Visiting the National Archives was one of the highlights of my family's Washington D.C. trip last summer. We were there on Independence Day and figured that there was no better way to celebrate our nation's independence than by showing our kids the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The National Archives is within a short walk of many of Washington D.C.'s most popular attractions, including favorite Smithsonian Museums, the National Mall, U.S. Capitol Building and all the monuments. No matter which day you visit, it's right in the middle of all the D.C. action.
Here are my top tips for visiting the National Archives Museum with kids.
Avoid a wait
Admission to the National Archives is FREE, but entry lines can be an hour long during peak season. Peak season in Washington D.C. is roughly March through July. If you are planning to visit on a busy day, the museum “highly” recommends reserving a timed entry or guided tour ticket online before the day of your visit. Reserved tickets cost $1.50 per person. Learn more about this option HERE.
We visited on the 4th of July, and if there is a busier day than that, I'm not sure what it would be. We did have advance reservations early in the day. Our line was much shorter than the standby line, but we still waited 20-30 minutes before we were able to enter the museum.
Members of the U.S. Armed Forces and accompanying family members may use the Special Events entrance, where there will likely be no line. Plan to wear your uniform or present valid military identification.
Plan for security
Like many Washington D.C. museums, the National Archives Museum requires an airport-style screening as you enter the building. Plan accordingly.
Charters of Freedom
For most visitors, the highlights of the National Archives Museum are the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, which are on display together along with other important documents upon which the United States was founded.
You cannot take photos in the National Archives Museum, and the photo I'm using from the National Archives website looks nothing like my experience on the 4th of July.
Due to the large volume of visitors, we had to wait outside the rotunda for a few minutes until some of the crowd ahead of us had gone. Every display case was surrounded by people jostling each other for a good view.
Though crowds were a challenge, it was still an amazing experience to stand in front of the Declaration of Independence on Independence Day. It still gives me chills.
Give yourself at least another hour after you visit the Charters of Freedom to visit the other museum galleries. The National Archives collection is massive, and rotating exhibits focus on different interesting slices of American history. The galleries are new and high tech, with interactive features. They were busy, but not nearly as crowded as the Charters of Freedom.
The David M. Rubenstein Gallery features a permanent exhibit on civil rights throughout the nation's history. One can't miss feature is an original copy of the 1297 Magna Carta. If you know much about history, you know that this is just as big a deal as the Declaration of Independence.
Independence Day events
The National Archives hosts a number of special events throughout the day on July 4th. When we were there, they included live music on the front steps, a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence by actors dressed as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abigail Adams and others and a short speech by the National Archivist. Following these presentations, you may want to keep your seats on the steps because they are a great spot for watching the Independence Day parade.
Inside the museum, there were fun activities for families in addition to the regular exhibits.
I do recommend arriving early for these events. We arrived about an hour in advance and easily found a spot near the bottom of the steps. The steps were very crowded by the time the reading and speech began.
Watch National Treasure before you go
If you have school age children, watching the movie National Treasure before your trip is a fun way to prepare for a visit to the National Archives. In the movie, Nicholas Cage steals the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives to protect it from bad guys. We borrowed the movie from our local library, but it is also available and inexpensive on Amazon.com.
Good to Know
Where: Constitution Ave. NW [between 7th & 9th St.] in downtown Washington D.C. The National Archives is across the street from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of American History and the National Mall.
When: The museum is open from 10 AM – 5:30 PM, seven days a week.
How Much: FREE! There is no charge to visit the National Archives Museum. There is a charge of $1.50 per ticket if you decide to reserve your tickets in advance.
How Long: 1-2 hours
Amenities: cafe, gift shop, restrooms, theater
How else can I help?
Need a place to stay? We stayed at Hotel Harrington, which is just a couple of blocks from the National Archives Museum. The location and price were great, but it's a little run down. Click the button to learn more about this and other downtown hotels at TripAdvisor.
How to get there: I recommend using Metro, Uber/Lyft/taxi, or walking to visit the National Archives Museum. It's the Archives/Navy stop on the Yellow or Green Metro line.
In general, I do not recommend renting a car in Washington D.C. If you do have a car, the National Archives is in a central location, so find a parking space where you can stay all day. The National Mall and several of the most popular Smithsonian museums are just across the street.
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