12 OF THE BEST MILITARY MUSEUMS FOR HISTORY BUFFS
By Jamie Rogers
IntroductionMuseums — well, good museums — are more than just places to see dusty objects in glass cases. They transport you to a period of time, immersing you in both the extraordinary and everyday lives of real people in the past. Perhaps you’re yearning to revisit your military branch’s roots. Maybe you’re scanning for attractions that won’t break the bank with kids in tow. Or perhaps you’re seeking “military museums near me” that are easy to get to with limited time. Whether you’re planning a local road trip or flying coast-to-coast as travel and tourism open more freely this summer, make one — or more! — of our picks of the 12 best military museums in the U.S. part of your journey.
12 of the Best Military Museums for History BuffsThere’s no better way to experience life in the military throughout history than by visiting some of the amazing military museums in our nation. From historical sites that focus on colonial times to institutes that explore the bounds of space, the variety of military museums in the U.S. is as vast and diverse as our nation. Be sure to click on the links below for information about operating hours, current exhibits, available military discounts and more to make your museum visits easier.
Note:Due to continuing concerns about COVID-19, some museums may still have health protocols, such as face masks indoors, social distancing, increased sanitation and timed entrances. In rare cases, some museums may not be open at all. As conditions change, be sure to visit each museum’s website for up-to-date policies.
Phone:1 (202) 633-1000 Let’s kick off this list with the big daddy of U.S. museums: The Smithsonian Institution. Known as the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, the Smithsonian is home to a staggering array of military items, including ordnance, firearms and swords, uniforms and insignia, national and military flags and banners, and many other objects. It might take you a lifetime to visit the institute’s 19 world-class museums, galleries, gardens and a zoo. At least you won’t lose many pennies in the process. Admission to all Smithsonian museums in Washington is always free.
Phone:1 (504) 528-1944 Founded in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum, this museum complex spotlights the American experience in WWII — why it was fought, how it was won and what it means today. Immersive exhibits, highlighting the roles of world leaders and everyday men and women, include Road to Tokyo, Road to Berlin and The Arsenal of Democracy. You can stand beside ground-level tanks and trucks or brave sky-high catwalks for closer looks at WWII airplanes at the US Freedom Pavilion. Don’t miss the epic film “Beyond All Boundaries,” narrated by Tom Hanks and shown in the museum’s one-of-a-kind panoramic theater with special effects. Two dining spots on-site can help fortify your dive back into the past. Find a variety of ticket options online.
Note:Admission is free through Sept. 6, 2021, for those currently serving in the U.S. military.
Phone:1 (717) 334-1124 Experience the somber and immeasurable significance of this site of the largest number of casualties in the U.S. Civil War. Often described as the turning point of the war, the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg is respectfully remembered through the park’s visitor center, educational events and ongoing land conservation. Check out this video for a virtual preview of the grounds and the nearby Gettysburg National Cemetery. The battlefield is free to visit, but there are fees for the park’s museum, film and cyclorama painting. At the national park you can use an America the Beautiful Military Pass, granting free admission to current U.S. military members and their dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Space Force; as well as Reserve and National Guard members; U.S. military veterans; and Gold Star Family members. Find a location to purchase the military pass here.
Suggested Read:Veteran and Military National Park Passes & Where You Can Go for Free
Phone:1 (800) 506-2672 Located right outside Washington, D.C., at Fort Belvoir, this incredible new museum just held its opening ceremony on Veterans Day 2020! Its mission is to present 245 years of Army history, honoring our nation’s soldiers — past, present and future — in the regular Army, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard. Highlights include exhibits such as Preserving the Nation, focusing on the Civil War; Army & Society, detailing the Army’s role in developing our national character and key technologies; the Medal of Honor Experience; and much more. At the time of this writing, admission is free but requires timed tickets. Be among the first to experience this facility this year!
Phone:1 (937) 255-3286 Slip the surly bonds of basic museums as you effortlessly fly through this incredible collection of exhibits. Located near Dayton, Ohio, this facility at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world, with more than 360 aircraft and missiles on display. Exhibit areas include galleries dedicated to the branch’s early years, World War II, Korea and onward and upward to space. Admission to the museum is free; there is a charge for the Air Force Museum Theatre and flight simulators. Find more details online about planning your visit or taking a virtual tour.
Phone:1 (877) 653-1775 A treasure of more than 240 years of Marine Corps history is reflected in this architectural gem, designed to evoke the image of the flag raisers at Iwo Jima. Located near Marine Corps Base Quantico, this 120,000-square-foot structure features world-class, interactive exhibits such as the Legacy Walk, an introduction to boot camp, a combat art gallery and much more. A final phase of historical galleries, set to open in 2025, will include a continuation of the existing Legacy Walk, featuring the time periods from 1976 to 9/11, 9/11 as a standalone exhibit and 9/12 to present, plus homages to the home front and the Corps’ future. Admission is free.
Phone:1 (850) 453-2389 Located on Naval Air Station Pensacola, this museum is home to tens of thousands of items and millions of documents which span the entire spectrum of Naval aviation history. Exhibits and attractions include historic aircraft, a giant-screen theater, flight simulators, the Blue Angels 4D Experience, children’s play area and an immersive virtual flight deck. Admission is free. Check the museum’s website for additional educational opportunities, such as field trips and summer camps.
Note:To visit this museum, the Department of the Navy requires a valid Department of Defense ID card for any visitors to access NAS Pensacola. DOD ID card holders are allowed to escort up to 15 guests (limited to two vehicles) onto NAS Pensacola and to visit the museum.
Phone:1 (816) 888-8100 The United States’ official museum dedicated to World War I, this complex’s mission is remembering, interpreting and understanding the Great War and its enduring effect on the global community. The museum’s main gallery showcases a Renault FT-17 tank, a series of life-size war trenches with period-accurate objects and sounds, and the Paul Sunderland Bridge, a glass walkway over a symbolic field of poppies. Current exhibits include discussions about why museums collect what they do and how the roles of women during WWI affected women’s fashion. Last but not least, the museum’s lush green grounds and impressive, 217-foot tall Liberty Tower are perfect for relaxing, outdoor concerts and spectacular city views. Learn about admission prices and upcoming events online.
Phone:1 (877) 957-7447 The Big Apple boasts Broadway, the Brooklyn Bridge and one of the best military museums in the nation! This incredible, educational complex begins with aircraft carrier USS Intrepid and features the submarine USS Growler, a British Airways Concorde, the Space Shuttle Enterprise AND MORE! From its extensive aircraft collection to its flight simulators to the interactive Exploreum Hall, there’s something to delight every taste and age. Check out the museum’s current exhibits online, including a sa-weet tribute called “Navy Cakes: A Slice of History.” You can find ticket prices and discounts and other details online.
Phone:1 (619) 544-9600 Closer to the West Coast? Feel like a Top Gun atop the flight deck of this historic air craft carrier, now a permanent museum. Museum docents, often retired military, bring to life more than 60 exhibits, from the extraordinary Navy aircraft to the daily details of work, chow and more below deck. You can even try your hand at the controls of a flight simulator on board. Find admission rates and discounts online. Make it a full day of nautical adventures at the separate San Diego Maritime Museum — featuring a Soviet B-39 Submarine, PCF 816 Swift Boat and the historic Star of India — just steps away along the beautiful San Diego waterfront.
Phone:1 (706) 685-5800 Get a feel for walking a mile in “grunt” boots as you peruse this museum that features more than 70,000 artifacts from the past 240 years of American military history. Exhibits and interactive displays include an armory and cavalry gallery, the Ranger Hall of Honor, an outdoor World War II company street and more. The museum’s signature experience is The Last 100 Yards exhibit, a gently sloped ramp of life-sized dioramas depicting significant battles in the Infantry’s history, including Yorktown, Antietam, Soissons, Normandy, Corregidor, Soam-Ni, LZ X-Ray and Iraq. There is no cost to enter the museum, but a $5 donation is suggested. Separate charges apply to experience the Giant Screen Theater, combat simulators and Fife and Drum Restaurant.
12. Navy Seal Museum3300 N. Hwy. A1A North Hutchinson Island Fort Pierce, FL 34949
Phone:1 (772) 595-5845 The only museum in the world solely dedicated to preserving the history of Naval Special Warfare, the Navy SEAL Museum honors the service of Frogmen from World War II to the present day. Onsite exhibits feature special operations craft, unique weaponry, a tribute to warfare K9s and the Navy Seal Memorial. Check the schedule for special events such as The Seal Experience, wild game dinners and the annual Muster and Music festival. You can visit the museum’s website for admission rates, discounts and more information.
Bonus 13. The National Coast Guard Museum78 Howard St., Suite A New London, CT 06320
Phone:1 (860) 443-4200 Put this baker’s dozen bonus listing on the back burner of your brain because, well, it hasn’t been built yet. But when it’s fully realized — the project is still at the donation stage — the National Coast Guard Museum will be a state-of-the-art experience on Connecticut’s waterfront, featuring more than 200 exhibits telling the stories of USCG heroes. A simulated Coast Guard qualification test and a STEM center for learning are also on deck for the museum. Check with the museum’s website periodically to see how it’s progressing.
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ConclusionMilitary museums are a perfect portal for stepping into the past, learning how it shaped our present and imagining the future we will create. For both young and old, these historic preservations help us remember how far we’ve come and the sacrifices that led to our current successes.
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