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Visiting the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in DC

Updated: May 21, 2024

 The Natural History Museum is one of the most popular museums in Washington DC. If you're picturing a T-Rex in the middle of the entrance, that is the Natural History Museum in NYC - we have an elephant in the rotunda. The dinosaurs are in the West Wing (not that one).

As part of the Smithsonian Institute, the National Museum of Natural History has a prime location on the National Mall and three levels of wonder.

After visiting the museum, why not explore American history in person with one of our National Mall tours? They start just 5 minutes away!


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Getting to the National Museum of Natural History

Parking Near the National Museum of Natural History

Street parking is very limited in the area, and it is a popular site to visit, so be sure to budget some time to find a spot. There are free parking spaces open to the public along Jefferson and Madison Dr, but the competition for these is fierce.

A lot of the on-street parking is limited to 2 or 3 hours, so check nearby signs before you leave your vehicle.

The National Museum of Natural History has partnered with SpotHero to help visitors easily find and reserve parking spots in the area.

Use their website to view all of the available parking facilities and find cheap deals!

Do I need a ticket for the Natural History Museum?

Like all Smithsonian Institutions, it is free and un-ticketed to visit the Natural History Museum.

This is both good and bad, good because you get access to one of the top museums in the country free of charge, but bad because there’s no way to guarantee an entrance time and the museum will often get crowded in the Spring and Summer.

If you’re visiting in the busy season, it’s best to get there around 10am when the museum opens or wait until later in the day.

Many school groups visit during lunch hour so try to avoid that time frame.

Tickets are required for the Butterfly Pavilion and are available on-line for all days but Tuesdays. Tickets for Tuesday visitors are available on the day of the visit at the Butterfly Pavilion on a first-come, first-served basis. Purchase tickets online. The pavilion is closed on Saturdays.

Visiting the Natural History Museum


The museum does have a light security check at all entrances.

Visitors are required to walk through a metal detector, and have their bags manually checked by a security guard if needed. There are no weapons or sharp objects, such as scissors allowed inside. You also may not use a tripod or a selfie-stick in the museum.

While you can bring outside food or drink into the museum, there are no places inside where you are allowed to eat or drink it.

There is a cafe where you can buy a snack or coffee and a large cafeteria, though it is often very crowded.

Once inside, there are a limited number of lockers that you can store things in if you wish at no charge.


  • Open every day of the year, except for December 25th, from 10:00am-5:30pm
  • Between March and September the museum does sometimes stay open two hours later (until 7:30pm) to accommodate visitors.

How Long to Stay at Natural History Museum

It is simply impossible to explore the entire collection and would take your weeks just to see what was on display.

With all the attractions in DC, unless you have an extended stay or an intense love of Natural History, you'll likely want to hit the highlights.

Allow anywhere from 10-45 minutes to go through the security entrance line during busy season. The security is at the entrance so you can tell how long the line is outside - there is no interior line.

If it looks like it's long and moving slow, try the other entrance!

Once inside, the average guest stays for about 2 hours.

Highlights of the Natural History Museum

This museum covers the entire world! You can learn about various ecosystems and animal life from dinosaurs to dogs. There is something for everyone!

Here is a full list of exhibitions (, and we’ve listed some of our favorites below.

Please note that the museum does sometimes close exhibitions or remove objections for preservation work.

Natural History Museum Must-Sees

African Elephant

In the rotunda as you enter from the National Mall, you'll see a 12-ton, 14 foot tall African elephant. Learn about it as you can walk around it to see it from all angles.

Hope Diamond & Dom Pedro Aquamarine

The highlights of the gem collection, these two stones are both beautiful and rare. The Hope Diamond (its sordid history is covered on our Dupont Circle tour!) is a 45 carat, deep blue diamond. The Dom Pedro Aquamarine is a new addition. It is the world’s largest faceted aquamarine gem at 10,363 carats.

Butterfly Pavilion

This ticketed part of the museum features live butterflies and exotic plants. Admission is free on Tuesdays but tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis. Online reservations needed for other days except when its closed on Saturdays. The tropical environs allow you to see different varieties from all over the world.


Not just a chance to see some of the artifacts that you'd find in an Ancient Egyptian tomb (including mummies), this exhibit focuses on the science behind it. With hi-res images and scans, you can look inside the mummies.

Teddy Roosevelt's White Rhino

The Northern White Rhino is extinct in the wild and only survives in captivity. This specimen has been on display since 1913. It was part of President Theodore Roosevelt's trip to Africa as part of a Smithsonian expedition in 1909-10. It is the only Roosevelt specimen still on display. You can find it in the Kenneth Behring Family Hall of Mammals.

Check out our DC Tourism Guide, with budget advice, travel guides, and information about local Washington DC attractions

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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: May 21st, 2024
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