First published March 4, 2020.
Updated on April 18, 2023 with new information about the exhibits.
If you are visiting Washington, DC, you will likely spend time in several of the Smithsonian museums, most centered around the National Mall. One of the most interesting museums is the National Museum of American History. This museum contains many priceless and meaningful artifacts from America’s past, and you can spend hours in its galleries.
This museum is located on the National Mall, between the Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of Natural History. You can see highlights from all three museums in one long day of sightseeing. The American History museum is quite large, with 4 floors of exhibits. You can enter from either Constitution Avenue (1st floor) or from the National Mall (2nd floor). You will have to go through security at each entrance – see here for more details on its policies. Be aware that on busy days, there may be a line to get through security. I recommend waiting until 30 minutes past the opening time to let the initial line die down.
Once you’re inside, visit the information desks, located near either entrance, to get an updated map of the museum, information on movies and other special events, and to obtain information on the digital guides for rent (available at a separate kiosk). There are special preschool and school-aged interactive digital guides for families to help you navigate the museum. I always recommend getting the digital guide, especially on your first visit.
The museum can be overwhelming so I encourage you to look at a map and plan your route based on your family’s interests before your visit. Don’t just wing it as you will get tired before seeing the important items! Here is my recommended route through the museum, which should take 2-3 hours (see the helpful hints below for a shortened tour route).
Start your tour of the museum at the Star-Spangled Banner, located at the National Mall entrance on the 2nd floor.
This unforgettable flag, the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s writing of the US National Anthem, is the highlight of the museum. This flag is the original flag that flew at Fort McHenry during the British bombardment during the War of 1812 and is truly awe-inspiring. You will enter a darkened gallery and can view artifacts and educational exhibits about the War of 1812 and the battle at Fort McHenry before and after viewing the flag. Don’t miss the charred piece of the White House on display! Note that the dark gallery may be unsettling for little children but is necessary to preserve the flag. Be sure to view this great interactive website about the flag to enhance your visit.
After the flag, I recommend turning right to head into the 2West galleries. Look for the entrance behind the Grecian statue of George Washington.
If you have elementary-aged kids, pop into the Within These Walls gallery, which contains an entire home from New England.
There are usually hands-on educational displays staffed by museum employees here that make learning about American life over the decades fun. My son loved seeing how World War II affected families, including a real ration card. He even tried his hand at canning!
The Many Voices, One Nation gallery is skippable with young children but is good for teenagers who may be discussing some of the tougher historical facts presented here in school.
As you leave Unity Square, you will definitely want to visit the large American Democracy gallery, which contains many important artifacts from American political history. My favorites are the desk where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the women’s suffrage wagon. This gallery contains a lot but you can move through it quickly, depending on the ages of your children. Some of the artifacts from this gallery are part of a traveling exhibition. Click here to see if it is coming to a museum near you!
Take the escalators up to the 3rd floor, and head to the museum’s newest exhibit, Entertainment Nation. Kids will love this (usually crowded) exhibit about their favorite movies, songs, sports, and celebrities. Don’t miss going to the back wall just outside the exhibit to learn more about video game history. It was my son’s favorite part!
Next go in my favorite exhibit in the entire museum – The First Ladies gallery! I love looking at the beautiful dresses, seeing the unique china, and learning more about the fascinating women who have served as America’s First Ladies. I could spend hours in here!
The First Ladies gallery will lead you into The American Presidency gallery, which is my younger son’s favorite gallery.
Learning more about the Presidents and seeing historical artifacts from each President is so interesting. Your kids will love the Presidential podium where they can pretend to give their own speech as President!
Seeing President George Washington’s military uniform, President Lincoln’s top hat from the night he was assassinated, and President Grant’s carriage is unforgettable. I also enjoyed learning more about the White House in this gallery, including the short movie about family life in the White House.
As you leave the American Presidency gallery, pop into the Gunboat Philadelphia gallery. This is a quick stop but is fun for kids. I can’t believe that this ship was once on the bottom of Lake Champlain!
If you have elementary-aged kids and older, you will want to visit The Price of Freedom gallery next. This gallery has information and artifacts about America’s wars, from the French and Indian War to our current engagements in the Middle East. It has some amazing items to see, including George Washington’s sword and the chairs used by Gens. Grant and Lee to sign the surrender at Appomattox.
If your kids (or you!) are exhausted, you can end your tour now and head to the cafe for lunch or out to the Mall for more museums. You have seen most of the major artifacts at the museum. Be sure to go down the escalators and see Clara Barton’s ambulance wagon from the Spanish-American War before leaving (2nd floor)!
If you want to see more, take the escalators down to the 1st floor to see some of the additional galleries. My kids’ favorite here is the America on the Move gallery, in 1East, which has cars, trains, and other modes of transportation. If your kids love Thomas the Tank Engine or Lightning McQueen, this is a must-see gallery!
Other galleries of interest are:
- On the Water: If your kids love boats or naval battles, this is a great gallery.
- Food Exhibition: Perfect for budding chefs, this exhibit has Julia Childs’ actual kitchen!
- Lighting a Revolution: Good to visit if your kids are learning about Thomas Edison in school
- Power Machinery: If your kids are learning about the Industrial Revolution, this is a good place to visit
- American Enterprise: An exhibit on women business leaders
- Wonderplace (kids ages 0-6) and Spark!Lab (kids ages 6-12): Lots of hands-on fun!
- Ride simulator: On the Lower Level, this fully immersive ride simulator time travels through history. My kids are begging to do this on our next visit!
A visit to DC is not complete without visiting the Smithsonian Museums. The National Museum of American History is a wonderful and educational place to learn more about our country’s unique place in history. Since March is Women’s History Month, it is a perfect time to visit!
- Cost: Free (ride simulator costs extra)
- Recommended for: all ages
- Tour time:
- Route highlighted above: 2-3 hours
- If you are running short on time, my recommended 1-hour route is:
- Star-Spangled Banner
- Greensboro Lunch Counter
- American Democracy gallery to see the Declaration of Independence desk
- Entertainment Nation
- The First Ladies/The American Presidency galleries (pick one)
- The Price of Freedom gallery to see George Washington’s sword
- Gift shops are located on floors 1, 2, and 3. The largest of these shops is on the 1st floor, opposite the Constitution Avenue entrance. Shop online here.
- Transportation: Nearest Metro stop is the Federal Triangle station on the blue/orange line. A convenient nearby parking garage is located at 1001 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The museum also participates in ParkWhiz.
- Dining options nearby: The museum has a restaurant, Eat at America’s Table, on the lower level, and cafe on the 1st floor. There are two outdoor food kiosks on the National Mall. Other nearby family-friendly options include the excellent Sweet Home Cafe in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the food court at the Reagan building. There are often food trucks around the Mall as well.
- Hotel options: See my DC guide for recommendations. The J.W. Marriott is the closest recommended option.
- Nearby attractions include: Smithsonian Museums: Museum of African American History and Culture and Natural History, National Mall monuments and memorials, National Archives, National Gallery of Art, Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center (contains pieces of the Berlin Wall and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Memorial Exhibit), and the National Children’s Museum
Books to Read:
All images are Amazon affiliate links. To see an even wider selection, check out the Smithsonian’s online gift shop.