Washington, D.C. has dozens of wonderful museums that will appeal to virtually any traveler's interests. From large publicly funded institutions to small historic homes, get ready to learn a great deal and find some welcome surprises when you visit many of DC’s museums—and bonus, all of the Smithsonian Institution museums are blissfully free to the public.
There is something for everyone at this world-renowned museum. Natural history appeals to all ages and there are so many artifacts that you can’t possibly see them all in one visit. The dinosaur exhibits are fascinating and great for kids. The Family Hall of Mammals is especially fun to explore as well as the Sant Ocean Hall. Then there's the cinematography and scenery in the IMAX films that's so stunning you'll wish you had time to see them all.
Visiting Tips: This is the most popular Washington, D.C. museum for families. Arrive early in the morning to avoid crowds. Purchase IMAX tickets in advance or as soon as you arrive. If you are visiting with kids, be sure to see the Discovery Room where there are lots of hands-on activities. Allow at least 2-3 hours.
This fabulous museum gives visitors a close-up view of air and space travel with 22 exhibition galleries, displaying hundreds of artifacts including the original Wright 1903 Flyer, the "Spirit of St. Louis," and the Apollo 11 command module. Some of the favorite exhibits include "Golden Age of Flight," "How Things Fly," "The Wright Brother and the Invention of the Aerial Age," and "Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall." The IMAX films and the Planetarium are great for all ages.
Visiting Tips: This is one of the busiest Washington, D.C. museums. Arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid crowds. Purchase IMAX or Planetarium tickets in advance or as soon as you arrive. Allow at least 2-3 hours. There’s also an annex location near Dulles International Airport, The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which can be easier to get to from the suburbs and is usually not as crowded as the National Mall location.
The museum is a memorial to the millions of Jews who died during the Nazi regime in Germany during World War II. The exhibits tell the horrific story of genocide and teach the dangers of hatred and prejudice. Visiting this museum is an emotional experience so be sure that you have enough time and stamina. The permanent exhibits are not recommended for children under 11 years old. There is a separate exhibit for ages 8 and up that tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of a young boy.
Visiting Tips: Free Timed Passes are required for the permanent exhibit. Timed passes are distributed for the same day on a first come, first served basis. Allow 2-3 hours.
The home of George Washington is often overlooked by visitors because it is located outside of the city. It is a “must see” attraction. If you visited years ago, it is worth a second look. The estate is set along the shores of the Potomac River and is the most scenic tourist attraction in the Washington, D.C. area. The historic mansion is restored and decorated as it was when Washington lived there. The museum and education center features 25 state-of-the-art galleries and theaters that tell the story of Washington's life. This is a great attraction and has plenty of interactive activities for the whole family.
Visiting Tips: Arrive early to avoid crowds. Visit the Mansion first as it is usually the most crowded. Be sure to take time to wander the grounds and check out the scenic views. Check the schedule for special programming. Sign up ahead for a guided tour or attend a special event. Allow at least 4 hours.
See national treasures from Julia Child's kitchen to First Ladies' dresses at this museum that safeguards more than 3 million artifacts. The original Star-Spangled Banner flag is one of the most popular attractions.
Visiting Tips: Check out the museum's calendar to find out about any daily programming events. Rent an audio guide to explore the museum's new wing "The Nation We Build Together" with narration from the likes of Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. Or download free self-guided tours here to use on your smartphone.
For cutting-edge modern and contemporary art, don't miss the Hirshhorn. It's a Smithsonian museum located in a stunning, drum-shaped building. After walking the gallery, head downstairs to the gift shop and Barbara Kruger's installation, which fills the Lower Level lobby.
Visiting Tips: Free 45-minute tours are available every daily at at 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Meet a Gallery Guide at the lobby information desk at that time if you're interested. Or hang out in local coffee chain Dolcezza's new cafe in the refreshed lobby space, designed by artist Hiroshi Sugimoto and unveiled in 2018.
This sprawling museum spans two buildings, with an East and West Wing and countless priceless artworks from Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, John Singleton Copley, Johannes Vermeer, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and more famed artists.
Visiting Tips: Check out the schedule of daily, free docent-led tours here. Starting in May through the end of August, relax in the museum's gorgeous sculpture garden and enjoy performances from the "Jazz in the Garden" series.
Dupont Circle's The Phillips Collection is not to be missed for art lovers, with pieces by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. The Rothko Room with four paintings by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko is a particular favorite.
Visiting Tips: Tickets run from $8 to $12 per visitor, and visitors age 18 and under are free. The first Thursday of every month is "Phillips after 5," a popular event that runs from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. (buy tickets in advance if you can).
The newest Smithsonian museum, this moving 400,000-square-foot chronicles the African American experience with more than 37,000 artifacts in its collection. That includes Nat Turner's bible, a WWII plane used by the Tuskegee Airmen, and a dress worn worn by Rosa Parks.
Visiting Tips: More than 3.5 million visitors have walked through the doors since opening. Since the museum is so popular, most visitors snag timed entry passes, although a limited number of walk-up passes are available.
Explore The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)'s collections of Native artifacts, housed in a striking curved building surrounded by indigenous landscaping.
Visiting Tips: The museum's acclaimed Mitsitam Cafe is a favorite for tourists on the National Mall, where you'll find Native foods like corn totopos and fry bread along with modern takes on traditional dishes like buffalo burgers.
Kids love looking at spy gadgets and cameras at the International Spy Museum, not to mention the interactive spy missions you can try out here. The museum is planning a move to a high-tech new building at L’Enfant Plaza soon.
Visiting Tips: Tickets for the museum start at $22.95 for adults, $16.95 for seniors, and $14.95 for children ages 7 to 11, and children under 6 are free. See all the admission prices on their website.
Visit the National Archives' Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, which is home of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Visiting Tips: Reservations aren't required to enter the National Archives Museum through the General Public Entrance. But the museum strongly suggests making a reservation between March and Labor Day to avoid potentially long lines outside.
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
See presidential portraits at this Smithsonian museum, including newly-revealed paintings of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. Besides portraits of influential Americans, don't miss the serene glass-ceilinged Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard.
Visiting Tips: The Portrait Gallery shares its grand building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, so combine two museums in one trip.
Asia meets America is the theme for these two Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. The Freer includes James McNeill Whistler's famed Peacock Room, while both museums include masterpieces of Asian art.
Visiting Tips: Download the Freer Thinking Audio App, which uses your location on your phone to alert you to museum highlights.