National Museum of American History Family Guide: 9 Tips to Know Before You Go

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The Smithsonian Museums are at the top of the list for many families with kids in Washington, D.C. and for good reason! I love going to the museums (especially the National Museum of American History) with my kids because they tick all the boxes:

  • Free!
  • Educational!
  • Not weather dependent!

But with all the pros, there can be some drawbacks including crowds, toddler tantrums, and feeling overwhelmed. So after dozens of trips to these world-class museums with my two kids, I put together all my “mom tips” into 7-page guides for each of the top museums. 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! And, check out my 9 family tips for the National Museum of Natural History

February Tip! For African American History Month in February, check out the History Theater free 30-minute interactive play on Monday, Wednesday, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 12:30 PM and 2:30PM. Located on the 2nd floor, West Wing in front of the Greensboro lunch counter, this play brings the audience into a nonviolent protest training during the Civil Rights era. No tickets needed.

Below are my top 9 tips for one of our family’s favorite museums, the National Museum of American History including:

  1. Why Go with Kids
  2. When to Go
  3. Baby Basics (Strollers, Nursing Areas, Changing Tables)
  4. Metro and Parking Tips
  5. Food In and Around Museum
  6. Easiest Exhibit for Babies and Toddlers
  7. Best Exhibit for Elementary Age
  8. My Favorite Exhibit for Teens
  9. Gift Shop Alternative (because who wants to deal with a gift shop after a great visit?!)
All aboard! at the American History Wegman’s Wonderplace.

1. Why Go to the American History Museum with Kids

Everyone in your group will find something to “ooh and ahh” about at this fascinating museum! Highlights include the original flag Star-Spangled Banner, First Ladies Collection, Muppets, huge locomotives and Julia Child’s kitchen. There’s just so much to explore!

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 so check their hours before you go.)

The wonderful Spark!Lab and Wonderplace are open every day except Tuesdays from 10 AM to 4 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 at the museum with kids.

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. There is stroller parking inside the Wonderplace.
  • Nursing Areas: See Mom Tip below about Wonderplace!
  • Bathrooms: Located on every floor and many include a Family Restroom option. 

MOM TIP: The best area for babies is the Wegmans Wonderplace on the Main Level, West Wing. It has a nursing area (complete with nursing pillows!) and a family bathroom inside the play area.

Sorry for the mess, but love that a Smithsonian has a Nursing corner!

4. Metro and Parking

  1. Metro:  The Smithsonian Metro Station on the Orange, Blue and Silver lines is the closest at just a 3-minute walk across the National Mall to the museum. Visit the Metro website for schedules, maps, and a trip planner.
  2. Bus: The DC Circulator bus is free and stops on the National Mall at the Southside of the museum. Check the website for schedules and maps.
  3. 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. The Ronald Reagan Building, 1 block north, has lots of garage parking for $15. There is also a great food court there! (Security will do a quick screening of your car for any firearms which are not allowed in the garage.)

MOM TIP: I have had great luck finding street parking on weekdays if I arrive around 9:45 AM with street spots in front of the museum Constitution Ave. Weekends are more difficult because of all the food trucks.

Astoundingly I have found street parking a couple of times right in front of the American History Museum on Constitution Ave.! Just make sure you check all the signs!

5. Food In and Around the Museum:

  1. Stars and Stripes Cafe: Refurbished cafe on the lower level with many different themed food stations including American Table, Artisan Market, BBQ, and Southwest Kitchen. Open 11 AM – 3 PM.
  2.  LeRoy Neiman Jazz Cafe: Located on the first floor and serving sandwiches, salads, and soup as well as pastries, ice cream, and coffees. Open 11 AM – 3 PM.
  3.  Bring a picnic, store in a cooler in your car, and have lunch on National Mall in front of the museum.
  4.  Food Trucks are usually located on the Constitution Ave side of the building (north) and sell items including hot dogs, pretzels, sandwiches, and ice cream.

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

  • #1 recommendation for this age group is the Wegman’s Wonderplace (Main Level, est Wing.) It is the best kid’s area for this age group of all the Smithsonian museums! Museum staff at the door allow the correct ages of kids in and they do not allow it to get too crowded.
  • It is open everyday 10 AM – 4 pm but closed Tuesdays. For ages 0-6, no food or beverages can be consumed except for nursing and bottles.
  • Fun hands-on exhibits for the youngest historians including building blocks of all sizes, Julia Child mini kitchen, Farmer’s market and climbing ship with slide!

MOM TIP: Get here earlier in the day as the museum starts turning people away if it gets too crowded with kids.

Kids-sized Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Wegmans’s Wonderplace at the National Museum of American History!

7. Best Exhibit For Elementary Age

“Where Visitors Become Inventors” is open every day from 10 AM to 4 PM except closed Tuesdays. Tons of stations to explore, learn, create, invent and test your inventions.  Located on the Main level, West wing.

Mom TIP: I recommend saving this until the end of your visit as kids will want to spend their whole time here! I have never seen it too busy so you don’t need to worry about being turned away (unlike Wonderplace!).

Inventing and Teamwork at the Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History!

8. My Favorite Exhibit for Teens

This museum is really a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure! Check out a map and see where they want to go. There is a lot in the museum from innovation to history to transportation. But my go-to place would be the History Theater which has 5x a week interactive plays. They are only 30 minutes and can really help get you engaged.

9. Museum Gift Shop Alternative!

Try out the fun Digital Experience Guides that are available near the info desk. They have a family guide that you and your child on a tour of the museum with the theme of people who make a difference.  The cost is $7 at this time. 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!

I hope this mini-guide was helpful! Comment below and tell us about your favorite part of the National Museum of American History!

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