Road Trips: “Free” Science Museums


Are you looking for new places to visit that won’t break the bank? Do you have a COSI membership? (If not, get one! Seriously.) With our family membership, we have managed to visit several science museums this past year for FREE. When taking a road trip, I always look up the reciprocal museums in that area or along the driving route. Tip: If you need a stopping point or a bathroom break on a road trip, consider visiting a free museum and let the kids blow off some steam! Note: Always check with the museum beforehand about reciprocity benefits. Here are a few science museums that are worth the trip:

Great Lakes Science Center

  • Location: downtown Cleveland, Ohio 
  • Driving time from Columbus: two hours

free science museums

Museum Highlights:

  • Enjoy a stroll along Lake Erie and catch a sweeping view of the Cleveland skyline!
  • Design a new hat or a pair of shoes with duct tape and fabric at the Cleveland Creates Zone exhibit.
  • View the actual Apollo Capsule Skylab 3 and other space-themed exhibits at the NASA Glenn Visitor Center. Take a picture in an astronaut suit!
  • Younger kids will love jumping in the huge ball pit as well as loading and dumping balls on a conveyor belt in the Polymer Funhouse area.  There is also an outdoor water play area that is open seasonally with more great views of the city.
  • Check out the events and programs page for fun daily shows and experiments. My kids were amazed with an experiment involving eggs being dropped from two stories! Luckily, no one recreated that one at home!
  • For an additional cost, watch a show at the Dome Theater or visit the massive William G. Mather Steamship. The steamship is docked adjacent to the science center and is opened seasonally starting in May.
  • Nearby: Many Cleveland attractions are within walking distance including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Goodtime III, and the Cleveland Browns stadium. Be sure to pose for a picture at the Cleveland sign!
  • Parking: There is a fee for parking in the attached parking garage.

Imagination Station

  • Location: downtown Toledo, Ohio 
  • Driving time from Columbus: two and a half hours


science museums

Museum Highlights:

  • Make your own whirlpool or experience a powerful hurricane in the Water Works area.
  • Sit on a real tractor, and explore farming techniques in the Grow U exhibit.
  • Younger children will enjoy their own gated Little Kidspace. My kids loved playing in the tree house as well as floating boats on the water table.
  • Older kids can try the human yo-yo or high-wire unicycle.
  • Watch the balls roll, fall, and turn in the impressive, full-scale “marble run” in the lobby.
  • Test your balance by exploring the tilted gravity room in the Mind Zone area.
  • Experience a virtual roller coaster ride.
  • Nearby: Take a stroll along the Toledo riverfront. Also, the Toledo Museum of Art is just a short drive away and has an amazing collection. Bonus: It is also free!
  • Parking: Parking is available in nearby city parking garages for a fee.

Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum

  • Location: downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan (my apologies to all the Buckeye fans) 
  • Driving time from Columbus: three hours

free science museums

Museum Highlights:

  • Brush a pair of gigantic teeth with an equally gigantic toothbrush in the Explore Your World exhibit!
  • In the Water Gallery area, get soaked by rerouting water with PVC pipes as well as “fishing” for plastic fish.
  • Create a huge fortress with foam building blocks. There are hundreds of blocks available to build in a large, open space.
  • Form an actual bubble around yourself in the World Around You exhibit.
  • Preschoolers will love the assembly line of plastic balls moving around as well as climbing on the fire truck in the Preschool gallery!
  • Nearby: There are many dining options in walking distance to the museum. A local friend recommends Kilwin’s for some delicious chocolates and ice cream.
  • Parking: Park in one of the nearby city parking garages for a fee.

Science Central

  • Location: Fort Wayne, Indiana. 
  • Driving time from Columbus: three hours

free science museums

Museum Highlights:

  • Why take the elevator when you can take the giant slide down to the first floor? Seriously, this slide is something out of a kid’s dream house! Note: There is a minimum height requirement to go down the slide.
  • Take pictures with the colorful elephant statues in the parking lot and front entrance.
  • View the huge mastodon skeleton that was discovered right in this local area.
  • There is a small kids area including a play structure as well as a water table and a giant floor piano.
  • Check out the suspended globe that lights up in the Science on a Sphere exhibit. I am not sure how our family missed this one since it is a major exhibit! Next trip!
  • Enjoy the cool architecture since the museum was converted from an old city light and power plant.
  • Nearby: We used this museum as our pit stop on a road trip to western Michigan. It worked out perfectly as the museum is much smaller than COSI. In just one hour, we saw most of the museum (except for that neat globe!) Though we were just passing through, Fort Wayne is sizable city and worthy of some exploration.
  • Parking: There is plenty of free parking in a surface lot adjacent to the building.

My “Free” Science Museums Bucket List:

50% Off Admission With Your COSI Membership:

What science museums have you visited? Let us know!