Visiting the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC

FAQs About the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution building (The Castle) and Enid A. Haupt garden
Courtesy of Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution (also called Smithsonian) is a museum and research complex, comprised of 20 museums and galleries, and the National Zoological Park. The total number of objects, works of art, and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated at nearly 156 million.

The collections range from insects and meteorites to locomotives and spacecraft. The scope of artifacts is staggering—from a magnificent collection of ancient Chinese bronzes to the Star-Spangled Banner; from a 3.5 billion-year-old fossil to the Apollo lunar landing module; from the ruby slippers featured in "The Wizard of Oz" to presidential paintings and memorabilia.

Through a long-term loan program, the Smithsonian shares its vast collections and expertise with more than 216 affiliate museums around the country.

Where Is the Smithsonian Museum?

The Smithsonian is a federal institution with multiple museums scattered throughout Washington, DC. Ten of the museums are located from 3rd Street to 14th Street, between Constitution and Independence Avenues, within a radius of about one mile. Consult a map of the area.

The Smithsonian Visitor Center is located in the Castle at 1000 Jefferson Drive SW, Washington, DC. It is located in the center of the National Mall, just a short walk from the Smithsonian Metro Station.

How Do You Get to the Smithsonian?

The use of public transportation is highly recommended. Parking is minimal, and traffic is often heavy near Washington DC’s most popular attractions. Metrorail is conveniently located near many Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo. The DC Circulator Bus also offers a quick and convenient service around the downtown area.

What Are the Admission Fees and Hours?

Admission is free. The museums are open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. seven days a week, every day throughout the year, except for Christmas Day. During the summer months, hours are extended until 7 p.m. at the Air and Space Museum, Museum of Natural History, Museum of American History, American Art Museum, and National Portrait Gallery.

What Are the Most Popular Smithsonian Museums for Kids?

What Special Activities Are There for Kids?

  • Check the daily calendar of events.
  • The Carousel on the National Mall, near the Arts and Industries Building, is open year-round, weather permitting.
  • Discovery Theater offers live theatrical performances for children.
  • IMAX Theaters project films on a five-story-high screen with six-channel digital surround sound.
  • The Einstein Planetarium gives you the sensation of zooming across the skies and through the galaxy.

Where Should We Eat While Visiting the Smithsonian?

The museum cafes are expensive and often crowded but are the most convenient place to eat lunch. Another option is to pack a picnic and eat on the grassy areas on the National Mall. For just a few dollars, you can buy a hotdog and a soda from a street vendor. Are you looking for a restaurant or other dining near the mall? Take a look at this guide–Restaurants and Dining on the National Mall.

What Security Measures Do the Smithsonian Museums Take?

The Smithsonian's buildings conduct a thorough hand-check of all bags, briefcases, purses, and containers. At most of the museums, visitors are required to walk through a metal detector, and bags are scanned through x-ray machines.

The Smithsonian suggests that visitors bring only a small purse or "fanny-pack" style bag. Large daypacks, backpacks, or luggage will be subject to a lengthy search. Items not permitted include knives, firearms, screwdrivers, scissors, nail files, corkscrews, pepper spray, and so forth.

Are the Smithsonian Museums Handicapped Accessible?

Washington, DC, is one of the most disabled accessible cities in the world. Accessibility of all of the Smithsonian buildings is not without flaws, but the Institution continues to work to improve its deficiencies.

The museums and the Zoo have wheelchairs that can be borrowed, free of charge, for use within each facility.

Getting from one museum to another is a challenge for the disabled. Renting a motorized scooter is highly recommended. Read more about disabled access in Washington, DC.

Pre-arranged tours can be scheduled for the hearing and visually impaired.

How Was the Smithsonian Established and Who Was James Smithson?

The Smithsonian was established in 1846 by an Act of Congress with funds donated by James Smithson (1765-1829). Mr. Smithson was a British scientist who left his estate to the United States to found “at Washington, "under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

How Is the Smithsonian Funded?

The Institution is about 70 percent federally funded. In the fiscal year 2019, the federal appropriation was approximately $957 million. The remainder of the funding comes from contributions from corporations, foundations and individuals, and revenues from Smithsonian Enterprises (gift shops, restaurants, IMAX theaters, and so forth).

What Is the Smithsonian Associates?

The Smithsonian Associates offers a variety of educational and cultural programs including lectures, courses, studio art classes, tours, performances, films, summer camp programs, and more. Members receive discounts and eligibility for special programs and travel opportunities. For more information, see the Smithsonian Associates website.

How Are Artifacts Added to the Smithsonian Collections?

Most artifacts are donated to the Smithsonian by individuals, private collectors, and federal agencies—NASA, the U.S. Postal Service, the Department of the Interior, the Defense Department, the U.S. Treasury, and the Library of Congress.

Thousands of items are also acquired through field expeditions, bequests, purchases, exchanges with other museums and organizations. In the case of living plants and animals, additions are from birth and propagation.

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