Part I: The Top 20 Best-of-the-Best Military Destinations in America
It Begins with The First Step and Only Gets Better
The Smithsonian Air & Space in Washington, D.C., sits on top of every list of the most popular and most visited museums in the nation. They have more airplanes, more exhibits and more displays than any other in their field — and they cover the full width and breadth of their specialty, including military aviation. That puts them on top of our list, too, but they are closely followed by several other excellent “national” museums and specialized destinations that drill down into their subject areas with more depth and nuance than a museum as vast as the Smithsonian could ever hope to. Between the two – destinations that range far and wide and destinations that go deep – you have countless opportunities to spend more than a few weekends in the full richness of the finest military destinations in America. But, if time is an issue, here’s a short list — our annual Top 20 Best-Of-The-Best.
- Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Washington, DC
If it set a record or established an aviation milestone, it’s probably on display at the Smithsonian. Think of the Wright Flyer, the Bell X-1 and the first jet aircraft to take off and land on an aircraft carrier. That’s what makes the Smithsonian a must-visit military destination. But that’s not the only thing. Here you’ll find plenty of everything — military aircraft, drones, helicopters, missiles, rockets, and history.
- The National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, VA.
Battles. Hardware. People. Few places bring history to life like the National Museum of the Marne Corps. All the battles, and all of the specialties – air, sea and land – are to be found here in this newly renovated destination. Plus they have some of the most realistic combat landscapes and dioramas. anywhere.
- National World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, Mo.
The story of WWI, and the memory of the soldiers who fought the Great War, are honored here in Kansas City. You enter this incredibly beautiful destination by walking across a glass pedway that arcs over 9,000 red poppies, each representing 1,000 deaths during the war. A powerful start to a powerful museum.
- National World War II Museum, New Orleans, LA.
Owing to the many years of tireless work by the determined scholar and author Stephen Ambrose, the National World War II Museum has become story telling of the highest order. A campus with multiple pavilions, this destination will keep you fascinated for the better part of a weekend.
- National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH
This sprawling mecca of aviation covers military flight like no other. For starters, there are some 300 plus aircraft on display covering every American conflict that used any sort of air asset. Like the Smithsonian Air & Space, the types and models of aircraft and space vehicles span the entire history of flight – but here the story is 100% military.
- The National Museum of the Pacific War, Fredericksburg, Texas.
What on Earth is a museum dedicated to the war in the Pacific Ocean doing in a dusty, land locked town miles from the nearest seas? As it happens, Fredericksburg, Texas is the birthplace of U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, our World War II Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet. Nimitz rose through the ranks to command some two million sailors and five thousand ships all with one distinct mission: defeat Japan. Three “campuses” make up this excellent destination.
- Airborne & Special Operations Museum, Fayetteville, North Carolina.
The soaring façade tells you something special is inside and this museum doesn’t fail to deliver. Here you will journey through an action-packed, highly realistic portrait of the dangerous missions our special forces have been asked to undertake — from that first parachute jump in 1940, to today.
- National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Fla
An F-14 pointing skyward tells you’ve arrived at the National Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Pensacola. In a nutshell, this is the history of naval aviation in all its afterburning glory beginning with those first takeoffs and landings on makeshift aircraft carriers, all the way up to rockets blasting Navy astronauts into space.
- USS Alabama Battleship and Memorial Park, Mobile, AL
Spread across a campus the size of a small college is an impressive and well-maintained assortment of military aircraft, tanks, helicopters (the Coast Guard chopper is easy to spot), a submarine (the USS Drum), and a landside building packed with military artifacts large and small – plus, of course, the queen of the palace, the great battleship USS Alabama.
- National Infantry Museum, Columbus, GA .
This i one of the most alive, vibrant, and interesting military destinations in America. Using beautifully designed and utterly realistic landscapes, the curators of this museum have recreated some of the most famous battle scenes in American history complete with the sights, sounds and confusion of war. A $100 million masterpiece.
- Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, New York, NY
What does a theater on Broadway have that compares to an 872-foot long, 27,000-ton aircraft carrier jammed with combat jets, high technology missiles, agile helicopters, a space shuttle and the supersonic Concorde? The star of Broadway is the Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum, or so we like to think.
- Pima Air & Space, Tucson, AZ
Sunshine rains down on this part of Arizona bringing vividly to life the exquisite colors and shapes of the more than 300 air and space vehicles displayed at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Pima, Arizona. In just one day you can experience the width and breadth of our aerospace history including a visit to an ICBM missile silo and a tour of the nearby United States Air Force boneyards.
- Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum, Everett, WA
This marvelous collection of mint-condition warbirds and combat vehicles is worth a visit by any measure but to see a MiG-29 puts it over the top. Founded by Microsoft billionaire Paul G. Allen, the Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum has an extensive collection of warbirds and armor all meticulously restored and in perfect working order.
- Museum of Aviation, Robins AFB, GA (near Macon, Ga)
Visitors who discover the Museum of Aviation scratch their heads and wonder how something like this could have been here so long without them knowing about it. Well, they’re not alone. Wear comfortable shoes. The Museum of Aviation consists of a four large hangers with indoor and outdoor displays spread out across 51 acres with more than 85 military airplanes, cockpits, missiles, helicopters.
- Pearl Harbor
Hawaii is a special military center-of-gravity, particularly when you realize that there are four important Pearl Harbor sites all within a few miles of each other. Start at the Arizona Memorial (the Valor in the National Monument) then visit The Battleship Missouri Memorial, the Bowfin Submarine Museum, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Each destination has a special message, a special meaning – and taken together they are the full story of Pearl Harbor.
- Air Zoo, Portage, MI
From the moment you walk into this celebration of flight your senses will be pleasantly overwhelmed by the large scale panoramas, beautifully painted warbirds, space capsules, and exquisite dioramas. Enjoy a collection of 50 aircraft, most of them warbirds. And what’s the name? Well, when your airplanes are called Bearcats, Tomcats, Hellcats, Tigers, and Cougars, you have… a zoo.
- The Wright Museum of WWII, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
Yes, they have the heavy stuff here — tanks and jeeps and APCs and rifles and even a mocked-up barracks — but what makes this a must-see destination are the dioramas of Main Street USA. Mom and pop’s living room. A soda fountain. Bond drives. Voted the Best 20th Century History Museum in New England, the Wright Museum differs from other military museums in one fascinating regard – rather than a museum about WWII per se, it is a museum about the home front and how Main Street USA was affected by WWII. This is a seamless tip back to the 1940s.
- Palm Springs Air Museum, Palm Springs, CA
The 59 aircraft on display at the handsome Palm Springs Air Museum are beautifully restored and ready for your visit — and visit you must. In addition to the spectacular buildings and well-staged displays, on open cockpit days you don’t just look into a warbird, you get inside the plane and sit in the pilot’s seat. The warbirds here span generations of military flight. Oh, and they offer warbird rides too.
- The National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum, Ft. Pierce, FL.
The National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum is all about United States Navy’s special forces and the incredible missions they’ve undertaken since the first WWII frogman donned breathing apparatus. What makes a visit here so interesting is this — everything on display was actually used during training or on a mission, including combat; there are no replicas.
- US Army Heritage and Education Center (US Army Heritage Trail), Carlisle, PA
Many of our favorite destinations went to great lengths to build immersive, interactive, digitally enhanced exhibits. Not so here. The Army Heritage Center took a different route. Here you will be immersed in a physical world. We’re talking about a long, wonderfully designed one-mile walk through full-size, American battlescapes on the US Army Heritage Trail. Walk down into a WWI trench. Step inside a WWII barrack and see the old cots. Touch the split rail fence at Antietam. And more.
Part II: And The Rest (By State)
U.S. Army Aviation Museum, Fort Rucker, Ala.
Southern Museum of Flight, Birmingham, AL
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Nike Missile Site, Summit, AK
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, AZ
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Pinal Airpark, Marana, AZ
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Titan Missile Museum, Sahuarita, Arizona
USS Midway Museum, San Diego, CA
San Diego Air and Space Museum, San Diego, CA
Castle Air Museum, Sacramento, CA
Air Force Flight Test Center Museum, Edwards Air Force Base, CA
Blackbird Air Park, Palmdale, CA and Joe Davies Heritage Air Park, Plant 42, Palmdale, CA
Pacific Battleship Center, USS Iowa, San Pedro, CA
Pacific Coast Air Museum, Santa Rosa, CA
USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum, Alameda, CA
U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Port Hueneme, CA
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Nike Air Defense Missile Site SF-88L, Sausalito, CA
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Military Ghost Ships. The Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, Suisan Bay, CA.
The Best Military Base Tours: Fort Irwin, Fort Irwin, California (near Barstow)
The Best Military Base Tours: Vandenberg AFB, Lompoc, California.
The Best Military Base Tours: Travis AFB, Travis AFB CA
The March Field Museum, Riverside, CA
Peterson Air & Space Museum, Colorado Springs, CO
The Submarine Force Library and Museum, Groton, CT
Air Mobility Command Museum, Dover, DE.
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Abandoned Fire Control Towers, Rehoboth Beach, DE/Delaware Seashore State Park, DE/Cape Henlopen, DE
Arlington National Cemetery and Memorial, Washington, DC
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Nike Site HM-69, Homestead-Miami, FL
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Battery 234, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Pickens, FL
The Best Military Base Tours: MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, FL.
National Civil War Naval Museum, Columbus, GA
National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, Pooler, GA (Savannah)
The 10 Best Military Experiences: Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, Hampton, GA.
First Division Museum at Cantigny Park, Wheaton, IL
Russell Military Museum, Zion, IL
The 10 Best Military Experiences: PT-305, Lake Pontchartrain, LA
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Fort Foster, Kittery Point, ME
The Patuxent River Naval Air Museum, Patuxent River, MD
USS Constitution Museum, Charlestown, MA
Battleship Cove America’s Fleet Museum, Fall River, MA
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Nahant Fire Control Towers, Nahant, MA.
Minnesota Military Museum, Camp Ripley, Little Falls, MN
Mississippi Armed Forces Museum, Camp Shelby, MS
Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum and Air Park, Great Falls, MT
Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum, Ashland, NE
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Nevada National Security Site (aka The Nevada Test Site), Las Vegas, NV
Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial, Camden, New Jersey
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Nike Air Defense Missile Battery NY-56, Sandy Hook, NJ (Gateway National Recreation Area, NY/NJ)
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Fire Control Tower 23, Cape May Point State Park, NJ
Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos, NM
New Mexico Museum of Space History, Alamogordo, NM
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Trinity Site, Socomo County, NM
West Point Museum, U.S. Military Academy, NY
Cradle of Aviation Museum, Garden City, NY
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Brooklyn Army Terminal, Brooklyn, NY
Carolinas Aviation Museum, Charlotte, NC
The 10 Best Military Base Tours: Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Goldsboro, NC.
The 10 Best Military Base Tours : Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, Cherry Point, NC
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site, Cooperstown, ND.
Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum, Fort Sill, OK U.S. Army Field Artillery Museum, Fort Sill, OK
Stafford Air & Space Museum, Weatherford, OK
Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, McMinnville, OR
The Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia, PA.
Patriots Point, Mt. Pleasant, SC
South Dakota Air & Space Museum, Rapid City, SD
The Formerly Secret: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, Philip, SD
The Best Military Base Tours: Ellsworth Air Force Base, Rapid City, SD.
Lone Star Flight Museum, Houston, TX
USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, Corpus Christi, TX
The 10 Best Military Experiences: Ox Hunting Ranch/Drivetanks.com, Uvalde, TX
The 10 Best Military Experiences: Wings of Freedom/Collings Foundation, Stowe, MA/Houston, TX
Hill Aerospace Museum, Ogden, UT.
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Historic Wendover Airfield, Wendover, UT.
National Maritime Center Nauticus Featuring Battleship Wisconsin
And The Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Norfolk, VA
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Military Ghost Ships. James River Reserve Fleet, Fort Huger, VA:
The 10 Best Military Base Tours: Naval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Va.
U.S. Naval Undersea Museum, Keyport, WA.
Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA.
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Fort Casey’s Gun Batteries, Whidbey Island, WA
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: Military Ghost Ships. The Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility. Bremerton, Washington.
The Best Formerly Secret Military Sites: The Greenbrier Bunker, White Sulphur Springs, WVA.
The 10 Best Military Base Tours: Fort McCoy, Fort McCoy, WI