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Guide to the National Portrait Gallery & Smithsonian American Art Museum

Updated: September 1, 2023

A few blocks north of the National Mall stands an impressive building that holds not one, but two different Smithsonian museums.

When visiting Washington D.C., you’ll want to take in the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and enjoy the unique works of art, from presidential portraits to works of great American artists.

Why visit the NPG & SAAM? In addition to awesome pop art and being the only place you can spot all the presidential portraits in one publically accessible place, they stay open later than other museums with regular closing time of 7pm.

Location and Hours

The building takes up a city block, between F Street NW and G Street NW, and between 7th St. NW and 8th St. NW.

For the purposes of a ride share, it is listed as 8th St NW and G St NW, Washington, DC 20001.

The Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station (Red/Yellow/Green line) is actually under the building, so it is the closest station. If you take the 9th St exit, it will put you on the side of the building.

Nearby Metro Bus stops include the 70 and 74 on 7th St NW and the D6 on E St NW. There is also a protected bike lane on 9th St NW. Cycle parking in the area is somewhat limited.

There is limited metered street parking in the area, and a few public parking garages.

Accessibility ramps are located on the G St NW side of the building. The F St NW entrance is by stairs only.

The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum are open from 11:30AM to 7PM daily.

They are closed on December 25.

Admission is free and tickets are not required.

What to Expect

The building that today houses the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum was originally constructed in 1836 as the Patent Office.

Designed by architect Robert Mills, the massive brick structure was originally meant to house the records of early American inventions.

In 1857, a fire swept through the building, destroying much of its interior and its collection. Through the years, the Patent Office building served a variety of government purposes, including as a hospital during the Civil War.

In 1958, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

You can get a sense of the building on the upper floors.

There are frequently temporary rotating exhibits, so you’ll want to check the website for each museum when you are planning to visit to see what is on display.

On the first floor, you’ll find the gift shop, a cafe with a selection of grab and go snacks and drinks, and the Kogod Courtyard, a large, covered space in the center of the structure.

Tip: You can bring your own food into the courtyard, so this is a great option for an indoor lunch!

You will also find several exhibit spaces on this floor.

The two museums share space on all four floors, with thematic galleries throughout. We suggest grabbing a map from the first floor info desks when you arrive.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum collection spans from colonial times to the present day and includes a diverse selection of American artwork.

Among them are Winslow Homer’s painting of the Civil War, and Edward Hopper’s painting of urban solitude.

There is also a collection of Folk Art, including grand, colorful quilts, weathervanes, and signs.

These different collections offer a comprehensive view of the country's cultural traditions.

Experience America is a collection of artwork funded by the U.S. government in the years before the Second World War under Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Though not all works are on display at all times, the SAAM has the largest collection of New Deal art in the world.

At the National Portrait Gallery, visitors can discover a selection of over 20,000 paintings, photographs, and sculptures featured in America’s history and culture.

The gallery has portraits of every U.S. president including Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington, but you'll also find images of famous Americans like Muhammad Ali, Amelia Earhart, and Franz Schubert.

The Portrait Gallery's extensive collection of photography and portraits of key figures in American culture provides a positive perspective on the nation's history.

Plan Your Visit

Are tickets required for the National Portrait Gallery or the Smithsonian American Art Museum?

No. Tickets are not required for either museum.

How long should I expect to spend at the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum?

Two hours per museum would be recommended, though if pressed for time and you don’t spend a great deal of time in each exhibit, you can get a good general sense of both museums in two to three hours.

Are the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum good for children?

Though not made for children, there are plenty of exhibits that children might enjoy, and the building itself is a beautiful and magical space to explore.

The hands-on Luce Center on the upper floors offers self-guided scavenger hunt opportunities for families.

Things to Do Nearby

The Friendship Archway is the official gateway to Washington DC’s Chinatown. Though don't expect vibe as London or New York's Chinatown.

DC’s Chinatown is little more than a historic designation these days, there are signs of the once thriving community left in the art and style of the area.

A few blocks along F St NW is the National Building Museum and in the other direction is Ford's Theatre.

The US Navy Memorial Plaza is a few blocks away.

Across the street is the Capital One Arena, so you can easily visit the museums before a sporting event or concert.

About The Author

Canden Arciniega

Follow On Instagram | I'm a historian & tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. I have written for HuffPost Travel and have been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. I've also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. I am the producer of the podcast, Tour Guide Tell All. I am an authority on D.C. history, and have led tours in the city since 2011. I currently resides in DC, but have also lived in London and South Korea, and have traveled to over 28 countries and every US State but Hawaii. I homeschool my 2 children by exploring the plethora of museums in DC. Read More...
Updated: September 1st, 2023
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