Whales, minerals and dinosaurs. Planets, forests, mammals and butterflies.
The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is a hub for all things human science: biology, ecology, zoology, geology, astronomy and anthropology. Spanning many city blocks on the Upper West Side of New York City, with four floors, 42 permanent exhibits, a planetarium and an IMAX theater, approximately five millions visitors explore this behemoth of a museum each year.
Many people go as so far as to say that the American Museum of Natural History is their favorite museum in New York City.
For better or worse, I am not one of them.
Maybe it is the fact that I have never been intrigued by science. Maybe it is that my teachers always encouraged my writing and linguistic endeavors but never my math or science abilities. Maybe it is that the dark halls and exhibits make me tired compared to the bright an airy exhibit spaces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art just across Central Park. Whatever the reason, if I had a free afternoon in New York City, I would happily visit The Met , MOMA or the Guggenheim over the American Museum of Natural History.
So why visit the American Museum of Natural History if I am not “science-y”?
As a mom to a tween who lives and breathes science, I know that my museum preferences take a back seat during family travel. Even more than that, I know all too well the importance of STEM learning and experiences for girls. I am always in favor of museum visits and hands-on experiences to cultivate her interests and passions, nurture her abilities and expose her to topics and places despite my own interests. Plus…let me be clear…an afternoon at one of the best museums in New York City is never bad, even if it is not focused around your favorite topic.
As a mom and former teacher, I also believe that children are partners when it comes to many things, especially travel. So when we started to prepare for a museum weekend in New York City, I tasked my tween with researching the museums we planned to visit to create an itinerary for each museum based on her own exhibit preferences. The only parameters that I set for our trip to the American Museum of Natural History were that we only had a half day and whatever we did needed to include a visit to the Discovery Room.
How to plan for a day at the American Museum of Natural History with kids
Before you step foot into the American Museum of Natural History you need to have done some research. To say the museum is massive is an understatement. The exhibits and floors can feel like a maze if you have not gotten your bearings. My daughter used the AMNH website to plan our visit, studying the exhibits and exploring the museum’s science website for kids to prioritize a list of exhibits she wanted to see.
The Discovery Room
Knowing that interactive and hands-on learning can extend the impact of a museum experience, our first stop at the museum was at the Discovery Room to try to get tickets for a timed entry. This popular space is free to enter, but has limited capacity, so visitors need timed tickets to explore the “behind the scenes” look at science.
The Discovery Room is divided into two areas, one for younger children and one for older. Children and their families can explore artifacts and specimens, puzzles and scientific challenges. For science loving children, a trip to the Discovery Room might be one of the best aspects of a trip to the American Museum of Natural History. (Holding a daddy longlegs was definitely one of the highlights of the day!)
Use the Museum Map
Even though we had studied the museum map, we found ourselves circling through the same exhibits to get to where we wanted to go. (We walked through the exhibit on the Northwest Coast Indians and Hall of North American Mammals more times that I can count.)
During our half day at the American Museum of Natural History we explored:
- The Milstein Hall of Ocean Life
- The Discovery Room
- The Hall of North American Forests
- The Guggenheim Hall of Minerals
- The Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems
- The Hayden Big Ban Theater
- The Helibrium Cosmic Pathway
My daughter loved the idea of walking through time (13 billions years) on the Cosmic Pathway.
As a nine year old, she was interested more in the idea than the accompanying facts that told the story of how life and earth has changed over time (though she did a good shop trying to listen to her aero-space engineer parent who lives and breathes all things space).
With only a half-day, it impossible to see everything in the American Museum of Natural History. During a longer visit, we would have made time for a show at the Hayden Planetarium.
Our last exhibits of the afternoon were the halls of gems and minerals. Admittedly, we were all tired. I might have even been cranky (we had left the Washington DC area early that morning by train and by late in the afternoon, my energy waned).
There is something about gems and minerals though…that re-awakens the senses.
After having visited the American Museum of Natural History with kids (ok, only one kid, unless you count my husband), I can see why many people name this as their favorite NYC museum for kids (or without). Even though it may not be filled with the typical things that capture my heart, like Impressionist paintings, it is hard not to be won over by the in-depth exhibits that bring the mysteries of science to life.
Tips and resources for your visit to the American Museum of Natural History
- Make sure to have breakfast or lunch before your time at the museum. We enjoyed brunch at Isabella’s (359 Columbus Ave at 77th St) which is located across the street from the museum. There is also a Shake Shack (366 Columbus Ave) and Le Pain Quotidien (50 W 72nd Street) nearby.
- Check your coats at the coat check in the museum so that you do not have to lug them around all day.
- Use the self-service electronic kiosks to buy your tickets instead of waiting in the (long) “regular” ticket line.
- Although we walked to the museum (located at 79th Street and Central Park West ), it is also accessible my subway (the B or C lines).
- Download the free AMNH Explorer App to your iPhone to learn about exhibits and get turn by turn directions inside the museum.
- Wondering where to stay during your trip to New York City? See why a stay at the Four Seasons Hotel New York is good for the entire family.
Heading to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with kids? Explore our one day itinerary at The Met.