The one do-not-miss stop for families visiting our nation's capital, Air and Space is pretty much the star player on the Smithsonian museum team, at least as far as kids are concerned. I still catch my breath when I walk into its sleek entrance hall off the Mall and see all those historic aircraft dangling from the ceiling -- the Wright brothers' historic 1903 Wright Flyer, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Enola Gay bomber that devastated Hiroshima, the Friendship 7 capsule that took John Glenn into space. Jaded as I am by IMAX movies, I made a point of having my kids sit through the classic To Fly!, still my favorite of the genre; we spent another afternoon out in Virginia at the satellite location so we could see the space shuttle Enterprise. Whether you come here for the history, the science, or just the technothrill of seeing so much heavy metal, Air and Space delivers the goods.
Air and Space holds the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world; only about 10% of what it owns is actually on display, even with the annex out in Virginia. Besides gawking at the famous planes hanging out in the lobby, kids love to walk through the Skylab orbital workshop; other galleries highlight the solar system, U.S. manned spaceflights, and aviation during both world wars. You can sneak in some hard science education with How Things Fly, an interactive exhibit that demonstrates principles of flight and aerodynamics (the wind and smoke tunnels are especially fun), and get into some heady astrophysics with Explore the Universe, which probes theories about how the universe took shape. But this big, noisy, kid-packed museum isn't the sort of place where you want to be serious and thoughtful; besides the IMAX movie we wanted to do all the pumped-up extras like the flight simulators and the space show at the planetarium -- admission to the museum is free, but very few families get away without buying a ticket for one of these add-ons.
The second part of the museum is out near Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, where two gigantic hangars -- one for aviation artifacts, the other for space artifacts -- accompany a 164-foot-tall observation tower for watching planes land and take off at Dulles. The space hangar is the length of three football fields -- it has to be in order to house such huge artifacts as the space shuttle, rocket boosters, spacewalk capsules, and a full-scale prototype of the Mars Pathfinder lander. The scale of this technology is awesome, and you just can't appreciate it unless you stand right next to these babies and crane your neck upward.
Nearest Airport: Ronald Reagan Washington National, 5 miles. Washington Dulles International, 26 miles. Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall, 30 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Embassy Suites, 1250 22nd St. NW (tel. 800/EMBASSY [362-2779] or 202/857-3388; www.embassysuites.com). $$ Georgetown Suites, 1000 29th St. NW & 1111 30th St. NW, Georgetown (tel. 800/348-7203 or 202/298-7800; www.georgetownsuites.com).