Fodor's Washington, D.C. 25 Best
National Air and Space Museum
National Air and Space Museum Review
This is the country's most visited museum, attracting 9 million people annually to the world's largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft. The 22 galleries tell the story of aviation from the earliest human attempts at flight to supersonic jets and spacecraft.
In 2014, the museum embarked upon a major overhaul of its spectacular grand hall, but will remain open during the process. When it debuts in 2016, in celebration of the museum's 40th anniversary, the new gallery—named the Boeing Milestones of Flight—will trace the evolution of air and space travel with state-of-the-art digital displays, a new mobile experience, and expanded space to showcase the key air- and space-craft. Many of the museum's superstar artifacts will return, including the Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis, Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis, and Mercury Friendship 7, along with artifacts new to the museum, among them a model of the USS Enterprise from the "Star Trek" television series. Also being renovated is the kid-friendly How Things Fly gallery.
On the second floor, you can see the 1903 Wright Flyer, which Wilbur and Orville Wright piloted over the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; and the Lockheed Vega that Amelia Earhart piloted in 1932 in the first solo transatlantic flight by a woman.
Free docent-led tours leave daily at 10:30 and 1 from the museum's welcome center.
Strap into a flight simulator, walk through a model of the Skylab orbital workshop, and learn about the history of flight and the scientific study of the universe from the permanent exhibits.
Immerse yourself in space by taking in an IMAX film or a planetarium presentation. The movies—some in 3D—employ swooping aerial scenes that make you feel as if you've left the ground and fascinating high-definition footage taken in deep space. Buy IMAX theater and planetarium tickets up to two weeks in advance or as soon as you arrive (times and prices vary); then tour the museum.
The three-story museum store is the largest in all the Smithsonian museums, and one of the best. You'll find souvenirs, clothing, books and movies, kites, and loads of collectors' items. A huge food court offers Boston Market, Donatos Pizzeria, and McDonald's fare. And if you have time, stop in at the Public Observatory on the museum's east terrace for a chance to peer through telescopes for a daytime look at the universe. It's open noon–3, Wednesday through Sunday.
National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. For more giant jets and spaceships, visit the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. Unlike the museum on the Mall, which is divided into smaller galleries with dense history and science exhibits, the Udvar-Hazy Center displays large aircraft and spacecraft, hung as though in flight throughout two vast, multilevel hangars. This focus makes the center more appealing for families with kids who may not be old enough to take in detailed historical narratives, but will certainly ooh and aah over the marvelous planes. It is also much less crowded than the Mall museum, with room to move.
One giant three-level hangar is devoted to historic aircraft, such as the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest jet in the world; the sassy-looking DeHavilland Chipmunk, a prototype aerobatic airplane; the sleek, supersonic Concorde; and the Enola Gay, which in 1945 dropped the first atomic bomb to be used in war on Hiroshima, Japan.
A second hangar is largely taken up by space shuttle Discovery, the first of the flown orbiters to go on display anywhere, as well as satellites, Mars rovers, missiles, and even a human-sized android. It also features a fascinating display of astronaut paraphernalia, including space food (chicken and peas for American astronauts, borscht for Russians) and special space underwear required for spacewalks.
In a separate wing, visitors can take an elevator to the observation tower (for free) to see an exhibit on how U.S. air traffic control stations operate. On the upper level, watch airplanes take off and land at nearby Dulles Airport. There is also an eight-story IMAX theater in that wing.
If you want to combine a morning visit with an afternoon departure from Dulles, shuttles run every 45 minutes between the museum and airport (curb 2E) for $1 and the trip takes 15 minutes. Check www.vatransit.org for schedules. Parking at the center is $15 per vehicle (free after 4 pm). 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly, VA, 20151. 202/633–1000; 866/868–7774 movie information. airandspace.si.edu. Free; IMAX film $9; IMAX feature film $15; flight simulators $7–$8. Daily 10–5:30 (check museum's website for summer hours).
- Address: Independence Ave. at 6th St. SW, The Mall, Washington, DC, 20560 | Map It
- Phone: 202/633–1000; 866/868–7774
- Cost: Free; IMAX or planetarium $9; IMAX feature film $15; flight simulators $7–$8
- Hours: Daily 10–5:30 (check website for summer hours)
- Website: airandspace.si.edu
- Subway: Smithsonian
- Location: The Mall
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