Part of my travel journey is sharing the love of travel with my daughter. I believe that travel helps educate us so we can learn about other cultures and viewpoints, even within your own country or town. I learned this from my own mother so when the opportunity for the three of us to visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) together came up it was something I couldn’t pass up.
If you haven’t heard of NMAAHC, it is part of the Smithsonian Museum system in Washington, D.C. Opened in 2016 after many years of planning, it was the 19th museum in the system. Washington, D.C. is one of my favorite places to visit because a majority of the museums and monuments are free for everyone to visit and paid for through the United State tax system. The catch is that you have to plan in advance to get your tickets, especially to NMAAHC.
For the first year and a half that the museum was open, there was a waitlist for tickets. Whenever tickets would come available online they would immediately be allocated. It was the hottest ticket in town! My mom was one of the original set of donors so she received a special invitation for tickets. And the time period was right around her birthday so we decided to meet up for a generational celebration.
I live in Florida and my mom lives in New York. What’s the least expensive was to get to D.C. from either location? Amtrak of course! While some people aren’t fans of the train system in the United States, I think it’s functional for my needs. You are allowed to bring your own food on board, which is a cost saver. And I like to see the landscape pass me by while I’m reading or relaxing. There are many times I choose to fly but when I want to go somewhere fairly close by and I can get a direct train, I’ll often take Amtrak.
(If you haven’t ridden Amtrak there are a few do’s and don’ts you might want to learn about first. It will definitely make your ride more enjoyable.)
My daughter and I caught the train from the Tampa station, which has free parking (always a plus!) and took it into Alexandria, VA. Our train left around 5:30pm and got into Alexandria in the early afternoon the next day. We are able to sleep in our seats so didn’t choose to get a sleeper compartment. Alexandria is a beautiful old town and was part of the original 13 American colonies. It was the perfect place to stay since Amtrak has a station there, there are plenty of hotels (that are less expensive hotels in D.C.) and it’s easy to hop on the D.C. Metro transit system from there.
Visiting The Museum
The day after we arrived we headed over to the NMAAHC first thing after breakfast. We had heard there was a line to enter when the museum opened. This was true so be sure to arrive so you can enter when the doors open. Also be sure you have a ticket; the museum issues tickets in a variety of ways included timed entrances. There were some people in line with us who purchased their tickets online through 3rd party venues. I wouldn’t recommend doing this. The tickets are free to everyone online, even non-citizens, and purchasing one opens you up to receiving a fake ticket.
To be honest with you there is no true way for me to describe to you what it is like to experience the NMAAHC. It’s breathtaking, inspirational, heart breaking and joyous all at the same time. The museum is set up on 5 different levels. The intent is to start at the bottom, which begins in the 1400’s, and work your way up to the top of the museum that house the cultural galleries. We decided to go backwards and start from top to bottom because the line to get to the basement was so long. I can now see the benefits of starting at the bottom though because the top level which houses the musical section was so exciting and the bottom level was depressing to me.
That said, every single level was educational and although I have a minor in African-American studies, I learned so much more than I was previously aware of. The African American experience is so varied and so much a part of the history of the United States of America that it would be hard for anyone not to take something away from visiting.
Half way through our visit we got hungry so we went to the Sweet Home Cafe which is located on the main level. The cafe is set up in regions such as the Creole Coast, The Western Range and The North States. Each region has foods that are typically enjoyed by African Americans who grew up in those areas. While the food isn’t inexpensive there, I highly recommend everyone who visits the museum has lunch at Sweet Home Cafe. The food is exceptional and food is such an intrical part of the African American experience that eating there is a must do while at the museum.
Another great thing about the museum – there was such a wide selection of ethnic cultures and nationalities visiting. We heard a variety of languages being spoken around us so it’s wonderful that visitors from other countries are finding the museum such a great experience.
Visiting NMAAHC With Children
I’ve had people ask me if the NMAAHC is appropriate for children. I think it depends on the child. My daughter was 9 when we visited. She said her favorite thing about the museum was learning about the Green Book, which is a book that African American travelers used during segregation so they knew where they were allowed to use the bathroom or get gasoline. There were also games oriented towards children including one that taught them about stepping. However there are several things that might not be appropriate for children including Emmett Till’s original casket, which was exhumed years later for a retrial of the men who murdered him. That was located in a completely separate room with appropriate warnings. We choose to skip that section but for some children it might be appropriate for them to see the aftermath of what happened to someone close to their age due to discrimination and racism. It’s up to each parent to decide that on their own.
I highly recommend that everyone who has the opportunity visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture. As I said before, the African American experience is truly the American experience. While everything in the museum isn’t easy to handle, that is what history is – taking the good with the bad. If you visit be sure to plan to spend all day there. We never made it to see every exhibit and I’ve heard it can take two or three visits to see it all. I can’t wait to return and learn even more!