Our nation’s capital is chock-full of tourist attractions. If you’ve never been, a few destinations like the Presidential monuments, memorials and the National Mall are an obvious first stop. But that’s a matter of a single morning. After you’ve seen those, choosing what to see next can be challenging.
We’ve gathered all the best museums to visit in Washington, D.C., for people who’ve had their fill of marble statues. Some attractions are well-known and others are a bit off the beaten path, but they’re all worth the effort.
You can’t turn around in downtown D.C. without finding some worthy museum or another, which can be overwhelming if you’re only there for a short time. The Smithsonian Institution alone has 17 — seventeen! — renowned museums and galleries scattered around the city, all of which are FREE. All are fascinating and well-curated, so we encourage you to follow your heart as to which ones you should visit based on your personal interests. As someone who has been to almost all of them several times, here are some of my favorites.
National Museum of Natural History:
From the iconic elephant in its atrium to the Hope Diamond exhibit, this particular museum is one that never fails to enthrall. The Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, for example, has multiple rooms of jaw-dropping stones. It has an asteroid that you’re encouraged to touch and cut stones the size of your fist. The Hall of Fossils, just reopened after a five-year renovation project, features impressive fossil specimens and several interactive elements. A new exhibit looks at how climate change has impacted the planet over the years and is well worth perusing. Upstairs, almost hidden behind the Hall of Gems, is a golden gallery dedicated to Ancient Egypt that should not be overlooked.
National Museum of American History:
This museum is for American pop-culture aficionados. Some of the most impressive artifacts include the Star-Spangled Banner Flag, the top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln the night he was killed, and the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. My favorite exhibits are the replica Julia Child kitchen, the area dedicated to the Muppets, and the hall filled with gowns from each of the First Ladies of our nation.
National Museum of African American History and Culture:
Opened in 2016, this is one of the Smithsonian’s newest and most impressive museums. It’s also incredibly popular, so make sure you go online to reserve a timed entry pass well ahead of your visit. The museum covers almost every aspect of the African American experience, from slavery to the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Some of the most fascinating artifacts include a shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, training aircraft used by the Tuskegee Institute, and an invitation to President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Unlike many other Smithsonian museums, this one may be tough to cover in one visit, so it’s worth going more than once.
* Be sure to visit the Smithsonian Institution website for a full list of the museums that line the National Mall because these three are hardly the only museums worth visiting.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Located a few blocks from the Smithsonian museums, this is a breathtaking memorial that many visitors to the city miss. The museum is designed to accommodate its difficult subject matter over three floors. In between each floor of exhibits are rooms void of decoration or sound, so that people can have a calm place to gather themselves. I remember the docent informing me about these rooms, and wondering whether they were really necessary; They most certainly are. The Permanent Exhibition: The Holocaust is a gut-wrenching narrative history that will leave you reeling. It’s one thing to know intellectually that the horrors of the Holocaust happened, but it’s another entirely to be confronted with a boxcar full of victims’ discarded shoes. The personalization of this epic tragedy can be overwhelmingly emotional, so be sure to pause between floors for reflection. That said, the museum is one I recommend to everyone, because it is that important that we remember what happened. (Parents should be warned that the topic may be too much for elementary school-age children.)
International Spy Museum
Fans of James Bond and international intrigue should be sure to visit the International Spy Museum. The entry fee is steep compared to some of the others in town — $30 for one adult — but where else could you see a real lipstick pistol used by the KGB? Some artifacts are impressive — like the 1960s shoe with heel transmitter from Eastern Europe — while others are hysterically bizarre, like the CIA’s scrotum concealment devices used in the 1960s and ’70s. They have at least one of James Bond’s Aston Martins on display, the Enigma cipher machine, and a whole host of fascinating devices that were previously unknown to the public.
The Library of Congress
Ok, it’s not a museum, per se, but the Library of Congress is most definitely worth a look-see. Stepping into the Thomas Jefferson Building, you will be able to behold one of the most extraordinarily beautiful examples of Gilded Age architecture ever constructed. In addition to housing millions of our favorite things (ahem, books,) the Library of Congress also has several exhibits. In the Swann Gallery is a fantastic offering of political cartoons, comics, and animation art. Other exhibits include a recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s library — the collection of books that started the Library of Congress — an homage to Bob Hope and his impact on American society, Early American artifacts, and several others that are open on a rotating basis.