Most people, even Washington D.C. locals, don’t know about arguably the best air and space museum in the area, located 30 miles (50 kilometers) away from the city center. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in the suburb town of Chantilly, Virginia, close the Dulles International Airport, is over 32,000 square meters (346,000 square feet) of aviation history.
The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. is might be the best museum in the world for aviation science lovers, but I say “might” because the Udvar-Hazy Center exists. Here’s some of what you can find inside the two hangars of the museum and why you should really make a day to visit it if you’re in the Washington D.C. area.
The world’s first airplane, the Wright Flyer, is on display at the Air and Space Museum. It’s not a replica, but the actual plane. There are two tours daily, run by volunteers and free, that are very, very, interesting but don’t miss the Wright Flyer segment. Even if you just tag along, there is so much more to the Wright Flyer than a few wings – the design, inspiration, and failures of the Wright brothers in developing the first airplane have valuable lessons for everyone. I can’t recommend it enough.
A view of the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower, part of the Udvar Hazy Center, outside of Washington D.C. From the tower you can watch flights like mine coming in and if you’re lucky (and on the left side) of the plane landing at Dulles International Airport, see the tower as you approach for landing.
There are over 240 aircraft inside the Udvar-Hazy Center, which by the way, is free admission. It’s all worth exploring so set aside a few hours for a visit.
Documentaries and films are also shown throughout the day at the Udvar Hazy’s IMAX theater. The IMAX screen is 6 stories high, 25.9 meters (85 feet) wide, with 4K resolution. Here’s a current schedule of what’s playing now.
But this, located in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar is what really blows people away.
The Space Shuttle Discovery, 39 space flights over 27 years, more than any other spacecraft.
Everyone looking up at Discovery, the engineering feat and what it represents of exploration and for humanity, is left in awe. You’ll see those faces. You’ll have one too.
You can get to the Udvar-Hazy Center using the metro from Washington D.C. but like the rest of the D.C. area, public transportation is terrible. It’s much better to rent a car then drive out to Chantilly, about a 40 minute drive from Washington D.C. at non-peak hours. (Don’t drive during rush hour in the D.C. area.) The address is: 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway Chantilly, Virginia 20151; parking is $15, and regular hours are from 10am- 5:30pm daily with some extended hours.
I’m told mid-week is least crowded but even during the peak weekends, Udvar-Hazy never feels crowded with people. The Udvar-Hazy Center has only about 20% the annual visitors of the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. – not because it isn’t worth a visit, but because so few know or remember it’s there. After one visit though, you’ll want to tell everybody it’s one museum that doesn’t disappoint.