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7 Museums for the Curious Traveler

Interior Of The Computer History Museum In Mountain View California, Unusual Offbeat Museums To Visit

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When the Smithsonian is not in your travel plans, consider what another city may offer, like the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

En español | They may not have the recognition of, say, Washington, D.C.'s many Smithsonian options or New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art or Museum of Modern Art, but there are many underexposed museums in small towns and cities across the United States that have much to offer the curious traveler. We picked seven favorites: Places where you will learn, laugh (at the Tinkertown Museum, anyway) and definitely want to linger.

1. The Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California

Don't be turned off by the dry-sounding name: This museum regularly wows visitors with stimulating interactive exhibits and countless cool low- and high-tech artifacts, from an abacus to a massive early mainframe to the video game Pong. ("Fun and geeky!" one visitor gushed in an online review.) You can even play Jeopardy! against a simulated version of Watson — the IBM system that famously beat two human Jeopardy! champs. Not surprising, the museum also has a vast amount of historical information on their website.

2. National World War I Museum, Kansas City, Missouri

Many are not aware that the United States has an official World War I Museum. We do. It's seven years old and it's gripping from the start: Upon entering, visitors cross a glass bridge above a symbolic field of 9,000 poppies, each representing 1,000 people killed during the "War to End All Wars." The museum's vast collection includes replicas of life-size trenches, dramatic firsthand battle accounts and an FT-17 Tank battered by German artillery.

3. Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York, New York

The perfect stop after a visit to Ellis Island, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is housed in a five-story brick building at 97 Orchard Street and offers an eye-opening look at the immigrants' day-to-day experience in their new land. Costumed interpreters in authentically restored apartments stand in for a few of the thousands of actual residents from around the world who lived in this crowded tenement from 1863 through the 1930s — many, in the early years, without running water or electricity.

4. Tinkertown Museum, Sandia Park, New Mexico

Surely unlike anything you've seen, the Tinkertown Museum "folk art environment" includes a massive collection of carved wooden figures, mechanized dioramas and funky Americana begun by a man named Ross Ward back in 1962. It's now a weirdly compelling must-see for roadside attraction buffs, just a half-hour drive from Albuquerque — and very far from normal.

5. Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, Bellingham, Washington

The Spark Museum of Electrical Invention has a lightbulb made by Thomas Edison (it's burned out), antique radios, vacuum tubes, telegraphs, a static electricity laboratory and a replica of the Titanic radio room. But the biggest attraction here is the Lightning Cage, a screened metal ball in which visitors sit while a Tesla coil bombards them with bolts of electricity. Don't worry, it doesn't hurt.

6. Titan Missile Museum, Sahuarita, Arizona

Enter the Titan Missile Museum through the concrete-reinforced belly of an atomic missile launch base for the chance to see a decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile in its silo — a powerful memento from the Cold War. On hour-long tours a guide will sometimes offer a visitor the chance to turn the actual key that once would have led to mutually assured destruction.

7. The Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Corners, Michigan

A small-town guy named Donald S. Gilmore started this collection of vintage cars 50 years ago, and now the Gilmore Car Museum is a key stop for auto geeks and nostalgia trippers. The museum displays some 400 cars and motorcycles, including rarities like the 1911 Stanley Steamer. You can also check out a re-created service station, circa 1930; a London double-decker bus and an authentic 1941 diner.

Christina Ianzito writes on travel, entertainment and lifestyle for AARP Media.

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