Museums have a rep among kids for, well, sucking. But these children's museums, natural history museums and cultural institutions all have fun, hands-on exhibits and programs that are super kid-friendly—and anything but boring.
When your kids hear the word “museum” do they immediately think of a place where they have to be quiet and can’t touch anything? We polled readers, editors and parents across the country to come up with this list of 25 museums with tons of kid appeal. Enjoy exploring!
If you join your local children’s museum, many memberships offer reciprocal admission to children and science and technology museums around the country. This perk gives your family a passport to many free, fun educational experiences during your next trip out of town.
The National Museum of Play, Rochester, New York
Why it doesn’t suck: There’s something for everyone in this mecca of playtime. Mini superheroes can don a cape and go to Super Powers School at the comic book exhibition; Sesame Street fans can sit on the famous 123 stoop; and parents can relive childhood memories at the Toy Hall of Fame. The museum also has a massive coral reef aquarium and a rainforest garden boasting 1,000 butterflies.
The Delaware Children’s Museum, Wilmington, Delaware
Why it doesn’t suck: Kids with energy to burn will gravitate towards the 30-foot climbing structure at the museums’ center called the Stratosphere, where they can make their way through wave-like tunnels up to a platform overlooking the lobby. In the exhibit “The Power of Me,” kids test their endurance on a climbing wall as they learn about how the human body works. For mellow activities, check out the train play area and the studio where little artists can paint and sculpt.
The Baltimore & Ohio Train Museum, Baltimore, Maryland
Why it doesn’t suck: This museum, housed in an old train yard, has an extensive collection of historic trains, some of which you can board and explore. Thomas fans will love the three-minute kiddie train ride through Choo Choo Blueville, a pint-sized town with twelve miniature buildings. Top off a visit with a spin on the train-themed carousel.
Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, MA
Why it doesn’t suck: Travel to a New England village from the 1830s at this living history museum. Families can tour a cider mill, an old schoolhouse, printing office (yes, kids, people used to read print!) and other restored historic buildings. Kids will get a kick out of the costumed staff that are always willing to answer questions about life during the early part of the 19th century.
The Children’s Museum of the Arts, New York, New York
Why it doesn’t suck: You can see Van Goghs and Picassos at other museums in New York City, but this one focuses on kids creating their own art. From claymation to painting, the museum offers drop-in art activities, as well as an extensive collection of art created by children. It’s a great place for young artists to find inspiration.
The International Spy Museum, Washington, DC
Why it doesn’t suck: Any museum that asks you to adopt a cover identity should appeal to kids (and adults). With exhibits like School for Spies, which includes everything from buttonhole cameras to recording bugs, kids can learn about the secretive and very cool world of spies. This is one museum where you won’t want to skip the gift shop, too: look for fun spy gadgets like invisible ink and secret compartment containers.
The California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, California
Why it doesn’t suck: Located in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences is home an aquarium, a planetarium and a natural history museum, providing families with a one-stop shop on environmental education. Explore a four-story living rainforest; watch African penguins in action; and engage in the many interactive exhibits, including the Discovery Tide pool, where kids can touch sea stars and other coastal animals.
The FASNY Museum of Firefighting, Hudson, NY
Why it doesn’t suck: Mini firefighters will get a thrill out of seeing—and climbing aboard—antique fire trucks at this museum. There’s also an extensive collection of firefighter gear and memorabilia, and kids can don a firefighter’s uniform.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Why it doesn’t suck: Although the exhibits aren’t interactive, the museum has free kid-focused tours separated by age, where kids get to create their own art work inspired by the Met’s collection. The museum also offers kid-friendly maps, which lead families on scavenger hunts to find treasures in the Greek and Egyptian collections. Kids 3-12 will enjoy the Met’s free drop-in family programs, which offer sketching and storytelling activities.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, Texas
Why it doesn’t suck: With a paleontology hall that houses more than 450 dinosaur fossils and a conservatory with hundreds of live butterflies, this Texas museum is a gem. The museum also hosts monthly Family Fun Labs, where families can engage in craft classes together. Sugar Land’s satellite location of the museum boasts a dino dig pit and a children’s art gallery, showcasing local students’ creations.
The Magic House Museum, St Louis, Missouri
Why it doesn’t suck: Kids can create music, play with bubbles, solve a mystery and learn how to build at this St. Louis museum. In the Children’s Village exhibit, kids can pretend to be shopkeepers, mechanics and nurses in a pint-sized community; at the Lewis & Clark adventure center, they can blaze a trail like the famous explorers. The museum also hosts family-friendly events like Big Truck day, where kids can explore a cement mixer and a fire truck.
The Montreal Biodome, Montreal, Quebec
Why it doesn’t suck: Travel from a rainforest to the subploar regions without having to take an overnight flight; at the Montreal Biodome, you can see a variety of ecosystems all under one roof. The landscaped exhibits provide children the opportunity to walk through areas with different climates and appreciate the diversity of natural beauty. From peacocks to penguins, kids will be able to see how climate affects different species.
The Boston Children’s Museum, Boston, Massachusetts
Why it doesn’t suck: Besides having an exhibit about the beloved children’s book character Arthur, the museum has something for every kid. There’s the KidStage, where budding actors can perform; a Japanese House where kids can explore the country’s family lifestyle and customs; and a Global Gallery, a rotating space for showcasing children’s exhibits from around the world. Active kids will love the three-story climbing structure, while creative types can design and construct in the art studio or woodwork shop.
The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Why it doesn’t suck: This Philadelphia staple introduces kids to the world of science through exhibits on the sports, space, electricity and weather. The museum keeps it exciting for kids with fun takes on exhibits, like teaching about water, light and earth elements by making them into superheroes (battling Lord Chaos), or teaching biology with a giant, walk-through human heart model. If hopping around the bustling exhibits wears out your family, stop by the domed 3D theater to see the latest IMAX science flick.
Dinosaur Ridge, Morrison, Colorado
Why it doesn’t suck: Take a hike here to see real dinosaur footprints in a Colorado mountain. Hop a ride from the visitors’ center over to the Triceratops Trail or Dinosaur Ridge; informed guides will point out the dinosaur tracks and will explain what life was like in that region over 100 million years ago. The indoor exhibit, Trek Through Time, includes murals and maps that teach kids about dinosaurs. They’ll also get a kick out of the area where they can pretend to dig for their own fossils.
The Walker Museum, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Why it doesn’t suck: This Midwestern art museum stands out for many reasons, including its dolphin oracle exhibit; type in questions and the dolphin thinks about it and answers your question. Get inspired at their sculpture garden, featuring the famous Spoonbridge and Cherry. The museum hosts a slew of family programs including kid-friendly tours, art-based activities and Art Pants, a bi-monthly drop-in program for preschoolers.
The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn, New York
Why it doesn’t suck: The first children’s museum in the country, this museum recently underwent a renovation and is now home to World Brooklyn, an exhibit where kids can visit different “shops” to explore the ethnic enclaves of New York City. Kids under five can spend hours in the Totally Tots section, with a water play station, kiddie theater and building zone. Collections Central, the museum’s main exhibit, houses 30,000 objects from around the world, including a shark jawbone, masks and fossils.
The Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, California
Why it doesn’t suck: You don’t have to wait for the great flood to step aboard Noah’s Ark at this Los Angeles cultural center. Kids can explore the 8,000 square foot gallery inspired by the biblical story, which includes a large ark where kids can climb inside and play. Skirball also has a host of family programs including Dig It!, a weekend program focusing on adventures in archaeology. From family concerts to programs on magic, this is a definite stop on any trip to LA.
Port Discovery, Baltimore, Maryland
Why it doesn’t suck: Infants and toddlers will love the Tots Trail exhibit; it’s a play haven with padded, mock sand dunes and tidal pools that babies can crawl through, and tunnels perfect for toddlers to navigate. Older kids will love climbing through KidWorks, a three-story urban tree house complete with a rope bridge. Although located in the heart of Baltimore’s inner harbor, the museum has exhibits on farm life, including one that lets kids pretend to milk a cow.
The Phoenix Children’s Museum, Phoenix, Arizona
Why it doesn’t suck: A main attraction is the museum’s Climber, a 37-foot structure comprised of tubes and stairs, which kids (and adults!) can explore. Created through a combination of found objects and building materials, the climber includes such whimsical features as a Flying Bathtub and Recycled Rocket. Racecar fans should visit the Pit Stop exhibit to launch racers and watch them soar.
The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois
Why it doesn’t suck: Science gets cool at this museum, which offers plenty of interactive opportunities for kids. YOU! The Experience takes kids through the workings of the human body; they can learn how body movement works by running on a giant hamster wheel, delve into the psychology of mind by creating an ad and face-off in a two-player relaxation game. The Science Storms exhibit breaks down natural occurrences; in the fire section, you can create a virtual fireworks display.
Pretend City, Irvine, California
Why it doesn’t suck: Kids will love working and visiting this mini kid city. They can play make-believe in 15 interactive exhibits, including a bank, city hall, doctor’s office and gas station. The new library exhibit offers children the chance to role play as a librarians, where they can sort books and show others how to sign up for library cards.
The New York Transit Museum, Brooklyn, New York
Why it doesn’t suck: This decommissioned 1920s subway station converted into a museum offers visitors the chance to step inside their large collection of historic New York City subway cars. Walking through these cars from various time periods, you can see how one of the largest public transportation systems evolved throughout time. With interactive exhibits and tons of train memorabilia on display, it will be a challenge to tear any train-obsessed child from the museum. An added plus, every weekend they offer free family programs at 1:30 pm, from puppet shows to art projects.
The Louisiana Children’s Museum, New Orleans, Louisiana
Why it doesn’t suck: You can get the flavor of New Orleans without having to trek your kids through Bourbon Street at this Louisiana museum. Kids can learn about the Big Easy’s famed landscape and design their own dream homes in the architecture exhibit. Families can also explore a child-sized Cajun Cottage, and kids can build their own cottage with Lincoln Logs. In the Eye to Eye exhibit, kids will be able to see things through the eyes of a hawk, honeybee and other animals.
The Discovery Center of Idaho, Boise, Idaho
Why it doesn’t suck: From bubble walls to a robot that spells, the Discovery Center of Idaho is worth a visit. Try lifting yourself six feet up in the air with the arm break chair, which uses pulleys to lift your weight or build large structures with their collection of Keva blocks. Kids learn about everything from photo technology to physics through experimenting and this extremely interactive museum.