500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights family-friendly destinations and attractions throughout the world. Below you'll find eleven museums and institutes where the pursuit of knowledge makes for a fascinating visit for kids of any age.
What: American Museum of Natural History: Discovering Dinosaurs
Who: All ages
Where: New York, New York
How many children have fallen in love with dinosaurs in the echoing galleries of this world-class New York City museum? And the dinosaurs are only the tip of the iceberg: Over the years, Holden Caulfield brooded over its collection of Northwest Indian totem poles in The Catcher in the Rye; in the planetarium, Woody Allen wooed Diane Keaton in the 1979 film Manhattan; and curious scientists plonked Darryl Hannah's mermaid into a tank to examine her in the 1984 movie Splash. It's one of America's great museums, and invariably engrossing for children.
When you enter the magnificent rotunda at the top of the Central Park West steps -- named for Theodore Roose-velt, the outdoors-loving President who helped found the museum -- a rearing skeleton of a mommy dinosaur protecting her baby from a small, fierce predator clues you in that the dazzling interactive fourth-floor dinosaur halls are the perennial star attraction. But our favorite sights are the superb dioramas in the North American Mammals -- the grizzly bear raking open a freshly caught salmon, majestic elks lifting their massive antlers, wolves loping through eerie nighttime snow -- or, on the floor above, the bi-level African Mammals Hall, where you can circle around a lumbering herd of perfectly preserved elephants or check out the giraffes browsing by their water hole. In the dimly lit Ocean Life room, a gargantuan model of a blue whale swims overhead while dolphins arc through plastic waves. Around the corner, the less-well-visited North American Forest dioramas are our family secret -- a peaceful part of the museum where you can hunt for blue jays in oak trees and rattlesnakes behind the cactus. Haunting music playing in the African and Asian peoples sections lull you into studying precisely detailed displays of cultural artifacts: a Chinese bride's ornate sedan chair, a pygmy's blow darts, a re-creation of a Siberian shaman healing rite, a Yoruba ceremonial costume made of red snail shells.
The stunning Rose Center for Earth and Space, a 95-foot-high glass cube, includes an interactive exhibit on the nature of the universe, where you can step on a scale that shows your weight on Saturn, see an eerie phosphorescent model of the expanding universe, and touch cosmic debris. There are an IMAX theater, a space show, and always at least a couple of traveling exhibitions (my only quibble with the museum is the substantial extra fees charged for these, on top of an already hefty admission price). But there's enough to do here that you don't need to go for the extras. Wander at will, keeping your eyes open and your imagination at the ready. It's a magical place.
Contact: Central Park West and 79th St. (tel. 212/769-5100; www.amnh.org).
What: Field Museum: Visiting Sue & Friends
Who: All ages
The minute you walk in here and gape up at the world's largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton -- named Sue for the paleontologist who dug it up in 1990 in South Dakota -- you know you're in a world-class science museum. This beloved Chicago museum is so jampacked with bones, rocks, stuffed critters, and dioramas, it's no wonder Steven Spielberg made it home turf for his adventure hero Indiana Jones. Members of the video-game generation can learn a lot from a little chill time here, where it's not all about punching buttons and guiding cursors, but about using your eyes and your imagination to enter different habitats.
Animals, even dead ones propped into permanent poses, are always a natural draw for kids -- call it the taxidermy version of a zoo -- and the Field has some dramatic ones, notably the lowland gorilla Bushman (formerly of the Lincoln Park Zoo), and a notorious 19th-century pair of man-eating lions from East Africa. But there's another side to natural history, and the Field does an especially good job with the anthropological side of things, in exhibits like the Pawnee Earth lodge, the scenes of South Pacific island cultures, or the continent-hopping African peoples gallery, which ends up on a slave ship to the Americas (just in case you needed that bit of political history underlined). Best of all in this vein is the downstairs Egyptian exhibit, which doesn't just set out artifacts in glass cases but re-creates scenes of day-to-day life in ancient Egypt, from a burial rite to a teeming daily marketplace to a royal barge trip down the Nile (complete with locks). Inspired by the excavated tomb of Unis-ankh in Saqqara, this classic exhibit has been perked up with touch-screens and kid-friendly activities, such as making parchment from real papyrus plants plucked from the gallery's living marsh.
The dinosaur galleries here, while not as extensive as the ones at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, have been incorporated into Evolving Planet, a huge new exhibit that's heavy on the interactives, which covers a 4-billion-year continuum of life on Earth (a bold move, opting to support Darwin despite the current culture wars). And then there's Underground Adventure, a very popular "total immersion environment" where supersized mechanized replicas of subterranean creatures -- earwigs, centipedes, wolf spiders -- will terrorize your children for an extra admission fee. The kids will probably beg to try this out, and who can blame them?
Contact: Roosevelt Rd. and Lake Shore Dr. (tel. 312/922-9410; www.fieldmuseum.org).
What: National Museum of Natural History: Science Central
Who: All ages
Where: Washington, D.C.
Whereas its rivals in Chicago and New York (see above) hit visitors with a dinosaur skeleton right by the entrance, this Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., plays its hand more casually, starting out with a huge African bush elephant in the Rotunda, where you first enter from the Mall. But that doesn't mean there aren't dinosaurs here -- there are, literally tons of them, as well as one of the world's oldest fossils and a 70-million-year-old dinosaur egg. This is in fact the largest natural history museum in the world, with 125 million artifacts and specimens -- nearly 90% of the Smithsonian's total holdings! And this being a Smithsonian museum, admission is free, which makes it all the easier to cruise in even if you only have a couple hours to spare. Given all the history stuff you'll probably be seeing in Washington, this place is a breath of fresh (and very kid-friendly) air.
With so much to see, the challenge is to navigate wisely. Here are the exhibits my children enjoyed most: The Insect Zoo, where toddlers can crawl through a model of an African termite mound; Life in the Ancient Seas, where you can walk around a diorama of a 230-million-year-old coral reef teeming with models of weird primitive fish; and the Hall of Mammals, right off the rotunda, where up-to-date lighting and sound make the dioramas of 274 taxidermied mammals completely interactive. Every once in a while, the hall erupts with animal sounds, all part of the exhibit wizardry that makes this a lifelike experience. Similar interactive techniques have jazzed up the Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals, on the second floor, which really gives a "big picture" story of earth's evolution. The huge new Ocean Hall was still under construction when we visited, but by all accounts it should be a knockout when it's finished. Being regular visitors to New York's natural history museum, my kids are hard to impress when it comes to dinosaur halls, and the one in D.C. is slated for an overhaul; it does have some amazing specimens, though, including a pterosaur with a 40-foot wingspan, and the jaw of a monstrous ancient shark, the Carcharodon megalodon, with teeth 5 to 6 inches long.
We also loved the outdoor butterfly garden, which is open year-round, with four habitats -- wetland, meadow, wood's edge, an urban garden. My city kids really responded to this little slice of nature in the middle of the nation's capital. Sometimes it's the little things that grab them -- you just can't predict it.
Contact: Constitution Ave. between 9th and 12th sts. (tel. 202/633-1000; www.mnh.si.edu).
What: Franklin Institute: In the Spirit of Old Ben Himself
Who: Ages 4 & up
Where: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Let's never forget that Benjamin Franklin was a scientist as well as a statesman, publisher, and philosopher: The Franklin stove and bifocal glasses were just two contraptions he invented, and of course there's that whole experiment with the kite in the thunderstorm. It warms my heart to visit the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which pays homage to the quirkiest of our Founding Fathers. At the core of this museum is the Franklin National Memorial, with a 30-ton statue of its namesake and an evocative hands-on gallery on Franklin's inventions and the scientists he inspired. While it looks all stately and neoclassical on the outside, however, this place wouldn't reflect the spirit of Franklin if it didn't have a fascinating clutter of other exhibits that simply encourage kids to putter around.
Hands-on is the watchword at the Franklin Institute; pick up a schedule of the museum staff's frequent daily demonstrations so you won't miss the fun stuff. The collection of science- and technology-oriented exhibits ranges from a gigantic walk-through heart to the Train Factory, where you can play engineer for a 350-ton locomotive, to a Van de Graaff generator that'll make your hair stand on end at the Electricity gallery. Kid Science, on the lower level, uses a dramatic animé-like storyline to teach basic science concepts to children ages 5 to 8. On the third floor, Sir Isaac's Loft demonstrates the principles of Newtonian physics with Rube GoldbergÂ?ian machines, noisemakers, and light shows. The Sports Challenge section was intriguing, look-ing at the science behind popular sports like surfing and rock climbing, and we couldn't resist the Skybike, which you can ride along a 1-inch cable three stories above the atrium floor. The whole museum is all about curiosity, and it's one of the best embodiments of the scientific method you'll ever play in.
In the warmer months, a great high-tech playground sprouts out on the lawn, where young kids can really mess around with science concepts -- the step-on organ is a crowd pleaser, as are the maze and the high-wire tandem bicycle. If your kids like this kind of stuff, you'll probably also want to devote some time to the nearby Please Touch Museum, 210 N. 21st St. (tel. 215/963-0667; www.pleasetouchmuseum.org).
Contact: Logan Circle, 20th St. and Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. (tel. 215/448-1200; www.fi.edu).
What: Museum of Science and Industry: You Can't Beat the Classics
Who: All ages
Where: Chicago, Illinois
My sentimental favorite among the world's great science museums, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry was a wonderland to me when I visited it as a kid -- and if anything, its appeal has only grown through the years, with a slew of great new exhibits to involve kids in learning. This place has both cool historic things to look at and lots of Exploratorium-type activities to play with -- the best of both worlds. It doesn't even matter that it's way the other end of Lake Shore Drive from Chicago's other great science museums, the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium ; this place deserves a full day to itself.
There were three iconic exhibits I absolutely had to make my children see, greatest hits from my own childhood: the U-505, a German submarine captured in 1944; the full-scale Coal Mine, which simulates a trip down into a dark, mysterious mine shaft; and the giant walk-through model of the human heart. (Another reason to make a full day of this museum -- you want to get there early to beat the long lines for these three crowd favorites.)
The train lovers in my family had to be dragged away from the refurbished Burlington Pioneer Zephyr train, where you can climb on board and fiddle with loads of interactive thingies, but there was no rushing past the massive model train layout called The Great Train Story, which re-creates a train's journey from Seattle across the Rockies and the Great Plains to Chicago. In the Transportation Zone, every 7 minutes a full-size 727 airplane revs up its engines and plays voice recordings to simulate a "flight" from San Francisco to Chicago; nearby we could gape at a real lunar exploration module, a Mercury space capsule, and an Apollo command module. The fantastic collection of famous ship models includes a mock-up of the quarterdeck of a 19th-century tall ship where you can give the wheel a spin. We all giggled with delight at Out to Lunch, a gargantuan collection of fast-food giveaway toys (including several I remembered prying out of our car seats). Toymaker 3000 is a captivating inter-active gallery that shows how industrial robots perform simple tasks.
Last but certainly not least, it did my heart good to see my daughter entranced by Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle, a storybook miniature palace filled with priceless treasures (check out the chandeliers -- they sparkle with real pearls and diamonds). Gee, I felt the same way when I was her age.
Contact: 57th St. and Lake Shore Dr. (tel. 800/468-6674 or 773/684-1414; www.msichicago.org).
What: The Exploratorium: The Ultimate Hands-On Museum
Who: All ages
Where: San Francisco, California
"The best science museum in the world" is what Scientific American magazine once called this San Francisco attraction, right by the waterfront parks of the Marina District. Set in a sprawling former airplane hangar, every bit of floor space is taken up with inventive activity stations and displays that just cry out for youngsters to press, jiggle, squeeze, fiddle, poke, and manipulate to their heart's content. I've been there with toddlers and I've been there with teens, and everyone has always been totally absorbed. They don't seem to care that they're also learning scientific concepts, in a way that will really stick.
The Exploratorium staff is constantly engaged in dreaming up new exhibits, so there's no guarantee that the stuff we loved won't have been replaced by something even cooler by the time you get there. The giant soap-bubble maker is perennially popular, as is the shadow wall, the visual distortion room, and machines that make sand patterns with sound waves. The Tactile Dome is an amazing experience for older kids, where they grope their way around in complete darkness, dependent on senses other than sight. Across Marina Boulevard, at the end of the Marina breakwater, you'll find one of the Exploratorium's most intriguing inventions: the Wave Organ, a hunk of concrete embedded with listening tubes that lead underwater to translate the ebb and flow of ocean currents into strange gurgles and humming sounds.
There's a handmade quality to many of the displays that I find very appealing -- clearly they've been bolted and knocked together out of plywood, wires, PVC pipes, whatever is on hand, and I can't help but think this encourages kids to become putterers and inventors themselves. As my kids get older, their interests change; the last time we were there, they gravitated to exhibits on principles of light, optics, and perception, whereas in years past they were engrossed in the simple physics concepts demonstrated in the section on matter. Biology and electricity sections on the mezzanine are fascinating too. (There's a play area for under-4s, a godsend if you need to entertain a toddler while your older kid works the exhibits.) On our most recent visit, I watched my continually squabbling son and daughter sit for 15 minutes on either side of a mirrored pane of glass, watching their grinning faces blend together as lighting levels were gradually raised and lowered -- so much for hating your siblings.
You'll find local youngsters here, not just tourists and bored school groups. It's a noisy, high-raftered, under-lit space and eventually we hit overload and have to bail out. But we never leave because we've run out of things to do.
Contact: 3601 Lyon St. (tel. 415/397-5673; www.exploratorium.org).
What: Powerhouse Museum: Where Sydney Gets Interactive
Who: All ages
Where: Sydney, Australia
Australia's largest museum looks so sleek and interactive, it's surprising to learn that it began more than a century ago, in 1880, as an outgrowth of the 1879 international Garden Palace Exhibition in Sydney. Like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., it has a sort of "nation's attic" collection, with some 385,000 objects spanning a number of fields: science, technology, engineering, transport, Australian history, and the decorative arts.
Here are just a few of the coolest things in the 22 permanent exhibitions: a priceless Boult & Watt rotative steam engine; a Catalina flying boat; a steam locomotive; a reconstructed 1930s Art Deco cinema; a re-created 19th-century sheep farmers' rural store; a Russian spacesuit; an 1880s bush-hut kitchen; a 1920s "germ-free" kitchen. What's more, the accompanying text and touch-screens aren't full of geeky technical explanations -- they emphasize the role of human curiosity and creativity, hoping to inspire tomorrow's innovators. Kids will probably gravitate to the hands-on displays in the computer, science, and technology exhibits, which allow them to learn scientific concepts by conducting their own miniexperiments. Then there are the media labs, SoundHouse and VectorLab, where kids can sign up for workshops in digital graphics and music production. The under-8s have their own section, Kids Interactive Discovery Spaces, where simpler hands-on activities are set up in primary-colored play areas.
The Powerhouse also owns the historic Sydney Observatory, Watson Road, Observatory Hill, The Rocks (tel. 02/9241 3767; www.sydneyobservatory.com); light pollution in the metropolitan area has made its stargazing days a thing of the past, but as a museum of astronomy it's still got some cool old telescopes and exhibits, not to mention a 3-D Space Theatre.
Contact: 500 Harris St., Ultimo (near Darling Harbour; & 02/9217 0111; www.powerhousemuseum.com).
What: The Science & Natural History Museums
Who: All ages
Where: London, England
Here's London's knockout one-two punch: two world-class science museums, on adjacent sites in South Kensington, and both of them free. It's quite tempting to do them both in 1 day, but be forewarned: Their collections are so huge, and so engrossing, that it may be hard to move your kids on from one to the other. The Science Museum is a place of hands-on galleries, working models, and video displays galore, all tracing the development of science and industry and -- especially important for kids -- showing their influence on everyday life. Marvelous interactive consoles placed strategically throughout the museum help you plot your visit according to your special interests.
You'll see Stephenson's original rocket and the tiny prototype railroad engine; you can also see Whittle's original jet engine and the Apollo 10 space module. The King George III Collection of scientific instruments is the highlight of a gallery on science in the 18th century, an era when a gifted assortment of British scientists, many of them brilliant amateurs, led a Golden Age of scientific discoveries. In a newer wing, exhibits explore such cutting-edge topics as genetics, digital technology, and artificial intelligence -- learn how engineers observe sea life with robotic submarines, or how DNA was used to identify living relatives of the Bleadon Man, a 2,000-year-old Iron Age Man.
Science of a more organic nature reigns at the Natural History Museum. The Science Museum's exhibits may be more exciting, but I must admit I'm a sucker for the exotic Victorian architecture of the Natural History Museum's main hall. While not quite as amazing as the New York and Washington, D.C., natural history museums, London's is a don't-miss for dinosaur lovers, and there are magnificent specimens of all sorts of living and fossil plants, animals, and minerals. The geological history of our planet is dramatically illustrated in the exhibit "Earth Today and Tomorrow" -- it truly puts the Bang in the Big Bang.
What: Glasgow Science Centre: High-Tech Revolution for the New Millennium
Who: All ages
Where: Glasgow, Scotland, UK
Adults may put Glasgow on their travel itineraries because they want to see the mind-boggling art in the Burrell Collection, but for the kids, it's all about the dynamic Glasgow Science Centre.
You'll spot the Science Centre from a long way off, its gleaming titanium-clad crescent shape reflected in the river. The crescent is punctuated by the slender aerodynamic Glasgow Tower, which rotates 360 degrees (the whole thing rotates from the ground up, not just a platform at the top -- it's the world's only structure to spin like this); a quick zip upward in an elevator and you have a panoramic view of the city, along with multimedia displays on Glasgow's history and future. The center also has a planetarium and IMAX screen (the only one in Scotland). The exhibits do emphasize Scottish scientists and inventors, specifically Glaswegians, but for good reason: Glasgow boomed during the Industrial Revolution, with great ironworks and steelworks and a huge shipbuilding industry, and engineers and designers were a vital part of all that.
This is no stuffy historical display, however: Following the pattern of such successful American museums as the Exploratorium (see ) and the Liberty Science Center, the Glasgow Science Centre explains technology in such an entertaining, interactive way that kids are completely drawn in. They'll be able to make their own soundtrack and animation, star in their own digital video, or do a 3-D head scan and then rearrange their facial features. At special shows and workshops, you'll see a glass smashed by sound, "catch" shadows, experience a million volts of indoor lightning, see liquid nitrogen, view the bacteria that lurk on you, and build a lie detector.
Contact: 50 Pacific Quay (tel. 0141/420-5010; www.gsc.org.uk).
What: Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie
Who: All ages
Where: Paris, France
As part of an ambitious urban-renewal scheme for northeastern Paris, the French government completely gutted a vacant slaughterhouse, sheathed it with a sleek new facade, surrounded it with a moat, and crowned it with a huge reflective geodesic dome -- voilà! La Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie was born. Opened in 1986, to coincide with the most recent flyby of Halley's Comet, La Cité was worth the $642-million price tag, drawing crowds (and not just children) to the long Métro ride out to Parc La Villette's leisurely green expanse. It's popular enough that you should call ahead to reserve timed-entrance tickets, although agreeably whiling away an hour or two in the surrounding park is no problem either.
La Cité may seem overwhelming at first but most families know to head straight for La Cité des Enfants, where a couple hundred hands-on activity stations painlessly educate children. Divided into two sections, one for ages 3 to 5 and another for ages 6 to 12, it features incredibly cool stuff like seeing an "X-ray" of your body breathing or racing a skeleton on a bicycle to see which bones and muscles move.
The top three floors of the museum are devoted to the Explora, geared for adults as well as children, laymen and scientists alike: Its displays are organized to relate to four themes -- the universe, life, matter, and communication. These well-lit, handsomely mounted exhibits, which are continually updated and replaced, stretch the length of the building, so don't even try to see them all -- stroll along and sample what appeals to you (like a recent one titled Grossology -- what child could pass that up?). We appreciated the peculiarly Gallic sense of humor, such as the demonstration of seismographic activity presented as the comic-strip adventures of a jungle explorer. Visitors can also climb aboard the Argonaut, a diesel submarine originally built in 1905 that's like something out of Jules Verne's science fiction, a prophetic prototype for the giant nuclear subs of the later 20th century.
It's almost de rigueur for a museum of this sort to have an IMAX-style theater, but the one here, the Géode, is a doozy, occupying that striking 34m (112-ft.) silver-skinned dome that's the focal point of the complex. There's a planetarium too, and a simulator ride -- no feature of such science museums has been left out. You could easily spend a full day here, making that long subway ride more than worth it.
Contact: 30 av. Corentine-Cariou, La Villette (tel. 01-40-05-80-00; www.cite-sciences.fr).
What: Deutsches Museum: The Great German Tech Shrine
Who: All ages
Where: Munich, Germany
My kids are convinced that Germans are the world's finest scientists and engineers, and I have a sneaking suspicion that that impression was riveted into their brains by visiting the German Museum of Science and Technology. It's a knockout attraction, the world's largest technology museum, set prominently on an island in the middle of the river Isar as it flows through Munich.
I instantly felt at home here, harking back to my childhood days at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry , but the more I explored, the more I marveled at the historic nature of this collection, with so many one-of-a-kind artifacts and priceless originals. Yes, most of the important inventions highlighted here are German-made, but that's because Germans were at the forefront of so many scientific developments in the 19th century.
You'll see the first electric dynamo (built by Siemens in 1866), the first automobile (built by Benz in 1886), the first diesel engine (Diesel, 1897), and the laboratory bench at which the atom was first split (Hahn and Strassmann, 1938). I was astonished to see an X-ray machine from 1895 and the first truly powerful refracting telescope, which discovered Neptune in 1846. There's as much history as science here -- an 1806 Jacquard loom, championed by Napoleon, that revolutionized the textile industry (thus replacing a cottage industry with factories), or the ciphering machines used in World War II to translate messages into the long-unbroken Enigma code.
Even children too young to appreciate these ground-breaking inventions will enjoy the hands-on exhibits, with hundreds of buttons to push, levers to crank, and gears to turn. Lots of knowledgeable staff (excellent English speakers, generally) hang around to answer questions and demonstrate the scientific principles that make steam engines and pumps work.
Don't get hung up on seeing everything; get a museum guide and head for the areas your family is most interested in, whether it be airplanes, bikes, clocks, cars, or computers. We loved the agriculture section's detailed scale models of farms throughout the ages. The electrical power hall is also intriguing, with high-voltage displays that actually produce lightning. My husband, the amateur astronomer, made sure we spent time in the astronomy exhibit -- the largest in Europe -- complete with a planetarium and a two-domed observatory with a solar telescope. World-class in every way.
Contact: Museumsinsel 1 (tel. 089/21791; www.deutsches-museum.de).
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.