Visit the Air and Space Museum (National Mall & Dulles)

Air and Space Museum The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the country, with over 8 million visitors last year. It is simply a must-see when visiting Washington, DC. Use this guide for what to see and how to get to both locations, one the National Mall and at Udvar-Hazy near the Dulles Airport.

Visit the Air and Space Museum (National Mall & Dulles)

The museum is split into two different campuses: the main museum, located in DC on the National Mall right next door to the National Museum of the American Indian, near the U.S. Capitol building; and the annex, also called the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located just south of Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, VA.

Where to Eat How to get to Air & Space Museum

Visiting the Air and Space Museum with Kids

Take a Guided Tour with us!

The Two Locations

Things to See at Air & Space Museum

Security at the Museums

National Mall Air and Space vs Udvar Hazy Museum

Air and Space Museum The main museum, while quite large at over 160,000 square-feet, could never display the extensive collection of air and space artifacts it owned, which is why the Udvar-Hazy Center was built, and it officially opened in 2003. The annex, sometimes just referred to as “Udvar,” is essentially two very large hangers that together more than double the exhibition area available at the main campus. It also houses a restoration hangar, research archives, and an observation tower that provides a stunning view of airplanes taking off and landing at nearby Dulles Airport.

Hours: Both campuses are open every day, except December 25th, from 10AM – 5:30PM.

During spring and summer, they also have extended hours 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.

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What to see at Air and Space Museum

There are hundreds of amazing aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, satellites, and other aeronautical wonders, many of them literally hanging from the ceilings of both of these amazing places. Both campuses have exciting simulator rides (between $7-$10 per ride), state-of-the-art IMAX theaters, and tons of interactive exhibits. The National Mall campus also has The Einstein Planetarium, offering daily showings of different programs, including a free “The Stars Tonight” program. Get tickets from the planetarium box office on the second floor.

National Mall Air & Space “must-sees”

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.

  • Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia :Air and Space Museum Yes, this is *the* famous Apollo 11 spacecraft that safely shuttled the very first humans to the Moon’s surface, and then brought them back home to Earth. Some of the museum’s space artifacts are back up models or test models, because the actual spacecraft never returned to Earth, but this is the real deal! The Apollo 11 spacecraft was actually made up of three parts: this Command Module, which was the main cabin of the spacecraft for the crew and remained in orbit around the Moon during the lunar landing portion of the trip and later “splashed-down” in the ocean with the crew aboard, returning them to Earth; the Service Module, which provided fuel and instruments for the craft and was jettisoned just prior to the Command Module’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere; and the Lunar Module, which is the spacecraft that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used to land on the surface of the moon. The Lunar Module was actually composed of two different sections itself, with the lower section, the “descent stage”, still on the Lunar surface, and the upper section, the “ascent stage,” jettisoned once it had rendezvoused with the Command Module after the mission to the Moon’s surface. This amazing artifact is located on the eastern side of the museum, on the ground floor. Learn about the ingenious ablative shielding that helped protect the astronauts during reentry and more from friendly docents.
  • The 1903 Wright Flyer : This is the actual legendary aircraft built by the Wright Brothers that kicked off the entire age of aviation. This is “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot on board.” We wanted to get that precisely right (or is it Wright?), so we copied it from the museum’s own description! No visit to the Air and Space museum can be complete without gazing at this remarkable piece of history. It is located on the second floor of the museum, in the “Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age” gallery, which also houses an original Wright Brothers bicycle, as well as reproductions of the early gliders the brothers built which preceded the 1903 Flyer.

Observatory Air and Space Museum National Mall Air & Space “hidden gems”

  • 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.

Udvar-Hazy “must sees”

  • The Space Shuttle Discovery :DiscoveryClose Air and Space Museum This is the centerpiece of the collection at Udvar, and as the oldest surviving Space Shuttle, was the first to be retired in 2011. At that time, after a long decontamination process, NASA offered the vehicle to the Air & Space museum to replace the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which had been on display at Udvar since it opened. The Enterprise was actually a test-flight vehicle launched from a Boeing 747 and did not have engines or a heat shield, so it never functioned in space. This is the main reason why the museum wanted to swap the Enterprise for the Discovery. The Discovery completed 39 missions in space, including one of its most important ones that fixed the Hubble space telescope. One of the most remarkable things about the shuttle, aside from it’s size, is the visible patterns caused by the incredible thermal stress the ship underwent during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. As you enter Udvar, just walk straight. You can’t miss it!

  • 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.
  • SR71 Air and Space Museum An 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 (Mach 3+!!!), high-altitude reconnaissance vehicle after the downing of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 plane over Soviet Russia. However, if you have anyone in your group under the age of 20, they would probably best remember this particular SR-71 as “Jetfire,” an old, crotchety Transformer from the Michael Bay movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. In fact, Jetfire’s scene from that movie was actually filmed in the Udvar museum, and they have an entire display on the making of that scene there. It is located directly in front of the Discovery

Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum hidden gems:

  • The alien ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind : This is a hidden gem in the truest sense as it is tucked away in a corner of the Space Hanger and most people never come upon it. This is the actual model used for filming the sci-fi movie, and what is really neat about is you can see all the stock parts from model aircraft, ships, and trains used to complete the model. The makers clearly had a sense of humor, and if you look closely you will see many oddball things glued onto the ship, such as a tiny R2-D2, a tiny mail collection bin, and other weird stuff. To find this, enter the Space Hanger with the Space Shuttle Discovery. Turn to your left, and walk towards the corner nearest the entrance to the hanger.

Tips on Visiting Air and Space MuseumUdvarPlanes Air and Space Museum

  • Security : All the Smithsonian museums are currently undergoing revisions to their security protocols. Visitors to the Smithsonian museums should expect more “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 (mid-March to mid-June), possibly even longer.

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Where to eat at Air & Space Museum:

Both locations have a super duper “space age” McDonald’s. (Seriously, the National Mall location is a futuristic model of efficiency. Even with what seems like impossibly long lines, you usually don’t have to wait too long for food.) Unfortunately, the McDonald’s there is pretty much the only option for food at Udvar. However, if you drive to Udvar, there are some good nearby food locations.

  • Willard’s Real Pit BBQ (4300 Chantilly Shopping Ctr, Chantilly VA ~ ) 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.
  • Back at the National Mall location, though, the McDonald’s there also sells Donato’s Pizza and Boston Market Chicken. Please note, however, that while these are fast food restaurants with food like you may have back home, the prices here are much higher than you might expect. Luckily, there are other options nearby.
  • If you are looking for something “different”, we highly recommend the Zagat-rated Mitsitam Cafe located on the ground floor inside the National Museum of the American Indian, which is right next door. It can be quite pricey, however, but will also have flavors and meals that you definitely 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, there are some good ones nearby. If you head back to L’Enfant Plaza, (exit out of the museum on the Independence Ave. side, cross the street, and take a right down Maryland Ave.) right near the Metro station exit on Maryland Ave, there are usually a series of DC’s famous gourmet food trucks. Click here for a handy website to help you know what food trucks will be where.
  • If you want something a little more familiar, you should have good luck at the L’Enfant Plaza food court, just like your local mall food court, complete with Starbucks, Five Guys Burgers, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Panda Express, and Jamba Juice, as well as local favorites Potbelly’s Sandwiches, and Amsterdam Falafel, as well as many others. This is about a 15 minute walk, but if you are moving on to other museums on the National Mall, it is very centrally located. Exit out of the museum on the Independence Ave side, and take a right. Follow Independence Ave all the way to the Smithsonian Castle and take a left across the street. You will now be on L’Enfant Promenade. Walk down the Promenade until you see a giant glass cube on your left. That is the entrance to the Food Court.

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How to get to Air and Space Museum

AirSpaceMap Air and Space Museum The main museum is located on Independence Ave SW, between 4th and 7th streets. If you are utilizing Metro and heading directly to the Air and Space museum, it is actually a bit easier (and closer!) to get off at L’Enfant Plaza Station, as opposed to the Smithsonian Station.

Once at L’Enfant Plaza, there are several exits. For the one closest to the museum, you want to follow signs leading you to Maryland Ave, and exit using the escalators. Head in the same direction as the escalators, east along Maryland Ave, and take a left turn at the next block, 6th St. The Air and Space Museum will be right in front of you! (Click here for a Google map with directions)

Parking Panda helps those driving to the museum to search for and book guaranteed parking spots at commercial parking facilities anywhere along the National Mall. This is an easy way to do something (parking) that can usually be pretty frustrating!

The Udvar-Hazy Center can be a little more challenging to get to, but for those truly in love with aeronautics and space travel, it is well worth the hassle.

If you have a car, it’s a relatively easy 45-minute drive west of the city. There are a few different ways to drive to the Center, and the best one often is determined by the time of day you travel and the traffic conditions at that time. Keep in mind that I-66 is one of the worst highways in the area in terms of traffic. Though you may, understandably, think that driving back into the city after a day at Udvar wouldn’t be too bad because you’d be going against the flood of afternoon traffic out of the city, you would be wrong. I-66 will have bad traffic in both directions during both rush hours, so add at least 15-30 minutes if you drive to or from there during those times. You might want to hit up a local dinner option before making the trek back to the city or towards your hotel.

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How to Get to Udvar-Hazy by Metro

Wiehle-Reston Bus Map Air and Space Museum An alternative to get to Udvar is to utilize the new Metro extension, also known as the Silver line. Take the Silver line west, towards the Wiehle-Reston East Station (pronounced “wheeley”) and get off at the end of the line. (Someday, in the distant future, the Silver line will end at Dulles Airport. But that day is not today.) Exit out of the North Entrance and look for the bus bay labeled “K.”

You will be looking for the Fairfax Connector bus number 983 (be careful not to board 981 at the same bay, as that bus will go to Dulles, but will not take you to Udvar).

If you use the same SmarTrip card you used on the train, the bus fare is $1.25 each way, so make sure you have enough on it. You can also use cash for the bus, but that is $1.75 and they ask that you use exact change. The bus leaves the Metro station every 20 minutes. (Click here for the bus schedule)

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Visiting the Air and Space Museum with Kids

Katie Baird from Tips for Family Trips shares her advice for visiting the Air and Space Museum with kids.

After enjoying a tour around the National Mall with Free Tours by Foot, you will have a few hours to explore the mall area. How do you decide which Smithsonian to visit?

My top three choices for family-friendly museums on the mall would be the Air and Space Museum, the American History museum, and the Natural History museum. Today I want to tell you why you would love visiting the Air and Space Museum with kids.

I took my 3-year-old son to the Air and Space Museum this week. I wanted to visit again to check out the Spirit of St. Louis since I just read Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America, 1927.” This book shares a lot of background about Charles Lindberg’s historical flight in May 1927 when he flew the Spirit of St. Louis nonstop from New York to Paris. The 33.5-hour solo trip was beyond gutsy.

The Spirit of St. Louis was designed specifically for this flight, and Lindberg did not want to be caught between a tank of gas and the engine in case of an emergency landing. So the plane designed with the gas tank in the front instead of a window. Lindberg flew the 3,600-mile flight with two small side windows and a periscope to see what was in front of him. I had to see this plane for myself, so I visited the Air and Space Museum where Lindberg’s plane is on display.

My son loved the airplanes suspended from the ceiling, the missiles and rockets, and the space ships. I loved how much aviation history I could learn as I wandered through the museum.

When my son got bored with my reading, we headed over to the hands-on “How Things Fly” exhibit. He loved playing with all the science demonstrations that explained thrust, air pressure, aerodynamics and more. Older children would have hands-on opportunities to reinforce their science lessons at the Air and Space Museum.

In the Air and Space Museum, kids can play with a flight simulator and walk through an airplane. If you need to rest, check out the IMAX theater or the Planetarium. Hungry? There is a McDonalds, Boston Market, and Donatos in the food court.

Looking for more things to do in Washington D.C.? Check out Tips for Family Trips Washington D.C. page for more great ideas.

About Katie

Katie Baird is a family travel blogger at Tips for Family Trips. She lives in Fairfax County, Virginia, and blogs about all things related to travel. She has an adventurous spirit or she would never survive traveling with five children ages 3-14. Katie loves road trips, historical sites, and anything outdoors.

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