National Museum of Emerging Science Tokyo. Photo: Alamy
Brian Johnston seeks out the top 10 overseas science museums, guaranteed to fire the imagination.
The best of travel is surely delighting in the strange and unusual, and the sense of pleasure in discovery. Surely, then, there might be no better place to head when overseas than to a science museum.
Forget your preconceptions. In the old days, science museums offered little more than static displays of fossils, stuffed animals and crystals.
Many still do, but the best provide textbook examples of how you can learn about the world while having fun.
Interactive and innovative, these 10 discovery centres focus on the eternal human capacity for wonder and curiosity.
Natural History Museum, London
One of the world's great museums covers fossils, minerals, animals, plants and human biology, but is most famous for its dinosaur exhibits. It's worth going just to see Archeopteryx, the feathered "missing link" between reptiles and birds, and the rare colossal squid specimen that looks like a preserved alien in its tank. The ultra-modern Darwin Centre gives an insight into the future of research, with behind-the-scenes tours of laboratories and storage facilities. You can peer at endless specimens on the tour, some bottled by Darwin himself; drawers contain 3.5 million butterflies alone. Enthusiastic curators talk from touchscreens about their arcane specialities, and you can sit in on informal talks and demonstrations by scientists.
Ontario Science Centre, Toronto
Push, pull, poke, crank wheels, peer at butterfly wings, watch bees at work, make your hair stand on end and measure your heart rate. Canada's best museum takes up the challenge of making science and technology accessible and entertaining, even featuring an area devoted to budding scientists under the age of eight. Nature, astronomy, music and technology are explained through interactive displays using popular culture to enthuse visitors. Recent special exhibits were themed on J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and mythical creatures, such as dragons and mermaids. Life-size 3D displays of the human body are particularly fascinating. Don't miss the IMAX Dome theatre, where a 24-metre-high, 360-degree surround screen features scientific documentaries.
National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
You won't see a better collection of aircraft, spacecraft, rockets and missiles anywhere. On exhibit is everything from a 1903 Wright brothers plane and the 1927 Spirit of St Louis flown by flight pioneer Charles Lindbergh to artefacts from space-shuttle missions and the latest Mars probes. Touch a moon rock, try a flight simulator and marvel at the outdoor, scale model of the solar system at one 10 billionth of its actual size. Nip over to the observatory for a stickybeak at sunspots by day and moon craters by night.
National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, Tokyo
The focus is on technology in relation to everyday life at this futuristic museum. Themed exhibits cover the environment, innovation, life sciences, nanotechnology and genome research. It sounds serious, but the museum is accessible even to kids, with hands-on exhibits, volunteer staff giving demonstrations, and workshops hosted by scientists. Take a look inside the human head by taking apart a model, try brain-teasing puzzles, and learn about earthquakes. You can also get up close to ASIMO, the famous Honda intelligent robot, which waves, runs and kicks a football. In that kooky, endearing Japanese way, visitors are followed around by animated light bubbles and singing computers.
Heureka Finnish Science Centre, Helsinki
Started as a Helsinki University project in 1989, Heureka now attracts 17 million visitors annually. The museum's interactive exhibits, which help visitors learn more about subjects such as paper making, electricity and astronomy, often require more than one person to operate, making this a great family excursion. English is used throughout. Go on a moon walk, build an igloo or an arch bridge, and learn how coins are made. Not weird enough? The kids will love the basketball-playing rats. Meanwhile, a superb outdoor science park teaches younger visitors about water rockets, chaotic swings and how caves produce echoes. Watch out: fountains follow you as you walk.
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
The largest science museum in the Americas counts a submarine, a huge model railway and NASA spacecraft among its exhibits. It also boasts a rare Stuka aeroplane and an early steam locomotive. The museum is very hands-on: visitors can build models, experience a flight simulator, clamber through a space shuttle and a mock-up of a giant human heart, or ride through a recreated coalmine on an Indiana Jones-like trolley. New displays look at the latest breakthroughs, such as how scientists make frog's eyes glow, and why. See birds hatching from eggs, marvel at a gigantic dollhouse, and boggle at the pickled human body that has been sliced into wafer-thin sections.
Science Centre NEMO, Amsterdam
Housed in a spectacular building on the harbour, with a rooftop beach in summer, NEMO is one of very few museums aimed mainly at children: there's even a section on pimples and raging hormones just for teens. With a focus on future technology, there's an abundance of computer touchscreens and virtual-reality exhibits covering topics such as DNA technology and the psychology of memory. Wander into a science lab and do tests on vitamin C or soap bubbles, make electrical circuits, or build a hydroelectric power station. Children also learn why the ocean is blue, why toothpaste contains sugar and the best way to boil potatoes.
Swiss Museum of Transport, Lucerne
Decorated with road signs, hubcaps and propellers, the exterior of Europe's best transport museum reflects its clever, quirky exhibits. The interior traces the history and possible future of planes, trains and automobiles. Thirty-odd planes hang from the ceiling, while car history buffs will love the five Swiss car models from the early 1900s. Exhibits highlight the challenges of building road and rail networks across the Alps. Try dozens of simulators, such as one that lets you drive a locomotive. Produce your own TV news spot using state-of-the-art media.
Science and Technology Museum, Shanghai
This museum is built in an ascending spiral to evoke scientific progress. Interactive displays cover fields from geology to chemistry and mathematics, while Techno-Land is aimed at getting young children interested in science with the likes of a walk-through model of the brain. Exhibits devoted to light, astro navigation and health use cutting-edge technology, while a section on robotics features dancing robots. Pit your skills against a Go-playing robot or scare yourself by pressing your face against a magnifying glass to see live tarantulas that appear as large as horror-movie aliens. An IMAX theatre showing science-related movies has a tilting screen, giving viewers the impression of floating.
The Exploratorium, San Francisco
The Exploratorium - part fun fair, part mad scientist's lab - showcases the work of a research laboratory developing innovations in science. Having relocated in April, it's bigger and better than ever. In one of the world's most fascinating places, you can eyeball glowing jellyfish, genetically engineered green worms and stem cells from mice. Explore physical phenomena such as weather, light and electricity. Then play games, enjoy the distortion rooms and clamber up ladders and down tunnels. Negotiating a pitch-black maze with just a torch is eerie, though not as unnerving as dissecting a cow's eye.
Heureka Finnish Science Centre, 7 Kuninkaalantie Tikkurila, Vantaa, Finland, +358 9 85799, heureka.fi.
Museum of Science and Industry, 700 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, USA, +1 773 684 1414, msichicago.org.
National Air and Space Museum, 600 Independence Avenue, Washington D.C., USA, +1 202 633 1000, airandspace.si.edu.
National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, 2-3-6, Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo, Japan, +81 3 3570 9151, miraikan.jst.go.jp.
Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, England, +44 20 7942 5000, nhm.ac.uk.
Ontario Science Centre, 770 Don Mills Road, Toronto, Canada, +1 416 696 3127, ontariosciencecentre.ca.
Science and Technology Museum, 200 Century Avenue, Pudong, Shanghai, China, +86 21 6854 2000, sstm.org.cn.
Science Centre NEMO, 2 Oosterdok, Amsterdam, Netherlands, +31 20 531 3233, e-nemo.nl.
Swiss Museum of Transport, 5 Lidostrasse, Lucerne, Switzerland, +41 41 370 4444, verkehrshaus.ch.
The Exploratorium, Pier 15, San Francisco, USA, +1 415 563 7337, exploratorium.edu.