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Jets, space shuttles, and all things aviation dangle from cables above. Or they litter the floor below like giant toy models, arranged just-so. But these are not toys filling up a child’s bedroom.

At the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, everything is the real deal. The center is located next to Washington Dulles airport — just inside Virginia and on the opposite side of DC from the National Mall and the rest of the Smithsonian museums. However, it’s arguably the better half of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which houses the largest and most important air and space collection in the world.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum — Steven F. Idvar-Hazy Center.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum — Steven F. Idvar-Hazy Center.

Boeing Aviation Hangar

This hangar is organized by time period and has areas dedicated to the beginnings of aviation, hot air balloons and blimps, and helicopters, and even aerobatic flying.

There are also areas devoted to aircraft from WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Give yourself a good 30-60 minutes to get lost in the thrilling mechanics of flight history. Some of the standouts include a 1966 Lockheed Blackbird — a super fast, flat-as-a-pancake aircraft used for reconnaissance.

This hanger also houses the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb in history on Hiroshima, effectively ending WWII.

1966 Lockheed Blackbird from the museum's section on Cold War Aviation/
1966 Lockheed Blackbird from the museum’s section on Cold War Aviation/

James S. McDonell Space Hangar

This hangar is all about space, and it’s super cool. There are astronaut suits, decontamination stations, rovers, rockets, astronaut training equipment, the real Apollo 11 boiler plate command module that landed in the ocean.

And this hanger has the actual Discovery space shuttle, retired in 2011 after 39 missions. You can see the actual wear and tear on its paneling, and it gave me goosebumps. Give yourself at least 20-40 minutes to explore.

Discovery Space Shuttle.
Discovery Space Shuttle.

Other sights on site

There are two other points of interest in the Boeing Hangar: The first is a real plane that you can jump in — while supervised — and try out the knobs, pedals, and levers in the cockpit. There is usually a line and mostly only kids do it, but it is free and doesn’t have a posted age limit.

The second is an area of simulators where you can simulate either flying an aircraft, or dropping from the sky like an astronaut. These cost between $7 – $9 and also generally have a waiting line.

A little girl gets her first lesson in the basics of flying in this small plane.
A little girl gets her first lesson in the basics of flying in this small plane.

Hours, getting in, and parking

The museum itself is free and open daily from 10:00am — 5:30pm (except Christmas), with some extended hours. Parking costs $15/vehicle, but drop offs from hotel shuttles, Ubers, and friends are free. The museum itself is comprised of two giant hangars and is well-laid out and easy to navigate.  If you have a purse or backpack, you’ll need to open it up at the security check point, otherwise skip the line and head straight in. Grab a handy map from a volunteer at the information desk on your right after you enter the building.

— Laura Rowley

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Written by Laura Rowley

I am an artist, flight attendant, and travel blogger.

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