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Best Museums in Washington DC

Smithsonian and Beyond

Updated: October 20, 2023

Washington, DC has over 70 unique museums to explore. With so many options, we decided to make a post of the top museums to visit in Washington, DC 

We include Smithsonian museums, galleries, and zoos to some other fun-free, and paid ones in the city. 

And in the video below, local DC guide, Canden, provides visitor tips and highlights of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

What Do We Know about Museums in Washington DC?

Literally, everything. At least about the ones in Washington DC!

In addition to leading tours of select museums, we bring groups and visitors to museums around Washington, DC on a daily basis.

As a homeschooling parent, Canden uses the museums in DC to help educate her children (check out their adventures on our YouTube Channel and Instagram).

All our Best Museums in DC advice comes from decades of visiting them ourselves and from discussion in our 45K+ member strong DC Travel Tips Facebook Group.


When people think of museums in DC, they're thinking of the free Smithsonian museums.

There are nearly 20 in DC, including the Smithsonian Castle, art galleries, and a zoo.

Below is a list of all the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC starting with the most popular ones, and a brief highlight of each.

The Smithsonian museums are open from 10 am to 5:30 daily (except Dec 25) with a few exceptions which we have noted in the descriptions. A few of the museums do require time entry tickets (which are free!)

We offer guided tours of Smithsonian Museums to ensure you get the most out of your visit. 

For other free things to do in DC, check out our master post

What is the Smithsonian Institution?

The Smithsonian Institution, often simply referred to as The Smithsonian, is a group of museums, as well as education and research centers.  

It is named in honor of James Smithson, a British scientist who was the founding donor and who, ironically, never visited the United States.

 It is the largest such complex in the world. Formed in 1846 by the U.S. government, it is separate from the three branches of government.  

A large portion of its budget comes from the federal government, allowing all of the D.C. locations to remain free to visit.  

The Smithsonian slowly expanded over the 1800s and early 1900s.  For a long time, it was considered “the nation's attic,” and was perhaps a bit stuffy.  

In the 1960s there was a move to modernize and popularize the museums, redesigning exhibits, expanding its reach, and leading the way to become must-see destinations for visitors from throughout the nation and around the world.  

There are now 19 museums in the Washington D.C. area, plus the National Zoo under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution.  

Two more museums are planned for the near future - the National Museum of the American Lation and the Smithsonian American Women's History Museum (National Museum of Women's History)

There are also two Smithsonian museums located in New York City.

Is it free to visit the Smithsonian Museums?

All of the locations in the Washington D.C. area are free to visit.  

Some, however, do require timed tickets due to high demand.  

At this time, The National Zoo, the Air and Space Museum’s National Mall location, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture do require tickets.

What is the most popular Smithsonian Museum?

This depends on who you ask. There seems to be no definitive answer.  

However, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Zoological Park are right at the top.

Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Institution Building (or Castle) is the original Smithsonian Museum.

Finished in 1855, it was built from money gifted by Henry James Hungerford who inherited the fortune from his uncle, James Smithson, a British scientist.

Smithsonian Museums
Smithsonian Castle

The money was to go towards creating something "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge".

After much debate in Congress, the money was finally channeled into the creation of the Smithsonian Institution.

The building is impossible to miss on the National Mall and it is a great place to start your exploration of the Smithsonian, with collection highlights from each of the other museums. 

African American History and Culture Museum

This is the newest addition to the Smithsonian Museums and still requires a ticketed entrance.

This museum focuses on the African American experience and begins its exhibits all the way back to the slave trade era through today's experience.

African American History Museum

Highlights include Harriet Tubman's Hymnal and Michael Jackson's fedora.

To better plan your visit, we recommend checking out our guide to the African American History and Culture Museum

American History Museum

This museum highlights the events and cultural phenomena that have shaped American history.

American History Smithsonian

You can see the original Star-Spangled Banner that inspired our national anthem, Julia Child's kitchen, the First Ladies' Inaugural gowns, and so much more. 

To better plan your visit, we recommend checking out our guide to the American History Museum

Natural History Museum

This Smithsonian is all about the natural sciences.

There is an oceanic exhibit, a mammals exhibit, a minerals, and gemstone exhibit that showcases the cursed Hope Diamond, and a Bone Hall with all sorts of skeletons and dinosaur fossils.

To better plan your visit, we recommend checking out our guide to the Natural History Museum

Air And Space Museum

The Air and Space Museum has two locations- one on the National Mall and the other out by Dulles Airport.

Both are a celebration of flying and space travel and are considered two of the most popular Smithsonian Museums. Not sure which one to visit?

We have a Guide to the Air and Space Museum that highlights and compares both to help you better decide. 

American Indian Museum

Step back into America's roots with the American Indian Museum.

Often overlooked, it is home to the world’s extensive collections of Native objects, photographs, and media from the entire Western Hemisphere.

It's hard to miss this building with its unique curvilinear design evoking a wind-sculpted rock formation.

The museum is also a cultural destination, its Mitsitam cafe host to a menu of seasonal, gourmet Native American fare well worth checking out. 

Art Museums & Galleries

DC has a number of art museums to cover an array of tastes. We have a guide to the art museums of DC here.

  • American Art Museum- This is the nation's first collection of American art and is home to one of the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world. here
  • African Art- This is the only national museum in the United States dedicated to the collection, exhibition, conservation, and study of the arts of Africa and the exhibits expand all of Africa in its examples of traditional and contemporary art.
  • Portrait Gallery- This museum balances both traditional and contemporary art exhibits and is best known for housing the largest collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. 
  • Archives of American Art- With over 16 million items growing, this is the world's largest and most widely used resource dedicated to collecting and preserving the papers and primary records of the visual arts in America. 
  • Freer Gallery of Art & Sackler Gallery- These are the Smithsonian's two Asian art museums. 
  • Hirshhorn- If you love contemporary art, this one's for you. The unique cylindrical building is impossible to miss and houses unique contemporary art and includes a sunken sculpture garden. 
  • Renwick Gallery- This museum is located right across from the White House and houses contemporary art. It is also the first building in the United States built specifically to be an art museum.
Smithsonian Art Gallery

There is also the Sculpture Garden that hosts cool events, like Jazz in the Gardens every summer. 

National Zoo

The National Zoo is a great way to spend a beautiful day outside. It's probably best known for its giant pandas, but have a multitude of other animals as well.

The hours for the zoo vary from the other Smithsonian museums and the zoo is open from 8 am to 5 pm and even later, until 6 pm, in the summer.

Be sure to read our post covering things to see and do at the National Zoo, which is free, by the way.

The zoo also hosts a number of after-hour events like Brew in the Zoo and sleepovers, which you can check out on their website.

Since the zoo is situated away from the National Mall and the other Smithsonians, here are a few other things to do in that area:

Postal Museum

This museum is located right next to Union Station and is a walk through the history of the postal service.

See how mail delivery evolved through the decades and view the largest collection of stamps and philatelic material in the world.

This includes vehicles that delivered mail, mailboxes, and postal material that was used before stamps. 

Anacostia Community Museum

If you find yourself across the river, there is the lesser-known Smithsonian that focuses on the impact of social issues on urban communities.

You can wander through the exhibits that explore the different aspects of urban community life, like environmental change, gentrification, and globalization.

While it may be a bit out of your way to get there, there are still options: free parking is available if you find yourself with a car, you can bus from the Anacostia metro, and you can Uber


Below is a list of other museums to enjoy that are not part of the Smithsonian Complex.

We will list admission prices and hours of operation so you can better plan your visit.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a must-see on your trip to Washington, DC.  It is the United States' official memorial to the Holocaust. 

Entry is free but due to its popularity, tickets are required for entrance. Learn how to obtain these tickets.  

National Archives Museum

If you've seen the popular movie National Treasure starring Nicholas Cage, you know about the National Archives, the building that stores the most important and famous documents in America, including the Declaration of Independence.

Amongst other things, it is home to what we call the Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

You can't miss these bedrocks of our liberties on your visit to Washington, DC.

The National Archives is free to visit, the only catch is you can't take pictures inside the building!

National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art is perhaps the most popular art gallery in Washington, DC.

While technically not a Smithsonian, it is still located on the National Mall with the others for easy access.

It is also free to the public and no ticket is required for entry.

The NGA is separated into two buildings, the East Building, which is contemporary and modern art, and the West Building, where you’ll find more traditional artwork, including the only Leonardo da Vinci painting found in the Americas.

To better plan your visit, we recommend checking out our guide to the National Gallery of Art here.

For other art museums, check out the ones in the Smithsonian section

National Building Museum

Across the street from the Law Enforcement Memorial is the National Building Museum, dedicated to the history and impact of architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, and design.

It's best known for its Great Hall, which hosts a rotation of really cool exhibitions.

To get there, take the Red Line on the Metro to Judiciary Square and it's right there!

The museum is open Monday-Saturday 10 am - 5 pm and Sunday 11 am - 5 pm.

It is free to the public but some exhibitions require a paid ticket. To learn more about those, click here.

International Spy Museum

For everyone enthralled in espionage, this is your place to be! The Spy Museum has relocated to L'Enfant Plaza.

It is now bigger and more accessible by Metro, and a very short walk if you're visiting the Air & Space Museum.

The Spy Museum is open daily. Since this museum is open longer than the Smithsonian museums, this is a great option to go to later in the afternoon. 

Find out more about the Spy Museum and how to best experience it in our guide.

Planet Word

A great new interactive museum about the power of words and language.

Not far from the White House, this museum is located downtown at Franklin Square. Visit it Wednesday - Sunday 10 am to 5 pm.

Find out more about the museum.

Museum of the Bible

Want to know how the Bible has impacted human history? You can find out at the Museum of the Bible.

A relatively new museum, it opened in Washington, DC November of 2017.

With rare and interesting artifacts spanning 3,500 years of history, the museum was designed for guests to have an immersive and personalized experience with the Bible. 

The Museum of the Bible is open daily from 10 am - 5 pm to the public and is closed all day on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's, and is open until 4 pm Christmas Eve. 

Walk-up admission is:

  • Adults: $24.99 
  • Child (7-17): $14.99 
  • Children 6 & under are free
  • Seniors (65+), Military, First Responders, and Students: $19.99 

Purchasing tickets online makes the cost much cheaper, and you can purchase tickets here

National Geographic Museum

Travel the world with the National Geographic Museum, host to a number of cool exhibits like the current one, 'Queens of Egypt'.

It has rotating exhibits year-round so there's sure to be something new and cool to see every time you visit.

The museum is located close to Dupont Circle, and is a great thing to do before hopping onto one of our Dark Side of Dupont walking tours!

The National Geographic Museum is open Monday- Sunday 10 am - 6 pm.

Admission is:

  • Adults: $15
  • Child (5-12): $10
  • Children 4 & under are free
  • Seniors (63+), Military, First Responders, and Students: $12

United States Botanical Garden

If you love plants, this is the place for you! The U.S. Botanical Garden is an incredible place to browse and learn about all sorts of plants and flowers.

There are themed rooms, like desert plants and medicinal plants.

It's even home to three corpse flower plants, the largest flower on the planet, which is known for its awful smell when it blooms. 

The U.S. Botanical Garden is open daily from 10 am - 5 pm, including all weekends and holidays.

Admission is free and does not require a ticket and is located right next to the United States Capitol, making it a perfect stop after your Capitol Hill tour

National Law Enforcement Officer's Museum

The National Law Enforcement Museum houses 300 years of American law enforcement history, including several immersive and interactive experiences.

The latest temporary exhibit, Post-9/11: The Evolution of American Law Enforcement, allows visitors to learn more about the significant changes to U.S. law enforcement in the aftermath of 9/11, including coming together with other agencies, the private sector, and the general public to help make us all safer.

Visting Information and Purchase Tickets

The National Law Enforcement Museum, 444 E Street NW, Washington, DC 20001

Free Museums in DC

Are you planning a trip to Washington DC and worried about the cost of activities? Fear not!

You don't have to break the bank or blow your budget to enjoy everything this historic city has to offer. In fact, we have a whole post on FREE THINGS TO DO IN DC.

There are plenty of interesting things you can do for free - such as visiting one of the many amazing museums in DC.

Whether you're interested in art, history, science, or culture - we've got something for everyone!

Keep reading to find out our top picks for awesome museums that won't put a dent in your wallet.

Some of these museums do require free timed-entry passes, however.

Museums Open Late

  • The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is ALWAYS open until 7 pm
  • Select other Smithsonian Museums have late hours, usually during the peak summer season. You can find their schedule here:
  • Phillips Art Collection is open late on the first Thursday for Philips After 5, a ticketed-themed event.
  • The Library of Congress is open late on Thursdays.

For more things to do at night in Washington DC explore our master post.

Unique Museums in DC

There are many larger museums in DC that you'll also find in places like London and NYC (think Natural History Museum or National Gallery of Art) but we love a small museum that you can only find here in Washington, DC.

  • Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum
  • President Lincoln’s Cottage
  • Woodrow Wilson House
  • The Kreeger Museum
  • The Mansion on O
  • Planet Word
  • National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the National Arboretum)
  • Old Korean Legation Museum
  • Dumbarton Oaks Museum
  • Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens

Kid Friendly Museums

For more family-friendly things to do, visit our Things To Do in DC with Kids.

These Smithsonian Museums have special sections just for younger visitors. We go into more detail on each museum's kid's options here.

Other great museums in DC to visit with kids are:

  • National Children’s Museum
  • National Building Museum
  • Planet Word
  • U.S. Botanic Garden

Kids also love these museums and you can get in for free with a tourist pass.

About The Author

Canden Arciniega

Follow On Instagram | Canden is a historian & tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. She has written for HuffPost Travel and has been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. She's also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. Canden is the producer of the podcast, Tour Guide Tell All. She is an authority on D.C. history, and has led tours in the city since 2011. She currently resides in DC, but has also lived in London and South Korea, and has traveled to over 28 countries and every US State but Hawaii. She homeschools her 2 children by exploring the plethora of museums in DC.
Updated: October 20th, 2023
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