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National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photograph: Alan KarchmerNational Museum of African American History and Culture

The best museums in DC to visit during your next trip

From the Smithsonian to the Spy Museum, these are the best museums in DC to suit any interest

Written by
Laken Brooks
,
Riley Croghan
,
Holley Simmons
&
Katharine Rust
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Washington DC is the city of museums. Locals and tourists alike frequent the city's many exhibits, and who can blame them? These museums house everything: Instagrammable modern art installations, dinosaurs, and even the original Starship Enterprise. 

With the wide variety of museums, there's something in DC to please every visitor. Most of the iconic museums, like the National Museum of History, are a hop and a skip from the Smithsonian Metro exit – but pull on some comfy walking shoes and prepare to explore other sites off the beaten path. 

DC has dozens of museums and galleries nestled in neighborhoods across the city, so a museum crawl can feel more like a museum marathon. You'll find fabulous museums near Chinatown, Judiciary Square, Dupont Circle, and even up the scenic, hilly streets of Georgetown. Touring these far-flung exhibits can be the perfect way to explore different parts of the District.

Fortunately, you don't have to take the journey alone. Our freshly updated list of the best museums in DC will walk you through some of the best educational and entertaining experiences and attractions that the nation's capital has to offer. When you're done soaking up all the art, check out some of the best DC attractions and refuel at one of the best restaurants in Washington DC.

RECOMMENDED: The best things to do in Washington DC

Best museums in DC

  • Things to do

This museum has drawn huge crowds ever since its addition to the Mall in 2016. The museum is 400,000 square feet, so visitors can spend hours learning more about African American history. The four stories above street level represent only half of the museum. Four below-grade floors provide a sprawling chronological journey of the moments and events that have shaped African American history. Guests can also use the museum's online collection to search through the scores of artifacts, from Zora Neale Hurston's commencement gown to some of Will Calhoun's drums. Admission is free, but visitors must reserve timed-entry passes. 

  • Art
  • Galleries

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) houses a collection of more than 4,500 works by more than 1,000 women from the 16th century to the present. Highlights to the permanent exhibit include Renaissance artist Lavinia Fontana’s dynamic Portrait of a Noblewoman, Frida Kahlo’s defiant 1937 self-portrait Between the Curtains as well as works by Elisabetta Sirani, Alma Woodsey Thomas, Barbara Hepworth and Louise Bourgeois. There are also special collections of 17th-century botanical prints by Maria Sibylla Merian and works by British and Irish women silversmiths from the 17th to 19th centuries. The museum hosts free community days every other week, on the first and third Sundays of each month.

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Note: The Freer Gallery of Art will reopen July 16. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will be closed through November 2021 for construction. 

Despite being split between two buildings and its prime location on the mall, this museum is easy to overlook. The Sackler building seems like a small, one-story room. But once you step inside, you’ll discover an impressive array of Asian art and a passageway to the larger Freer gallery. 

The museum started with Charles Lang Freer’s private collection of art and its crown jewel is The Peacock Room – a dining room decorated by James McNeill Whistler and stocked with a gorgeous array of porcelain. The rest of the collection includes Japanese, Chinese, and Indian masterpieces, among others. 

  • Museums
  • History

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 Mitsitam Native Foods Café offers a stunning collection of dishes inspired by Indigenous cuisines.)

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. The museum is also curated with art in a wide variety of mediums from a diverse assortment of Indigenous American nations. Artwork includes film, photography, pottery, textiles, woodworking, and much more. 

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  • Museums
  • Art and design

Note: This attraction will reopen August 20.

This spectacular, aggressively modern cylindrical building enlivens the predominantly neoclassical architecture lining the Mall. The structure, which was completed in 1974, was meant 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. The museum has housed some of the most-hyped visiting exhibitions on earth, from Ai Weiwei’s Trace to Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors. Don't miss the sculpture garden, which includes works from Rodin, Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder.  

This museum’s entrance pavilion lies across the amazing Enid Haupt Garden, directly across from its twin, the Sackler. The museum opened in 1987, and its primary focus is ancient and contemporary work from sub-Saharan Africa. The museum draws visitors into different aspects of African art and culture. The rich ceremonial garb and textiles, including blankets made in Mali and embroidered hunters’ shirts, are a must-see.  

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  • Museums
  • Art and design

The Renwick's informal motto might be "go big or go home." The museum is popular for its interactive exhibits and large-scale modern art pieces. 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 2015 “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. 

  • Museums
  • Art and design

Note: The museum will reopen fully on July 30.

Air & Space tops visitors’ to-do list, year in, year out. 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 see 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. Carve out three to four hours and don't miss the test model of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is currently orbiting in space taking snap-shots of the universe. 

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  • Museums
  • Art and design

The Museum of Natural History is iconic on the Mall. The museum boasts longtime favorites like the Hope Diamond, which has been drawing crowds for over sixty years, and state of the art exhibits like the Hall of Mammals. The recently renovated Hall of Fossils is a must-see – visitors may feel like they've traveled back in time. But don't worry, these dinosaurs don't bite. Dinosaur fossils are posed interacting with each other, even engaged in life-and-death battles.

  • Museums
  • History
  • Southwest

This three-floor museum contains more than 900 artifacts and four theaters showing archival footage and survivor testimony from the Holocaust. Themes such as the murder of the disabled, Nazi eugenics and resistance, and Jewish resistence all present a chronological history of the event.

The 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. Guests should consider reserving their tickets beforehand since wait lines can be long. 

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  • Museums
  • Art and design

The National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum take up two sides of the same interconnected building. Among the most notable portraits is Gilbert Stuart’s seminal “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington and Andy Warhol’s iconic Marilyn. The Portrait Gallery houses the only complete collection of U.S. Presidents' portraits, while the American Art Museum houses prominent works by American artists including Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe. Free timed entry passes are required.

Unlike many other museums in the area, the dual musuems also include an open, airy courtyard – the perfect place to rest, eat lunch, read a book, or splash your feet in the flowing water fountains.

  • Art
  • Galleries
  • National Mall

Comprising 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.

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. Don't miss Leonardo da Vinci’s almond-eyed portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, the only work of the artist in the Western Hemisphere.

The East Building represents more current work, including a skylit atrium that houses a 32-foot long still mobile by Alexander Calder. Stroll through 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. Free timed entry passes are required.

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Note: This museum will reopen on August 27.

The Postal Museum is perhaps the most obscure of the Smithsonian’s offerings. A museum devoted to postal history and philately (stamp collecting) may sound like a hard sell, but there’s a trove of interactive and entertaining exhibits housed within the skeleton of what was once the enormous DC City Post Office.

Check out the permanent exhibit “Mail Marks History,” which boasts some important and surprisingly poignant artefacts, including a letter mailed from aboard the Titanic. Pick out stamps from around the globe to start your own stamp collection. Write and ship a postcard directly from the museum. And go to the downstairs level of the museum to explore how mail has traveled across the country on trains, planes, and carriages.

  • Museums
  • History

The continuing transformation of the National Museum of American History led to the closing of the west wing for renovation in 2012. Since its reopening, hordes of visitors have been 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. We love 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. Free timed-entry tickets are required.

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  • Museums
  • Judiciary Square

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. Fittingly, the building itself is gorgeous: an Italian Renaissance-style Great Hall features eight colossal 75-foot Corinthian columns that lead to ceiling 15 stories above. The museum also creates a community exhibit each summer where visitors can see the Great Hall transformed into a ball pit, a lawn with hammocks and water features, or other wonderland. 

  • Museums
  • Penn Quarter

The world of DC’s prestige paid-entry museums was shaken up dramatically in 2019, with the Newseum closing indefinitely and the International Spy Museum moving to sleek new digs in L’Enfant Plaza. In its larger space, the museum boasts many exhibits that lean so hard into “infotainment” that a trip can feel less like learning about spies and more like a game of pretending to be one. Test your sleuthing abilities and gawk at an array of spy gadgets, including KGB-issued poison pellet shooting umbrellas and Germany’s Steineck ABC wristwatch camera. James Bond junkies will be in heaven—the groovy silver Aston Martin from 1964’s Goldfinger assumes a central spot in the museum. 

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