The Smithsonian Museums are nearly synonymous with Washington, D.C., and for good reason. The Smithsonians are free, centrally located near the National Mall, and easily accessible via public transit. In all of my travels, I have yet to stumble upon a place more tourist-friendly than the city I call home. D.C. is truly an easy city to visit.
Positioned as they are in downtown D.C., the Smithsonians don’t have all that much space, so when you visit each museum, you’re only viewing a fraction of the complete collection. We’re all familiar with the National Air and Space Museum, but did you know that the popular stop on the Mall has a counterpart near Dulles International Airport? The second, more comprehensive museum, known as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, is located in Chantilly, Virginia and houses the spaceship Discovery.
Driving to the Udvar-Hazy Center from downtown D.C. takes about forty-five minutes, and while getting to the museum without a car is doable, doing so requires travelers to ride the silver metro line all the way to its final stop (Wiehle-Reston) before then transferring to a bus. That’s a long trip, and I think it’s worth it, but I’d definitely recommend having a car. (In my personal experience, the metro can be unpredictable, especially on weekends when track work drastically slows down service.)
The museum can be broken down into four parts: the IMAX theatre and control tower, the Space Hangar, the Boeing Hangar, and the restoration room. I recommend starting with the IMAX and observation tower, and then slowly meandering down towards the Boeing Hangar, the largest section of the museum, followed by the Space Hangar. The restoration room is hit or miss; I’ve visited the museum twice now and the room has been empty both times.
When you first enter the museum, make a right and follow the signs for the control/observation tower. (Note the Rolex clocks on the wall on your way. This detail always gives me a chuckle.) Yes, this museum even has a mock control tower that broadcasts feeds from neighboring Dulles Airport, which you can enjoy a clear of from the top of the tower. Keep an eye out for planes taking off and landing at Dulles’ busy runways.
The museum allows you to stay in the observation tower for as long as you’d like, and be sure to take in the wonderful 360-degree views. The only way to reach the observation tower is via elevator, making the entire museum is accessible for those with disabilities or travelling with small children. The second stop on the control tower tour is less exciting: after departing the tower and overlook, visitors board the elevator and are ushered into a forgettable exhibit that features gadgets and artifacts from an air traffic control tower. Be forewarned, the control tower closes slightly earlier than the rest of the museum – be sure you don’t miss out on the stellar views if you’re planning an afternoon visit.
Now, onto the main attraction: planes! If you enjoyed the Mall’s Air and Space Museum, the Udvar-Hazy Center will blow you away. When you first enter, you will probably feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of the museum. Trust me, it looks a lot larger than it actually is. Start with the Boeing Hangar. Here, aviation aficionados can pose alongside a Concorde or the Blackbird, famous for its record-setting flight across the United States. There’s a sizable collection of both military and commercial planes on display, as well as an impressive collection of helicopters and gliders, so don’t forget to glance upwards, as this museum makes excellent use of space by displaying aircrafts at every level.
Also on display is the Enola Gay, the World War II bomber that dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. In between the IMAX and the simulator rides (yes, there are reasonably priced simulator rides!), the Enola Gay offers visitors an unexpected somber moment. This plane, which wrought unprecedented destruction upon a major Japanese city, reminds us that technology isn’t always “cool.” I was caught off guard on my first visit. I had not expected to see the a nuclear bomber sitting among a collection of commercial jets, and I certainly never expected the Enola Gay to be so small, relatively speaking, especially considering the amount of destruction it caused upon a predominantly civilian target.
The Space Hangar has the broadest appeal, and can almost certainly entertain even the most anti-museum traveler. Who doesn’t want to see the Discovery space shuttle? Note the burnt paneling all along the sides of the space craft; this occurred when Discovery re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. My favorite part of the Space Hangar? The Canadarm, Canada’s contribution to the spaceship. Look for it next to the Discovery. (I thought I’d snapped a photo of the Canadarm, but I can’t seem to find it. All the more reason for you, my intrigued reader, to plan a visit!)
As a traveler, I’m not much of a museum-goer; I prefer to hike, explore the backstreets of a downtown, and talk to the locals. And, folks, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in literature and American politics, so I know next to nothing about airplanes, physics, and astronomy. Nonetheless, I managed to thoroughly enjoy my visit to the Udvar-Hazy Center – yes, the IMAX and simulator rides were a blast, but I was impressed with the diversity of aircrafts on display and I enjoyed viewing both the Discovery space shuttle and the Enola Gay. This museum is, without a doubt, my favorite in the entire D.C. area.
- While the Udvar-Hazy Center itself, like all the Smithsonians, does not charge admission, each vehicle is required to pay a $15 parking fee. I recommend that groups of travelers consolidate into as few vehicles as possible in order to minimize expenses. (And to save money for that IMAX!) Major credit cards are accepted.
- Allow approximately two hours to explore the museum and see a short IMAX film. You can research the list of films currently playing and the accompanying times by visiting the Air and Space Museum website.
- Be sure to take advantage of the overlooks that provide great vantage points into each hangar. They make wonderful photo-ops…but leave that selfie stick at home. Selfie sticks are prohibited throughout the entire museum.
- McDonalds is the only food option available in the Udvar-Hazy Center, so I suggest groups plan to eat before or after their visit. There are many restaurants nearby, but visitors are not permitted to bring outside food into the Center.