The inspiration for this post came from our visit to the National Postal Museum this past weekend. Even though we’ve been there countless times, as we were riding the escalator down to the main level, I still got that jolt of thrill mixed with delight when the vintage biplane came into view from the lofty, light-filled atrium below. And hanging out there as we made Valentines during their annual workshop, I found myself looking up at the spectacular area around me as much as I did down at the cards I was working on.
There are some spaces that, no matter how many times you visit, take your breath away the moment you walk into them — and keep you enthralled while you’re there. Whether they awe with beautiful grand interiors, impress with unique architectural details, or amaze with eye-popping displays, the spaces themselves are as much a part of the allure of a place as the purpose of it and programs within. Even better, there are many of them around DC that make for fantastic outings with kids. Here are seven of those local stunners that should be on every parent’s radar.
It should come as no surprise that the museum dedicated to architecture and design boasts one of the most magnificent spaces in DC. The National Building Museum’s vast Great Hall is mostly an open space when it’s not hosting or being prepped for a big event or housing the annual Summer Block Party installation. This makes the gorgeous 75-foot tall marble Corinthian columns stand out even more than they do on their own. A fountain at the center adds to the mix, and is often a big draw for kids to toss in a coin. Four levels of galleries, classrooms, and offices surround it all, with striking archways lining the walkways of the first two. It’s a pretty spectacular place to go if you’re seeking an indoor place to hang out with kids. Soft pieces to build arches and giant Legos are often available for use if there’s a wait to get into the Building Zone, the play space for young children, and Firehook Bakery is right on premises for lunch or a snack. The exhibits are great to check out, too, especially PLAY WORK BUILD for kids. Hours are 10am – 5pm. Entry to the Great Hall is free, but admission to exhibits is $10/adult, $7/child (free for members). [2021 Update: The National Building Museum is currently open Friday – Monday, 11am – 4pm.]
Another Great Hall that induces dropped jaws is at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. The stately architecture and stunning design alone will wow visitors young and old. You could spend a lot of time there gazing up at the ornate ceilings, reading inscriptions on walls, examining sculptures and paintings and even the beautiful floors, and just wandering around marveling at it all. There are interactives where you can get information about the significance, history, and artistry of the various features. And two very popular displays are a Giant Bible of Mainz and an original Gutenberg Bible. While there is a lot to explore in the Hall, you can’t really park yourselves there. For that, though, head to the Library’s Young Readers Center, a cozy area especially for kids full of books and occasionally crafts just for them. The Library of Congress is open Monday through Saturday, 8:30am – 4:30pm. Admission is free. Read more about it in this KFDC post. [2021 Update: Current hours at the Library of Congress are 10am – 4pm, Wednesday – Saturday.]
Connecting the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, the Kogod Courtyard is practically a work of art itself. The roof, a wavy grid of steel and glass, not only lets in lovely light, it seems to undulate overhead, creating a breezy, mellow ambiance. Small trees and one-inch deep water scrims bring the outdoors in a bit (kiddos also love stomping around in them). And on a nice day, the shadows cast on the wall from sun pouring through the canopy of windows above make for a gorgeous scene. The Kogod is a must-stop on any visit to the Penn Quarter museums. It’s also a great lunch spot — grab a bite at the cafe there, pick up food from another eatery nearby, or BYO indoor picnic. Of course, you can also just go to hang out and enjoy the vibe. Hours are 11:30am – 7pm. Admission is free. Read a little more about the Kogod Courtyard and its surrounding museums here and here.
Walking into the jungle area of the U.S. Botanic Garden is like experiencing a whole new destination. The large atrium, full of lush tropical flora — elephant ear plants, lofty palm trees, and orchids among them — along with warm temps and humidity to simulate a real jungle environment, makes you feel like you’ve been transported to the rainforest. Natural light floods through windows above and around, and a stream of water flows beneath a foot bridge. You can wander around it all at ground level or head upstairs (elevator available, too) to the Canopy Walk, a 24-foot high path that runs along the perimeter, for a bird’s eye view of the green goodness below. There are also benches around if you just want to sit and savor it all. It’s a perfect place to go on a cold or rainy day — I like to say it’s kind of like cheating the weather gods — but, really, it’s pretty awesome to visit any day. Hours at the US Botanic Garden are 10am – 5pm. Admission is free. This KFDC post has more about offerings at the USBG. [2021 Update: The U.S. Botanic Garden remains closed due to Covid.]
Part of what makes this space in the National Postal Museum so fantastic is the element of surprise. Located on the lower level of the Postal Square Building, you just don’t expect to see this gorgeous sunlit area with the propeller of a vintage airplane practically staring you down as you descend on the escalator to it. (I mean, it’s below ground in the middle of the building!) Needless to say, it’s an unexpected delight, especially the first time you see it, and it gets even better once you’re within. Four floors of office windows lead up to the glass-paneled roof, the sky visible beyond. Three old airmail planes hang above, and more modes of mail transport — mail truck, horse & buggy, train car, and the trailer of a semi — are showcased on the ground. And you can do more than gawk, as a couple of them even welcome guests on board. Once you’re done taking it all in, be sure to explore the rest of the museum with lots of interesting, interactive exhibits that appeal to all ages. Hours are 10am – 5:30pm. Admission is free. Read more about the National Postal Museum in this KFDC post.
Even in DC’s bustling train station, you almost can’t help but be awestruck by the beautiful, opulent design of the Main Hall. The cavernous space in Union Station with soaring arched ceilings and gold-leaf patterns gets even busy travelers to stop and take it all in. There are a few kid-friendly places to get a bite to eat right next to that area. Even more restaurants and eateries, plus lots of stores for shopping are located throughout the rest of the station. While you can’t go out on the train platforms unless you’re a ticketed passenger, with 100,000 people passing through Union Station everyday, it can be fun to roam around amid the hubub or just hang out in the pretty space and people-watch. Hours for retail and restaurants vary — see the schedule here. Admission is free.
This one is quite different from the rest of the places mentioned here — and most places in DC, for that matter — but that’s a huge and wonderful part of its stun-factor. The decor of the Mansion on O Street consists entirely of secondhand treasures, and its four floors are filled, literally, floor to ceiling with all kinds of fabulous collectibles. You really have to see it to believe how much stuff is there. Books, art, musical instruments, housewares, clothing, and games are just some of the items you’ll find and can purchase — because all of it for sale! Even more interesting is that much of it is stored in themed rooms that also serve as quarters for guests at the Mansion, which is an inn as well as a museum and event space. Oh, and there are secret doors to search for, too, 70 of them! It all makes for one stunning space and super fun experience. Tours are available daily, starting at $25 for a self-guided secret doors hunt — book in advance online. Read more about the Mansion on O Street in this KFDC post and this one.
What’s your favorite stunning space in DC? Let us know in the comments!