Best Museums for Families
Visiting a children’s museum can be a conflicting experience. Sure, your kids love it, but unless you’re gunning for world’s best parent, it’s probably not how you want to spend a family vacation.
Instead, we offer up a top list of family-friendly museums around the globe, with stimulating exhibits to satisfy all members of your tribe.
Not that there aren’t children’s museums that are a cut above, like MoMath NYC (we love your square-wheeled trikes) and Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (all 472,900 square feet of it). But in picking the best museums for families, we’re interested in the places that educate, excite, and entertain all ages—from five to 50.
From pickled oddities at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to a parade of animals in Paris, it’s a museum’s ability to capture the imagination that matters most. That could mean explosive chemistry experiments in Chicago or trucks and trains (and bikes and boats) at Glasgow’s Riverside Museum, as well as art in situ at a Brazilian botanical garden. Bonus points if you learn something along the way.
This spring break, we can’t promise argument-free vacations. But make a plan to visit the best museums for families—it will be an experience everyone can agree on.
Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago
Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry is enormous: 14 acres hold some 2,000 interactive exhibits like a replica of a coal mine, a 1934 diesel-powered passenger train, and a German U-boat captured off the coast of West Africa. Oooh at Daily Live Science Experiences (explosive chemistry shows and eyeball dissections), ahhh at world-class temporary exhibitions (visit an icicle-covered Arctic cabin or hot-air balloon over the savanna in “National Geographic Presents: Earth Explorers”), then play a round on the Swiss Jolly Ball, a seven-foot-high, 15-foot-wide pinball machine.
Museum of the Moving Image, New York City
Explore a treasure trove of artifacts relating to the art, history, and technology of the moving image in a building once occupied by the 1920s-era Astoria studio in Queens, from historic projectors to the Yoda used in the Star Wars movies. The museum’s permanent, family-friendly exhibition “Behind the Screen” includes plenty of interactive attractions: make stop-motion animations, change the sound effects in famous movies, and watch a classic in Tut’s Fever Movie Palace, an ornate movie theater/art installation that pays homage to 1920s picture palaces. Interactive visiting exhibitions are spot-on for all ages, too, such as the recent (and addictive) “Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games.” movingimage.us
Ghibli Museum, Tokyo
You needn’t be a fan of anime to enjoy the whimsical Ghibli Museum, a combo art, science, and children’s museum in a complex reminiscent of a hobbit village. A central atrium topped by a glass dome and giant fan, inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s drawings, is a maze of staircases, passages, and hiding places; stained glass fitted into the ironwork casts multicolored shapes on the floors. Exhibits explain the animation process, and a small screening room shows original shorts, while on the rooftop garden, a 15-foot-high robot solider guards the Inokashira Park views. All exhibits apart from My Neighbor Totoro’s huge furry Catbus are open to adults. ghibli-museum.jp
The California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
The exhibits at Cal Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park (one of the world’s most beautiful city parks) could almost be secondary to the Renzo Piano–designed museum’s crisp glass walls and breathtaking bubble roof, planted with 1.7 million native plants. But inside, a combined natural history museum, aquarium, and planetarium easily keeps pace. Highlights include a four-story, 90-foot-in-diameter rainforest dome containing birds and butterflies, where you can climb into the treetops, and a glass elevator that transports visitors down into a colorful fish tank. Future visiting exhibitions include “Skulls” (from May 16), which will feature more than 600 specimens and a live colony of flesh-eating beetles.
The Acropolis Museum, Athens
If persuading your family to go to an archaeological museum is usually a tough sell, the five-year-old Acropolis Museum will change all that: it’s open, airy, and a joy to visit with lots of natural light to show the 4,000 artifacts at their best, including panoramic views of the Parthenon and Athens. High-quality exhibits like the 2,300-year-old statues of Nike easily capture the imagination, but families can also borrow backpacks that contain games and quizzes about subjects such as archaic colors or the goddess Athena. On weekends for those 13 and older, the museum’s 3-D screenings of Acropolis in Antiquity bring the ancient citadel to life.
Riverside Museum, Glasgow
One of T+L’s coolest new tourist attractions—and winner of the European Museum of the Year in 2013—the Zaha Hadid–designed Riverside Museum demands attention with its eye-catching, zigzagging, zinc-clad roof. The creativity extends to its transport-themed exhibits: vintage cars attached to a wall like a collector’s display of toy vehicles, bikes secured to a suspended velodrome, a 10-ton railway engine dramatically hung over the edge of a mezzanine. Visitors can stroll down replica streets from the early 1900s, explore Glasgow’s trams and trolleybuses, and see 159 model ships, many of them built on the River Clyde, visible just outside through a 118-foot-high window. museumsgalleriesscotland.org.uk
Mütter Museum, Philadelphia
You never forget your first pickled oddity—and that’s why this museum of medical history (and world’s creepiest attraction) makes our list for families that relish the macabre. There are plenty of suitable exhibits just the right side of gruesome for older kids to see, such as Einstein’s brain and a skeleton of a giant. Children under eight, or of a sensitive disposition, might not handle the more disturbing stuff: the wax head with a horn coming out of the forehead (or for that matter the Victorian dental instruments) could result in sleepless nights. The Mütter also wins the award for best gift shop purchase; the exclusive Mega Colon Plush, a 12-inch-long cuddly intestine, also happens to make an excellent in-flight pillow. collegeofphysicians.org
Dalí Theatre-Museum, Figueres, Spain
Surrealism is imagination made manifest, and nowhere is Dalí’s mind riper than his hometown museum, decorated like a red castle with giant eggs and bread rolls. Inside, a large collection of 4,000 works are on show, including Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used as an Apartment (a room that resembles the actress when viewed from a specific angle) and a 1941 car supposedly owned by Al Capone; insert a coin and it rains on the two mannequins inside. Closer to home, Florida's new Dalí Museum also captures the spirit of the artist—a bubble made up of 1,062 triangular pieces of glass bulges out of a raw concrete box—and offers child-centric activities such as Breakfast with Dalí for Families. salvador-dali.org
Smithsonian Museums, Washington, D.C.
What’s not to love about the Smithsonian? The world’s largest museum complex (19 museums and galleries) and America’s top free attraction houses a mind-boggling 137 million objects—including a 3.5 billion-year-old fossil at the National Museum of Natural History; Dorothy’s size five ruby red slippers in the National Museum of American History; and the Wright brothers’ 1903 Spirit of St. Louis at the National Air and Space Museum—while the “American Cool” exhibition (through September 7) celebrates everyone from Patti Smith to Jay-Z at the National Portrait Gallery. Your biggest problem will be taking it all in—avoid info ache by first hatching a plan that keeps everyone happy at the Smithsonian Information Center.
The Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, Brumadinho, Brazil
Attempting to interest your offspring in art? A visit to Inhotim will nail it. A far cry from your typical museum, with 5,000 acres of beautiful tropical forests and a botanical garden designed by the late landscape artist Robert Burle Marx, this is a place where you can take a deep breath while the children work off some energy—everybody experiencing some incredible contemporary art. Installations are dotted throughout the landscape (like an Olafur Eliasson in a fiberglass igloo) while paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, and videos by more than 100 Brazilian and international artists from 30 different countries are exhibited in 21 pavilions. inhotim.org.br
Tower of London
The Crown Jewels, yeoman wardens (known as Beefeaters), torture, death, scandalous royal history—you’ll find it all at this 11th-century castle-cum-prison on the northern banks of the Thames. You can even arrive by riverboat, which is how they brought in prisoners, including Queen Elizabeth I, who managed to leave with her neck intact, and Mary Queen of Scots, who did not. Here, the past comes to life—and we’re not just talking about the ghosts who are said to wander its passages. Keep an eye out for the historical graffiti scraped into the walls of the Beauchamp Tower; one prisoner from 1622 simply wrote, “Close prisoner 32 weeks, 224 days, 5376 hours.” hrp.org.uk
Grande Galerie de l’Evolution, Paris
The arching 19th-century iron and glass-roofed building may impress, but that’s immediately trumped by a taxidermy parade of African animals—baboons, giraffes, rhinos, snakes, and elephants making their way across the first floor. Good luck getting your kids away from that (although there’s a 20-foot-long giant squid that might do the trick). Concepts of diversity, man’s impact on the environment, and evolution are made manifest with the 7,000 species on show, including endangered and extinct ones like Gabonese monkeys, Sumatran tigers, and the obligatory model of a dodo bird. Afterward, head outside to the sprawling Jardin des Plantes to roam (them) or relax (you). mnhn.fr
Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Whatever the current political situation (see the latest from the U.S. Department of State), Cairo’s Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square should definitely be on your family bucket list, particularly for older kids. Where better to prime yourself for the pyramids and learn about the pharaohs of Egypt than with 120,000 objects covering 5,000 years of Egypt’s past? Highlights include the Tutankhamun Room, where you can see his golden funeral mask, and the Royal Mummy Room. Since there’s little information on the exhibits, it’s a good idea to hire a guide. Next year, a new Grand Egyptian Museum will include additional collections specifically for children a mile from the Giza Pyramids. sca-egypt.org
Plug directly into the heart of Japan’s technological prowess—and meet Asimo, Honda’s humanoid robot—at Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, better known as Miraikan (Future Museum). Step into a Space Habitation Module, explore Japan’s earthquake activity on seismometers, and gape at a giant Geo-Cosmos globe with super-high-resolution displays of the world’s current ozone concentration, sea acidity, and forest fires. Plenty of interactive exhibits keep kids amused, but anyone interested in cutting-edge technology will get a kick out of this place. The multilingual staff and signs help the curious and confused. miraikan.jst.go.jp
Centre Pompidou, Paris
The Pompidou Center doesn’t only house France’s National Museum of Modern Art—its ground floor is also home to the Children’s Gallery (La Galerie des Enfants), aimed at kids ages two to 12 years. The genius stroke here is that the activities often relate to the main exhibitions upstairs—for example, during the Alexander Calder show the Children’s Gallery ran a program on making mobiles. The Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers–designed building’s brightly colored exposed infrastructure, including the external escalators, is as fascinating to kids as it is to architecture lovers. When you’re done, you can sit down outside and enjoy the street performers and the Stravinsky Fountain.