Picking the best natural history museums is tricky.
After all, there are about 120 museums in the country that collects the most comprehensive collections of fossils, prehistoric animals, minerals, geology, taxidermy, and anthropological artifacts.
8 Best Natural History Museums in the US
If you just have time to visit the biggest and the finest exhibits, these 8 museums would be a good starting point to pick from.
- Location: 10th Street & Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20560
- What makes this museum special: Mega-toothed shark, Hope Diamond, the centerpiece African Bush elephant, and over 146 million unique items.
- Visitor Info: Admission is free (tickets not required), Open daily from 10AM to 5:30PM (even during holidays except on Dec.25)
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is the world’s most visited natural museum in the world. And it’s not just because the museum is free – its collection is one of the best you’ll find around the world.
The museum welcomes you with a bang. Henry, the African Bush Elephant you see above is showcased prominently in the Rotunda perfectly bordered by intricate pillars and archways.
Also around the first floor are:
- Hall of Mammals – be in awe in all kinds of mammals (even those so rare you won’t see them anywhere else)
- Hall of Human Origins – deep-dive into our ancestors and human evolution
- Hall of Fossils – from T-rex and Triceratops dinosaur bones to mammoths and hundreds of fossils from past reptiles, insects, and even plants
Another notable item at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is a lot smaller than these dinosaurs. I’m talking about the stunning blue Hope Diamond, a “cursed” 45-carat diamond that’s been with the museum since 1958.
If you visit, don’t miss the stunning Butterfly Pavilion, the museum’s unique insect zoo and the interesting world of ancient Egypt (both located on the second floor).
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History also hosts temporary exhibits throughout the year. The subject changes for each exhibit, but one thing they have in common is – you won’t find something as educational and unique elsewhere.
- Location: 200 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024
- What makes this museum special: it is the largest natural history museum in the world with 5 active research divisions, the largest meteorite, and biggest collection of Earth/space-related artifacts in the world
- Visitor Info: Museum members get free admission to both the halls and temporary exhibits but pay annual fees. NY, NJ and CT residents “pay-what-you-want.” Non-residents tickets range from $16 (kids 3-12yo) to $28 (adults). Non-resident students and seniors pay a discounted fee of $22, but you need your ID for proof.
- Open daily from 10am to 5:30PM except on Thanksgiving and Christmas days. Check here for up-to-date museum hours.
Many people visit this museum in recent times, thanks to the popularity of the “Night at the Museum” films. Yup, this is the location for many scenes of Ben Stiller’s fantasy-comedy movie.
But this isn’t the reason why I included this place on my best natural history museums list.
The American Museum of Natural History is actually the largest natural history museum in the world.
It definitely doesn’t disappoint – starting with the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life and its 94-foot long life-sized model of a blue whale; and the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs where you can see a 122-foot Titanosaur skeleton, Barosaurus and Allosaurus skeletons, and even a Woolly Mammoth.
The American Museum of Natural History also has the world’s most comprehensive specimens of the planet’s natural history with over 30 million items displayed and preserved at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Love space? Don’t miss the Hayden Planetarium when you visit.
The five-floor American Museum of Natural History is also home to its own library and 45 permanent exhibition halls (on top of the temporary ones like the the annual Butterfly Conservatory).
I love the Easter Island stone statues, the Space Show (this might cost extra) and 5 research divisions (sometimes they open their doors to the public and show what some of the 200+ scientists are currently working on).
- Location: 900 Exposition Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90007
- What makes this museum special: Dinosaur collection and the museum’s live excavations at La Brea Tar Pits
- Visitor Info: Open daily from 9:30 am to 5pm
- Non-members pay between $7 (kids 3 to 12yo) and $18 (adults), while students and seniors with ID pay $14, then kids below 2 go in free. Check the museum’s “free days.”
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is the largest natural history museum of western United States with over 35 million artifacts and items with some dating as far back as 4.5 billion years.
Some highlights of this museum include:
- Skeletons of a pregnant Plesiosaur and her unborn baby
- The Gold Rush exhibit (this has the largest gold collection in the country)
- The largest discovered Ammonite on Earth
- The La Brea Tar Pits (you’ll have to take a 15-minute drive to reach this paleontological site where fossils of saber-toothed cats, mammoths, dire wolves and hundreds of others where discovered).
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County also has an indoor and outdoor garden, the famous tattoo exhibition that showcases 5,000 years evolution of the art of tattoos.
Aside from the awesome La Brea Tar Pits, you can also watch scientists display very rare, extremely old fossils in front of you.
Check for guided tours if you have extra funds – I think it’s worth every penny, especially if you’re visiting as a family with kids.
- Location: 1400 S Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, Illinois 60605
- What makes this museum special: Sue the T. Rex and other 40 million artifacts
- Visitor Info: Museum is open daily 9am–5pm (last entry at 4pm).
- General admission (without special exhibits) range from $18 to $30, depending on whether you’re a resident of Illinois, Chicago, or out-of-state. Additional discounts for seniors, students, and others are available.
The Field Museum, which is located on the Chicago lakefront, has been around since 1893 but was later renamed for major donor and department-store mogul Marshall Field.
The biggest crowd-magnet of this museum is Sue – a magnificent Tyrannosaurus Rex and the world’s largest and most complete T-Rex remains ever found.
If you’re visiting The Field Museum with dinosaur-obsessed kids, the Evolving Planet exhibit will surely take them to a spectacular journey through 4 billion years of life on Earth.
Aside from Sue, you can also see prehistoric species like mammoths and mastodons, a massive collection of oddities and artifacts from ancient Egypt, and an impressive collection of rare jewels, minerals and gemstones at the Grainger Hall of Gems.
The Field Museum also features interactive and education programs that invite visitors to join in-house scientists in exploring the wonders of the natural world.
- Location: 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213
- What makes this museum special:
- Visitor Info: Open daily from 10AM to 5PM.
- Kids 2 and under go in free. Admissions range from $15 (children 18 and below and students with ID) to $20 for adults. Tickets are discounted on weekdays after 3PM.
Established in 1895, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History became a premiere stop when scientists unearthed the fossils of Diplodocus Carnegie in 1899.
This discovery resulted in the museum’s permanent Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibit, which features the world’s largest collection of Jurassic dinosaurs and the country’s third largest collection of mounted displayed dinosaurs.
Since then, Carnegie Museum of Natural History has expanded and now has over 22 million items across 20+ exhibits such as:
- Hall of North American Wildlife
- Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems
- Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt (check out the mummies and artifacts)
- Benedum Hall of Geology
- Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians
Aside from the memorable dinosaurs at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I love the Hall of Minerals and Gems with thousands of specimens in various colors, sizes, and shapes that come from all corners of the world.
Carnegie Museum also has educational programs, summer camps, and even online tours for kids and grown-ups alike.
- Location: 26 Oxford St, Cambridge, MA 02138
- What makes this museum special: one of the largest open amethyst gemstone in the world
- Visitor Info: Open daily from 9AM to 5PM, except most holidays (check here for up-to-date hours)
- Entrance is free for members and non-member kids 3 years old and below. General admission for non-members range from $10 (students and kids 18 and below) to $13 (seniors) and $15 (adults).
The Harvard Museum of Natural History is the youngest museum on this list. It opened its doors only in 1998, but it remains a special place not only for Harvard students, but also throughout the scientific community.
Aside from treasures found in the earth, from the mammal specimens, dinosaurs, and fossils, this museum also houses the work of Harvard scientists they’ve created throughout the years.
A good example of this is the Glass Flowers exhibit, where the gorgeous intricately done glass flowers and sea creatures made by father-and-son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka are proudly displayed.
Of course, you won’t miss the 42-foot-long Kronosaurus skeleton at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
My favorite is The David Rockefeller Beetle Collection (about 150,000 of them), which he began collecting when Rockefeller was 7 years old.
- Location: 2001 Colorado Blvd, Denver, CO 80205
- What makes this museum special: T-Rex and planetarium
- Visitor Info: Open every day from 9AM to 5PM, except on December 25.
- Ticket prices for non-members range from $14.95 (kids 3-18 years old) to $20 (adults).
- Kids (2yo and below) and members can always visit free. There are also free days/nights available here.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is smaller, but it definitely deserves being include in my best natural history museums list. Here’s why: every item from the museum’s 1million+ objects on display here add to the science education of those in the Rocky Mountain region.
Among its permanent exhibits are “Egyptian Mummies,” “Expedition: Dinosaur” and “Prehistoric Journey” that displays impressive specimens, coffins, fossils and other objects that give us better insights of prehistoric life.
Denver Museum of Nature and Science also has a unique “Expedition Health” exhibit where visitors are able to learn the human body, wellness, and extreme sports at a deeper level.
As a favorite field trip destination, the museum also hosts summer camps, bug events, IMAX films, and other educational programs in various natural science topics.
- Location: 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103
- What makes this museum special:
- Visitor Info: Open daily from 10AM to 4:30PM, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
- Members and children under age 2 are free to enter. Kids 3 to 12 ($23), students/military/seniors with ID ($24), and adults aged 13 years old and above ($27). Buy tickets online and save $2 per ticket.
Founded in 1812, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is the oldest natural science institution in America.
The museum continues to study the life on Earth, present and past (along with their extinction), and all specimens (about 18 million and counting) that the museum has collected so far.
My favorite exhibit at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is found at the Dinosaur Hall. It’s the fossil of Hadrosaurus foulkii – the first dinosaur discovered in America, which is pretty amazing.
Other fascinating exhibits are the Butterflies! garden, Dioramas and Habitats, and Invertebrate Paleontology.
If you’re visiting with kids, I’m sure they’d love the Big Dig, where visitors can become a paleontologist for a day and excavate fossils with scientists.
Loved these 8 Best Natural History Museums on my List?
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