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The 30 Best Museums in Washington, D.C.

Here's which museums to visit when you're visiting the nation's capital.

Everyone knows about the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.’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 D.C. extend above and beyond the Smithsonian, including entire entities devoted to language (Planet Word), spies (International Spy Museum), and women artists (National Museum of Women in the Arts). Large and small, eclectic and unique—these museums span a world of natural and cultural curiosities.

As we emerge from the COVID pandemic, museums are still gaining their foothold. Some of the Smithsonians, for example, remain closed on certain days, and the hours of other museums are in flux. Some have taken the opportunity to close for renovations. Many museums now require timed entry passes, available online ahead of your visit. Whatever piques your interest, here are the best museums to visit in Washington D.C. beyond the Smithsonian.

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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 155,000 artworks and ever-growing (with 2,300 or so on display at one time). Highlights include Auguste Renoir’s “A Girl with a Watering Can,” Wayne Thiebaud’s “Cakes,” and the Western Hemisphere’s only Da Vinci, “Ginevra de’ Benci” (be sure to peek at the emblematic portrait on its backside). The Sculpture Garden across the street showcases larger-than-life sculptures.

INSIDER TIPKeep an eye out for the blockbuster exhibits that come through—Sargent, Canova, and Rothko are recent examples—accompanied by a full accompaniment of lectures, concerts, and related menu at the Garden Café. Note: general admission is free, and the east wing is closed for renovations until June 2022.

General Admission: Free, and the east wing is closed for renovations until June 2022.

 

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Belmont–Paul Women's Equality National Monument

An epicenter in the fight for women’s rights, this historic two-story brick house just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol dates back to 1799. Multimillionaire socialite Alva Belmont helped purchase the house in 1929 for the National Women’s Party (NWP), which lobbied for women’s rights for more than a century. Alice Stokes Paul, the NWP’s founder and author of the Equal Rights Amendment, lived here for 40 years. Today, this is Washington’s only museum devoted to women’s history. You’ll find rooms filled with sepia photographs, original busts of pioneer champions of women’s rights, fading suffrage parade banners, and Susan B. Anthony’s desk.

General Admission: free. The monument is temporarily closed for renovations, with plans to reopen in 2023.

INSIDER TIPIf you’re interested in women’s history in the D.C. area, take a day trip to Lorton, Virginia, where the Lucy Burns Museum at the Workhouse Arts Center describes the Night of Terror. The nearby Turning Point Suffragists Memorial in Occoquan Regional Park is the first national memorial for the suffrage movement. 

 

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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, immediately becoming 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.

INSIDER TIPTimed passes are required for entry. Passes can be reserved online up to 30 days in advance; reserve them here. Same-day timed-entry passes are released at 8 AM daily.

 

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The Phillips Collection

Visitors flock to The Phillips Collection for one famous painting: Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” acquired in 1923 by museum founder and art collector Duncan Phillips. That was just two years after he established what would become the nation’s oldest modern art museum in the Dupont neighborhood. What truly sets the collection apart is the fact that Phillips was more interested in paintings that spoke to him rather than their market value—though his instinct was spot on. Examples reign throughout the museum, including the chapel-like Rothko Room, designed to the artist’s precise specifications, and Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series, “which chronicles an important chapter in American history. Watch for blockbuster traveling exhibits.

General Admission: $16, and timed tickets are required. Reserve them here.

INSIDER TIPJoin a free 30-minute meditation inspired by calming artworks from the museum’s permanent collection on Zoom every Wednesday at 12:45 PM. 

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Planet Word

Who knew language could be so much fun? Planet Word, which opened in 2020 in the historic Franklin Building in downtown D.C., approaches language with various interactive exhibits that entertain adults and children alike. But it’s more than that. It’s the world’s first voice-activated museum. A giant talking wall of lit-up, 3D words asks visitors questions (interspersed with interesting facts, such as the greatest language innovators of words are teenage girls). The scenes of books, hiding behind secret mirrors, spring to life in the magical library as you read passages etched beneath. You can record a speech, try to make your friend laugh with corny jokes, and learn about end words and other rhyming techniques while singing karaoke. Whatever the case, you’ll leave both wowed and smarter, guaranteed.

General Admission: Suggested $15 donation. Admittance is by advanced timed passes, available online.

INSIDER TIPEschew climbing the stairs to the third floor, where the visit starts. The elevators are decked out with a literary twist you shouldn’t miss. 

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National Museum of Women in the Arts

The elegant Renaissance Revival-style building in downtown D.C. 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, Frida Kahlo, and lesser-known artists, including Lavinia Fontana, Rosa Bonheur, and Justine Kurland. In total, more than 5,500 works span the 16th century to modern day.

General Admission: $10. The museum is closed for a major renovation, with plans to reopen in fall 2023.

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

 

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Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site

The woman who lived at this Second Empire Victorian row house in the Logan Circle neighborhood between 1943 and 1949 should be more famous than she is. Mary McLeod Bethune was a renowned educator, social advocate, and adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt, who fought for racial and gender equality throughout the U.S. and the world. She led the National Council of Negro Women, among other organizations, holding meetings and formal dinners in the dining room. She hosted such distinguished guests as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and activist Mary Church Terrell, and heads of state and ambassadors. Tours of the museum—the nation’s first museum and archives dedicated solely to African-American women’s history—take in many of her original belongings, including her massive conference table.

General Admission: Free. The museum is temporarily closed due to the pandemic.

INSIDER TIPYou can visit the house on a really cool virtual tour here

 

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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 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 fish. You’ll surely be curious to explore further from there.

General Admission: Free

INSIDER TIPThe museum can become extremely crowded, especially in summer. Visit during the week, if possible, and/or early or late in the day. 

 

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National Children’s Museum

You slide down a cloud-inspired “dream machine” to access the National Children’s Museum exhibits in downtown D.C.—you don’t have to, but that’s the kid-way to do it, for sure. Within the 20,000 square feet of exhibit space, you’ll find low-tech and high-tech experiences that extol STEAM (science, technology, engineering arts, math). You learn about probability while being slimed (without a mess); create lightning, clouds, and rain at a digital immersive green screen that explores weather-making; and tackle the mechanics of a home run hit at a digital/physical batting cage. There’s a lot to learn here, and kids don’t even know it; they’re having that much fun.

General Admission: $15.95 for children 1+ and adults. Advanced tickets are recommended, and available online.

INSIDER TIPThe Visiting Exhibit Hall showcases don’t-miss traveling exhibits from around the world.

 

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President Lincoln’s Cottage

For three oppressively humid summers during the Civil War (1862, 1863, and 1864), President Abraham Lincoln retreated to this Gothic-Revival-style cottage on a hill overlooking Washington, D.C. Here, he and his family enjoyed refreshing breezes and a more relaxed presidential protocol than at the White House, 3 miles away. But here, too, Lincoln made of his most defining presidential decisions, including the formulation of the Emancipation Proclamation. A small museum has Lincoln exhibits, and guided tours are available of the cottage. The house is situated on the grounds of the Old Soldier’s Home, where you can picnic among landscaping that resembles how it looked in Lincoln’s day.

General Admission: $15. Advanced tickets are required and can be purchased online.

INSIDER TIPThe cottage hosts a slew of interesting events, including speakers, forums, commemorations—and a comedy series.

 

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The Octagon

President James and Dolley Madison briefly lived in this eight-sided house in 1814, after the British burned the nearby President’s House (as the White House was then called), and they had to move. Designed for Virginia planter John Tayloe III by Dr. William Thornton, first architect of the Capitol, it was completed in 1801. Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent in an upstairs parlor, ending the War of 1812. Today the house looks as it did during Tayloe’s time, though rooms are sparsely decorated. You can take a self-guided tour, exploring the drawing-room, dining room, upstairs parlors, Treaty Room (study), and basement.

General Admission: $10.

INSIDER TIPThe American Institute of Architects purchased the house in 1898 and established its headquarters here; its renovation was one of the nation’s first preservation projects. They’ve since moved into offices directly behind the house.

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Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

One of D.C.’s top attractions is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum—filled with historic celebrity air and spacecraft, including Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, and a Boeing 747 cockpit. The museum is undergoing a major renovation and will be closed until fall 2022. When it reopens, the museum’s west wing will introduce eight reimagined galleries, including “Destination Moon” and “Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age.” The building’s eastern half will remain closed until 2025.

While the museum remains closed, you can see some of its collection in other museums, including several meteorites at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Tomahawk cruise missile at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and the Stearman PT-13D Kaydet aircraft at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Its annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, which houses air and spacecraft too large to fit into the museum, remains open.

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. There’s no place more obvious of this 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. A recent acquisition includes personal items from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away in 2020. 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.

General Admission: Free

INSIDER TIPAudio guide rentals are currently not available, but access select free audio tours on your own device here. 

 

 

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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, each on a marble platform, surrounded by argon gas and encased in a gold-plated titanium frame. But those are just the superstars of a repository numbering more than 16 billion super-important Federal papers dating back to 1774, plus millions of maps, charts, drawings, photos, motion picture films—and 1,265.7 terabytes of electronic data (to be exact). The David M. Rubenstein Gallery’s Record of Rights exhibit 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. The Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery presents changing topical exhibitions that highlight diverse stories of American history as revealed through the Archives’ holdings.

Admission: Free. Entry is by appointment only; sign up here.

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.

 

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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. More than 39 million books (plus millions of recordings, photographs, maps, sheet music, manuscripts, and baseball cards) are tucked away on approximately 838 miles of shelves.

General Admission: Free

INSIDER TIPThe Library of Congress, perched across the street from the Capitol, is surrounded by many noble marble buildings and flowery townhouses. Take a Capitol Hill Walk, best on a sunny spring day. General Admission: Free. Timed entry passes are required; sign up here.

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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. By the end of your visit, you’ll know whether they survived or not. This is not an easy museum to visit, but it’s an important one to remind us of the atrocities committed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 toward Jews, Romans, the LGBTQ community, 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.

General Admission: Free, but timed entry tickets must be secured in advance (reserve them here) or obtained on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10 a.m.

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.

 

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Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens

Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post filled her northwest D.C. 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 Fabergé 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 D.C., and while we don’t know where they are and what they’re doing, we can learn about their ways at the thrilling, 140,000-square-foot International Spy Museum in L’Enfant Plaza (it moved from its original Penn Quarter site in 2019). Exhibits delve into the history of espionage, going as far back as Moses’ use of spies in Canaan; inventions and gadgets used to steal secrets; famous spies, including Mata Hari; and much more. You can even crack codes, spy on other “spies,” and test your other spy skills at digital and physical interactives throughout the museum—you just have to remember your cover identity.

General Admission: $26.95. Advanced tickets are required; buy them here.

INSIDER TIPThe website has cool things to download, including formulas for invisible ink.

 

 

 

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Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Born enslaved in 1818, abolitionist, author, and statesman Frederick Douglass lived in this Anacostia house from 1877 until he died in 1895. He called it Cedar Hill for its tree-shaded hilltop perch offering a vista of the U.S. Capitol hovering above the D.C. skyline. One of the first black national historic sites designated by Congress, the house has been meticulously restored. It’s filled with Douglass’s belongings, including books, Limoges china, and photographs, down to his spectacles perched on his roll-top desk, painting an image of his public and private life. The tour starts with a film at the nearby visitor center, and visits are by guided tour only.

General Admission: Free. Reservations are strongly encouraged; get them here. The museum is temporarily closed for renovations.

INSIDER TIPDouglass was also an accomplished violin player. Look for his violin on the house tour.

 

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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. Smithsonian’s American Art Museum exults more than three centuries of art, serving as an unparalleled record of the American experience. Works range from Early America to Western Art to Impressionism to Modernism and include photography, modern folk and self-taught art, African American Art, Latino art, and video games. 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. You’ll find the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House at the adjoining Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 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, the hugely symbolic portraits of former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively.

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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Smithsonian National Postal Museum

A postal museum might not sound like the most exciting museum around, but this tribute to 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.

General Admission: Free

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.

 

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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, 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.

General Admission: Free. Timed tickets are required; reserve them here.

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

 

 

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Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art

Step into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art (formerly the Freer Gallery)—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 number more than 45,000 objects, ranging from ancient Egyptian stone sculptures to Korean pottery to Persian manuscripts. Here, too, you’ll find the stunning Victorian-era Peacock Room by James McNeil Whistler (closed for restoration June–September 2022).

General Admission: Free.

INSIDER TIPThe National Museum of Asian Art is associated with the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, displaying Asian art. The two museums are connected via an underground passageway.

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Anderson House

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 D.C. 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.

General Admission: Free. Tours, exhibitions, and historical programs resume on April 1, 2022.

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

 

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Museum of the Bible

The monstrous, 430,000-square-foot 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 best-selling book of all time—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 D.C. in search of biblical references; a living history experience of first-century Nazareth, including costumed interpreters who field questions about life back then; and rare artifacts from the Vatican and Israel. You’ll want to set aside a good chunk of time to take everything in—and even then, you won’t see everything.

General Admission: $19.99 online ($24.99 walk-up).

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

 

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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 D.C. 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.

General Admission: Free.

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. Botanic Garden accumulates, and catalogs plants culled on military and exploring missions. In effect, it’s a museum of plants. Created in 1820, its origins lie with George Washington, who wanted a national botanic garden in the new federal city (though the cataloging responsibilities didn’t kick in until 1842). 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; Hawaiian plants; a primeval garden of Jurassic-era plants; and medicinal plants, while the National Garden just outside contains gardens devoted to roses, butterflies, regional plants, and water plants. Across the street, the gardens of famous Bartholdi Park surround the historic, 30-foot-tall “Fountain of Light and Water,” created by the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.

General Admission: Free.

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

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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 Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, and Ed Ruscha. But there are some under-the-radar exhibits to note as well, including dramatic postwar art (Yayoi Kusama’s eight-foot “Pumpkin” (2016), for example). The sunken Sculpture Garden, just across the street, is undergoing a major renovation by Japanese artist-architect Hiroshi Sugimoto from late fall 2022 to spring 2025, but many treasures are reinstalled on Hirshhorn’s four-acre Plaza.

General Admission: Free

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

 

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Decatur House

Enthralling stories about early Washington come to life on tours of this federal-style row house on Lafayette Square, a block from the White House. Naval hero Stephen Decatur and his wife, Susan, lived here from 1819, when it was built, until his death 14 months later in a duel with Commodore James Barron. She went on to rent rooms to Secretary of State Henry Clay, among others. John Gadsby, a rich hotel and tavern owner, bought it and turned it into a retirement home in 1836. Enslaved workers lived in the two-story dependency, Washington’s only extant slave quarters. Tours feature the historic slave quarters along with the first and second floors, much of which reflects the influence of a later owner, socialite-to-ambassadors-and-politicians Marie Beale.

General Admission: Free.

INSIDER TIPThe White House Historical Association operates a retail shop here, offering quality White House-related items such as Jackie Kennedy–inspired jewelry, art books, and the annual Christmas tree ornament.

 

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Renwick Gallery

You never know what to expect at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. Located steps from the White House, this ode to American crafts and decorative arts continues to amaze with its exhibits rooted in its 2,000-strong collection of objects, daring to push the boundaries, entirely devoted to its motto: Dedicated to the Future of Art. “The Present Moment: Crafting a Better World” exhibit (May 13, 2022–April 2, 2023), for example, shows how artists can help spark essential conversations and promote activism by presenting often-overlooked stories of women, people of color, and other marginalized communities.

General Admission: Free. The museum is closed until May 13, 2022, in anticipation of its new exhibit.

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

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