ADVERTISEMENT

I make a pretty ugly Neanderthal.

We're at Hall of Human Origins, the newest exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (www.gosmithsonian.com/museums/national-museum-of-natural-history), now celebrating its centennial year. (It's the most visited of the 19 Smithsonian museums -- and the most visted science museum in the world -- with 7.4 million visitors last year.) It's easy to see why. Even kids who profess to "hate science" can't help but love this 21st century museum.

Where else can you hold a hissing cockroach, hang onto a "shooting star" (a 4.5 billion year old meteorite), use real bones to solve a mystery CSI-style or, as I did, see what you'd look like as an early human (humanorigins.si.edu) and then e-mail the picture to yourself? There's even a new phone app for this aspect of the exhibit called MEanderthal.

The National Museum of Natural History (www.mnh.si.edu) boasts more than 126 million objects in its collection, though less than 1 percent is on display at any one time. There's everything from an ancient Neanderthal bone that you can touch to a fossil shark jaw, as well as the famous T. Rex and the glittering blue Hope Diamond.

Kids and their parents marveled at the gigantic T. Rex (he could swallow the equivalent of 1,000 Quarter-Pounders whole in one gulp!) and the Giant Squid -- nearly the length of a school bus. They stared from below at Phoenix -- the life-sized model of a living North Atlantic right whale, one of the largest animals that ever lived, last seen off the coast of New Hampshire.

Kids fingered the "evidence" in the Forensic Anthropology Lab, got up close to the bugs in the Insect Zoo and met their tallest relatives -- the giraffe -- in the Family Hall of Mammals. They also posed for pictures in the Rotunda next to the famous and enormous African elephant, which incidentally is the earth's largest living land animal.

In honor of the museum's centennial, there are photos throughout the museum to give you an idea of what it would have been like to visit "then," as opposed to now, and even let you put yourselves in those old pictures.

Summer, of course, is the time when many families brave the heat and flock to Washington, D.C. Consider taking the train -- we opted for Amtrak's Acela (www.amtrak.com) -- you won't need or want your car, and kids travel for half price on Amtrak.

And opt for a hotel that has a pool. There are plenty of deals with rates starting at $99/night. We chose the centrally located Fairmont Washington, D.C., which touts a new Family Adventure Package that includes the room, breakfast for two adults and two children and a copy of "City Walks with Kids, Washington, D.C.," to help visitors navigate the city. Rates start at $229 per night. Kids will love the indoor pool and the pool toys.

A visit to a Smithsonian museum, including the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the National Postal Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, along with the National Zoo, the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History is on every family's to-do list. The museums are free and typically are open until 7:30 p.m. during the summer.

But where do you start when there is so much to see and do! Where are the bathrooms? Bill Watson, chief of On Site Learning at the Natural History Museum, recommends taking a virtual tour before you visit. (Good advice for touring any major museum.) Make sure everyone is well-rested, well-fed and wearing comfortable shoes.

Ask the kids questions as you go along. Decide if you want to focus on a particular area -- the Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, for example, where you can look into a crystal, or the Sant Ocean Hall with its living coral reef, the "Written in Bone" exhibit where you learn what bones tell us about how people in the past lived and died. Stop at the activity carts manned by museum volunteers or at the museum touch screens. Take a free tour -- there are special ones of Human Origins and the Ocean Hall. And leave when the kids have had enough. Like Disney World, it's impossible to see it all in one visit.

"Every family does it differently," says Watson. "One of the things that is so great, is there is something for everyone, and experiences you couldn't have anywhere else."