A Definitive Guide to the BEST Museums in Washington DC (2020)

 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  from the Smithsonian museums, galleries, and zoo to some other fun free and paid ones in the city. 

 

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SMITHSONIAN MUSEUMS

When people think of museums in DC, they’re thinking of the free Smithsonian museums. There are 17 in DC (2 other Smithsonian Museums are in NY, here’s the guide to museums in New York), 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 10am to 5:30 daily (except Dec 25) with a few exceptions which we have noted in the descriptions.

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


Smithsonian Castle 

The Smithsonian Institution Building (or Castle) is the original Smithsonian Museum. Finished in 1855, it was built from money gifted from Henry James Hungerford who inherited the fortune from his uncle, James Smithson, a British scientist.

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 a great place to start your exploration of the Smithsonians, 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 during peak tourist season (March-July). 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.

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 here. 

African American History Museum


American History Museum

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

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 here

American History Smithsonian


Natural History Museum

This Smithsonian is all about the natural sciences. There is an oceanic exhibit, a gemstone exhibit where you can see the cursed Hope Diamond, and a Bone Hall with all sorts of skeletons. 

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

 

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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. 


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 and 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. 


American Indian Museum

Step back into American’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. 


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 is open from 8am to 5pm and even later, until 6pm, in the summer.

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

Now that we’ve got you hooked, we do have some bad news: the museum is currently closed for renovations but will be open Fall 2019.

This is also when we expect the Washington Monument to reopen on the National Mall, so you can see both while you are here! 


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OTHER MUSEUMS

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 during the busy season (March-July) and you can read up on how to obtain those here


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 of the building! It is open 10am to 5:30pm every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas day. 

 

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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.

Like the Smithsonians, it is also free to the public and no ticket is required for entry. The NGA is separated into two buildings, the East Wing, which is contemporary and modern art, and the West Wing, where you’ll find more traditional artwork. 

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 10am-5pm and Sunday 11am-5pm.

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

 


(NEW) Spy Museum

For everyone enthralled in espionage, this is your place to be! The Spy Museum has relocated from its old location by the Portrait Gallery 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 Monday-Sunday 9am -7pm. Since this museum is open longer than the Smithsonians, this is a great option to go to later in the afternoon. 

Admission is:

  • Adults (13-64): $24.95 (plus tax)
  • Youth (7-12): $14.95 (plus tax)
  • Children 6 & under are free
  • Senior(65+)/Military/College Student/Law Enforcement/Intelligence Community:  $19.95 (plus tax)
  • You can also become a Member and visit as often as you like after a one-time fee

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


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 10am-5pm to the public and is closed all day on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s, and is open until 4pm 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 make 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 10am-6pm.

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 10am-5pm, 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


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Museums Open Late

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

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


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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 museums kid’s options here.

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


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About the author

Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with 3 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 Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. Canden is the host of our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All

With a M.A. in History from University College London and a B.A. in History from Elon University, she is an authority on D.C. history, and has led tours in the city for over 10 years. She currently resides in DC, but has also lived in London and South Korea, and has travelled to 25 countries. Her two children (both under the age of 3) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts.