Best Museums for Kids in the DC Area: Children’s Museums and Family-Friendly Museums

What masterpieces will your kiddo create at the National Building Museum’s PLAY WORK BUILD exhibit? Photo by Anne McDonough, courtesy of the museum
What masterpieces will your kiddo create at the National Building Museum’s PLAY WORK BUILD exhibit? Photo by Anne McDonough, courtesy of the museum
10/8/23 - By Jennifer Swope

Washington, DC is known for its amazing free museums, including the world-famous Smithsonian institutions. That's why DC museums that charge admission are often overlooked. But, trust us—there are several fantastic museums in DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland that are truly worth the price of admission.

On a cold or rainy day, these museums offer something new and interesting for families to experience, whether it's exhibits just for young visitors, planes or trains to marvel at, optical illusions, or hands-on activities such as building and art.

Here are our favorite museums for kids and families in the DC area that are worth paying for, including children's museums and more. We've also included a few of the free museums near DC that are especially kid-friendly. Read reviews of some of these places in our Museum Guide for Kids and Families in Washington, DC, which includes our list of free museums in DC to visit with kids.


Best Museums for Kids in DC: National Children's Museum 
The National Children's Museum is fun for babies, toddlers, and kids up to age 12.

Museums in and Around DC that are Great for Kids

1. National Children's Museum — Washington, DC

Open since 2021, downtown DC's National Children's Museum is full of fun starting right from the entryway, where a three-story slide allows kids to slide into exhibits. Designed for children ages 0-12, the museum includes a range of activities that focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) topics. Kids will love the Art + Tech exhibit, which features favorite Nickelodeon characters. Babies and toddlers ages 0-3 have two walled-off sections just for them—Little Movers and Little Dreamers.

Throughout the year, the museum hosts various visiting exhibitions. There's also a STEAM Storytime for ages 1-4 on Thursday mornings and a Baby Jam music class for ages 0-3 on Friday mornings.

Best Ages: 0-12; Babies under 1 are free.

2. National Building Museum — Washington, DC

The National Building Museum, located four blocks from the National Mall, explores the world of design and construction. Visiting and permanent exhibits highlight the importance of architecture, engineering, landscaping, and planning in shaping our world and communities.

In the permanent PLAY WORK BUILD exhibit, kids can build creations using small blocks or large foam ones and see a collection of historic construction toys, from Tinker Toys to Lincoln Logs. At Brick City, on view through April 2025, families can marvel at LEGO reconstructions of famous structures like the Roman Colosseum and build their own masterpieces out of LEGO bricks. The museum also hosts various free events annually, including Big Build, where visitors can participate with experts in the field of construction.

Best Ages: 3 and up; Kids 2 and under are free.

RELATED: The Best Children's Museums in the US

Best Museums for Kids in DC: International Spy Museum
Tap into your inner James Bond at the International Spy Museum.

3. International Spy Museum — Washington, DC

This museum dedicated to espionage, located in the heart of L'Enfant Plaza, houses the largest collection of spy-related relics ever put on display. It lifts the veil of secrecy on the hidden world of intelligence and explores its successes and failures, challenges, and controversies.

While the International Spy Museum is recommended for ages 9 and up, younger kids can really enjoy it as well. Download a copy of the museum's Family Highlight Guide, which takes children on a roughly 90-minute mission through the museum. Tasks include walking like a ninja, defusing a "bomb", crawling through an air duct, decoding secret messages, and more.

Save money by purchasing timed tickets in advance online.

Best Ages: 9 and up

4. College Park Aviation Museum — College Park, MD

If you've been to the National Air and Space Museum and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center numerous times and your little aviation enthusiast still can't get enough airplanes, head to this small museum just eight miles from downtown DC. The museum displays at least 10 unique aircraft (including a reproduction of the 1910 Wright Model B) and objects relating to the history of early aviation at the College Park Airport. There are interactive activities and special weekly events for kids, such as Afternoon Aviators.

Best Ages: 2 and up

5. National Capital Trolley Museum — Colesville, MD

Before Metro, DC residents traveled by streetcar. The National Capital Trolley Museum is dedicated to the history of these trolleys. Housing a large collection of streetcars, the museum gives visitors the opportunity to look at and even ride on some of the collection.

Monthly All Aboard! family days highlight different topics related to urban transportation and include hands-on activities, science experiments, and art. There are also special family events such as Trolley-ween and Holly Trolley Fest.

Best Ages: All ages

RELATED: Visiting Washington, DC's National Mall and Memorial Parks with Kids

Best Museums for Kids Near DC: Mount Vernon
Get a glimpse of the past inside Mount Vernon's colonial kitchen.

6. Mount Vernon — Alexandria, VA

Mount Vernon is the home of our nation's first president, George Washington. Families can tour his mansion, visit the tomb of George and Martha Washington, watch costumed interpreters demonstrate farming practices on the four-acre farm, see hundreds of artifacts from Washington's lifetime at the museum, and so much more. If you've got children ages 3-10, be sure to visit the Hands-on History Center, where kids can dress up in 18th-century clothing, explore a Mount Vernon dollhouse, read books, and more.

Throughout the year, Mount Vernon hosts many family-friendly events and festivals, such as the Fall Harvest Festival and Christmas Illuminations at Mount Vernon. There are also sensory-friendly family mornings.

Buy tickets online ahead of time to ensure admission.

Best Ages: 3 and up; Kids 5 and under are free.

7. Museum of Illusions Washington — Washington, DC

The Museum of Illusions Washington at CityCenterDC is a truly unique immersive experience. Guests can enjoy more than 50 visual and educational exhibits featuring holograms, stereograms, optical illusions, and immersive rooms that are designed to tease the senses and trick the mind. Be tipped, turned upside down, and more while keeping your feet firmly on the ground. This interactive museum generally takes about 45 minutes to an hour to experience, so it's not an all-day activity.

Best Ages: All ages, but tweens and teens will especially love all the Insta-worthy photo ops. Kids 4 and under are free.

RELATED: 50 Things To Do in Baltimore with Kids

Best Museums for Kids Near DC: B&O Railroad Museum
The B&O Railroad Museum is a train lover's paradise.

Museums in Baltimore, Maryland that are Great for Kids

8. B&O Railroad Museum

It seems like almost every kid goes through a train phase, and the B&O Railroad Museum is there to help. Inside an actual roundhouse, kids can climb on trains, wander through activity stations, watch the roundhouse in action, and pretend to pilot an engine. The museum features trains through the decades, and kids will be in awe of these massive machines. Junior Junction is a special hands-on area for toddlers with train tables, building blocks, and books.

The museum also hosts loads of family events, such as a bimonthly Toddler Time, Sensory Sundays, holiday events, and more. Families can also take a ride on the B&O Railroad.

Best Ages: All ages

9. National Aquarium

The National Aquarium is home to more than 20,000 marine animals across dozens of aquatic habitats, making it a must-visit in the area. From the depths of the oceans to the canopy of rainforests, the aquarium captivates visitors interested in all types of animals, reptiles, birds, and fish. Guests can observe dolphins, touch horseshoe crabs and other animals in two touch pools, get up-close with sharks and jellies, and so much more. Behind-the-scenes tours, 4D movies, and other experiences are available for an additional fee, though aquarium tickets are quite pricey to begin with.

Note: Guests must follow a specific route through the aquarium's exhibits and strollers are not permitted, so plan accordingly. Purchase timed tickets online ahead of time to guarantee admission.

Best Ages: 5 and up since the aquarium does not allow strollers; Kids ages 4 and under are free.

10. Port Discovery Children's Museum

Combining play with learning, Port Discovery is perfect for kids ages 10 and younger. Children are encouraged to use their imaginations as they explore three levels of hands-on activities and exhibits, including art, engineering, performing arts, science, and make-believe. They can serve parents a pretend meal in Tiny's Diner, "shop" in a make-believe grocery store, explore Ancient Egypt, and so much more. Kids ages 5-12 can get lost in the four-story SkyClimber play structure, while babies and toddlers can enjoy Chessie's Grotto and Tot Trails.

The museum also hosts various weekly and monthly activities such as music classes, storytimes, and sensory-friendly mornings, as well as special events such as the Rattle Your Bones Halloween event.

Best Ages: 0-10

RELATED: Visiting Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC with Kids

Best Museums for Kids in DC: National Museum of the American Indian imagiNATIONS Activity Center
Enjoy lots of hands-on fun at the National Museum of the American Indian's imagiNATIONS Activity Center.

Best Free Museums in DC for Kids

11. National Museum of the American Indian

This is one of our favorite free museums in DC for kids because of its imagiNATIONS Activity Center. This amazing children's exhibit is filled with interactive elements and hands-on activities like basket-weaving, building a giant igloo, and playing inside a life-sized tipi. There are also plenty of other exhibits kids will love throughout the museum. One is Americans, which displays images and objects from American brands that were influenced by American Indian culture.

Best Ages: 3 and up

12. National Museum of American History

At Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, families can see gowns worn by First Ladies, the actual American flag that inspired the national anthem, all sorts of pop-culture memorabilia in the Entertainment Nation exhibit, and so much more. There are also two great spaces just for kids: Wegmans Wonderplace and Spark!Lab.

Wegmans Wonderplace offers hands-on exploration of small-town American life for the 0-6 crowd. There's a construction area, a pretend farm and kitchen, a big toy boat to climb on, and more. Spark!Lab is a hands-on invention activity center geared towards kids ages 6-12.

Best Ages: All ages

13. National Museum of Natural History

From the iconic African elephant and dinosaur displays to Ancient Egyptian mummies, gems and minerals, and more, the National Museum of Natural History is one of the most visited of the Smithsonian museums. It houses a collection of more than 145 million specimens and is truly a bucket-list item that every family should try to check off.

On most Tuesdays, the museum hosts Play Dates at NMNH, where kids ages 0-5 and their caregivers can explore different topics with museum educators. There are also monthly family programs on Saturday mornings as well as special family events throughout the year, such as National Fossil Day.

Best Ages: All ages

RELATED: Visiting Arlington National Cemetery with Kids

Best Museums for Kids in DC: Planet Word
Marvel at Planet Word's 22-foot talking word wall. Photo courtesy of Planet Word

14. Planet Word

Planet Word, the world's first voice-activated museum, is a unique and fun experience that's perfect for older kids, tweens, and teens. The downtown museum includes interactive galleries and exhibits that bring words and language to life in fun ways. Kids can marvel at a 22-foot talking word wall, deliver a famous speech using a teleprompter, enter a magical library, sing karaoke, and much more. Visitors ages 12 and up can visit Lexicon Lane, a charming village full of wordplay surprises where families can reserve a puzzle case with mysteries to solve for $20.

Note: Planet Word limits the number of entry passes given out daily. It's best to reserve timed passes online to ensure entry on the date and time you wish to visit.

Best Ages: 10 and up, though younger kids will enjoy it as well

All photos courtesy of the museums

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