The 12 Best Children’s Museums My Family Has Visited and Loved

published Jul 19, 2023
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Exterior of the Museum of Life and Science. Large dinosaur sculpture surrounded by lots of trees
Credit: Museum of Life and Science

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My family travels a lot, and wherever we go I do the usual research: , places to eat, and the best children’s museums. (Okay, I’ll be honest, “the best children’s museum nearby” is usually my first Google search.) It turns out, the United States is absolutely packed with museums for kids that are educational and entertaining, and I want to focus particularly on how much fun you can have when you visit any one of the best kids’ museums in the country.

While I love sharing big experiences with my kids — from Disney adventures to New York City shows — many children’s museums have just as many thrilling moments to offer as more pricey destinations. Here are the 12 best kids’ museums I have personally visited and why I think you should visit, too! 

Why Do You Need Children’s Museum Reviews? 

Children’s museums are some of the best destinations for budget-friendly fun, but they can fall to the wayside behind more well-known destinations. If you’re not a local or don’t do your own research, it can be hard to know what a museum’s core exhibits will offer — perhaps because they simply lack Disney-level marketing budgets.

My experience is often something like this: I’ll show up to a new-to-us museum crossing my fingers that we can eke out a couple hours of enjoyment, and then find an absolute freaking delight of a water play area (Montshire in Vermont), a misty hobbit village (Durham’s mostly outdoor museum), or magically artistic exhibits that the adults (let alone the kids) couldn’t peel away from (Pittsburgh). 

So let me be the one to brag on what we loved the most about each of these museums. 

How I Chose These Museums 

These are all museums I have personally visited with my children over the past five years, before and after the pandemic hit. During the height of COVID, we still visited some of these, especially the outdoor-focused ones, which felt like even greater treasures in that season. 

What Ages Are These Museums Good For? 

My children ranged in age over those years from infant to (now) 7 years old. So these museum reviews focus on their appeal to younger children (1 to 7). However, I’ve noted where I hope to go back and places that I think would be great for older kids. 

A Very Important Tip About Kids’ Museums Entrance Fees

Before I jump into these reviews, let me tell you a little secret about kids’ museums. Many — if not most! — of them have reciprocal memberships, which means they share membership in one or two national organizations. If that’s the case, they’ll offer admission to members in the same org. You can usually use reciprocity to gain free or half-price entry to a museum in the same network while traveling. 

You can check museum reciprocal memberships here and see the full lists of participating locations.

12 Kids’ Museums My Family Loves (Plus a Bonus!) 

I’ve loosely grouped these into three major regions. You’ll probably notice a recurring theme: We gravitate toward museums with really unique and special water play areas. 


Credit: Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus

Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus, Denver, Colorado 

My daughter (who is 7 at the time of writing), visited this museum five years ago and somehow still remembers and talks about it. The fun starts as soon as you walk up to this museum — there is a small entrance door sized for children, and my daughter was obsessed. Denver’s museum is chock-a-block with interesting exhibits, surprises, and exciting moments for young kids. Some stand-outs are as follows: 

  • The wind room where you can build and fly paper airplanes and hero capes in a wind tunnel 
  • An interactive fire truck 
  • A very cool climbing tower experience called Altitude 

This is top of our list to return to soon, as they have since opened Joy Park, an extensive outdoor space with “dueling zip lines” and a water play area. 

Credit: Bay Area Discovery Museum

Bay Area Discovery Museum, San Francisco, California 

The Bay Area is one of my favorite places to visit with kids — there are so many great parks and fun ways to entertain small ones (the ferries! The bridges!). The Bay Area Discovery Museum is a really special place on the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a sprawling complex of buildings and paths that weave their way down to the water. It’s specifically focused on children ages 0 to 8, and you should expect them to get dirty and wet! There are treehouses, a “beach” area, water play, and other hands-on experiences. Come here on a sunny day, and it’s just the best of the Bay with kids. 

Credit: Faith Durand

The Exploratorium, San Francisco, California 

This classic, funky, experiential museum in downtown San Francisco is good for all ages; I would happily spend a day here sans kids. But my toddler loved running around an exhibit of wind-up sculptures and automatons. My older child went hands-on in the smoke tunnel, with the magnet boards, and every other thing she could get her fingers on. Everything is touchable in a long building full of windows that look out on the Bay. It’s a must visit, with or without kids. 


Credit: Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Back east I have to begin with what might be my most-loved children’s museum of all time: Pittsburgh’s Children’s Museum. Unlike many kids’ museums, this one focuses more on art than on science and technology. There’s a colorful outdoor garden, a huge art lab, a makespace with craft supplies galore, and topsy-turvy house exploration spaces. Upstairs there is a gentle but interactive space for small babies. There are little touches of Pittsburgh native Fred Rogers, too: You’ll find his shoes sitting under a bench, and I might have teared up a bit when I rounded a corner and found myself face to face with his classic puppets. 

One of the biggest highlights is the dramatic water play space on the top floor. I suppose it would be possible to splash in the waterfalls in play clothes, but you’d be better off bringing your kid a suit and a change of clothes. A massive treasure in the depths of winter – come here and !  

Bonus: They recently opened MuseumLab, a space for older children and teens. 

Credit: Please Touch Museum

Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum is a gem of Philly. It’s in a huge and beautiful building and receives quite a crowd of visitors at peak times. We were a little overwhelmed by the crowds, and if I went back I would look for an off-peak time. But my children absolutely loved many of the features here — especially the carousel preserved at one end of the building, and the River Adventures exhibit where they played in a pint-sized river. 

Credit: Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York

The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, New York

The National Museum of Play is a mind-bogglingly huge museum. In fact, it almost seemed too big — very spread out between exhibits, and some exhibits felt a little dark and like they’ve seen better days. But it’s worth a visit for kids of many ages, especially for the kid-sized Wegman’s grocery store (be still my heart!), the Skyline Climb area over the atrium, the indoor train and carousel, and — I’m burying the lede here — The World Video Game Hall of Fame. Play classic video games from Space Invaders to The Last of Us in a huge room dedicated to gaming. It’s also home to the National Toy Hall of Fame, which will give you grown-ups nostalgia for days. 

Credit: Oliver Parini

Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont 

This museum was a bit of a gamble: My husband had a conference in the area, and I needed something to do with two small kids. The indoor museum is on the small side, with nature-focused exhibits. Where it really shines is outdoors. There is a spectacular garden and water area that would put many water parks to shame. The Rill is the heart of the area, where children can play in a long elevated stream with catching and releasing water. Sun-soaked water steps provide a place for the kids to play and get very wet (again, a bathing suit is recommended in warmer weather!). I could not peel my kids away from this place, and it was literally one of my favorite outdoor excursions I’ve ever had with my children. 

Credit: Museum of Life and Science

The Museum of Life and Science, Durham, North Carolina 

Speaking of outdoors (catching a theme here?), this Durham museum is another massive favorite. Durham puts many amusement parks to shame for sheer entertainment value. It features the following attractions: 

  • Treehouses — big ones 
  • Trains you can ride 
  • Forest hammocks big enough for the whole family 
  • Mist garden with hobbit-style houses 
  • Geologically focused sand and water area with waterfalls — this area is huge 

My kids could spend an entire day in the water area alone, building dams and moving sand. There’s also a wildlife area with bears, wolves, and other North Carolina animals. It’s worth a trek, too: We drove six hours to North Carolina over Christmas break for a one-night mini break just to explore this museum. 


Credit: Cincinnati Museum Center

The Children’s Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio 

This museum is housed in a renovated historic Art Deco train station, Union Terminal (no nondescript buildings here!). The impressive building houses multiple museums, which makes this children’s museum a unique experience — and one with many opportunities for older kids. The building had just reopened when we visited, and the crowds were frankly crushing. I’m looking forward to going back on a lower-volume day to explore The Woods, a unique indoor exploration area that emphasizes adventure in nature, as well as the other museums like Museum of Natural History & Science with its Cave area and Dinosaur Hall. 

Credit: Hattie Kotz

Children’s Museum Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio 

This lovely little museum is definitely geared for younger children. Housed in a large old mansion near downtown Cleveland, it really shines in its water play room, which is laid out low to the ground and with features that make it easy for even the littlest toddlers to explore. There is also a play stage area with costumes and lighting boards kids can adjust. There’s a really wonderful climbing room with stairs and nets, and a LEGO-building space upstairs. We have visited here many times, especially with kids aged 0 to 3, and we’ve always loved it. 

Credit: Children's Museum, Indianapolis

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, Indiana 

The Indianapolis museum rivals Rochester’s for size, but it does not share reciprocity with other museums. Even so, it is absolutely stacked with things to do, including a permanent outdoor sports complex. This is definitely a museum we need to visit again now that our kids are older. When they were little, they especially enjoyed the small kids’ playroom, the funhouse mirrors, the steam engine, and the carousel.

Credit: Courtesy of COSI

COSI (Center of Science and Industry), Columbus, Ohio 

I saved my hometown museum for last! COSI is a downtown centerpiece of Columbus and an always-entertaining place to visit. Fulfilling our need for must-have water experiences, COSI has a very unusual and beautiful ocean area at one end of the building with rushing waterfalls and a Poseidon theme. It’s very dramatic and beautiful. There are also pretty incredible dinosaur exhibits and a recreation of an 1898 town. There is also a brand-new outdoor playground and easy parking below the building. 

The other beauty of COSI is you can spend a morning there, then walk along the Scioto River (the building sits right on the river), cross a bridge, and visit downtown park Columbus Commons and a downtown gem like Parable Coffee. 

Credit: Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

BONUS PICK! Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Columbus, Ohio 

I’ll sneak in one bonus pick, which is not exactly a children’s museum, but is also in my hometown. The Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has a not-so-secret treasure for families with kids: the outdoor Children’s Garden. This is a wonderland, especially for younger children. There are garden play areas, climbing areas with nests, a play house, outdoor instruments, and more — all in an incredibly beautiful landscaped garden that will relax the adults too. 

The heart of it all, though, is a large water area that is landscaped to look like Ohio’s famous sandstone cliffs and waterfalls. It’s the most unique and delightful children’s water play area I’ve been to (well, tied perhaps with Montshire). It’s also surrounded by trees and beautiful landscaping that makes it a welcome oasis in the heat of summer. 

Museums I Haven’t Visited Yet (but Want To!) 

Now, before you ask, “Why wasn’t my favorite children’s museum included?” please know that I haven’t been everywhere I want to go! There are a few children’s museums that we have on our bucket list, including the following: 

Museums My Kids Visited (but I Didn’t So I Can’t Tell You About It) 

Last but not least, here are two museums my kids visited with a family member and loved. But I didn’t actually visit with them, so I can’t give you firsthand experience.