The world’s best aviation museums capture the achievements and products of the pilots, designers and engineers who got us from those rickety first flights to space travel and people clipping their toenails next to us in seat 17B.
1. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (Washington, D.C.)
It’s the sheer number of aircraft and artifacts that make this Washington, D.C., museum beloved by both the aviation-obsessed and the marginally curious.
“It’s a museum that seems to have life and soul and I would challenge anyone with an inquiring mind, whether aviation enthusiast or not, not to find something here that engages and interests them,” says aviation author and researcher Andy Saunders.
Eight million people every year visit the 60,000 exhibits and a public archive of more than 1.75 million photographs and 14,000 videos detailing aviation and space.
It has the world’s first airplane, the “Wright Flyer” that made its debut flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, front and center in an exhibit dedicated to the onset of the aerial age.
Then there’s the Apollo 11 Command Module, “Columbia,” which brought Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins home after the world’s first moon walk — it was the only part of the spacecraft that made it back to Earth.
The museum’s companion facility, the Udvar-Hazy Center, contains the Space Shuttle Discovery and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber “Enola Gay,” the aircraft that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II.
2. Imperial War Museum Duxford (Duxford, UK)
Once a British Royal Air Force station, the museum at Duxford is often mentioned in “best aviation museums” lists, and is particularly noteworthy for its world-leading collection of WWII planes.
“The thing that makes this place is, firstly, atmosphere; an original WWI and WWII military airfield that is now a living museum,” says aviation author and researcher Andy Saunders.
“The fact that Spitfires, Me 109s, B-17s and P-51 aircraft can regularly be seen flying here (and not just during air display days) makes this place the ultimate museum of its genre.”
3. National Museum of the United States Air Force (Ohio, United States)
The world’s biggest and oldest military aviation museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, is huge, but well ordered.
“Its sheer scale is extraordinary — it has about 17 acres of indoor display space, spread across several hangars and other buildings; and further outdoor display space for some of its larger aircraft,” says Michael Oakey, managing editor at The Aviation Historian.
4. Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour (Washington, United States)
If you want to design your own jet or sit in a simulator to experience a Battle of Iwo Jima dogfight, this is the place to go.
The main attraction is a tour of Boeing’s enormous assembly plant, housed inside a factory the size of Disneyland.
“The museum is unique because most exhibits are designed to be touched,” says director Sandy Ward.
“The most notable exhibits are a one-piece composite test barrel of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the largest airplane engine in the world, which is a GE 90 Boeing 777 engine.
6. State Aviation Museum of Ukraine (Kiev, Ukraine)
This museum houses one of the world’s biggest displays of aviation technology.
The museum is operated by Ukraine’s National Aviation University, which uses the site for training and education.
The majority of the aircraft are ones built by the Soviet Union and exhibits include supersonic bomber planes, transport planes and nuclear missile carriers.
One of the most impressive exhibits is the Tupolev-104.
7. Pima Air & Space Museum (Arizona, United States)
Pima Air & Space Museum is the largest non-government funded aviation museum in the United States.
Exhibits include the SR-71 Blackbird (the world’s fastest spy plane), a B-29 Superfortress and the world’s smallest biplane.
In one area, planes double as canvases for Brazilian graffiti artist Nunca.
One of the most popular attractions is the Boneyard, otherwise known as the place planes go to die.
The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (to give the area its correct name) covers 2,600 acres (or 1,430 soccer pitches) and contains the rusting hulks of 4,000 retired aircraft.
8. Polish Aviation Museum (Krakow, Poland)
Communist-era aircraft dominate here.
Everywhere you look outside the Krakow museum there’s a string of Soviet-era, Cold-War jets.
Inside you’ll find well-conserved displays of accompanying memorabilia.
The museum has a huge collection of aircraft.
“It houses a remarkable display of un-restored, pre-World War I aircraft still in the tattered state in which they were rediscovered in Poland at the end of World War II, having been spirited away from the great Deutsche Luftfahrtsammlung in Berlin to save them from Allied bombing,” says Michael Oakey, managing editor at The Aviation Historian.
9. China Aviation Museum (Beijing)
More than 200 aircraft are collected at China’s flagship aviation museum, including Chinese fighter jets, a replica of the “Wright Flyer” and the plane that was once Chairman Mao’s personal transport.
The setting is spectacular — part of the museum is housed within a cave that was originally part of the underground bunker system of China’s Shahe airbase.
“There are some truly extraordinary aircraft — ones you just cannot and do not see in the West,” says aviation expert Michael Blank.
10. Canada Aviation and Space Museum (Ottawa, Canada)
Home to more than 130 aircraft from around the world, highlights here include the nose section of an Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow (one of few remaining parts of the Canadian-built fighter jet) and a flight simulator.
In summer, visitors can take short flights in a 1939 Waco UPF-7 biplane.