Some people might consider a museum trip to be boring, but they probably haven’t visited the ones in Washington DC. The museums in DC are on a different level. Each one delivers its specialty of history, art, or technology in a way that’s intriguing, immersive, and story-driven.
Museum hopping is one of the best things to do in Washington DC. You can easily hit multiple museums in one day if you plan it right. Or find one you love and immerse yourself for a few hours. No matter what your preference is, there are museums in Washington DC on this list that are sure to spark your interests.
Table of Contents
- 15 Best DC Museums
- National Portrait Gallery
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Artechouse DC
- National Gallery of Art
- Freer Gallery of Art (National Museums of Asian Art)
- International Spy Museum
- United States Botanic Garden
- Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
- Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
- Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art
- Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- National Museum of the American Indian
- National Archives Museum
- National Building Museum
- FAQs About Museums in Washington DC
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15 Best DC Museums
National Portrait Gallery
Get a glimpse at groundbreaking public figures who have shaped culture, and American history within one of the oldest buildings in Washington DC.
The National Portrait Gallery is dedicated to portraying the iconic figures who’ve achieved remarkable feats and helped shape history, culture, and the country as we know it. Public figures are immortalized in paintings by various artists and stored within one of the oldest buildings in Washington DC.
Except for the White House, this gallery is the only complete collection of presidential portraits. In addition to portraits of US presidents, there are also depictions of activists, writers, artists, politicians, and even villains. Some of the most notable portraits are of Barack and Michelle Obama, George Washington, Frida Kahlo, Henrietta Lacks, and Edith Wharton.
This Smithsonian American Art Museum is located outside of the National Mall a few blocks away from the White House. It’s only a five-minute walk from the National Building Museum and the historic Ford’s Theatre. The fastest way to get there is by taking the metro to the Gallery Place-Chinatown stop.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Immerse yourself in contemporary art exhibits that feature some of the most important artists of this century.
The Hirshhorn Museum is a contemporary art showcase in Washington DC that hosts many immersive exhibits. Most recently, it’s been home to the infamous Yayoi Kusama’s One With Eternity, Barbara Kruger’s Belief and Doubt, and Laurie Anderson’s The Weather.
These immersive spaces are meant to transport you into the artist’s mind. They’re a wonder to experience whether you’re an art lover or just want some fantastic pictures.
Most of the temporary exhibits offered by the Hirshhorn require timed same-day passes. These can only be claimed in person beginning at 9:30 AM. The passes are free, but you’ll need to get in line early for the most popular exhibits.
The art doesn’t stop once you exit the museum doors. There’s also a sunken sculpture garden within a short walk from the museum. It features several works of art including Wish Tree for Washington DC by Yoko Ono, and Are Years What? By Mark Di Suvero. You won’t need any timed passes for the sculpture garden. So feel free to visit at your leisure.
Immerse yourself in the hybrid experience of art, science, and technology with an interactive digital art exhibit.
This isn’t your typical museum. Artechhouse marries art, science, and technology for a wildly interactive exhibit. Digital images are projected onto the walls of the expansive main space while the back rooms delve deeper into the theme of the showcase.
Previous interactive exhibits have included Renewal: 2121 which imagines Tokyo in one hundred years. Life of a Neuron told the story of how brain cells relate to the human experience. Currently, Artechouse is showing an exhibit entitled Ase: Afro Frequencies.
Since the Artechhouse space is smaller than other Washington DC museums, you can spend an hour or two here and experience everything. Perfect for a day of museum hopping.
The tickets for an Artechouse event cost $25 for adults and $17 for children. While you can purchase tickets in-person at the venue, it’s suggested to get them online for guaranteed entry. If you’re taking the metro, it’s a short walk from the Smithsonian Metro stop.
National Gallery of Art
View timeless works of art from renowned European and American artists.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is a haven for art lovers. Their permanent collection of over 150,000 artworks spans two buildings separated by 4th street NW. You won’t have to cross the street to get to the other building. The East building and West building are connected by an illuminated underground walkway.
The fine collection in this art museum is comprised of European and American art. It includes a few presidential portraits of George Washington and others. There are also works from Da Vinci, Chardin, Monet, Rothko, and Kandinsky. Despite the expensive art, admission to this museum is free and no passes are needed to attend.
The National Gallery of Art is open 363 days out of the year and offers free hour-long guided tours each day. A full list of the guided tours is available on the gallery’s website and each one begins in the West building rotunda.
The closest metro stops for this gallery are the Archives, Navy Memorial, and Penn Quarter stations.
Freer Gallery of Art (National Museums of Asian Art)
View over 45,000 Asian works of art between two buildings on the National Mall in Washington DC.
The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur Sackler Gallery are both parts of the Museum of Asian Art. These Washington DC art galleries feature a wide range of collections from Japan, Korea, China, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Islamic countries. Some artwork goes as far back as the Neolithic period.
One of the most prized sections of the Freer art museum is the Peacock Room. It’s been on display since 1923 and contains a collection of ceramics lining the walls of the blue and gold room. The room is more than a century old as it was originally built in 1877 by a British art collector.
The museum offers guided tours of the highlights in their collection from Thursday through Sunday at 1 PM. The tours are offered in six languages and bring awareness to the commonalities between Asian cultures and their artistic portrayals.
This free museum is located between the Capital and the Washington Monument. The closest metro stop is the Smithsonian station.
International Spy Museum
Test your spy skills by taking on a secret mission! Uncover how the practice of espionage and spies have shaped major events in history.
The International Spy Museum is one of the must-see museums in the nation’s capital. However, it’s also one of the few spots on this list with an entry fee. At less than $30, it’s worth it. With almost 1,000 artifacts displayed between two floors, you can guide yourself through real espionage stories and several interactive features.
For extra fun, you can even choose to go on an “undercover mission” to test whether you’d cut it as a spy. Keep the mission going by picking up some spy gadgets in the museum shop.
This museum sticks out of the Washington DC cityscape with its new location in L’Enfant Plaza, super close to the metro stop there. The easiest way to get there is by taking the metro, but if you’re driving, the Spy Museum offers discounted parking at a nearby garage. They offer 20% off on the weekdays and 50% off on weekends.
United States Botanic Garden
Stop and smell the roses…literally! This is the only certified living plant museum in the nation. Take the chance to see endangered and rare plants on the National Mall.
Out of all the museums in the nation, this is the only living plant museum. And it is a gorgeous addition to any museum crawl. This giant greenhouse in the middle of Washington DC was opened in 2006 and is filled with species of tropical, desert, and subtropical plants. On a day with good weather, you can also take a stroll through the two outdoor gardens.
The most notable of these is the endangered corpse flower which blooms once every seven to nine years. There are other rare and endangered plants housed here as well as other plants you know and love.
In addition to the beautiful plants and flowers, there are also temporary exhibits and educational programs to teach the public how to care for certain plants and their importance to our ecosystems. An important to-do for any plant parent visiting the nation’s capital!
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Discover the world’s greatest natural wonders! Fossils, diamonds, reptiles, super germs, and the rise of mankind. Built for curious humans of all ages.
The natural history museum is one of the best museums in Washington DC. Upon entering the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History you’re greeted by its iconic taxidermied African Bush Elephant. This is one of many natural wonders of the world contained in its three floors.
There’s everything from dinosaur fossils, mammals, sea monsters, and even live insects. Some of the main attractions here are the Hope Diamond, an Easter Island Moai statue, and the Hall of Fossils.
As one of the most popular museums on the National Mall, this place is always crowded. At any given time it’s filled with school groups and visiting tourists. Your best bet is to make this free museum your first stop of the day and make a beeline to the exhibits on your list.
They’re open seven days a week and the fastest way to get there is by taking the metro to the Federal Triangle station.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Come see planes, space shuttles, and other aircraft while you uncover the origins of flight and mankind’s ventures into space.
If you’re interested in how humankind learned to fly, then this is the perfect museum for you. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is situated right on the National Mall. If there’s a vehicle that flies, hovers or launches– it’s probably here. Their collection includes the first powered airplane from Orville Wright, as well as the Apollo 11 Command Module which was used in the first lunar landing mission.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait before planning your trip here. This museum is currently undergoing renovations. It should be back and better than ever in October 2022. The newly renovated museum will have 23 galleries with immersive activities, and over 1,400 new objects in its vast collection.
This will still be a free museum after reopening. To be one of the first people to see the renovations, you can book free timed passes starting on September 14th, 2022!
Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art
Explore the only national museum of African Art. Take in vibrant artwork from numerous African nations and cultures.
The National Museum of African Art is a gem in Washington DC’s collection of museums. It’s actually the only national museum devoted to African artwork. You can get to the museum by taking a pleasant walk through the Enid Haupt Garden.
The art collection consists of both modern and contemporary art from multiple African nations. They also hold plenty of educational and cultural events throughout the year. Admission to this Washington DC museum is free and there’s no need to book a timed entry pass!
It’s located on the National Mall between the Smithsonian Arts & Industries building and the Sackler Gallery of Art. Metro is the easiest way to get there since street parking fills up fast. Stop at the Smithsonian station or the L’enfant station to get there and take a quick walk.
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture
Delve into African American History with over 40,000 artifacts ranging from enslavement, emancipation, and the civil rights movement, up to modern history.
This Smithsonian museum was a highly anticipated addition to Chocolate City’s collection of museums even before it opened in 2016. Their free timed passes were almost impossible to get for the first year. Even now, you risk not getting a timed pass if you wait too long. It’s quickly become one of the most visited museums on the National Mall.
There are over 85,000 feet of exhibition space, so you likely won’t get through the whole thing in one day. This museum doesn’t cut any cards when retelling the pained experiences of Black people in this country. It also doesn’t skip over their achievements, resilience, and power. As such, you should come prepared for a moving experience.
As you work your way up the building, you make the journey from oppression to triumph. It’s a masterpiece in storytelling told through a collection of over 40,000 artifacts. Your time here isn’t complete without visiting The Sweet Home Cafe. It ties African American history to the food culture behind traditional dishes.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Honor the victims of the Holocaust and contribute to the museum’s mission of activism in ending genocides across the world.
There’s no doubt that the Holocaust is a heavy subject. As such, this museum is only suggested for children aged 11 and older. Three floors within the permanent exhibit tell of the events and ideals leading up to the genocide. Then it moves through the horrors that happened, and the aftermath.
While this isn’t in the same vein as a fun weekend escape, everyone has a duty to avoid repeating humanity’s mistakes by reflecting, confronting, and remembering them.
This museum is a solemn space dedicated to honoring the victims of the Holocaust and preventing genocide worldwide. This National Mall memorial and museum is particularly popular, so getting free timed passes can be difficult.
Spring break, winter break, and summertime are the most crowded. Grab your tickets when they’re first released and go on a weekday during the off-season for a less crowded experience.
National Museum of the American Indian
Learn about Indigenous cultures and history. Tour the vast collection of Native artifacts that come from a variety of cultures across the entire western hemisphere.
This Smithsonian institution is dedicated to the history and culture of Indigenous peoples spanning the entire western hemisphere. Down the street from the US Botanic Gardens and the US Capitol building is where you’ll find this free museum. You won’t even need timed passes to enter. The closest metro stop is L’Enfant Plaza which is about two blocks away.
The museum’s collection includes over 266,000 indigenous artifacts such as clothing, pottery, artwork, and ceremonial pieces. The National Museum of the American Indian also houses the highly praised Mitsitam Cafe. In the native language of the Piscataway and Delaware peoples, mitsitam means “let’s eat!”.
The cafe serves traditional and contemporary Native American cuisine. It aims to educate museum-goers on the cooking techniques, and ingredients found in Native cuisine. Overall, you should budget about 3-4 hours to fully explore the museum, but it also makes a great addition to a museum crawl on the National Mall.
National Archives Museum
See the founding documents for the United States up close and in person.
History buffs and Nicholas Cage in National Treasure are sure to have a great time at the National Archives. This is where the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are stored. It’s also right across from the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden on Constitution Ave. NW.
The Charters of Freedom are found in the rotunda overlooked by two large murals depicting the Continental Congress of 1776. This area of the museum is kept cold to preserve the historical documents, so bring a sweater with you. In addition to the Charters of Freedom, there are temporary and permanent exhibits including the Record of Rights, Public Vaults, and hands-on activities.
This is another one of the free museums in Washington DC, but you’ll have to save your visit for after it reopens on September 14th, 2022. Their busy season is usually March through Labor day. That’s when you’ll want to reserve tickets online in advance. All in all, the galleries and exhibits should take about 90 minutes to get through.
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National Building Museum
Stand in awe of the giant corinthian columns that stretch to the ceiling of the Great Hall.
Washington DC is a paradise for architectural enthusiasts. If you love observing the array of architecture in the old and new buildings in Washington DC, then this is the place for you. This museum aims to educate its patrons about the architecture, construction and engineering that goes into creating the structures that fill our environment.
While this isn’t one of the free museums on the list, the cost of tickets isn’t excessive. The permanent collection displays architectural prints, drawings, and over 20,000 objects. At just four blocks from the National Mall, this museum is a great addition to a day exploring DC’s museums. To get there you can take the metro to the judiciary Square stop.
FAQs About Museums in Washington DC
What is DC’s most popular museum?
Washington DC’s most popular museum is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Most of the Smithsonian museums are very popular with Washington DC residents and visitors alike.
Are any museums in DC free?
Most museums in Washington DC are completely free. In many cases, you will need a timed entry pass to get in which can be found on that museum’s website or by going to the museum entrance in person. The museums in DC that do charge a fee are reasonably priced below $30 per person.
I hope I’ve helped you find some of the best museums in DC. Have fun exploring Washington DC!
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