Museum Road Trips: Offbeat Museums That Celebrate Uniqueness

There’s still a lot of summer left, making it a great time to plan a road trip to explore these unusual museums
BY Bill Lindsey TIMEAugust 6, 2022 PRINT

The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City are indeed epic repositories of items not normally seen by most of us, but the following collections offer a glimpse of things that are truly unusual.

It’s easy to think of museums as the dusty, ill-lit, dank buildings full of boring old bones visited during grade school field trips, but the reality is that there are many museums that hold contents guaranteed to keep you thrilled, captivated, and dreading the arrival of closing time. Let’s take a virtual tour of just a few of the truly noteworthy collections open to the public. If we missed a favorite, let us know so we can add it to the next installment of “Museum Road Trips.”

Courtesy of International Spy Museum
The Spy Museum in Washington explores the fascinating world of espionage, “uncovering” secret technology and tools used by real-world spies. (Courtesy of International Spy Museum)

Las Vegas is home to many interesting entertainment options, including spectacular floor shows, fabulous magicians, and stellar concerts. There are, however, several other, less well-known attractions you might want to consider the next time you’re in the area.

Spooky fun is a sure bet at Zak Bagans’s The Haunted Museum. Set in a “possibly haunted” 1938 Tudor mansion, guests are required to complete a waiver in order to enter. Once inside, visitors follow black-clad guides through 30 rooms to see paranormal investigator Bagans’s collection, including the dybbuk box, a wine cabinet reputed to be among the most haunted objects in the world.

Also in Las Vegas, the Mob Museum is full of exhibits and artifacts from the world of organized crime, as well as a real Speakeasy “hidden” in the basement. (Usa-Pyon/Shutterstock)

Next up on the Las Vegas museum tour is The Mob Museum. Located in a former courthouse built in 1933, all three stories are packed with criminal history artifacts. Docents clad in fedoras and black suits share stories and welcome tour guests to The Underground, a speakeasy hidden in the basement, for an after-show sample of moonshine distilled onsite.

Courtsey Titanic The Artifact Exhibition
“Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” features a full-size replica of the doomed ship’s grand staircase. (Courtesy of Titanic The Artifact Exhibition)

The Luxor hotel and casino, which on its own is worth visiting, is home to the Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. Guests tour a recreation of the ship’s grand staircase and stroll along the promenade deck in icy-cold temperatures, where they see the view experienced by passengers on the doomed vessel; the more daring can touch a man-made iceberg. A collection of artifacts retrieved from the ship are on display, including luggage, an unopened bottle of champagne, and a large section of the ship’s starboard hull.

Courtesy Pinball Hall of Fame
The Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas features an astounding array of pinball and arcade games, all in perfect working order to provide hours of fun. (Courtesy of Pinball Hall of Fame)

You’ll want to bring a lot of quarters when you venture to the Pinball Hall of Fame. Recently relocated from a semi-sketchy neighborhood to Tropicana Avenue, the facility is home to a staggering array of pinball and arcade machines, all in perfect working order. Founded in the early 1990s by Tim Arnold, who began it with his collection of 1,000 machines, the vast array of machines now in place provide a lively soundtrack as guests plug in quarters to rack up new personal best scores.

While James Bond and his specially equipped Aston Martin DB4 might not have been real, some of the features of his car were used by actual undercover agents. (Regine Poirier/Shutterstock)

Washington, D.C., is an ideal road trip destination, due to its incredibly diverse selection of places to visit and things to see. Save some time to explore the Spy Museum, where visitors can test their own code-cracking, surveillance, secret identity, and other spy skills in 17 interactive exhibits. Artifacts on display include a World War II Enigma code machine; a letter written by George Washington, America’s first spymaster, to a potential spy; a KGB lipstick gun; a World War I pigeon-mounted spy camera; one of the silver bars given to spy John Walker by the Soviets; and many other fascinating objects actually used by real-world spies. Don’t be surprised if you’re inspired to visit the gift shop to pick up your own spy gear.

South Dakota is a bit off the well-worn path, but worth the effort to see Mount Rushmore, or to visit Custer State Park, or Sturgis, home of an annual, epic rally for motorcycle riders from around the world. But just outside Sioux Falls is an open-air collection of handcrafted sculptures set on 18 acres of open prairie. A 60-foot-tall bull’s head greets visitors as they approach Porter Sculpture Park, recognized as one of America’s top roadside attractions. Entirely self-guided, Porter has more than 50 large-scale sculptures on display. Kids and dogs are welcome, with all the art accessible for photos; visitors are encouraged to touch and even climb on the artwork.

Many museums have interactive displays providing visitors a hands-on experience, as well as self-guided tours that can be enjoyed at your own pace. (Kit Leong/Shutterstock)

Top off the gas tank and pack your passport and wetsuit for this museum on Mexico’s Caribbean coastline. Cancún’s Underwater Museum of Art, founded in 1980, is located about 30 feet below the surface. Its 500 sculptures are seen by approximately 200,000 visitors annually. Ferries run to and from the park waters every half hour, making it easy to get to the site. The sculptures, crafted of marine concrete, are anchored to the sea floor where they’ve become part of the ecosystem and home to many fish and crustaceans. One exception to the concrete construction is a submerged Volkswagen Bug—now covered in aquatic vegetation—located near Manchones reef. Because the majority of the sculptures are in relatively shallow water, they can be seen by snorkelers, but scuba gear provides the best experience.

Bill Lindsey
Bill Lindsey is an award-winning writer based in South Florida. He covers real estate, automobiles, timepieces, boats, and travel topics.
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