The best museums in DC will make you love our capital even more

Get cultured at these museums in DC, each one offering different kinds of enticing art exhibits
Photograph: Alan Karchmer National Museum of African American History and Culture
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Few cities in the country have as many free, family-friendly and—most importantly—fun museums as Washington D.C. does. The District is home to some seriously prestigious works of art (including the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Western Hemisphere, at the National Gallery of Art) as well as a magnificent crown jewel: the Smithsonian Institution, which is made up of 19 different museums and galleries (and the zoo). Our list of the best museums in the city of course includes the must-see galleries on the National Mall, along with a few off-the-beaten path picks that are popular among visitors in-the-know and residents.

Museums in DC

1
National Air & Space Museum
Museums, Art and design

National Air & Space Museum

Air & Space tops visitors’ to-do list, year in, year out. The imposing Tennessee marble modernist block, by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, incorporates three skylit, double-height galleries, which house missiles, aircraft and space stations. In the central Milestones of Flight hall, towering US Pershing-II and Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles stand next to the popular moon rock station, where visitors can stroke a lunar sample acquired on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. The 1903 Wright Flyer—the first piloted craft to maintain controlled, sustained flight (if only for a few seconds)—and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis are both suspended here.

Must-see: Permanent exhibitions in the museum detail the history of jet aviation, space travel and satellite communications. The one most worthy of your time? A test model of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is currently orbiting in space taking snap-shots of the Universe.

Carve out: 3-4 hours. You’ll want to take your time here (plus, crowds can be overwhelming.) We recommend three to four hours, plus a swing by the gift shop for some astronaut ice cream.

2
National Gallery of Art
Photograph: Elan Fleisher
Art, Galleries

National Gallery of Art

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Comprised of two separate buildings connected by a trippy underground moving walkway, the National Gallery of Art is a world-class museum with artwork from around the globe that spans decades. The West Building highlights European and American art from the 13th to the early 20th centuries, as well as Spanish, Dutch, Flemish, French and German works from the 17th century. The East Building represents more current work, including a skylit atrium that houses a 32-foot long still mobile by Alexander Calder. And don’t miss the sculpture garden, a six-acre square across 7th Street the includes a Louise Bourgeois 10-foot bronze spider and a pyramid by Sol LeWitt.

Must-see: Leonardo da Vinci’s almond-eyed portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, the only work of the artist in the Western Hemisphere.

Carve out: 3 hours. Which gives you 1.5 hours in each building.

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3
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photograph: Alan Karchmer
Things to do

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The newest addition to the Mall, this eight-story museum continuously draws huge crowds. In other words, it might be hard to gain admittance. The reverential collection pays tribute to the historical figures, moments and events that shaped the African American experience. Exhibits are thorough and plentiful (to truly experience it would take days) and the cafeteria, Sweet Home Cafe, caught the eyes of the James Beard Foundation, which named it a semi-finalist in the best new restaurant category in 2017.

Must-see: The Musical Crossroads exhibit, which has a pair of shoes owned by Sammy Davis Jr. along with Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac.

Carve out: 3 hours at least to explore 85,000 square feet of exhibition space which holds nearly 3000 objects.

4
National Museum of American History
Museums, History

National Museum of American History

The continuing transformation of the National Museum of American History led to the closing of the west wing for renovation in 2012. Now that it’s re-opened, hordes of visitors seem to be making up for lost time. A first-stage renovation (completed 2008) created a central atrium, a grand staircase, ten-foot artifact walls on the first and second floors, as well as a dedicated Star-Spangled Banner gallery. Floors are organized around loose themes, allowing a huge diversity of exhibits to tell American stories in an entertaining and informative manner.

Must-see: Do we have to pick just one? We’re torn between the dresses of the First Ladies and Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. Oh! And there’s Julia Child’s actual kitchen and a Dumbo car from Disneyland’s Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride.

Carve out: 3 hours. At least—maybe longer if you’re with wee ones.

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5
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Museums, History

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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Since opening in 1993, the Holocaust Museum has attracted legions of visitors. The three-floor museum contains more than 900 artifacts and four theaters showing archival footage and survivor testimony. Themes, such as murder of the disabled, Nazi eugenics and resistance, present a chronological history of the Nazi holocaust. The photo- and text-intensive accounts of events and atrocities unfold dispassionately, but objects and symbols make powerful impressions: thousands of camp victims’ shoes piled in a heap personalize the losses. While the main exhibition is suitable for children of 11 and over only, a specially designed children’s exhibition, “Daniel’s Story,” at ground level, is presented to children of eight and over and teaches about the holocaust through the story of one boy.

Must-see: The Hall of Remembrance, the national memorial to victims of the Holocaust, is a simple, windowless space with a high central skylight of translucent glass.

Carve out: At least 2 hours. And be sure to have plans for something uplifting afterwards, as this museum leaves a lingering impact.

6
Hirshhorn
Photograph: Shutterstock
Museums, Art and design

Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

This spectacular, aggressively modern cylindrical building by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill enlivens the predominantly neoclassical architecture lining the Mall. The purpose of the structure, which was completed in 1974, was to house self-made Wall Street millionaire Joseph Hirshhorn’s collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture. The museum now presents art in a range of media, including works on paper, painting, installation, photography, sculpture, digital and video art.

Must-see: The sculpture garden, which includes works from Rodin, Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder.

Carve out: 2 hours. Plus 30 minutes for the sculpture garden.

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7
Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery
Museums, Art and design

Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery features people who played a role in the shaping of the nation and its culture, with figures as diverse as Pocahontas and Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the US Girl Scouts. Among the most notable portraits is Gilbert Stuart’s seminal “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington. The American Art Museum is conjoined through a hallway and houses prominent works by Americans including Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe.

Must-see: The 20th-Century Americans wing of the Portrait Gallery. Andy Warhol’s iconic Marilyn is here, alongside a striking kitsch-classical Elvis by Ralph W Cowan.

Carve out: 4 hours. Because this is two museums in one building, there’s lots to see. Take your time.

8
National Museum of Natural History
Photograph: Shutterstock
Museums, Art and design

National Museum of Natural History

The gem at the heart of the Museum of Natural History is a state-of-the-art IMAX cinema and an 80,000-square-foot brushed steel and granite Discovery Center housing a cafeteria and exhibition space. The rotunda, too, is an impressive structure, dominated by an eight-ton African elephant. In 2003, the museum’s restored west wing opened its glistening, 25,000-square-foot Kenneth E Behring Hall of Mammals, featuring interactive displays alongside 274 taxidermied animals striking dramatic poses.

Must-see: No trip to the Natural History museum is complete without a peek at the Hope Diamond. Purchased in 1668 by King Louis XIV of France (then clocking in at 115 carats), the Hope Diamond is today 45-carats and has attracted over 1 million visitors.

Carve out: 3 hours. You’ll want at least three hours for the mineral and gem hall, the ocean hall and the live insect zoo.

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9
National Museum of the American Indian
© Sarah Bourn
Museums, History

National Museum of the American Indian

Dedicated to America’s colonized and historically abused indigenous people, the National Museum of the American Indian joined the Mall in 2004, bringing with it significant Native American artifacts and a renowned cafeteria. The structure was designed by a Native American team; the building is as much a part of the message as the exhibits. The details are extraordinary: dramatic, Kasota limestone-clad undulating walls resemble a wind-carved mesa; the museum’s main entrance plaza plots the star configurations on November 28, 1989, the date that federal legislation was introduced to create the museum.

Must-see: The wide array of ceremonial garments, from headdresses to bead-adorned moccasins.

Carve out: 3 hours. The museum holds over 825,000 items, so you’ll want to take your time. Allot at least three hours—which should include a bite at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, a stunning collection of dishes inspired by indigenous cuisines.

10
Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Museums, Art and design

Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Following a $30 million renovation that wrapped up in 2015, the Renwick is a far cry from its former self. Perhaps best known for its blockbuster, much-Instagrammed “Wonder” exhibit, this Smithsonian museum celebrates craft and design in the digital age. Other notable exhibits have included the quirky “Murder Is Her Hobby,” a collection of gruesome doll houses used to help detectives solve crime scenes. The permanent collection includes over 80 objects that marry craft with innovation.

Must-see: Whatever temporary exhibit is currently on display.

Carve out: 1.5 hours. Though the exhibits are cool, it doesn’t take too long to experience them all and snap an Instagram shot.

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