Guide to Visiting the Air and Space Museum

This post is about the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and how to navigate both locations. There are two campuses, one on the National Mall and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center which was later added near the Dulles Airport.

Which Air and Space Museum is Better?

There are two locations for the Air and Space Museum. The main campus is referred to as the Air and Space Museum and is on the National Mall, and the Udvar-Hazy Center by Dulles. As they are both parts of the Smithsonian Institution, both campuses of the Air and Space Museum do not require tickets and they are both free to enter.

  • SHORT ANSWER: Do you have a car or additional travel time? Udvar-Hazy Center is the best for those who are into aircraft and with the 2019-2015 renovations at the National Mall location, Udvar-Hazy Center will be a better experience – but it is a harder location to access on public transportation.

The Air and Space Museum is the main campus and is located on the National Mall, making it very accessible to guests. It is more compact and has a traditional museum layout. The exhibits here have a nice introduction and overview to air and space travel, perfect for those younger and those more interested in the science and facts of all things air and space.

If you are more of an aircraft enthusiast, we recommend checking out the Udvar-Hazy Center. It is essentially two very large hangers that more than double the exhibition area available at the main campus. Along with a variety of different exhibits not seen at the main campus, it holds many more aircraft and is home to the Discovery Space Shuttle.

The Udvar also has a restoration hangar, research archives, and an observation tower that provides a stunning view of airplanes taking off and landing at nearby Dulles Airport. However, it can be a little challenging to get to, making it an attraction better suited for someone with a car.

Find out more about each museum in the sections below, with information on Air and Space Museum hours, exhibit highlights and how to get there.


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Air & Space Museum (National Mall)

The information in this section will help you plan an outing to the Air and Space Museum. This is where you will find details on how to get there, the best times to visit, security information, how long you need to spend in each museum, food nearby, guided tours, and what to expect.

GETTING THERE

The main museum is located on Independence Ave SW, between 4th and 7th streets. If you are taking Metro, the closest stop is the L’Enfant Plaza Station. Follow signs leading to the Maryland Ave exit and take the escalators up. Head east along Maryland Ave and take a left on 6th street or walk up 7th street and turn right. The Air and Space Museum will be right in front of you!

 
 

You can also use many of the hop-on / hop-off bus companies to get around town – all of which have stops at or near the Air and Space Museum.

If you are driving, street parking is limited and are usually only 2-3 hour spots, so be sure to read the sign before you leave your vehicle.

We recommend booking convenient and affordable parking in advance through SpotHero, the nation’s leading parking reservation app.

To reserve your parking spot, visit the Air & Space SpotHero Parking Page and book a spot with rates up to 50% off drive-up.

New to SpotHero? Click here to download the SpotHero app.


BEST TIMES TO VISIT

March-July is the busiest time of the year for DC. With Spring Break and school letting out, this is the time when most families and school tours visit. This means longer lines and crowded exhibits.

Saturday afternoon is one of the busiest times to visit.

We suggest visiting this museum earlier in the week. Wednesday at 10 am when the museum opens seems to be the best time to visit:

If you want to avoid crowds, we suggest planning a visit to the museum for the off-peak season (January-February and September-December.)

Typical weekdays during the off-peak months will be a little more manageable, especially if you arrive when the museum opens at 10 am.

Tip: There are TWO entrances to the Museum- Independence Ave (south side) and the National Mall (north side). Be sure to check both sides as sometimes one side has a far shorter line. Though for the renovations starting in 2019 the Independence Ave entrance will be closed for some time.

The museum is open daily except December 25 and admission is free.  Regular hours for the Air and Space Museum are: 10:00 am- 5:30 pm.

During spring and summer, they also have extended hours (open until 7:30 pm) during the height of the tourist season and sometimes close early for special occasions. Click here to check for the most up-to-date schedule.

HOW LONG TO SPEND IN MUSEUM

The Air and Space Museum has 23 galleries exhibiting hundreds of aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, rockets, and other flight-related artifacts, as well as a planetarium and an IMAX theater.

With so many things to see and do, we recommend budgeting at least 2 hours to see the museum.


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SECURITY

Visitors to the Smithsonian museums should expect “airport-style” security screening, meaning metal detectors for all guests and X-Ray machines for bags.

This could add up to 15 minutes to get through security, and during the busy school season possibly even longer.

Prohibited Items:

  • Firearms or ammunition
  • Knives (including pen, pocket or “Swiss Army”-style knives)
  • Aerosol cans (including pepper spray and Mace)
  • Scissors
  • Tools (screwdrivers, awls, etc.)
  • Placards, signs, or banners
  • Pets (except service animals)
  • Wagons (collapsible and fixed wheel)

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FOOD & NEARBY ATTRACTIONS

The Air and Space Museum’s café is currently being renovated, limiting options to eat inside. There is currently a temporary cafeteria offering sandwiches, salads, drinks and desserts in the former McDonald’s location on the first floor. This is an easy, quick option if you don’t want to leave the museum. But if you are done exploring the museum, there are a few close options:

If you are looking for something “different,” we highly recommend the Mitsitam Cafe located on the ground floor inside the National Museum of the American Indian, which is right next door. It can be pricey but guarantees a meal that you won’t find anywhere else. The food is locally sourced when possible, and the chefs use traditional recipes and ingredients.

If you are looking for more budget-friendly eating options, head back to L’Enfant Plaza for some of DC’s famous gourmet food trucks.

There is also the L’Enfant Plaza food court. Like your local mall food court, it’s home to Starbucks, Five Guys Burgers, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Panda Express, and Jamba Juice, as well as local favorite Potbelly’s Sandwiches and plenty of others.


Other museums and attractions that are within walking distance include:


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GUIDED TOURS

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry; we’re here to help with our private tour of the Air and Space Museum.

Whether you’re simply unsure which path to take or want to breeze through the museum with efficiency, a private tour is a perfect way to get the most out of your visit. You can book a private tour with us here.

Once you’re done with the museum, enjoy exploring the rest of DC with one of our walking tours. The National Mall and Capitol Hill tours are both nearby and are a great way to continue exploring Washington, DC.


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EXHIBITS

Please note that from December 2018 – 2025 there will be rolling closures as the entire Air and Space Museum undergoes renovations to the decades-old building and exhibits. Not all exhibits may be open during your visit.

The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age

The original 1903 Wright Flyer is the centerpiece of the exhibit that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Explore the beginning of flight with over 250 photographs and 150 artifacts that includes a reproduction of the Wright Brothers’ 1899 experimental kite.

Destination Moon

Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission is a traveling exhibit that celebrates the first lunar landing in 1969. The exhibit is here with one-of-a-kind artifacts from the historic mission, including Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. A permanent gallery is set to be unveiled in 2022 that showcases the incredible exploration of the Moon, from the Moon race of the 1960s and 1970s to what is going on today.

Spirit of St. Louis

In the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall is the Spirit of St. Louis. It was in this that Charles A. Lindberg completed the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight in history from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York to Paris, France on May 21, 1927.

 

Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory

This is an often overlooked part of the museum, since its actually outside the museum on the eastern terrace, near the intersection of Independence Ave SW and 4th St. Opened in 2009, the “International Year of Astronomy”, the 16-inch Boller & Chivens telescope, as well the Sun Gun Telescope and other instruments, are available for public use (with staff assistance!) Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 3PM. They also do monthly evening programs; check here for the updated schedule.


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Plan Your Visit to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

The information in this section will help you plan an outing the Steven. F. Udvar-Hazy Center. This is where you will find details on how to get there, the best times to visit, security information, how long to stay in the museum, food nearby, guided tours, and exhibits.

GETTING THERE

The Udvar-Hazy Center can be a little challenging to get to since it is out near Dulles Airport. For those visiting with a car, it is about a 45-minute drive west of the city. For a full list of directions, click hereParking is $20 per vehicle, though it is free if you arrive after 4 pm.

For those without a car, you can still get there by Metro and then bus. The trip takes about an hour and a half. Simply take the Silver line west to the Wilhe-Reston East Station. From there board the Fairfax Connector Bus No. 983 which runs every 20 minutes. You can pay for the bus fare with your SmartTrip card or cash, but you must use exact change and costs $1.75. Exit the bus at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Stop.

BEST TIMES TO VISIT

If you want to avoid crowds, we suggest planning a visit to the museum for the off-peak season (January-February and September-December.) There are shorter lines and fewer crowds during this time of year, making your visit more enjoyable.

The best time to visit seems to be Thursday after 3pm, or if you wait until 4 pm, parking is free!

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is open every day except December 25 from 10 am- 5:30 pm.

HOW LONG TO SPEND IN THE MUSEUM

The Udvary is a massive 760,000-square-foot facility, which means you are going to want to give yourself plenty of time to see it all. We recommend at least 2 hours there and more if you plan on experiencing their IMAX theater.

If you plan on seeing a show, we recommend purchasing a ticket online to guarantee a spot, especially during the busy season. Parking is free after 4 pm if you are attending an evening film.


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SECURITY

Visitors to the Smithsonian museums should expect “airport-style” security screening, meaning metal detectors for all guests and X-Ray machines for bags.

This could add up to 15 minutes to get through security, and during the busy school season possibly even longer.

Prohibited Items:

  • tripods
  • selfie sticks
  • guns/knives/weapons
  • pets
  • food and drinks (bottled water is ok)
  • scissors
  • aerosol cans
  • tools
  • smoking
  • placards, signs, or banners

 


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FOOD NEARBY

Food options are limited to a McDonald’s inside of the Udvar-Hazy Museum. It is the only option if you arrived by public transportation, as there is nothing else in walking distance.

Outside of the museum are two strip malls nearby offering some dining options.

  • Willard’s Real Pit BBQ (4300 Chantilly Shopping Ctr, Chantilly VA ~ dcbbq.com ) is a highly rated and very tasty authentic BBQ joint. They have catering available for groups.
  • Another good place for groups nearby Udvar is Hibachi Buffet & Grill (13948 Metrotech Dr, Chantilly VA). Be warned if you go during slow, “off-peak” times, the food might not be as fresh, but on weekends and during regular hours, the food is good, the selection extensive, and if you have picky eaters with you, this might be your best bet.

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GUIDED TOURS

You can rent a digital guide at the Udvar for a more intimate experience of the exhibits. The rates are as follows:

  • Price to Rent Digital Guide, Single Device: $7
  • Price to Rent Multiple Devices and Members: $6

The Adult Guides come in different languages, which include English, Mandarin, French, and Spanish. The Youth Guide is currently only offered in English.


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EXHIBITS

There is plenty to see and experience at the Udvar, so we thought we’d give you a few highlights to plan your visit:

Discovery

Have you ever been up close to a space shuttle? Because here’s your chance! The Udvar-Hazy Center is home to the Discovery, the oldest surviving space shuttle, and longest-serving orbiter. From 1984-2011, Discovery flew 39 missions, totaling 365 days in space. Come experience the amazing journey of this space shuttle and learn more about space.

SR-71 Blackbird

This amazing aircraft comes from the height of the cold war. It was originally developed as a highly classified “black project” and served as a high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance vehicle after the downing of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 plane over Soviet Russia. Some might better know this particular SR-71 as the Transformer Jetfire from Michael Bay’s movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. In fact, Jetfire’s scene from that movie was filmed in the Udvar, and they have an entire display on the making of that scene there.

SR71 Air and Space Museum

Mother Ship Model

In the Rockets and Missiles Exhibit, there is a fun hidden gem: the alien ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Fans of Stephen Spielberg can visit his vision that was made possible by a team led by Gregory Jein. The ship is made up of model train and other kits. If you look closely, you can see that glued to the ship are an assortment of weird things that were added as a joke after shooting, including a tiny R2-D2 and a cemetery plot.

The Enola Gay 

This is the famous B-29 “Superfortress” bomber that became the very first aircraft ever to drop an atomic weapon, doing so over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Believe it or not, but the aircraft was actually named after the pilot’s mother. Unfortunately, it was not well taken care of after it was decommissioned, suffering from exposure to the elements and souvenir hunters. Eventually it was disassembled and kept at a Smithsonian storage facility for a number of years. In 1995, the cockpit and nose section was put on display at the DC location, but in 2003, the entire aircraft was reassembled and put on display at Udvar. As you enter the museum, look to the left of the main hanger.


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