Washington, D.C. Travel Guide
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The 23 Best Museums in Washington D.C.

It’s not just about the Smithsonian in the nation’s capital; a whole world of singular museums awaits.

Everyone knows about the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC’s crown jewel of museums and research centers established in 1846 “for the increased and diffusion of knowledge.” They’re among the world’s most visited museums and a major reason why millions of tourists traipse around the nation’s capital every year. But the best museums in DC extend above and beyond the Smithsonian, including entire entities devoted to the news (the Newseum), spies (International Spy Museum), and solely women artists (National Museum of Women in the Arts). Large and small, eclectic and unique, they span a world of natural and cultural curiosities. Here are the best museums in DC, Smithsonian and not.

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National Gallery of Art

One of the world’s finest collections of Western art, the National Gallery of Art on the National Mall is where you come to see rooms full of Old Masters and Impressionists (in the neoclassical West Building) and their more modern contemporaries (in the I.M. Pei-designed East Building). A gift of Pittsburgh banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon in 1937 to the American people, the collection continues to expand—from the original 126 paintings and 26 sculptures, there are now more than 124,000 artworks and ever growing (with 900 or so on display at one time). Highlights include Auguste Renoir’s “A Girl with a Watering Can,” Wayne Thiebaud’s “Cakes,” and North America’s only da Vinci, Ginevra de’ Benci (be sure to peek at the emblematic portrait on its back side). The Sculpture Garden across the street showcases larger-than-life sculptures.

INSIDER TIPKeep an eye out for the blockbuster exhibits that come through—Munch, Cézanne, and Fragonard are recent examples—accompanied by a full accompaniment of lectures, concerts, and related menu at the Garden Café.  

General Admission: Free

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National Museum of African American History and Culture

The epic National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall opened in 2016 to great fanfare, making it one of the top Washington D.C. attractions. You start at the lowest level, in the depths of the earth, symbolizing the devastating journey formerly enslaved people took from Africa into a life of servitude. The exhibits, spanning the Civil War, Restoration, Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and more, don’t shy away from the horrific realities, forcing visitors to examine some brutal truths of America’s very foundation. On the upper levels, African-American arts and culture are celebrated with original artifacts, including Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Marian Anderson’s red-orange silk dress, which she wore while singing at her famous Easter Sunday concert in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial (after being rebuked from Constitution Hall).

General Admission: Free. Required timed passes, available only online, are still difficult to obtain, as the museum remains one of the top Washington DC attractions; you must reserve months in advance. Otherwise, a small number of same-day tickets are released online at 6:30 am.

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The Phillips Collection

Visitors flock to the Phillips Collection for one famous painting in particular: Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” acquired by museum founder and art collector Duncan Phillips in 1923. But you’ll find plenty of other masterpieces in this intimate house museum in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, established in 1921 and reigning as the country’s first contemporary art museum. What truly sets the collection apart is the fact that Phillips was more interested in paintings that spoke to him more than their market value—though his instinct for singular works was spot-on. The chapel-like Rothko Room was designed to the artist’s precise specifications.

INSIDER TIPJoin Washingtonians for Phillips After 5, a popular after-work event featuring live music, gallery talks, food, and a cash bar; be sure to reserve ahead.

 

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National Museum of Women in the Arts

The elegant Renaissance Revival-style building in downtown DC is the perfect setting for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the world’s only major museum devoted to women’s contributions to the arts. You’ll find the big hitters here, including Camille Claudel, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo, as well as lesser-knowns, including Lavinia Fontana, Rosa Bonheur, and Justine Kurland. In total, more than 4,500 paintings span the 16th century to modern day.

INSIDER TIPA lively calendar of events includes gallery talks, art workshops, and concerts.

General Admission: $10

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PHOTO: James Di Loreto / Smithsonian
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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

You’ll need all day to explore the massive Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, covering everything from mammals to human origins (including replicas of ancient paintings) to gems and minerals to dinosaur fossils—more than 126 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts in total. If it’s all a tad overwhelming, start off by seeking out the most famous exhibitions: the African Bush Elephant in the entrance rotunda, the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond, and the Indo-Pacific coral reef swarming with tropical fishies. You’ll be curious to explore further from there, guaranteed.

INSIDER TIPWalk among clouds of butterflies in the Butterfly Pavilion (free on Tuesdays, small fee all other days; obtain tickets online in advance).

General Admission: Free

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PHOTO: Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum
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Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Be prepared to be wowed as you enter the Boeing Milestones of Flight, a great hall in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum filled with historic celebrity air- and spacecraft—Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis among them. From there, twenty-two galleries take you through the story of our fascination with flight, showcasing digital displays, artifacts, and interactive exhibits. Touch a veritable moon rock, climb into a giant Boeing 747 cockpit, and test your skills at air-to-air combat in an F-4 Phantom II jet fighter. No wonder it’s one of the top Washington D.C. attractions.

INSIDER TIPLearn even more about the air- and spacecraft on display by visiting COPILOT on your mobile phone.

General Admission: Free

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Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The Smithsonian Institution is often referred to as the nation’s attic, and there’s no place more obvious of the fact than at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, a repository of America’s most important artifacts. We’re talking amazing stuff like the Star-Spangled Banner, Julia Child’s Kitchen, Abraham Lincoln’s Top Hat, Judy Garland’s Ruby Red Slippers, even the First Ladies’ Inaugural Gowns. The museum, covering everything from transportation to food to the President’s role to innovation, has three million artifacts in total, with only three to five percent on display at any one time.

INSIDER TIPDocents stationed throughout the museum offer quickie overview tours; ask at the info desk for their locations.

General Admission: Free

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Newseum

The state-of-the-art Newseum is devoted to exactly what you think it is—the news. Fifteen galleries and fifteen state-of-the-art theaters delve into the role of free press in democracy, past and present. Among the exhibits, you’ll find 400 historic front pages dating back to the 1400s, the largest section of the Berlin Wall outside Germany (and an explanation on how a free press helped bring down the wall), and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs. The Knight TV Studio is a real-life studio that has hosted Good Morning America segments, while “I-Witness” Is a 4-D movie introducing some of history’s greatest reporters, including Nellie Bly and Edward R. Murrow.

INSIDER TIPBe sure to take a gander from the Greenspun Terrace on Level Six; overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall.

General Admission: The tickets are not cheap at $24.95, but they’re good for two consecutive days—and you’ll want to return, given the amount of fascinating info in this primo museum.

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National Archives

This sacred marble National Archives near the National Mall houses the nation’s most important documents: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. You’ll find them in the hushed rotunda encased in bulletproof cases. But those are just the superstars of a repository numbering more than 10 billion super-important Federal papers dating back to 1774, plus millions of maps, charts, drawings, photos, motion picture films—and 133 terabytes of electronic data. The David M. Rubenstein Gallery interprets some of America’s most important crossroads, including the civil rights struggle, immigration, and the women’s suffrage movement, while the Public Vaults showcase original records, covering everything from Federal investigations to Congressional flying saucer hearings to the Nuremberg trials.

INSIDER TIPYou can conduct archival research in the research center entered via Pennsylvania Avenue, including genealogical info such as births, dates, and census info on family; immigrant ships’ passenger lists; and maps dating from America’s earliest days.

General Admission: Free

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Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

Where are the books? That’s the first question everyone asks when entering the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, the world’s largest library. Indeed, the Grand Hall resembles a veritable Italian-Renaissance palazzo rather than a library, with marble statues, mural mosaics, and architectural flourishes. You can peer down on the octagonal Main Reading Room, with 250 desks beneath a towering dome, while side galleries contain permanent and temporary exhibits pulling from the library’s vast collection. The books, by the way, more than 39 million of them (plus millions of recordings, photographs, maps, sheet music, manuscripts, even baseball cards), can be found tucked away on approximately 838 miles of shelves.

INSIDER TIPThe Library of Congress, perched across the street from the Capitol, is surrounded by a plethora of noble marble buildings and flowery townhouses. Be sure to take a Capitol Hill Walk, best on a sunny spring day.

General Admission: Free

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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

You’re given an “identity card” of a real-life person who experienced the Holocaust upon entering the blocky, redbrick United States Holocaust Memorial Museum near the National Mall, and by the end of your visit you’ll know whether they survived or not. Clearly, this is not an easy museum to visit, but it’s an important one to remind of the atrocities committed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 toward Jews, Romans, gays, the mentally ill, and others. The exhibitions detailing the history are detailed, some are graphic. At the end, a Hall of Remembrance provides a much-needed chance to reflect.

INSIDER TIPThis museum is not recommended for children under 11, but the “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story” exhibit on the ground floor tells the story from a young boy’s perspective; no entry tickets are required.

General Admission: Timed entry tickets are free but between March and August must be secured in advance or obtained on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10 am.

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Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens

Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post filled her northwest DC home with French and Russian works of art, always with the mind of turning it into a museum. Upon her death in 1973, the doors of this sumptuous, 36-room Georgian mansion were opened to the public as the Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, providing a glimpse into a spectacular world of exquisite taste and fine living, a place where presidents, royals, dignitaries, and celebrities were fêted. Highlights include the Louis XVI drawing room, Russian icons and tapestries, and an impressive collection of Faberg eggs, one of the largest outside Russia. There’s also a dacha on the vast, landscaped grounds that features temporary exhibits.

INSIDER TIPThe garden café is a relaxing place for lunch or tea.

General Admission: $18

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International Spy Museum

Yes, there are real-life spies in DC, and while we don’t know where they are and what they’re doing, we can learn about their ways at the thrilling International Spy Museum in Penn Quarter (slated to move to L’Enfant Plaza in November 2018). Exhibits delve into the history of espionage, going as far back as Moses’ use of spies in Canaan; spy gadgetry, weapons, and disguises; and a special look at James Bond with more than 100 movie artifacts. You can see why it’s one of the top Washington DC attractions.

INSIDER TIP“Spy in the City” is a GPS-guided tour of the neighborhood that takes kids 10 and up on a special mission.

General Admission: $22.95

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Smithsonian American Art Museum/Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

You get two museums in one at this celebration of American art, occupying the glorious Greek Revival Old Patent Office in Penn Quarter. The Smithsonian American Art Museum exults more than three centuries of art, ranging from Early America to Western Art to Impressionism to Modernism. Highlights include the world’s largest collection of New Deal art, a fine collection of American impressionism (including Mary Cassatt), and Albert Bierstadt’s celebratory Western landscapes. At the adjoining Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, you’ll find the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, but these aren’t necessarily their official portraits. Some are staged, others are just fun. Look for Grover Cleveland’s portrait in French Impressionist style, Bill Clinton’s abstract portrayal by Chuck Close, and the most recent, Kehinde Wiley’s recently unveiled Barack Obama, sitting in a leafy garden setting.

INSIDER TIPThe museum’s Kogod Courtyard, with a canopy by Norman Foster, a snack bar, and free WiFi, is a favorite hang-out spot.

General Admission: Free

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PHOTO: Sainaniritu | Dreamstime.com
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Smithsonian National Postal Museum

A postal museum might not sound like the most exciting museum around, but this celebration of the U.S. Postal Service is particularly well done. Housed in the former Washington City Post Office, the Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s interactive exhibits look at the history of mail delivery, stamp collecting, direct marketing, and more. The stamp collection, comprising more than six million specimens, includes the stamp that delivered the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian. A prop plane and antique railway car in the atrium remember mail delivery in the olden days.

INSIDER TIPThe Postal Museum has a famous (stuffed) puppy named Owney. He’s traveled all around the world, including meeting the Emperor of Japan. You’ll find him in the museum’s atrium.

General Admission: Free

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Dumbarton Oaks

Dumbarton Oaks is famed for its Beatrix-Farrand-designed gardens, but few know about the small yet extraordinary museum housed in the mansion on the grounds. Robert Woods Bliss and his wife, Mildred, amassed a world-class collection of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, now curated by Harvard University and on display in specially designed galleries. The Byzantine collection spans the fourth to 15th centuries, including fine gold, silver, and bronze vessels, jewelry, and coins. Housed in a glass-and-travertine wing designed by Philip Johnson, the Pre-Columbian collection gleams with gold pectorals, ceremonial jewelry, and stone carvings of Aztec deities and animals.

INSIDER TIPThe Blisses were all about the details of a piece and specifically bought artworks best admired close up. Be sure to study the details!

General Admission: Free

 

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Freer Gallery of Art

Step into the Freer Gallery of Art—the National Mall’s first art museum (1923), housed in a Renaissance-style palazzo—and you’re whisked into a hushed world of eclectic Asian and American art. The collections range from ancient Egyptian stone sculpture to Korean pottery to Persian manuscripts. A recent renovation restored the original terrazzo floors, installed new lighting, and added witty descriptions beside each piece. Here, too, you’ll find the stunning Victorian-era Peacock Room by James McNeil Whistler; the shutters are opened every third Thursday every month, when its gilded adornments gleam in the natural light.

INSIDER TIPThe Freer is associated with the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, also displaying Asian art; they’re connected via underground passageway.

General Admission: Free

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The Society of the Cincinnati

This Gilded Age mansion in the Dupont Circle neighborhood showcases the eclectic décor, tapestries, furniture, sculpture, and paintings collected during various diplomatic postings around the world of its former owners and DC socialites, Larz and Isabel Anderson. But what truly sets it apart is the fact that it’s also the official headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati. You know, that historical society founded by Revolutionary War veterans in 1783 (George Washington himself served as the first president general, and Larz Anderson was a devoted member). You’ll learn all about the nation’s oldest private patriotic organization on the first two floors.

INSIDER TIPA full roster of events with a patriotic twist is offered, including concerts and lectures.

 General Admission: Free

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PHOTO: Musuem of Bible
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Museum of the Bible

The monstrous Museum of the Bible just south of the National Mall opened in 2017 to much fanfare—and controversy (it’s the pet project of Hobby Lobby head and evangelist Steve Green). Most agree, however, that in the end it provides a fascinating and richly textured look at the world’s most published book—and its continued influence on the world today. State-of-the-art displays break the mold of museum exhibiting, including a 4-D movie experience that takes you on a virtual flying tour through DC in search of biblical references; a living history experience of first-century Nazareth, including costumed interpreters who field questions about life back then; and the only exhibition of Israeli antiquities outside Israel. You’ll want to set aside a good chunk of time to take everything in—and even then, you won’t see everything.

INSIDER TIPThe restaurant, Chef Todd Gray’s Manna, offers biblically inspired snacks, including falafel, flatbreads, and grain bowls and stews.

General Admission: $24.99

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White House Visitor Center

Rest assured, even if you don’t have tickets to visit the White House, one of the top Washington DC attractions, you still can have a White House experience—at the White House Visitor Center’s fun, hands-on museum on Pennsylvania Avenue. Exhibits present the history of the Executive Mansion, behind-the-scenes stories (including the usher’s role); and a touchscreen tour of the White House. You’ll learn what it takes to move one President out and one President in on moving day; favorite presidential snacks (James Garfield enjoyed squirrel soup); and personal insights from past presidents on what it means to live in America’s most famous residence.

INSIDER TIPAcross the street stands the venerable Willard Intercontinental, one of the best hotels in Washington D.C. with a ton of history. Open for 200 years and counting, its lobby is said to have inspired the term “lobbyist,” for the people who came to plead their cases to President Grant as he relaxed there with a cigar.

General Admission: Free

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U.S. Botanic Garden

Wait, this is a garden, not a museum! Is that what you’re thinking? Actually, the U.S. Congress created the U.S. Botanic Garden in 1820 to accumulate and catalog plants culled on military and exploring missions. In effect, it’s a museum of plants. The glass-roofed structure contains more than 10,000 seasonal, tropical, and subtropical specimens, including cacao, pineapple-scented sage, and the corpse flower, which smells like a rotting corpse when in bloom. Be sure to stroll through the rain forest, filled with tropical specimens, as well as look down upon it from the catwalks. Other rooms present Mediterranean and desert specimens; orchids; and medicinal plants, while the National Garden just outdoors contains gardens devoted to roses, butterflies, regional plants, and water plants.

INSIDER TIPKids can ask for a Junior Botanist backpack at the front desk, which offers all kinds of fun activities throughout the conservatory.

General Admission: Free

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Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Modern and contemporary art are extolled at the circular-shaped, poured-concrete Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall. All the superstars are here, including Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Louise Bourgeois, and Anish Kapoor. But there are some under-the-radar exhibits to note as well, including dramatic postwar art (Yoko Ono’s “Sky TV for Washington,” for example). The sunken Sculpture Garden just across the street, showcasing Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, and Auguste Rodin among its works, is a primo picnic spot.

INSIDER TIPKeep an eye out for the frequent temporary exhibitions that highlight important modern artists and art trends.

General Admission: Free

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Renwick Gallery

You never know what to expect at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum located just steps from the White House. When it reopened in 2015 after an extensive renovation, entire rooms were given over to nine contemporary artists to create larger-than-life, site-specific, wonder-inducing installations—including one room wallpapered entirely with insects. This ode to American crafts and decorative arts continues to amaze, daring to push the boundaries, entirely devoted to its motto: Dedicated to the Future of Art.

INSIDER TIPAll of the museums have gift shops, but the Renwick’s is the best for unique, hand-created gifts.

General Admission: Free