaurs, insects, and rocks, there’s something of interest for every kid.

After we arrived and went through security, our first stop was the Butterfly Pavilion. On the second floor, the butterfly pavilion features hundreds of live butterflies. This exhibit requires a separate ticket. Tickets can be purchased online ahead of time or at the desk next to the exhibit. (adults: $6; children 2 to 12: $5) Getting up close with the butterflies was definitely the highlight for my daughter. Four days later and she’s still telling everyone she sees about them! It was definitely worth the ticket price as we spent nearly 30 minutes watching the butterflies fly, eat fruit, and land on visitors.

After looking at some of the Insect Zoo (also very kid friendly), we headed to the Geology, Gems, and Minerals area. While my daughter wasn’t interested in the crowds gathered around the Hope Diamond, she was enthralled by all of the different rocks, especially the really big ones with the “please touch” signs. We also really liked looking at all of the different color minerals – the cases looked like giant rainbows.

The other big attraction for our family was the dinosaurs. What kid doesn’t love dinosaurs? While this was the most crowded of all the exhibits we went to, it was still manageable with a stroller. It was so much fun getting to see her face as she saw just how BIG dinosaurs were, and talking about the different fossils that were on display.

After a break for lunch, our final stop of the day was the Discovery Room. I wish we had stopped by earlier. The Discovery Room is a hands-on experience for children. There were lots of different stations, with museum staffers encouraging kids to explore and learn. My daughter was enthralled by looking at shells under a magnifying glass; we also used a microscope and checked out some games from other countries. Had it not been the end of the day, we could easily have spent an hour exploring all of the different activities.

I definitely recommend taking a trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History with your kids. Even on a busy Saturday in July we had a wonderful time as a family, and can’t wait to go back again soon.

Tips for visiting with small children

  • To enter the Museum, you have to go through security, which includes a bag check and metal detectors. Lines were not very long when we arrived just before 11am, but when we left at 1:30pm they stretched out of the Museum and down the sidewalk. If you’re going at a peak time, be sure to leave a little extra time.
  • The Museum is huge, way more than you can see in one day. Pick 2 or 3 exhibits to focus on, and be sure to spend some time in the Discovery Room. It was also really helpful for us to have our stroller. My daughter walked through a lot of the exhibits, but it was nice to have a spot for her to sit and ride when she got tired. There were some stroller parking areas at the entrance to the larger exhibits, but we had no problem walking through with it (note: strollers are not allowed in the Butterfly Pavilion).
  • There are 2 restaurants in the Museum. The Fossil Cafe is a small cafe in the dinosaur exhibit (which looked really good, but was crowded), and the Atrium Cafe on the ground floor. We ate at the Atrium Cafe; it was very crowded at 12:30pm on a Saturday, but the line moved quickly and we were able to find a table for our family. While there did not appear to be specific “kids meals”, there were lots of kid-friendly options. The food was a little pricey (though reasonable for a museum), and we were pleasantly surprised with the quality. There were also a lot of healthy choices available – my daughter was thrilled to find a fruit cup so she could eat fruit just like the butterflies.
  • Bathrooms are available on every level and were clean and had changing tables available.
  • Tickets for the Butterfly Pavilion and IMAX movies can be purchased ahead of time on the Museum’s website. On Tuesdays, tickets to the Butterfly Pavilion are free (but you will still need to get tickets).
  • The closest metro stop to the museum is the Smithsonian Metro stop. Parking is limited near the museum; we parked at the Ronald Reagan building ($13 on the weekend) which is about 3 blocks away. If you go during the week and get downtown early enough you can score street parking.

Photo by Mara Surridge.

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