The National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia wows visitors with some of the Smithsonian’s largest and most impressive aircraft, housed in two giant hangers that are a lot of fun to explore. The most popular museum in Virginia, the Udvar-Hazy Center is an excellent year-round destination, especially when the weather turns too hot, rainy, or cold for outdoor fun. Fortunately, the space is so huge that crowds won’t be a problem no matter when you visit.
Things to Do at the Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia
Explore the Collection
Like at most museums, the main activity for visitors is to walk around and explore the exhibits. At the Udvar-Hazy Center, exhibits are spread across three levels throughout two vast hangers, and you can easily spend hours slowly working your way through the whole collection.
If time or attention spans are short, we suggest focusing on a few highlights. After you pass security, head straight to get your first look at the huge Boeing Aviation Hanger.
Our preferred route from the overlook is to head downstairs and straight ahead to the McDonnell Space Hanger, which houses the Space Shuttle Discovery. On the way you’ll pass the spooky-looking Blackbird SR-71, the world’s fastest jet-propelled aircraft.
Standing next to the Space Shuttle is truly inspiring. Take time to walk around and take in the scale of the engines, the complexity of the tiled exterior, and the visible scars from it’s 39 missions in space. Around the shuttle, additional artifacts and displays share details about the human journey into space.
After the Space Hanger, we like to explore the general aviation displays on the first floor, then head up to the catwalk to enjoy the view, and additional exhibits, from above. The variety and scale of the aircraft—from the shiny Clipper Flying Cloud, to the streamlined Concorde, to the historic Enola Gay—always impresses.
If you have more time or members of your group have specific interests, there is plenty more to see throughout all three levels of the hanger.
Catch a Movie or a Ride
The Udvar-Hazy Center includes an IMAX theater with a five-story high screen and several 3D movies to choose from. You can buy advance tickets online to ensure access to your favorite movie, or just see what’s available when you arrive. There are also simulator rides on the main floor of the Boeing Hanger.
See Restoration in Action
We didn’t discover the Restoration Hanger until a recent visit. You can watch restorations in process from a mezzanine, and special tours of the restorations are offered every January. During our visit, we saw the Friendship 7 capsule and Flak-bait, which flew the most missions during World War II, being readied for restoration.
Observe Live Flights at Dulles International Airport
Near the IMAX theater entry, a short elevator ride takes visitors up to the Observation Tower. Level two explains the workings of the US Air Traffic Control system, and the top floor offers excellent views of Dulles Airport and the surrounding countryside. If your timing is good, you may see flights as they take off and land, sometimes passing directly above the tower.
Enjoy a Tour or Special Event
Free docent-led tours are offered daily at 10:30 and 1:00, and there are often aviation experts on-hand for book signings and special presentations. The museum hosts special events throughout the year, including monthly Family Days focused on particular topics, such as Women in Aviation. There’s also a very popular Halloween event every year on the Saturday before Halloween.
Tips for Your Visit to the Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia
Admission to the museum is free but parking is $15.00. If you arrive after 4:00 PM, parking is free, though the museum normally closes at 5:30 so your visit will be short. During the summer months (June through August) the museum is open until 6:30 and the 4:00 free parking becomes a better deal.
There is a fun store where you can buy a real space blanket, space-inspired games and gear, or an astronaut suit for the little ones. Next door is a McDonalds, unfortunately the only food available at the museum. Since outside food and drink is prohibited (and your bags will be searched upon entry) you have no alternative but to visit between meals or eat at McDs.
Plan for a lot of walking! Wear comfortable shoes and bring a stroller for little ones because the huge hangers require a lot of walking on concrete floors. Strollers are allowed everywhere except the Observation Tower (there is stroller parking near the elevator), and the museum is wheelchair accessible.
It’s not easy to reach the Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia via public transportation, but it is possible by taking the Silver Line Metro to Reston and taking a bus from there. You can also take a bus from Dulles Airport. Transportation options may improve once Phase II of the Silver Line Metro is complete, so check the website before your visit.
A Little Udvar-Hazy Center History
This gem in the Smithsonian collection opened in 2003 at the south end of Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia. The location met key criteria for the project: it is within one hour’s drive of the National Mall in Washington DC, offered sufficient open land space, and was adjacent to an airport so new acquisitions could be easily brought to the display space.
In 2012, Space Shuttle Discovery was flown in, strapped atop a Boeing 747, which made several flyovers in Washington DC and Northern Virginia before landing at Dulles. The direct airport access makes it possible for the museum to bring in and house new large aircraft, something that would be impossible in the National Mall location.
[box]Who is Steven F. Udvar-Hazy? He’s the benefactor who donated $65 million to the museum’s construction. The National Air and Space Museum in Virginia is one of the few Smithsonian buildings to be created with private funds.[/box]
Since its opening, the National Air and Space Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia has grown to an average of one million visitors a year. With its impressive scale and extensive collection, the museum makes a fun and interesting destination for locals and visitors in the Northern Virginia and Washington DC region. And it’s the perfect place to beat the heat or escape the cold.
Learn more about the Udvar-Hazy Center from a docent who once flew the SR-71:
If you have a tip for visiting the Air and Space Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, please share it in the comments below. Thanks!
Smithsonian Air And Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, VA 20151