It’s practically a rite of passage for kids in New York City to make treks to the American Museum of Natural History. There’s a reason Night at the Museum, which was set there, was so popular (it even inspired a regular sleepover event). The place has nearly everything a child could want: dinosaur bones, giant whales, space exploration, strange-looking animals, and more. It’s impossible to see everything in one visit, so the best advice is to check out their website and/or download the app, and plan your trip ahead of time.

Where to go: If you only have time for one exhibit, head straight to the fourth floor and see the dinosaurs. From the giant T-rex and Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus) bones to the Mastodon skeleton in the hall of extinct mammals, nothing beats the awe at seeing the remains of these massive monsters that once walked the earth.  Also high popular, and highly recommended is the Hall of Ocean Life on the first floor, whose many dioramas of marine life are literally overshadowed by the overwhelming life-sized model of a blue whale. To get there, you have to get through the hall of biodiversity, which shouldn’t be hurried through itself: creatures of every imaginable size and shape are arranged according to their genus and family. But by no means are those the only things worth seeing. From the dioramas in the Hall of North-American mammals, to the moon rocks in the Hall of Meteorites it’s hard to find an installation that isn’t worth seeing.

And while the permanent installations are worth repeated visits, the special exhibits, which cost extra and often fill-up early, are more than worth planning your day around. Tickets sell fast, so show up early if you want to get in. A good strategy is to sign up for only one or two, and spend the intervening time looking at the rest of the museum.

Regardless of age, one of the best exhibits for kids is the Butterfly Conservatory. Sign up for a time slot and enter into a tropical room filled with hundreds of colored wings. Guides are only too happy to tell inquisitive children about the various species and their markings, but even the littlest ones will delight in watching the butterflies dance and flap around. If they’re lucky (and gentle) enough, one may even land on a finger or arm.

Your budding astronaut will love Journey to the Stars, the planetarium’s current show, which uses stunning photos from the Hubble Space telescope to describe what we’ve learned about our galaxy and the universe. It’s a stirring experience, and one that your child will likely continue to talk about long afterwards. Fortunately, the museum has a children’s website has hours of activities (including photos, quizzes, games, and videos) on all the exhibits, especially for kids to explore at home.

When to go: Because the museum is a hot spot for field trips, it can be, and often is busy all day long through the week. And because it’s also big with tourists, weekends can be hairy as well. The least-busy times are weekends before noon, but it’s best to just prepare for crowds. There are often lines for the overcrowded elevators, so avoid strollers if you can, and take the stairs. If you plan to eat in one of the cafes or food courts, try to go before eleven or after three, when the lunch rush is over. And though it’s counterintuitive, it can often help to go on a bright, beautiful day, when the nice weather is likely to draw more people to nearby Central Park. Overcast or rainy days often mean more crowded museums. If your child is interested in the sleepover, you’ll want to plan early — the event runs only a few times during the year, and dates fill up predictably quickly. Your best bet is to sign up for email notification for when dates become available. Directions on how are at the website.

When you arrive: There are entrances both from the street and directly from the 81st street stop on the B/C subway line. The street entrance has a bag/coat check which is worth taking advantage of. Admission is suggested only, and you’re welcome to pay less, though the lines are often long, and special exhibits have separate prices. You can skip the wait by buying tickets (for full price) online.

Where to eat: Inside the museum there’s a very popular food court on the lower level, across from the subway entrance with an extensive menu, and there are several smaller cafés around the museum. The first floor has the Café on One with slightly more adult-oriented fare, and the Starlight Café, right next to the planetarium, with a mix of adult and kid-friendly eats. The Café on Four, on the fourth floor, also has a basic soup and sandwich menu.  If you leave the museum, you’ll find a ton of places to eat on both Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, including the hugely popular Shake Shack on Columbus at 77th, and the very good, kid-friendly Ditch Plains on Columbus at 82nd.

Hours: 10:00 am – 6:00 pm daily, closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Admission:  $19 adult, $10.50 children 2 – 12. Under 2 Free. Pricing is suggested only. Additional pricing for all special exhibits, see website for details.

American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street

—Christopher Michel

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons