Washington, DC’s museums rank among the country’s most prestigious, and include some of the best art museums in America—think the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of African Art. Among the very best museums in DC, you’ll find the world’s largest museum and research complex, the Smithsonian Institution—19 museums and galleries (and the National Zoo)—and federally funded institutions lining the National Mall that top the list of the best free things to do in DC. But don’t overlook quirky institutions outside the realm of government subsidies, including the popular International Spy Museum—they’re among the best museums in DC as well. Here we round them all up and tell you the best things to do when you visit.
Best museums in DC
Dedicated to America’s colonized and historically abused indigenous people, the National Museum of the American Indian is the most recent addition to the Mall’s museum ring—a status it will lose once the National Museum of African American History Culture opens. 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 28 November 1989, the date that federal legislation was introduced to create the museum.
Top exhibit: 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.
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.
Top exhibit: 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.
The impressive annex to the National Air and Space Museum is home to hordes of space and aviation artifacts, including the restored Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. It’s perhaps more for the adult aviation enthusiast than its counterpart on the National Mall—but kids will still get a kick out of the sheer spectacle of the exhibits on display here. Plus, there’s a flight simulator that kids and the young-at-heart will get a kick out of.
Top exhibit: The space shuttle Discovery, which has a hangar just about all to itself. Can you believe that thing has been to outer space and back?
Carve out: 2 hours. It’s smaller than the one on the National Mall and there’s not much else to see nearby.
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.
Top exhibit: 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.
This museum’s entrance pavilion, designed by Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, lies across the amazing Enid Haupt Garden from its twin, the Sackler. The primary focus of the collection, which opened in 1987, is ancient and contemporary work from sub-Saharan Africa. The museum offers a changing selection of "highlights", drawing viewers into different aspects of African art and—by extension—culture.
Top exhibit: The rich ceremonial garb and textiles, including blankets made in Mali and embroidered hunters’ shirts.
Carve out: 1.5 hours. The museum is relatively small, but densely packed.
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.
Top exhibit: 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.
The vast collection of the National Archive & Record Administration (NARA) represents the physical record of the birth and growth of a nation in original documents, maps, photos, recordings, films and a miscellany of objects. The catalogue resonates with national iconography and historical gravitas (and pathos), and includes the Louisiana Purchase, maps of Lewis and Clark’s explorations, the Japanese World War II surrender document, the gun that shot JFK, the Watergate tapes and documents of national identity (collectively known as the Charters of Freedom). Nearby is one of the original copies of the Magna Carta. The Public Vaults, where most of the documents on permanent display are housed, has over 1,000 items on display at any one time.
Top exhibit: Just a little document known as the Declaration of Independence!
Carve out: 1.5 hours. Though significant, most of these items are—after all—just pieces of paper and not much to look at.
A privately run collection, the National Building Museum produces smart, noteworthy exhibits focusing on architects and the built environment, both contemporary and historical. Among the exhibitions, House & Home discovers the history and many meanings of "home", both physical and cultural, with an array of all things household, from household goods and decorations (including a poster of Farrah Fawcett and a fondue set), to building materials to mortgage papers.
Top exhibit: The building’s Italian Renaissance-style Great Hall, with its central fountain and eight colossal 75-foot Corinthian columns: visitors crane their necks for a vertiginous look at the ceiling 15 stories above.
Carve out: 1.5 hours. The museum is small and you should be able to take it all in without missing anything.
The line of stands by the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance, filled with copies of today’s front pages from newspapers around the world, draws passers-by to this museum dedicated to journalism and free speech, which opened in 2008. The museum’s mission is further clarified by a huge marble tablet stretching most of the height of the striking, blue-gray rectilinear building, engraved with the words of the First Amendment, guaranteeing free speech. One of the world’s largest glass hydraulic elevators speeds visitors straight to Level 6, and one of the city’s most magnificent panoramas (there’s a clear view of the Capitol from the terrace), as well as a display of more than 80 front pages from around the world.
Top exhibit: The gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, which includes every award-winning photo from 1942 on, including Babe Ruth’s final public appearance at Yankee Stadium and a sobering photo from the Kent State University shooting.
Carve out: 3 hours. At least. Not only is there a ton to see, but admission to this museum is steep and you’ll want to savor your time here.
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.
Top exhibit: The sculpture garden, which includes works from Rodin, Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder.
Carve out: 2 hours. Plus 30 minutes for the sculpture garden.