[Note: This post was written by KFDC contributor Emily Moise, who visited Port Discovery with her family, including her 3-year-old daughter and baby son. In all the years our family visited the children’s museum in Baltimore, I never did a proper write-up, and my kids have aged out of a lot of it. But as Port Discovery recently underwent a major renovation, the timing is great for one now.]
As we await the *almost open* children’s museum here in Washington, DC, a half-day trip up to Baltimore’s Port Discovery will certainly tide you over. The Inner Harbor, and its historic seaport, provides the perfect metaphorical backdrop for this children’s museum that has, without exaggeration, something for every child, with every interest, to embark on.
Open since 1998, the museum completed a $10.5 million renovation in 2019, notably with the floor-to-ceiling “SkyClimber” and twisting slide, as well as a life-size ship facade where kids can play captain and load “cargo” on the third-story overlook. The museum has the latest and greatest in hands-on, creative play — though, like all children’s museums, things become “well-loved” so some of the 10+ exhibit spaces aren’t as brand-sparkling new as others.
If you have a preschooler in tow, your first stop will likely be at the “Store & Fill’er Up Station” which is one of the most authentic fake food shopping set-ups I’ve experienced. It’s a convenience store modeled after sponsor Royal Farms, allowing kids to fill up a grocery tote, get a pretend fountain soda, put gas in the car, and “drive.” A few levels up, “Tiny’s Diner” offers even more for the play food lovers with a large space conducive to collaborative play and parent engagement.
Perhaps the most unique exhibit space is “Wonders of Water” where my daughter’s love of squeegeeing grew exponentially with the addition of spray bottles and free-range windows. Also found here are STEM-infused water tables, a giant bubble hoop, and a musical water play (and spray) area. The most thoughtful touches are the amenities: raincoats, crocs, and a drying station for all sizes.
For those with younger toddler-age children, you won’t want to miss “Tot Trails” which is limited to children three and under. This exhibit space is set up with simple yet stimulating activities for all levels—sitters, crawlers, climbers, and walkers. Like most of the museum, STEM and arts are intertwined in a rudimentary, unintimidating way. For example, here you’ll find a classic wind tube with leaves for little ones to insert and catch with a butterfly net.
Lastly, “The Oasis” provided a much-needed wind down from the stimulation. It’s a children’s library-esque space stocked with books, cozy nooks, and exploratory play stations. By chance, we walked in just as story time was about to start—on this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend day, themes of community and connection were shared throughout the three books read. This was the perfect ending to our visit, leading to an instantaneous car nap for both of my children.
From the archives: Little Sasha serves up big sandwiches at Tiny’s Diner
Port Discovery is located at 35 Market Place on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. General admission to the museum is $17.95 for visitors ages 1+. If you think your family will go at least couple of times in a year, consider a membership starting at $140.
KFDC Tips: * There are lockers to store your items (for free) in “The Pier” eating area — use them! The museum is three levels of non-stop movement, particularly for a first-time visitor trying to see and do everything. * The Pier is also where you can take a snack or lunch break. Bring your own food or carry out from one of the neighboring establishments. * There are many, many exhibits — more than mentioned here, including a bunch for grade school ages — so be ready for a long day (or plan on more visits!) * Port Discovery hosts lots of special events and themed weekends — check the calendar for any you might want to experience. * You could make it a longer trip to Baltimore, overnight or even weekend, and also visit the Maryland Science Center, American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore Museum of Industry, or tour the historic ships docked at the Inner Harbor.
[2020 Update: In response to COVID, the beach area at Kentmorr is by reservation only, and I recommendation calling ahead for the restaurant, too.]
A must-do during summer in (or, actually, just beyond) this area: Crabs on the Eastern Shore. Sure, there are spots close to DC, even in the city, where we can get good steamed blue crabs or live ones to cook at home. But it just doesn’t match the experience of an excursion to a crab house somewhere along the Chesapeake Bay, where you can dig into a pile of Maryland’s tastiest while enjoying scenic views and that easy breezy coastal vibe.
It’s a staple on our seasonal agenda, and I love finding out about different places to indulge. Our most recent discovery (thanks to my friend Elsa, who recommended it) may just be my new favorite: Kentmorr Restaurant & Crab House on Kent Island in Stevensville, MD.
Located over the Bay Bridge, it’s a bit of a drive to get there — but so worth the time and mileage. Kentmorr has way more than the average crab house, and you can really make a day of it there. Along with the restaurant, there’s a great stretch of beach with play areas and lots of seating, plus a tiki bar, snack bar, and live music as well as a nice grassy area for hanging out, too.
We enjoyed all of it for the first time on Mother’s Day, and it was a great way to celebrate the occasion. Like many crab houses, there was a long wait for a table without a reservation — nearly two hours — but that didn’t phase us one bit (because tiki bar 😉 ). We took advantage of the chance to relax on the beach, and the kids had a blast playing by the water and spinning around in hammock swings.
The good vibes continued with our feast inside the restaurant. The crabs were excellent and reasonably priced, and they have a good kids menu for young diners who prefer other fare, as well as plenty of other options on the main menu for adults.
Some things to keep in mind as you’re planning a day there: 1) There are beach rules, including no pets, coolers, or outside food. 2) Bay Bridge traffic. Chances are, you’re going to hit it on a summer weekend, especially as you’re driving home on a Sunday. But when you’re relaxed and full of crabs after a great beach day, you may not even care.
Kentmorr Restaurant and Crab House is located at 910 Kentmorr Road in Stevensville, MD. It’s open daily 11:30am – 9pm. You can make a reservation online or by calling 410.643.6623, or you can just put your name on the list when you get there and have fun on the beach while you wait.
The National Museum of African American History & Culture is easily one of the most remarkable and powerful attractions DC has received in recent years. Since it opened last September, timed entry passes to visit have been some of the most sought after tickets in town. It was number one on my Top 16 of 2016. It’s been lauded as a must-see by many reputable sources.
So, you might be wondering why it’s taken me so long to post a write-up about something so outstanding. There’s good reason: While I visited the museum within days of its debut, I opted to go on my own that first time. I wanted to really take it all in and “prep” for a visit with my kids, since I knew there would be a lot to cover, and that some of it would be pretty heavy. And it was important to me that Owen and Sasha also visit before covering it here on the blog, so I could offer a true perspective on experiencing it with school-aged kids. We finally visited together a few weeks ago, just in time to post while it’s still Black History Month — though, of course, an outing there is relevant and important anytime.
What’s Appropriate for Kids
Based on our experience, plus conversations I’ve had with friends who have been with children of various ages, I’d say that, generally, the whole museum is probably best for kids in third grade and up. Even then, that depends on their maturity, interest in history, reading level, and sensitivity to sad and scary topics. That said, there are parts that children of all ages will enjoy on some level, but there are areas that you might want to avoid entirely if you’re with a young child or an older kid who may be uncomfortable with grim and graphic elements. I would also suggest some discussion about the museum before your visit — what is there and why — even if they’ve learned about it in school.
The Lay of the Land
The NMAAHC is huge. There are three concourses on the lower level alone that cover the history of slavery, segregation, and the civil rights movement in America, and there are several levels of exhibitions, theaters, interactive areas, even a café above that. The layout is thoughtfully configured, reflecting the timeline and tone of the exhibits. The earliest and most somber of them are on the lower levels, and as you move up, time progresses and the mood rises with it. The top floors are uplifting, inspiring, and hopeful.
What to See and Do
If your kids can handle it based on my recommendations above, these exhibitions below ground level detailing the story of slavery, the struggle for human rights, and the road to freedom and equality are important to see. A range of displays, artifacts, multimedia and interactive components, and large installations make up this area. There is a lot to read and see, and it can be tedious to cover all of it. On my own, I viewed quite a bit, but not nearly everything. With the kids, we casually strolled through it all — Owen (11) was extremely interested and stopped to read a lot, while it took the larger, interactive parts to capture Sasha’s (8) attention. I made sure to avoid an exhibit about Emmitt Till, the only one I thought would be too much even for Owen.
A few stand-outs:
– A gallery with fragments from an 18th century slave ship
– The 19th century Point of Pine slave cabin dismantled in South Carolina and reconstructed in the museum
– Woolworth’s Lunch Counter, where visitors can sit at a counter with touchscreen displays that ask what they would do in different civil rights tested situations
– The Share Your Story booth that welcomes guests to talk about their own experiences on video and view the stories of others
– Displays featuring pieces from 60’s protests to Obama’s campaign materials
Explore More! Interactives
Most ages can enjoy this area on the second floor, where you can get hands (and feet!) on with a variety of interactive installations. The Step Afrika demo area is like Just Dance but with actual members of the stomping dance group leading in a video of step moves that you copy. There is a touch screen wall that details items in the museum collection as you tap on images. Kids can sit in a 1940’s Buick and choose safe options for a trip South. Other interactive table tops let them explore even more.
Sports: Leveling the Playing Field
One of the most exciting exhibitions in the museum, this area celebrates the achievements and contributions of African Americans in the sporting world. Every professional sport is represented with a bronze statue of a famous athlete along with compelling videos with commentary from players, coaches, and journalists. Photos and displays highlighting big moments and iconic athletes are also interesting and fun to view. And one of the most striking pieces of all is a statue of the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute. It’s on view as you walk into the sports area and such a powerful piece in the exhibition.
This exhibition showcases African American musicians and the influence of their music in our culture. It’s lively, joyful, and fun! See Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac, Public Enemy’s boombox, Sammy Davis Jr.’s tap shoes, old concert posters, videos of great musicians performing in iconic settings, the Mothership! The whole area is a trove of nostalgia, and my kids were great sports for indulging my ramblings about seeing Prince in concert during high school, P-Funk on New Year’s Eve in college, and how Michael Jackson lighting up the sidewalk in the Billy Jean video was special effects genius. The exhibit has hands-on opportunities, too. There’s a station where you can play producer and mix music on a touch screen sound board. And don’t miss browsing in the record store, where you can flip through album covers (there’s such a distinct feeling of satisfaction to it!) and listen to songs on a digital music table.
Sweet Home Café
I haven’t had a chance to eat in the museum’s restaurant, but I’ve heard good things about it. The menu includes both traditional and more contemporary cuisines of African American people. Dishes are made mostly from scratch and with locally sourced ingredients.
* There are many more exhibits to see within the Community and Culture galleries on the upper levels that highlight significant places, people, and African American contributions to the arts, television, and film. See them all if you can (i.e., your kids stay interested and you have time), but if not, the suggestions above will likely be most appealing to your kids.
How to See It
Touring with children might take some strategy, so knowing what is appropriate for them individually is important. If your kids can and want to tour the entire museum, I recommend starting at the bottom and working your way up to get the experience of seeing history unfold. However, if areas are crowded, and it’s easier to jump around, that wouldn’t take away from your visit at all. With young children, head straight upstairs to the sports, culture, and interactive areas. And if you want to see the lower levels, but don’t want to bring little ones with you, try to visit the museum with another adult, and you can switch off hanging with kiddos upstairs and touring on your own downstairs.
I have to make note, too, of the beautiful architecture and design. The intricate lattice metal on the outside of the building is meant to recall the ironwork crafted by slaves in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere. Take time to view it both from the outside and indoors. And as you stroll through the vast space, catch views of the Washington Monument and other attractions on the National Mall from deliberately placed windows.
The Museum is open daily from 10am – 5:30pm. Admission is free, but by timed entry passes. Up to four (4) same-day timed entry passes are available online everyday starting at 6:30am until they run out. A limited number of walk-up passes are also available beginning at 1pm on weekdays. The Museum is located at 1400 Constitution Avenue, NW. The closest Metro stops are Smithsonian and Federal Triangle on the Blue/Orange. [2021 Update: Currently the museum is open Wednesday – Sunday 11am – 4pm. Free, timed-entry passes are released throughout each day, beginning at 8am for time slots 30 days out. ]
Solving “Dinosaur Mysteries” in one of the most popular exhibits
Even with all the wonderful, free museums and other offerings for kids right in our backyards here in DC, it’s nice to have a change of scenery — and activity — now and then. We usually find it just 45 minutes away in Baltimore, where there are several places to experience play, learning, culture, and more, much of it in environments created especially for children.
In-your-face models of dino skeletons
One of those places is the Maryland Science Center, located right on the Inner Harbor. And while I’ve previously covered it on the blog, I’ve never given it a proper general overview. There’s really nothing like it here in DC — on such a large scale, anyway. MSC presents various topics of science through an array of exhibits, just about all of them hands-on and appealing to young visitors. It’s not a museum with collections of artifacts and tangible history; rather, there are models, demos, and interactive displays that encourage learning through engagement. (For the record, I believe both have great value, they just offer different experiences.)
“The Body” covers everything from germs to stress reactions to poop.
A close look at the Maryland blue crab (yum)
Dinosaurs, the earth, physics, the body, energy, and space are some of the main areas on exhibit. There is also a Kids Room full of all kinds of hands-on fun for children in a safe enclosed space, including a special area for the under-2 set.
Playing in Newton’s Alley
Wild winds in the hurricane simulator
So many ways to learn through play
IMAX movies, planetarium shows, and activities offered by museum staff round out the offerings. You can easily spend an entire day exploring and playing and not even see/do everything. But that just gives you good reason to go back!
In the Kids Room: Little doctors get an inside look
Digital interactives for all ages
Face to face with fish
The Maryland Science Center is open Tuesday through Friday 10am – 5pm, Saturday 10am – 6pm, and Sunday 11am – 5pm. Hours change in the spring, so be sure to check the schedule. Admission is $25.95/adult, $19.95/ages 3-12, free for 2 and under. If you think you’d go often, membership is worth checking out.
A few things to note:
– Elements Cafe offers lunch and snacks — hotdogs, sandwiches, salads. Prices aren’t terrible, but after paying relatively steep admission (we’re so used to everything being free), you might want to save a few bucks and BYO. [Note: Food service is not offered right now due to Covid, so definitely BYO.]
– The Science Center validates parking at nearby garages. Street parking is also available, but it’s a two-hour limit in most areas, and chances are you’ll be there longer than that.
– The MSC can get very crowded, especially on weekends and holidays off from school, so be prepared.
– IMAX movies and a few activities, like the hurricane simulator, cost extra. Credit cards accepted.