Not every vacation experience needs an educational component to be complete, but still, there’s something undeniably enriching about visiting one of the must see museums, especially a history museum. Unlike art museums for example, history museums—visually, interactively or otherwise—usually offer more of interest to family members of all ages. Here are seven history museums you must visit as a couple or as a family. These are seven history museums you won’t forget.
Let’s start in our nation’s capital and work slightly south, then north, then west.
1. American Museum of Natural History
New York City is home to many outstanding museums of all disciplines, but the American Museum on Natural History is among the most popular, attracting more than 5 million visitors a year. Located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side across Eighth Avenue from Central Park, its sprawling, 1.6 million-square-foot campus actually consists of 27 different but connected buildings. These separate halls are dedicated to entire exhibitions and displays of topics as diverse as meteorites and gems to various cultures and civilizations to various birds and mammals.
2. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum showcases more than 6,000 aircraft, artifacts and other objects that tell the complete story of manned flight—the largest such collection in the world. The museum actually comprises two locations—an original structure on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and a newer and larger annex 45 minutes away, just south of Dulles International Airport. Together they’re the largest museum of the 19 in the Smithsonian Institution system—and the busiest museum in the United States. The numbers speak for themselves, and that’s why the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is at the top of this must see museums list
Why has the museum drawn more than 300 million visitors since opening in 1976? For one thing, aircraft and spacecraft excite most people’s imaginations, and this museum houses almost every historic or benchmark craft in the history of U.S. aviation—including the flying machine that started it all, the 1903 Wright Flyer. The first heavier-than-air craft is on permanent display at the mall location. So are the Spirit of St. Louis, aboard which Charles Lindbergh became first to solo over the Atlantic in 1927; and the Command Module from Apollo 11, the first lunar landing mission in 1969. New exhibits introduced since a renovation to the main entrance hall, begun in 2014, include a 1930s wind tunnel.
The museum annex, called the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, opened in 2003, just days before the centennial anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flights in Kitty Hawk, N.C. This facility is a spectacle beyond words. It comprises two mammoth hangars. One displays more than 150 aircraft, including the Enola Gay and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The Enola Gay is the B-29 Superfortress which, on Aug. 6, 1945, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The Blackbird is the world’s fastest jet which, in 1990 after 24 years of recon missions, completed its “retirement” flight from Los Angeles to Dulles in a mere 64 minutes, 20 seconds. The other hangar in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, houses Space Shuttle Discovery among other spacecraft.
Admission at both sites is free.
3. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Coming in at number three on this list of must see museums is The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, also in Washington, D.C., is an educational, solemn and emotionally powerful experience—a transformative experience for many of its more than 37 million visitors since 1993. The museum explores the causes, atrocities and impact of the Holocaust. But in addition to memorializing Holocaust victims and survivors, its dual mission is to promote awareness of continued intolerance in the world today.
The museum’s Permanent Collection comprises three floors and follows a chronological narrative of the Holocaust from the rise of Nazism to the liberation of the camps and postwar epilogue. You’ll see thousands of artifacts and videos—including 4,000 pairs of victims’ shoes, a jarring display that perhaps personalizes the tragedy more than any other. The tour experience is self-guided; to make the most of it, set aside up to three hours.
While the Permanent Collection is recommended for visitors 11 and older, some Special Exhibitions were created and deemed appropriate and educational for children as young as 8. One highly popular exhibit is a 45-minute look at a family’s experience, based on the writings of survivors, called “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is adjacent to the National Mall. Admission to the museum is free, but to control visitor traffic, timed passes are issued for the Permanent Exhibition between March and August. You can visit the museum website to download both a museum guide PDF and a mobile app that can help you organize your visit.
4. Williamsburg Historic District
Just 2½ hours south of Washington is a lively history museum of an entirely different genre. The Williamsburg, VA, Historic District is a living history museum, possibly the finest of its kind. It’s 300 acres of authentic and faithfully restored 18th century buildings and streets populated with re-enactors of life when Williamsburg was envy of the colonies—capital of Virginia, major commerce center and beacon of education and enlightenment. Williamsburg succeeded Jamestown as capital in 1699 and maintained that status until Governor Thomas Jefferson relocated operations to Richmond in 1780 during the American Revolution.
While you’re in Williamsburg, it’s also worth visiting the College of William & Mary, which borders the historic district. Chartered in 1695, next to Harvard it’s the second-oldest college in the country. Jefferson studied law at William & Mary, George Washington learned to become a surveyor there, and two more future presidents, James Monroe and John Tyler, also were students there. Among points of interest on campus, don’t miss the Sir Christopher Wren Building. Built between 1695 and 1700, it’s the oldest college structure still in use on American soil.
The museum also is home to the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which houses the six-story Hayden Planetarium globe, home of the popular Big Bang Theater, and also the Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway, the exit spiral from the Big Bang Theater which dramatizes proportion within the known universe.
5. Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center
The hallowed Civil War battlefield in Pennsylvania is memorialized as Gettysburg National Military Park. The visitor center includes a 22,000-square-foot museum and a resource room. The museum is a repository for battle weapons and artifacts, interactive and multimedia displays, and most famously for the Gettysburg Cyclorama. A cyclorama is a panoramic painting displayed in a 360-degree setting. This cyclorama is painter Paul Phillpoteaux’s historic, 1884 oil-on-canvas masterpiece interpretation of “Pickett’s Charge,” the ill-fated Southern infantry assault on the third and final day of the battle. Most historians consider it a tactical blunder that swung control of the Civil War irrevocably from the Confederacy.
6. National Archives Museum
No tourist visit to Washington, D.C., is complete without a stop at the magnificent library that houses the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights—not copies but glass-encased original documents. But the National Archives Museum offers much more, including a surviving copy of one the oldest codification of rights in recorded history. Since 2008, the museum permanent collection also has included the 1297 version of Magna Carta. This final revision of the failed original 1215 treaty between King John and the rival Barons provides the rudimentary basis for modern English law.
7. Field Museum of Natural History
The museum, established by department store magnate Marshall Field to permanently house collections gathered for the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, has been located at its present site on Chicago’s lakefront since 1921. The Field Museum attracts more than 2 million visitors a year, some of whom say they prefer it over its New York counterpart because it’s smaller in size and easier to navigate on a single visit. Even so, the museum features thousands of displays, objects and artifacts in several Permanent Exhibitions such as Inside Ancient Egypt, where more than 20 mummies are on display. And then there’s Sue—a 42-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton discovered in South Dakota, the most complete such fossil known to modern man. The assembled skeleton, 80 percent authentic dinosaur bone supplemented by plastic bones distinguished by their reddish hue, is on permanent display bearing a replica skull; the 600-pound, disembodied original skull can be viewed elsewhere in the museum.
If you’re looking for museum experiences that will be edifying for everyone, the above are places you’ll surely want to investigate.