Photograph: Alan KarchmerNational Museum of African American History and Culture
Washington DC is host to an incredible wealth of museums, housing everything from national treasures to art installations to the original Starship Enterprise—and almost all of it can be seen for. Our freshly updated list of the best museums in DC will walk you through some of the best educational and entertaining experiences and that the nation’s capital has to offer, including, of course, some of the museums and galleries that make up the unrivaled Smithsonian Institution.
Best museums in DC
1. National Air & Space Museum
Photograph: Elan Fleisher
Museums art and design makes Air & Space tops visitors’ to-do list, year in, year out. The imposing Tennessee marble modernist block, by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, incorporates three skylit, double-height galleries, which house missiles, aircraft and space stations. In the central Milestones of Flight hall, towering US Pershing-II and Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles stand next to the popular moon rock station, where visitors can stroke a lunar sample acquired on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. The 1903 Wright Flyer—the first piloted craft to maintain controlled, sustained flight (if only for a few seconds)—and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis are both suspended here. Carve out 3-4 hours and don’t miss the test model of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is currently orbiting in space taking snap-shots of the universe.
Photograph: Alan Karchmer
2. National Museum of African American History and Culture
This museum has drawn huge crowds ever since its addition to the Mall in 2016, and visits during the summer or on weekends still require free timed admission tickets. Its impressively vast collection is presented with bleeding-edge innovations in exhibit design. The four stories above street level represent only half of the museum; four below-grade floors provide a sprawling, impressive chronological journey of the moments and events that have shaped African American history since the country’s founding. Comfortable shoes are a must for visitors who want to try to experience it all—including Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac.
3. National Museum of Natural History
A perfect mix of old-meets-new museum design, the Museum of Natural History boasts longtime favorites like The Hope Diamond, which has been drawing crowds for over sixty years, and state of the art exhibits like the Hall of Mammals. The newly renovated Hall of Fossils is a must-see, if you can manage to view it off peak times. Dinosaur fossils are posed interacting with each other, even engaged in life-and-death battles, which aids imagining these creatures in living and breathing full motion.
4. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Despite being split between two buildings and its prime location on the mall, this museum is easy to overlook. The Sackler building in particular seems like a small, one-story room, but step inside and you’ll discover multiple below-grade floors packed with an impressive array of Asian art, and a passageway to the larger and airy Freer gallery. The museum started with Charles Lang Freer’s private collection of art, and its crown jewel is The Peacock Room, a dining room decorated by James McNeill Whistler and stocked with a gorgeous array of porcelain. The room was disassembled and recreated piece by piece in the Freer Gallery in 1923.
5. Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
This spectacular, aggressively modern cylindrical building enlivens the predominantly neoclassical architecture lining the Mall. The structure, which was completed in 1974, was meant to house self-made Wall Street millionaire Joseph Hirshhorn’s collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture. The museum now presents art in a range of media, including works on paper, painting, installation, photography, sculpture, digital and video art. The museum has housed some of the most-hyped visiting exhibitions on earth, from Ai Weiwei’s Trace to Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors. Don’t miss the sculpture garden, which includes works from Rodin, Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder.
6. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Since opening in 1993, the Holocaust Museum has attracted legions of visitors. The three-floor museum contains more than 900 artifacts and four theaters showing archival footage and survivor testimony. Themes, such as murder of the disabled, Nazi eugenics and resistance, present a chronological history of the Nazi holocaust. The photo- and text-intensive accounts of events and atrocities unfold dispassionately, but objects and symbols make powerful impressions: thousands of camp victims’ shoes piled in a heap personalize the losses. While the main exhibition is suitable for children of 11 and over only, a specially designed children’s exhibition, “Daniel’s Story,” at ground level, is presented to children of eight and over and teaches about the Holocaust through the story of one boy.
Photograph: Tim Hurlsey
7. Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery features people who played a role in the shaping of the nation and its culture, with figures as diverse as Pocahontas and Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the US Girl Scouts. Among the most notable portraits is Gilbert Stuart’s seminal “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington and Andy Warhol’s iconic Marilyn. The American Art Museum is conjoined through a hallway and houses prominent works by Americans including Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe.
Photograph: Elan Fleisher
8. National Gallery of Art
lComprising two separate buildings connected by a trippy underground moving walkway, the National Gallery of Art is a world-class museum with artwork from around the globe that spans decades. The West Building highlights European and American art from the 13th to the early 20th centuries, as well as Spanish, Dutch, Flemish, French and German works from the 17th century. Don’t miss Leonardo da Vinci’s almond-eyed portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, the only work of the artist in the Western Hemisphere. The East Building represents more current work, including a skylit atrium that houses a 32-foot long still mobile by Alexander Calder. And don’t miss the sculpture garden, a six-acre square across 7th Street the includes a Louise Bourgeois 10-foot bronze spider and a pyramid by Sol LeWitt.
© Sarah Bourn
9. National Museum of the American Indian
Dedicated to America’s colonized and historically abused indigenous people, the National Museum of the American Indian joined the Mall in 2004, bringing with it significant Native American artifacts and a renowned cafeteria. (The Mitsitam Native Foods Café offers a stunning collection of dishes inspired by indigenous cuisines.) The structure was designed by a Native American team; the building is as much a part of the message as the exhibits. The details are extraordinary: dramatic, Kasota limestone-clad undulating walls resemble a wind-carved mesa; the museum’s main entrance plaza plots the star configurations on November 28, 1989, the date that federal legislation was introduced to create the museum.
10. Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Following a $30 million renovation that wrapped up in 2015, the Renwick is a far cry from its former self. Perhaps best known for its blockbuster, much-Instagrammed “Wonder” exhibit, this Smithsonian museum celebrates craft and design in the digital age. Other notable exhibits have included the quirky “Murder Is Her Hobby,” a collection of gruesome doll houses used to help detectives solve crime scenes. The permanent collection includes over 80 objects that marry craft with innovation.
11. Postal Museum
Such a hidden gem that even most locals aren’t aware of it, the Postal Museum is perhaps the most obscure of the Smithsonian’s offerings. A museum devoted to postal history and philately (stamp collecting) may sound like a hard sell, but there’s a trove of interactive and entertaining exhibits housed within the skeleton of what was once the enormous DC City Post Office. Check out the permanent exhibit “Mail Marks History,” which boasts some important and surprisingly poignant artefacts, including a letter mailed from aboard the Titanic.
© Yassine El Mansouri
12. National Museum of Women in the Arts
The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) houses a collection of more than 4,500 works by more than 1,000 women from the 16th century to the present. Highlights include Renaissance artist Lavinia Fontana’s dynamic Holy Family with St John. Other artists represented include Elisabetta Sirani, Alma Thomas, Barbara Hepworth and Louise Bourgeois. There are also special collections of 17th-century botanical prints by Sibylla Merian and works by British and Irish women silversmiths from the 17th to 19th centuries. Don’t miss Frida Kahlo’s defiant 1937 self-portrait Between the Curtains. We’d recognize that unibrow anywhere.
13. National Museum of African Art
This museum’s entrance pavilion, designed by Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, lies across the amazing Enid Haupt Garden from its twin, the Sackler. The primary focus of the collection, which opened in 1987, is ancient and contemporary work from sub-Saharan Africa. The museum offers a changing selection of “highlights”, drawing viewers into different aspects of African art and—by extension—culture. The rich ceremonial garb and textiles, including blankets made in Mali and embroidered hunters’ shirts are a must-see.
Photograph: Courtesy International Spy Museum
14. International Spy Museum
The world of DC’s prestige paid-entry museums was shaken up dramatically in 2019, with the Newseum closing indefinitely and the International Spy Museum moving to sleek new digs in L’Enfant Plaza. In its larger space, the museum boasts many exhibits that lean so hard into “infotainment” that a trip can feel less like learning about spies and more like a game of pretending to be one. Test your sleuthing abilities and gawk at an array of spy gadgets, including KGB-issued poison pellet shooting umbrellas and Germany’s Steineck ABC wristwatch camera. James Bond junkies will be in heaven—the groovy silver Aston Martin from 1964’s Goldfinger assumes a central spot in the museum.
Photograph: Chris Gauthier
15. National Museum of American History
The continuing transformation of the National Museum of American History led to the closing of the west wing for renovation in 2012. Now that it’s re-opened, hordes of visitors seem to be making up for lost time. A first-stage renovation (completed 2008) created a central atrium, a grand staircase, ten-foot artifact walls on the first and second floors, as well as a dedicated Star-Spangled Banner gallery. Floors are organized around loose themes, allowing a huge diversity of exhibits to tell American stories in an entertaining and informative manner. We love the dresses of the First Ladies and Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. Oh! And there’s Julia Child’s actual kitchen and a Dumbo car from Disneyland’s Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride.
© Sarah Bourn
16. Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center
The impressive annex to the National Air and Space Museum is home to hordes of space and aviation artifacts, including the restored Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. It’s perhaps more for the adult aviation enthusiast than its counterpart on the National Mall—but kids will still get a kick out of the sheer spectacle of the exhibits on display here. Plus, there’s a flight simulator that kids and the young-at-heart will get a kick out of. Don’t miss the space shuttle Discovery, which has a hangar just about all to itself. Can you believe that thing has been to outer space and back?
17. National Building Museum
A privately run collection, the National Building Museum produces smart, noteworthy exhibits focusing on architects and the built environment, both contemporary and historical. Among the exhibitions, House & Home discovers the history and many meanings of “home,” both physical and cultural, with an array of all things household, from household goods and decorations (including a poster of Farrah Fawcett and a fondue set), to building materials to mortgage papers. Recently, temporary summer installations like BEACH (an enormous ball pit) and LAWN have made its sprawling interior even more Instagram-able. Fittingly, the building itself is gorgeous: an Italian Renaissance-style Great Hall features eight colossal 75-foot Corinthian columns that lead to ceiling 15 stories above.