My kids aren’t always excited about visiting history museums, no matter how much fun I think they are! They are, however, always excited to visit air and space museums around the country where they don’t even realize they’re learning history. Their very favorite air and space museum is the National Air and Space Museum – Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport in the metro Washington, DC area.
You may have visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC (currently closed). The Udvar-Hazy center is an additional branch of this museum, one that is big enough to house some of the largest aircraft from aviation history, including a space shuttle and the Concorde! It was built specifically to display some of the largest artifacts in the Smithsonian’s archives.
The museum on the mall may have some of the most historic aircraft such as the Wright Brothers’ plane and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis but the vast archive housed at Udvar-Hazy is more accessible and varied. It’s also a perfect stop if you have an evening overseas flight and want to get to Dulles but don’t want to sit around the airport for hours.
It’s such a large facility that it never feels crowded, especially good during these times of social distancing. Your kids will love running around its displays and looking up in awe at the aircraft hanging from the ceiling.
The path is set up for you to wander through the extensive collection housed in the main hangar and includes a second floor observation walkway so you can see the aircraft at eye level. We usually see the military aircraft on the right first.
Then we head into the back hanger to see the main attraction – the Space Shuttle Discovery.
It is truly amazing to walk so close to a space shuttle! It’s so large, it’s hard to convey from pictures and watching it on TV.
The Discovery was used for 27 years and was launched into space 39 times, more than any other space shuttle. Your kids will be fascinated by the wear and tear you see on the tiles lining its undercarriage. We’ve now seen two space shuttles up close (Space Shuttle Endeavour is on the west coast at the California Science Center – coming in another post!), and every time, the little 4th grader in me who wanted to be an astronaut gets so excited.
Your kids will also love the exhibits surrounding the space shuttle. There are lots of hands-on activities to try out (some closed due to COVID). We especially love looking through the quarantine facility the astronauts had to use.
As you walk back out into the main hangar, go right to see some of the most historic aircraft at this site.
The Enola Gay airplane is displayed here. This aircraft was the very first airplane to to drop an atomic bomb during warfare.
You’ll see one of my favorite artifacts but it’s such a small display that it’s easy to miss – a fragment of a Civil War-era balloon used by Confederate forces at the Gaines’ Mill battle near Richmond. Both the Union and Confederates used balloons in their battles – check out my book list below for a great book suggestion to learn more about this!
This side of the hanger contains my older son’s favorite plane – an Air France Concorde supersonic jet which flew at over twice the speed of sound.
Your kids will love the other aircraft, ranging from helicopters to FedEx planes. There are planes from various wars and experimental aircraft.
Pre-COVID, the observation tower at the museum was open, and you could watch planes land at the next door Dulles Airport while hearing the real air traffic controllers talk. Hopefully it will reopen soon!
There’s also a restoration hanger you can visit to see how they restore the aircraft and an IMAX movie theater. My kids also love the flight simulators.
The Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum is a must-see museum for any aviation enthusiast. The aviation history found in its displays is awe-inspiring, and your kids will absolutely love it!
- Cost: museum is free (parking is $15 per car)
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 2 hours
- Gift shop located onsite and online
- Transportation: The museum is best accessed by car. See its site for public transportation directions.
- Dining options: There is a museum cafe but it’s currently closed. Nothing is within walking distance so you must have a car. I recommend driving a short distance to the intersection of Highways 28 and 50 where there are many restaurants including a Red Robin and Chick-fil-a. If you’re up for a short drive, my favorite area Tex-Mex restaurant is not that far away – Guapo’s.
- Hotel options: Being near Dulles Airport, there are hundreds of hotels nearby. If you’re looking for a resort nearby, check out the Lansdowne Resort.
- Nearby attractions include: Sully Historic Site, Heritage Farm Museum, Dulles Town Center (shopping mall), and Manassas National Battlefield Park
Books to Read:
All links embedded in photos are Amazon affiliate links.
Flight: The Complete History of Aviation
Enola Gay: The Bombing of Hiroshima
Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects
Lincoln’s Flying Spies: Thaddeus Lowe and the Civil War Balloon Corps
The Big Book of Airplanes
Space Exploration for Kids: A Junior Scientist’s Guide to Astronauts, Rockets, and Life in Zero Gravity
Smithsonian Kids: A is for Astronaut: An Out-of-This-World Alphabet Adventure
Smithsonian Adventures in Space
There’s No Place Like Space: All About Our Solar System (Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library)