One of the world's most visited museums, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum has an incredible array of original artifacts from the history of flight and space exploration.
During its visitor numbers heyday in the late 1990s through the early 2000s, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC was a contender for the most-visited museum in the world, besting even long-established institutions like the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London. In recent years, the annual tally has slipped somewhat,1 even if the Smithsonian Institution seems reluctant to relinquish the crown2, but it still attracts something north of 5 to 6 million visitors annually. And perhaps most remarkably, it handles this crush of visitors with surprisingly few lines.
Thanks to an annex opened in 2003, the Air and Space Museum is now actually two venues, one on the National Mall in downtown Washington DC close to the US Capitol, and another hangar-like structure known as the Udvar-Hazy Center about 30 minutes away in Chantilly, near Dulles Airport. Considering the extraordinary size of many of the museum's artifacts--there are only so many airplanes you can fit in a building--the Udvar-Hazy extension was purpose-built to display a good portion of the 85 percent of the museum's artifacts that simply didn't fit in the building on the National Mall.
Highlights of the Udvar-Hazy Center include the Space Shuttle Discovery, an SR-71 Blackbird, a Concord, and the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Highlights of the main building on the National Mall include the original Wright Brothers Flyer, the Apollo 11 command module, the Spirit of St. Louis, and a full backup Skylab.
Photos of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
360 Degree Panoramic Virtual Tours of the Udvar-Hazy Center
What to Know Before You Go
Both are free to enter (but parking at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center is $15 per car). Both can get very busy, especially during the summer, but the vast expanse of the Udvar-Hazy Center can accommodate more people without it feeling crowded.
The National Mall Building is easy to find--it's right on the National Mall, up the eastern end towards the US Capitol Building.
For directions and public transport options for the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, see their website.
Both have McDonald's restaurants inside the facility. (UPDATE: The cafe in the National Mall location is closed for renovation.)
Information for Photographers
If you plan on taking photos at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, I've put together a separate pages for each of the facilities with information for photographers: National Mall Building | Udvar-Hazy Center.
- Farah Nayeri, "Louvre's 8.5 Million Visitors Keep It as No. 1 Museum Worldwide," 29 March 2009, Bloomberg News; Ben Zongker, "Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Sees Fewer Visitors," 20 February 2007, USA Today. ↩
- According to information that used to be on the Smithsonian's website: "The National Air and Space Museum is recognized as the world's most visited museum. For 2005, a total of 6,100,871 people visited the museum building on the Mall, which has on average attracted more than nine million people annually. For 2005, the Udvar-Hazy Center attracted 1,169,951." ↩