With the Smithsonian museums re-opening after covid closures, our family decided to take a road trip to Washington, DC in late July 2021. The various Smithsonian museums are a highlight of any DC trip – full of high quality exhibits, where you can easily spend hours exploring, and also largely free.
Many people are aware of the impressive National Air & Space museum located on the National Mall. We’d been there a couple of times before, it’s a great place to take kids (of all ages!).
That said, there’s a second National Air & Space museum 30 miles away in the Virginia suburbs called the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. With its sprawling location near Dulles Airport, it has plenty of room for large exhibits. This was our first visit to the Udvar-Hazy Center.
If you travel to the Washington, DC, area by car, definitely consider modifying your road trip itinerary to include a stop at this delightful museum. A few of the highlights include the Discovery space shuttle, a Concorde, and even the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb!
Destination: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Location: 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, Virginia 20151
Cost: Free entry, $15 parking
Directions: This is near Dulles Airport, about 30 miles from Washington, DC. It’s an easy half-day trip with a car (or Uber). If time is tight in DC and/or don’t have access to a car when there, consider instead the main National Air & Space museum in DC.
This museum is very different from the one in Washington, DC. Divided into two hangars, one for spacecraft and the other for aircraft, your first impression will likely be overwhelming amazement to see so many exhibits in one room. Our kids were delighted!
James S. McDonnelL Space Hangar
The highlight of the space hangar is the space shuttle Discovery, first launched in 1984. Then it launched 38 more times, with a final launch in 2011! Seeing something that spent a total of 365 days in space is quite cool!
As you explore, you will discover that this hangar also has a host of other space memorabilia, including satellites, rockets, space gear, and more.
Boeing Aviation Hangar
The aviation hangar is much larger. At the time of our visit, they were doing some roof repairs, so a lot of the planes were covered in plastic, but we still had a lot of fun!
One of the more impressive planes we saw was the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb. While it is named after the mother of the pilot, Paul Tibbets, I’m not sure how I would feel about having my name on the plane.
I really liked the “World’s Smallest” plane, although I think another plane has taken its place since the paint job.
As you wander around, there will be something that interests everybody.
Overall, the exhibits were both fairly numerous and impressive in size. We did have a great time, and we’d encourage a visit if you’re in the area.
Practically speaking, I think a lot of folks miss this museum because there’s so much to do immediately inside Washington DC – which you can easily explore without a car, and just a Metro (subway) card. And that’s a totally understandable decision. But if, like us on this trip, you will have a car when traveling to Washington, D.C., definitely consider stopping, particularly on the way into/out of the area.