We know exploring the city and museums can be overwhelming, so we have created a “Know Before You Go”Family Guide to the National Museum of Natural History. Our family is a big fan of the free world-renowned Smithsonian museums but it can still feel like a lot to visit with kids!
On the one hand, it’s great to take advantage of the cool educational opportunities offered at these museums, but on the other hand… tantrums and traffic! Also, despite asking at every museum info desk, I was surprised that most do not have family or kids guides. (Except for the National Postal Museum and Freer Gallery of Art, which have great kids guides!)
But don’t fear! I’ve got all you need to know before you go to each of the top Smithsonian museums in DC. I’ve condensed my 7-page Family Museum Guides to the essentials including:
- Why Go
- When to Go
- Baby Basics (Strollers, Nursing Areas, Changing Tables)
- Metro and Parking Tips
- Food In and Around Museum
- Easiest Exhibit for Babies and Toddlers
- Best Exhibit for Elementary Age
- My Favorite Exhibit for Teens
- Gift Shop Alternative (because who wants to deal with a gift shop after a great visit!)
The full guides go into more detail for each of the age groups and if you are interested you can check them out at FamilyTripGuides.com. Make sure to bookmark this post to reference for your future visits!
1. Why Go
The National Museum of Natural History is the second most visited Smithsonian museum in DC, and it is a wonderful place for kids of all ages! Main attractions include the Hope Diamond, Live Butterfly Pavilion, and the newly opened Dinosaur Fossil Hall. It would take a week to go through it all!
2. When To Go
The museum is open 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM every day except December 25th. (The museum extends their hours many days in the summer to 7:30 PM.)
MOM TIP! Arrive right before the museum opens at 9:50 AM or after 3 PM for the least amount of visitors. (50% fewer visitors than the peak times of 1 – 4 PM!) Mondays and Wednesdays are the least busy and weekends are the busiest.
3. Baby Basics (Strollers, Nursing Areas, Changing Tables)
- Strollers: The museum is stroller friendly and wheelchair accessible. I recommend a stroller (or baby carrier!) even for older children in case you need to stand in lines to see certain exhibits.
- Nursing Areas: There are lots of benches in the exhibits. Unfortunately, the bathroom bench is made of stone and not too comfortable. I would recommend the new Ocean Terrace Café that is really large and your best bet for a quiet corner.
- Bathrooms: The busiest ones are on the lower level off of Constitution Ave.
MOM TIP: I like the large changing table in the restroom by the Ocean exhibit on the main floor.
4. Metro and Parking
Metro: The Smithsonian Metro Station on the Orange, Blue and Silver lines is the closest at just a 4-minute walk across the National Mall to the museum. Visit the Metro website for schedules, maps, and a trip planner.
Parking: Many might think parking in DC is impossible but I’ve been able to find street parking every time except once on a weekend. Most street parking is metered and you can pay via credit card or the ParkMobile App (directions on the meter). If you can’t find street parking, I use the Spot Hero App to find the closest garage.
MOM TIP: I have had great luck finding street parking if I arrive around 9:45 AM with street spots in front of the museum on both Madison and Constitution. Then you get to be the first to enter the museum when it opens at 10 AM!
5. Food In and Around the Museum:
- The new Ocean Terrace Café was renovated in Summer 2019 and is a beautiful space. However, you cannot bring your own lunch and the prices are quite expensive. The café offers a selection of food including a grain bowl buffet and a café with coffee and sweets.
- The Atrium Café on the ground level is pretty basic with overpriced and not very good food by many reviews. Sample costs: Burger for $15.30 and French Fries $4.75.
- If the weather is nice, bring a picnic stored in a cooler in your car, and have lunch on National Mall in front of the museum.
- Food Trucks are usually parked in front of the museum on Constitution Ave. or in front of the Sculpture Garden next door. They sell items like hot dogs, sandwiches, and ice cream bars.
Check out my full list of over 20 family-friendly food options near each of the museums here.
6. Easiest Exhibit For Babies and Toddlers
The Q?rious Jr. Discovery Room on the ground level in the Q?rius Science Center Area. It is a wonderful place for this age and up to 10 years old. It includes tons of hands-on activities with real museum artifacts including fossils, shells, and minerals. Q?rius Jr. is now open every day 10 AM – 5 PM.
MOM TIP: Look for Q?rius carts with museum volunteers around the museum. After learning about their topic, they hand out stickers! We learned all about baleen whales and even got to touch a real whalebone. My kids proudly wore their whale stickers for the rest of the day!
7. Best Exhibit For Elementary Age
Dinosaurs! The newly opened David H. Koch Hall of Fossils: Deep Time exhibit is not only enormous but also incredibly well thought out for this age group. The 700 fossils definitely steal the show but in the process, kids travel through Earth’s past and learn more about our present. My kids’ personal favs include: watching real scientists use a microscope to look for fossils, touching fossils at the volunteer cart and sketching in their museum passport. Check out this DC Area Moms Blog post for a deeper dive into Deep Time!
8. My Favorite Natural History Exhibit for Teens
Q?ius Center: Located on the lower level, this hands-on science center is an incredible place for teens to explore. The space is dedicated to fostering wonder and exploration. It includes a loft, learning center, microscopes, 6,000 collection objects, science games and more.
9. Museum Gift Shop Alternative!
Playing with butterflies make better souvenirs than postcards! On the 2nd floor next to the elevator is the Live Butterfly Pavilion where butterflies fly freely! (Cost is $7.50 for adults, $6.50 for kids 2-12 and Tuesdays are free!!) You need to get timed entry tickets ahead of time online here. In the full Guides, I have Gift Shop Alternatives for each age group. Because all parents know how hard it is to get out of a gift shop!
Whether you are checking out the National Museum of Natural History for a specific exhibit or visiting with out of town guests this season, I hope this mini-guide was helpful! Comment below and tell us about your favorite part of the Natural History Museum.