Looking for the best children’s museums in Washington DC? Read on for details!
If you love museums, Washington DC is definitely the city for you.
And if you don’t love museums, Washington DC will show you why you’re wrong (ha!). Jokes aside, there are so many varied, interesting, unique, and special museums in this city – there’s really something for everyone.
The massive cherry on top is that you can experience these world class museums almost exclusively for free (there’s only one museum on this list that has an entrance fee, but boy is it worth it!)
And if you’re traveling with children, don’t fret. There are many museums perfect for children in Washington DC, with interactive, exciting, and interesting exhibits that will keep them engaged and entertained.
13 Best Children’s Museums in Washington DC
This post is not a comprehensive list of all the museums in DC. Many posts will just list them all, but let’s be real – not all museums are actually kid friendly.
So, I’m not listing all of the museums, I’m sharing just the BEST museums for kids in Washington DC. We went to these museums with our kids, who are ages 11, 9, 7, and 5, so we had a lot of opinions to work with!
Additionally, this list will have several recommendations on here that are a little bit different and unique and may not be what you think of when talking about museums, but are still really great museum-type experiences for kids.
Best Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC for Children
You can’t visit Washington DC with kids and not visit a Smithsonian Museum! Most of these museums line the National Mall (although a few are off the mall), are always free, and are world class museums. Here are a few that are fantastic to visit with kids.
Note: All Smithsonian Museums are open every day of the year except Christmas.
1. National Postal Museum
This is an incredibly underrated museum in Washington DC, for kids and adults alike! It’s located right next to Union Station, just off the mall.
It was a really really fun museum housed in a pretty building with a gorgeous ceiling! The upper floor is all about the history of stamps, the first stamps made in the United States and other countries, displays of rare stamps, and stamps or postage that was around during different momentous periods of history.
While I get that this might sound a bit dull, or only interesting to the serious stamp enthusiasts, our entire family had a ton of fun at this museum. We enjoyed the many short videos showcasing different stamp designs, or talking about the history of one of the most famous and rarest stamps – like the inverted jennies.
There were stamps and postage on display that were on the Titanic, or in the Earthquake of 1906, or was supposed to be delivered to the World Trade Center on 9/11, with information about what the post office did during these events.
The favorite part for our kids of the Postal Museum were the interactive areas. For example there was a puzzle of the Inverted Jenny you could do. There were also several spots where you could “build” a stamp collection.
At the first spot, you can browse through a touch screen of a huge collection of stamps, sorting by categories or states, and then choose 10 to add to your own collection. This collection can then be emailed to yourself.
At another station, you can design your own stamp. Finally, another station has several trays of actual, real stamps out, and you’re able to go through and choose 6 to add to an envelope to bring home with you. This entire area of the museum was extremely fun for our kids!
On the bottom level there are more exhibits about the history of the Postal Service. The main hall downstairs has all the different types of transportation that the postal service has used over the years displayed prominently, including stagecoach, trains, planes, the modern mail trucks, and others.
Overall we were incredibly impressed with the Postal Museum and absolutely consider it a hidden gem museum in DC. It was a great blend of interactive activities, interesting information, and a beautiful building.
Hours: 10am-5:30pm, daily
2. National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum is one of the most famous of all the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC. And of course, being centered around aviation and outer space, is a perfect children’s museum – what kid doesn’t like rocket ships??
At the museum, you can see the first airplane to take flight, Charles Lindburg’s plane that flew nonstop from Paris to New York, and many other rockets and airplanes on display! You can also see the Apollo 11 Command Module, the spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore, and even a chunk of moon rock.
There are various interactive elements where you can see see how the different spacecraft tech operates, discover how space bathrooms work, or learn about navigation on an airplane. For a small fee, you can also take a turn in a flight simulator.
There are actually two Air and Space Museums in Washington DC – one of them is on the National Mall, and the other, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, is just outside of Dulles Airport. This other museum has a lot of aircraft in an open, hangar-like museum. Notable aircraft here include a Blackbird, and the massive Discovery space shuttle.
This is just an outstanding museum, top to bottom. Parts of the museum have been undergoing renovation for several years, but half of the renovated museum is set to re-open on October 14, 2022.
3. National Musuem of Natural History
The Museum of Natural History is another well-known Smithsonian museum in DC, and it definitely deserves the hype it gets. It’s housed in a really pretty building, with a soaring domed atrium lined with columns on several levels. This is one of the best children’s museums in Washington DC, particularly if you have kids that love animals.
The three biggest exhibit halls were themed around fossils, mammals, and sealife, with a few other exhibits about human evolution, mummies, rare gems (including the Hope Diamond!), and butterflies.
The fossil exhibit hall had large and small dinosaur fossils on prominent display, realistic dioramas, and interactive displays, as well as more traditional informative setups. This room was just extremely fun and was visually enticing and exciting.
The mammals display had a ton of stuffed/taxidermy animals set up throughout the hall. There was a large variety, and some of them were displayed in action shots – for example, there was a tiger “leaping” out from an upper display case, a lion roaring, or a giraffe bending down to drink water.
Overall, the natural history museum had really vibrant and aesthetically pleasing exhibits with interesting information, cool artifacts, and many hands-on opportunities. It’s definitely a museum not to miss on your visit to DC with kids.
4. National Museum of American History
This museum has exhibits on different themes in American History. There are exhibits for the military, for presidents, first ladies, American invention and innovation, American culture, and the Star-Spangled Banner, and a few others.
This is a great children’s museum in Washington DC for any kids who are interested in a number of subjects. For example, our girls really enjoyed the First Ladies exhibit, which had many of the First Ladies’ inaugural ball gowns and personal china displayed.
A few other spots that we all really liked in this museum was seeing the actual top hat that Abraham Lincoln was wearing the night he was shot at Ford’s Theater.
We also loved seeing a Revolutionary War gunboat that was sunk during a crucial battle on Lake Champlain. This boat sat just under the water for ~150 years, when it was discovered and carefully raised and put on display.
The final spot that we really loved here was seeing the “Star Spangled Banner,” the actual American flag that was waving over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key penned the Star Spangled Banner poem. The flag was really big and impressive – we loved seeing this!
Other interesting “artifacts” in this museum that children might enjoy are Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, sheet music by Duke Ellington, the first car that drove across the United States, Conestoga wagons, possessions of George Washington, and many, many others.
While all of our kids enjoyed several of the exhibits (particularly the first ladies dresses and the gunboat), many of the exhibits will be better for kids who are at least in upper elementary school.
5. National Zoo
Zoos are definitely a crowdpleaser when talking about great children’s museums, and the National Zoo in Washington DC is a fairly large zoo with a lot of really cool animals to see. We spent 3 hours here without even really trying, but you could easily spend 4-5 hours here if you want to see everything.
Some of our favorite animals that we saw here were tigers, bobcats, bison, pandas, red pandas, a cheetah, an ostrich, and a kudu. We also really loved the orangutans exhibit – there was a series of cables strung from towers high above the ground that the orangutans could climb up and swing across.
When we were there, we saw them swinging across the cables above us a few times! (The sign said the best time to see them swinging is 11am-12pm, but we saw them around 10am).
- The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian, but it is quite a ways off of the National Mall. You can drive or take the metro up.
- Admission is free, but you do need to get a ticket online ahead of time.
- You will need to pay for parking, which is $30, and you need to purchase a parking pass online ahead of time. When you arrive, there is a QR code to scan if you haven’t purchased parking yet, but you still need to pay for it online, so I’d just do it ahead of time.
- You could also try to get street parking but that is a lot harder to come by, and only valid for a few hours.
- Hours: 8am-4pm, daily
6. The Castle Museum
Colloquially known as the “Castle Museum,” this building is officially known as the Smithsonian Institution Building, and functions as a visitor center for the Smithsonian museums.
Generally, I would say this is not a necessary Smithsonian to go into, EXCEPT for the fact that a couple of the rooms inside do look like a medieval castle (my little girls loved that). Mostly, this is a great museum to admire from the outside.
The architecture of the building does resemble a castle, and it also was designed to resemble Oxford or Cambridge universities in the UK. The best part though is the exterior in back, where you can walk through beautiful gardens set against the stunning architecture of the Smithsonian Castle. Strolling through the gardens is lovely and a great outdoor place for children to relax and pretend they’re at a castle.
7. Sculpture Garden
The Smithsonian Sculpture Garden is an adjunct to the National Art Gallery, and while it can sometimes be hard to get kids excited about paintings, our girls did enjoy the sculptures. Points in its favor:
- You’re walking around outside.
- Interesting, dynamics, large shapes and some have really cool patterns.
- Engaging figures, like a version of the classic “Thinker” but with a rabbit and a “2D” house that, through clever use of perspective, appears to rotate as you walk around it.
In the winter, there’s an ice rink here that kids are sure to love.
Best Non-Smithsonian Children’s Museums in Washington DC
The second half of this list of best kid’s museums in Washington DC includes everything that isn’t part of the Smithsonian complex of museums. There are a lot of fun and exciting museums to visit on this next part of the list!
8. International Spy Museum
The Spy Museum is the most fun children’s museum in Washington DC, and easily, EASILY one of the coolest museums for children and adults that we have ever been to. If you put any museum on this list on your “must do” list of museums for kids, let it be the the Spy Museum.
What makes the Spy Museum so great for children and adults alike?
The whole museum is a mix between really interesting and sometimes interactive exhibits about spy activity that the US or other countries have done, and you participating in your own spy mission that you complete in stages as you work your way through the museum.
At the beginning, you pick up your scannable card and get your own personalized spy mission at the Briefing Station that you will need to complete. Make sure you remember your cover story and code name!
Then enter the museum exhibits and start exploring! There were many different themes as you went between rooms – for example, this first room, was all about spies and spymasters. Other rooms were themed around how to steal secrets, codes and codebreakers, hackers, spies and spying during different wars, and more.
It was a mix of traditional exhibits posters, with different short videos, artifacts, small vignettes, and a ton of areas for you to things yourself. You can even engage in tests of strength and agility – like climbing through vents or hanging from a bar as you “infiltrate”.
Periodically throughout the museum it was time for you to work on your own top secret spy mission. At the row of touch screens, you had to complete a spy task, tailored to your own unique mission. Oftentimes, these tasks correlated with the exhibits in the room.
At the end, you debrief on the success of your mission and get a report on some of your spying strengths.
Truly, this is one of the best children’s museums anywhere, including Washington DC, but Matthew and I were thoroughly entertained as well. All four of our kids LOVED this museum and never got bored. We spent almost 3 hours here, and actually had to hurry up at the end to finish before closing. We easily could have spent 4+ hours here and not been bored.
The International Spy Museum is located just south of the mall and within easy walking distance of other monuments and memorials.
This museum does have a entrance fee, which is between $25-29 for adults and $15-18 for kids. You can buy tickets in advance online, and they actually have a system where the earlier you buy your tickets, the cheaper the tickets are. If you for sure know your dates ahead of time, you’ll get better pricing by buying ahead of time here.
Additionally, occasionally the Spy Museum does sell out, so buying ahead of time assures that you will get in. We went mid-week in October and weren’t sure of our exact schedule, so we just bought on-site and it wasn’t overly busy at all.
Hours: 10am-6pm Monday-Friday, 9am-7pm Saturday, 9am-6pm Sunday
9. Exhibition Hall at the US Capitol
Going on a capitol tour is a really great museum-like experience for children in Washington DC. To go on a capitol tour you need to contact your congressional representatives for tickets. You’ll get on a guided tour that takes you to three public places in the Capitol building: the Crypt, the Rotunda, and Statuary Hall.
You can also get passes at the Capitol the day of go see the Senate or the House of Representatives galleries. (These are optional additions to the ticket you get from your representative.) When we went neither house was in session but you could go in to see the Senate gallery.
Our kids, even the 5 year old, really enjoyed the tour of the capitol, since the guide shared a lot of interesting facts and the Capitol building is really stunning.
However, what I want to highlight most in this section is the Exhibition Hall in the Visitor’s Center of the Capitol. This small museum about the capitol shares information about the construction and the building itself, including several interactive exhibits.
My girls particularly liked the kids area – the Democracy Lab – which is in a windowed room on the left side of the Exhibition Hall. This was a REALLY fun spot for our kids, as there were several activities they could participate in here.
First, there was a whole table set up for writing a bill. Grab one of the sheets of paper and fill in the blanks with what you want your bill to be about. Have people vote on it (or offer amendments), and then use one of the machines to press on an official seal marking if it passed or failed.
At another table, you could design and create a rubbing of a frieze, similar to what you see in the Capitol Rotunda. There was a nice variety of tiles you could select and put together to make your own frieze.
Another spot was designed to mimic a spending committee – you had a certain number of programs and a certain amount of money, and you had to keep your money balanced – if you wanted to increase funding to one program, you needed to decrease funding to another (Actually, maybe the actual members of Congress need to come do this exercise…😉).
There was a little podium with a microphone and a backdrop like you were in the senate or house Chambers. There were some directions on how to give a speech, and you could give your speech to the “assembly.”
We spent about a half hour here but could have easily done a full hour. While this is not really advertised as a kid’s museum experience in DC, we thought this was actually a really well-designed, fun, and informative children’s museum in Washington DC and one that you should definitely stop by with your kids when you do your Capitol tour.
10. Library of Congress
I’ll admit, I went back and forth on whether to include this one on the list. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to fit – it’s not really a museum, and doesn’t appear to be kid-friendly.
Our kids actually did have a great time at this spot, and there are several things that give it a museum-like experience, and something that makes it very child-friendly, so here’s the run down.
The Library of Congress is a good “museum” for children in Washington DC because kids will absolutely be wowed by the fancy and gorgeous architecture. Truly, this was the most stunning building we saw our entire visit to DC and our kids were impressed.
Second, when you arrive, ask for an I Spy pamphlet from the front desk. This 3 fold pamphlet is printed on bright, thick paper, and gives kids 9 different things to look for as they walk through the Library of Congress.
Older kids may be less interested in an I Spy activity, but if they love books, they will certainly be excited about a fancy library. Note that you don’t get to go near the books, you only get to look down on the Main Reading Room from an overlook on the second floor.
There is an easy process to request a pass to see the books, but you have to be at least 16 years old to get one, so not quite child-accessible.
However, if you go into one of the side rooms on the second floor, you can enter Thomas Je;sfferson library, and get up close and personal as you browse his collection of books.
- Hours: 10am-5pm, closed Sunday and Monday
- Entrance: There is no entrance fee, but you do need a timed entry reservation that you can make online.
11. White House Visitor’s Center
If you don’t manage to get a reservation for a White House tour (they’re in very high demand), a second best option is to view the White House from the South Lawn and then visit the White House Visitor Center.
The White House Visitor Center actually has quite a few really interesting and interactive exhibits, which our kids really enjoyed. To start, there’s a model of the White House on a platform, with many touch screens around the platform where you can take a virtual tour of the different rooms inside.
Other exhibits around the room included things like favorite foods of the presidents, or different pets of the presidents that lived at the White House.
Hours: 7:30am-4pm Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday
12. Junior Rangers Program
The Junior Rangers program is run by the National Park Service and is available at most National Park Service sites throughout the country. This includes several sites in Washington DC! These sites include the White House Visitor’s Center, Ford Theater, and the National Mall Memorials.
To participate, you can inquire at the desk for a Junior Rangers book. You’ll receive a really high quality booklet that is between 10-15 pages long. These booklets are filled with engaging activities and worksheets about the site that you are visiting.
So, this is obviously not a true museum itself, but it is something that will make visiting Washington DC with kids a richer experience. The activities and facts in the booklets can turn the monuments in DC into a sort of sprawling museum, as the kids learn more about the history behind the monuments, their symbols, and the cultural significance. We found our children really connected with the places more and were excited to visit all the sites.
Note that since the National Mall is a pretty big area, there are actually 4 places you could pick up the booklets: The Washington Monument Lodge, the World War II Visitor’s Center, The Vietnam Memorial Visitor’s Center, and the MLK Memorial Visitor’s Center.
Each booklet has a different requirement to how many pages you need to complete to get your Junior Rangers award, and there are usually less pages required for kids under 7.
Once you have completed the required number of pages (generally 3-5 for younger kids, and 5-8 for older kids), you bring your completed book back to the front desk to get checked, and then you are awarded with a badge, with an engraving on it specific to the site you visited.
We started doing the Junior Rangers activities during our big National Parks road trip this summer and our kids have really enjoyed it, but remember – almost any site that is part of the National Parks Service will have this program, not just the National Parks.
13. National Archives Museum
The National Archives is a great children’s museum in Washington DC, particularly for kids who are old enough to have a basic background of American history and understand the significance of the Declaration of Independence (or even for kids who have watched the movie National Treasure!).
While there were a couple of side exhibits – which our kids did like – there is one main spot in the National Archives, the Rotunda, where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are on display. The room is dimly lit and no pictures or videos are allowed, to help preserve the documents.
The Rotunda is big and tall and grand and there’s not much in it beyond the documents, which just makes it feel even more grand and important. In cases lining half of the room are the historical documents, as well as some displays about the history and significance of the documents.
Two large paintings adorn the upper walls of the Rotunda, one depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the other depicting the signing of the Constitution.
Look for the silhouette of a Abraham Lincoln in the dark cloud above Thomas Jefferson in the painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence!
This is a short but very sweet museum, perfect for children when visiting Washington DC!
Hours: 10am-5:30pm daily
Final Thoughts on the Best Children’s Museums in Washington DC
The good news about trying to plan your museum visits in Washington DC is that there is certainly to be something that interests everyone in your group. I would choose a combination of Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian museums to visit with your kids when you travel to DC – have fun!