Let me start by saying we’re not big museum people and typically avoid them when we travel. For us to be interested in visiting a museum it has to be something special, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences proved to be just that!
One thing we love about living in Raleigh and Wake County is that it’s not a big tourist destination like some bigger cities, and doesn’t have the big ticket tourist attractions. But if you’re looking for the top Raleigh attractions, especially for things to do for families in Raleigh, look no further than this museum!
In fact, Raleigh is well known for its quality and quantity of museums (many free), and has often been referred to as the “Smithsonian of the South”.
Located in the heart of downtown Raleigh, the NC Museum of Natural Science is the Southeast’s largest natural history museum and the most visited of the museums in North Carolina – and one of the USA’s most respected museums that explores the natural world. Out of all the Raleigh museums, we suggest you start here.
In the past, we were homeschooling our two and were always looking for interesting and more hands-on learning experiences for them, and considering this museum is ranked one of the best things to do in Downtown Raleigh we just had to go there, and who doesn’t love a FREE attraction (donations are appreciated).
With two buildings spanning two city blocks joined by a pedestrian bridge, there’s over 4 floors of exhibits in this natural science museum featuring live animals, dinosaur and whale skeletons, research centers, walk-through dioramas, microbes and meteorites, human anatomy, planets, 3D movies and much more.
If you love natural history and sciences, I’m sure you’ll find this Raleigh science museum fascinating like we did!
At time of publishing, it was back in the crazy year that was 2020 during a scaled back version on offer with some exhibits and rooms closed, so be sure to check their website for updated information!
You will need quality time here as there are TONS of cool things to see and learn about, whether you’re a family like us with young kids (aged 13 & 9), a college student and budding scientist, a group of friends, whoever, there’s something here for everyone!
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is one of the most popular things to do in Raleigh for several reasons: it’s free, has plentiful exhibits, accessible scientists, special events, real live animals – yep, you could say it’s like a mix of a museum and a zoo!
And what we loved is that the information plaques at each exhibit have interesting information but are short and quick to read – parents with kids with short attention spans, you know this helps!
The museum actually has four facilities on three campuses, but we visited the main campus downtown that contains the Nature Exploration Center and Nature Research Center that are connected by a breezeway.
Some of the highlights in each center are below.
NATURE EXPLORATION CENTER
The Nature Exploration Center (NEC) opened in 2000 as the newest home to a natural science collection that dates all the way back to 1879, here you can view exhibits from coastal to prehistoric North Carolina, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, from prehistoric beasts to amazing arthropods.
You can also visit the world’s most complete Acrocanthosaurus dinosaur, the “Terror of the South.”
Coastal North Carolina Overlook
Here you can get up close to a Blue Whale and one of the most impressive whale skeleton collections on display in the US including a rare True’s Beaked Whale and thier signature Sperm Whale named Trouble.
Coastal North Carolina
Here you can take a trip to the beach without leaving Raleigh. Includes exhibits of fish native to North Carolina’s coast and inland waterways, and the many habitats found on the coast, including barrier islands, saltmarshes, maritime forests, and dunes.
Mountains to the Sea
Wander through exhibits displaying North Carolina’s natural habitats from the western mountains, the central Piedmont and the Coastal Plain.
Explore life-like exhibits of trees and see fish and turtles.
Underground North Carolina
Who knew that that NC was home to the first gold rush in the US? And that North Carolina is the only state where all four major gemstones have been uncovered – emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds.
This room gets you up close and personal with natural science by touching fossils, feeling bird wings, smelling tropical scents, watching a beehive, and more.
Terror of the South
Here you can say hello to Acro, the Acrocanthosaurus — or, as they like to call him the Terror of the South. Learn how Acro hunted his gigantic sauropod prey, and how his septic bite could bring down even the mightiest foes.
Prehistoric North Carolina
This exhibit chronicles prehistoric life in the state and throughout the southeastern United States. Take a trip in a time machine (currently closed), see prehistoric predators, dive into prehistoric seas, meet their Giant Ground Sloth.
See plants and animals you know well, along with a few you may never have met before. Be alert for salamanders, spiders, owls, and all things that thrive in our mountain habitats.
Snakes of North Carolina
North Carolina boasts nearly 40 species of snakes, most of which are non-venomous and pose no threat to humans and are often beneficial, clearing our backyards of rodents and other pests. But if you’re scared of snakes, view them here behind the safety of glass.
See live and static exhibits of the insects, crustaceans, arachnids and other arthropods in North Carolina.
NATURE RESEARCH CENTER
The Nature Research Center (NRC) is an 80,000 sq ft, four-story wing across the street from the Nature Exploration Center that is connected by a breezeway.
The NRC provides hands-on activities and visitor-viewing of scientists working in the four research laboratories. The museum also makes use of distance learning to broadcast lessons and virtual field trips to classrooms around the state.
Living collections include fish, butterflies, reptiles and amphibians. This museum wing’s centerpiece is the SECU Daily Planet, a 70-foot-diameter globe with a three-story theater for live programming and movies on its giant screen.
Living Conservatory (butterfly room)
A recreation of a dry tropical forest with various live plants and animals, including butterflies fluttering overhead and a two-toed sloth.
SECU Daily Planet
One of North Carolina’s most iconic landmarks. On the outside, it’s a scaled-down replica of our planet. On the inside, this three-story theater boasts a 42-foot-tall screen filled with colorful images, videos, and natural science information.
Here you can also participate in presentations by guest speakers and scientists from the Museum’s own research labs. Click here for schedule.
Investigating Right Whales
Here you can meet Stumpy, the Right Whale whose was struck by a ship and died in 2004, then researchers used her bones to show that ships need a speed limit within Right Whale protected habitats. New laws meant that fewer whales would die due to ship strikes.
Exploring the Deep Sea
Take a ride in a submersible thousands of feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and see schools of squid, curious crabs, and fields of milky-white coral.
Learn how scientists collect data and specimens with complex instruments, all without ever getting your feet wet.
Our Changing Ocean
This 10,000-gallon aquarium exhibit replicates a hard bottom habitat off the NC coast, complete with many native species. You can meet angelfish, pufferfish, ladyfish and more.
Diversity of Life
Learn about how scientists are counting up the diversity of life, where they’re finding new species, and why preserving species is important—to humanity, and to our planet.
A chance to get your hands on specimens and artifacts including a large collection of real bones, fur, gems, minerals, fossils, and preserved specimens that you can examine closely.
Learn the difference between weather and climate, and how meteorologists predict the future plus more in this interactive exhibit.
Check the current conditions at weather stations across the US and view some of the tools and techniques scientists use to research our atmosphere.
Window on Animal Health
Watch their staff of highly-trained vets perform routine and extraordinary procedures on their animals, and using a two-way intercom you can ask questions and get immediate answers.
Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries
Meet their T. Rex and learn about the microscopic beginnings of life on our planet during the Ediacaran Period.
See fossils of ancient predators from the Triassic Period, millions of years before dinosaurs evolved, and some of our Ice Age compatriots, mammoths and mastodons.
Did you know that there is approximately 6½ feet of DNA packed into every human cell? And it would take you more than 9 years to read aloud every letter in the human genome.
In this exhibit, you will find out how much DNA you share with other species, what makes an animal a “model organism” for research, and how DNA barcoding allows scientists to solve natural history mysteries.
Video: North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
How To Visit
When you visit Raleigh, don’t miss out on this world-class museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
It’s definitely one of the best free things to do in Raleigh and is very well designed, easy to navigate, and one of the best things to do with kids in Raleigh.
Get Involved / Volunteering
At this NC science museum there are volunteering, internships, memberships and additional opportunities available.
You can spend time working with LIVE invertebrates in the Arthropod Zoo! They are looking for people interested in the natural sciences and public interaction for thier exciting volunteer opportunities.
- Time Commitment: 2-3 hour shifts 3-4 times per month.
- Weekly operations: Monday thru Friday, 9:00am–5:00pm
- Special events & programming: Saturdays, 9:00am–5:00pm & Sundays, 12:00pm–5:00pm
- Training: On-the-job training in the fields of entomology & invertebrate zoology and live animal husbandry & handling.
- Get more information here.
Have you been to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh yet? Or let us know what are your favorite museums in Raleigh in the comments below.