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Washington D.C. is one of those fascinating cities where you can spend an entire week there and only scratch the surface.
The U.S. Capital is most commonly associated with The White House, the home to the U.S. President, and American Politics.
But what many people don’t know is that there are many fascinating museums in Washington D.C, making it the perfect destination to visit for history buffs and those interested in expanding their minds.
There are over 40 Washington D.C. museums, and many are free to enter (most of them, actually), so deciding which museum to add to your Washington itinerary is no easy task.
To help you out, we’ve listed our favourite museums in Washington D.C. so you can pick which ones to add to your visit.
- The Best Museums in Washington D.C.
- 1. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
- 2. Smithsonian National Museum of American History
- 3. National Museum of African American History and Culture
- 4. National Archives Museum
- 5. National Gallery of Art
- 6. Smithsonian American Art Museum
- 7. National Portrait Gallery
- 8. International Spy Museum
- 9. National Museum of Women in the Arts
- 10. Dumbarton Oaks Museum
- 11. President Lincoln’s Cottage
- 12. National Geographic Museum
- 13. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- 14. National Museum of the American Indian
- 15. Hirshhorn Museum
- 16. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
- 17. United States Capitol
- 18. Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
- 19. National Museum of Asian Art
- FAQs About Museums in Washington D.C.
- Where to Stay in Washington DC
- Before You Go
The Best Museums in Washington D.C.
In no particular order, here are 19 of the best Washington D.C. museums…
1. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
We begin our list with one of the most popular museums in Washington D.C. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is one of many Smithsonian museums in the city and, like all of them, is free to enter.
This museum is one of the best places to visit in Washington D.C. to dive into the world’s natural wonders. From anthropology and biology to zoology, you’ll find numerous educational exhibits that tell the extraordinary story of Planet Earth, and the changes that have occurred over time.
Learn about the different species of animals, plants, and microbes, as well as how the human race has evolved.
It’s one of the best museums in Washington D.C for kids, as they can learn about the world they live in through interactive and exciting exhibits. They can learn about extinct creatures like the woolly mammoth, see rare gems from all parts of the world, and seashells from faraway places.
There are also archaeological artifacts that demonstrate how humans used different materials for tools centuries ago.
If you have a curious mind and love to learn about nature, visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is sure to be a memorable experience!
Thinking of visiting The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History with the family? Then you may like this family tour of the museum which is specially designed for those travelling with children.
2. Smithsonian National Museum of American History
If you’re looking for museums in Washington D.C. to learn about the country’s history, culture, and economy, then you have to consider the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
There’s truly something for everyone here – whether you’re a history buff, a science enthusiast, or a fan of museums in general.
With over 1.7 million artifacts, this museum offers a comprehensive look into America’s past. It’s also home to several iconic items, such as George Washington’s uniform, the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat.
Beyond its physical offerings, the museum also regularly hosts interactive exhibits and educational events for all ages.
From live performances to rotating exhibitions, there’s always something new to explore at this ever-changing institution.
3. National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a Smithsonian museum that opened to the public on September 24, 2016, and is dedicated to the history, culture, and art of African Americans.
The museum is the only museum dedicated to the documentation and recognition of African American history and culture.
The museum’s collections include items from every era of African American history, from slavery to the present day.
The museum is a powerful reminder of the contributions that African Americans have made to our country, and it is an essential part of understanding America’s history.
4. National Archives Museum
From the moment you step inside the National Archives Museum, you feel enveloped in history. With its towering rows of preserved documents and artifacts, it offers an intimate look into the United States’ past that you won’t find anywhere else.
Whether you’re looking for help with some research or simply looking for a thought-provoking afternoon, the National Archives Museum has something to offer everyone.
Here you can see the iconic Declaration of Independence and Constitution, as well as see historic photographs and maps, as well as letters, diaries, reports, and notes.
The museum also hosts panels and lectures that shed light on crucial topics like civil rights, justice reform, and social progress.
With its diverse display of items, the National Archives Museum makes American history more accessible.
5. National Gallery of Art
There’s a lot to see at the National Gallery of Art. The gallery has a wide collection of paintings, sculptures, and other artworks from all over the world that date back hundreds of years.
You can see more than 130,000 pieces in the museum, from sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and paintings.
You could spend hours walking around and still not see everything. One of the highlights of the museum is its collection of world-renown European paintings from the Renaissance period, such as original pieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgione, and Raphael.
Some other popular pieces in the museum are Claude Monet’s Japanese Bridge painting and original sculptures by baroque architect and sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
While here, don’t miss the 6.1-acre Sculpture Garden. It’s a wonderful oasis in the middle of a tiring Museum Day, with lovely sculptures to admire. We skipped the art gallery and just did this.
6. Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of the most prestigious art museums in the United States.
It’s home to a collection of over 40,000 pieces of art, spanning a wide range of styles and periods.
The museum’s permanent collection includes works by world-famous artists such as John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
It also hosts a variety of temporary exhibitions, which showcase both new and old works of art.
Whether you’re an art lover or simply looking for something to do on a rainy day, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is definitely worth a visit.
7. National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery is home to a wide variety of portraiture, spanning centuries of American history.
Visitors can view paintings, sculptures, and photographs of past presidents, first ladies, civil rights leaders, and more.
The gallery also features rotating exhibitions by contemporary artists.
Whether you’re interested in American history or art, the National Portrait Gallery is sure to have something to capture your interest.
8. International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum is a must-see for any fan of espionage. The museum has the largest collection of spy equipment, gadgets, and weapons on display, as well as a wealth of information on famous spies and their missions.
Visitors can also learn about the science of spying, including how to decipher codes and how to make their own disguise kit through a range of interactive exhibits.
It’s one of the best things to do in Washington D.C. with kids, as they can learn in an immersive and fun way.
Whether you’re looking to channel your inner James Bond or simply intrigued by the world of espionage, the International Spy Museum is an enjoyable experience.
Watch our Reel below of the International Spy Musem
9. National Museum of Women in the Arts
The National Museum of Women in the Arts is a great place to see a wide range of art by female artists.
The museum has a large collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and more that allows visitors to learn more about the history of women in the arts and how they advocate for each other.
The museum also offers a variety of educational programs, which are great for both adults and kids.
If you’re looking for a place to appreciate and learn about art created by women, the National Museum of Women in the Arts should be top of your list.
Talking about women in Art, you might want to check out the Guerilla Girls exhibition in the Hirshhorn Museum, mentioned below. Put it This Way speaksout for equality and inclusion for female artists.
10. Dumbarton Oaks Museum
Located in a historic Tudor Revival mansion, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum houses an impressive collection of art and artifacts from around the world.
Visitors can also view a selection of ancient Egyptian statues, walk through a gallery dedicated to Byzantine art (for which the museum is most famous), and see a collection of artworks from the pre-Columbian Americas.
In addition, the museum houses a library and research center, which is open to the public. It also has a beautiful garden with fountains and sculptures.
The Dumbarton Oaks Museum is a great place to learn about art and culture from around the world, or just be a place to offer a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
11. President Lincoln’s Cottage
If you’re interested in learning more about the past presidents of the United States, be sure to check out President Lincoln’s Cottage.
This museum was the former home of President Lincoln and was built in 1851. It was originally intended as a summer retreat for President Lincoln but is now a museum dedicated to his life and achievements.
Visitors can tour the cottage and see period furniture and original artwork. There are also a number of photographs and documents on display detailing the president’s life.
Be sure to walk around the grounds, which include a garden and a cemetery. The cottage is open to the public daily by guided tour only. You can reserve your tour online here.
We also recommend visiting the Ford Theater while in DC. It’s only $5 and you get an interesting look into Lincoln’s life, his family, his years of Presidency, and the events leading up to his assassination and after.
We loved going inside the Theater to see where that happened. Be careful when booking your tour as not all grant access to inside the theater. Read more here.
12. National Geographic Museum
If you’re looking for a museum for children, then you’ll want to take them to the National Geographic Museum.
This museum is a great place to learn about the world around us, featuring the iconic Nat Geo photography and inspirational stories.
There are exhibits on everything from animals to ancient cultures, or you can simply grab a selfie with the museum’s famous giant globe, which stands in the center of the museum.
The globe is interactive and is designed to help visitors learn about different countries and regions.
The museum also has a dome theatre and planetarium where visitors can learn about the night sky.
For those interested in history, geography, or science, you’ll love the National Geographic Museum.
13. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum serves as a reminder of the devastating consequences of unchecked prejudice and violence.
It’s hard to imagine what life was like for so many people before and during the holocaust and visiting this museum helps to understand the magnitude of the tragedy that occurred.
Upon entering the building, you are greeted with some emotionally triggering artifacts that illustrate the stories of those affected by discrimination and violence.
There are numerous interactive exhibits that aim to create a better understanding of what happened during this period in history.
You can also see numerous testimonies from survivors who share their stories, which can be quite powerful to witness firsthand.
You may leave feeling saddened about the events of the past, but it’s an important museum that reminds us all why such tragedies must never be repeated.
14. National Museum of the American Indian
America’s history goes back long before the country was founded by the British more than 500 years ago.
If you want to learn about the Native Americans who lived here long before, then you should consider visiting the National Museum of the American Indian.
The museum was built in 2004 and houses a collection of over 825,000 objects, documents, and photographs, making it one of the largest collections of Native American artifacts in the world.
The exhibits tell the story of the Native Americans, from their first contact with European explorers to the present day.
There are also rotating exhibitions featuring contemporary art and related topics.
The museum is free to visit and is one of the best places to learn more about Native American culture.
15. Hirshhorn Museum
The Hirshhorn Museum is the number one Washington D.C. museum to visit for fans of contemporary art.
The museum was built in 1960 as a place to store Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s extensive collection of sculptures and modern art, and now features works by famous artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Jackson Pollock.
It also hosts a variety of special exhibitions that introduce both emerging and established artists from around the globe.
With its commitment to presenting transformative art, the Hirshhorn Museum is a must-see for anyone interested in the latest trends in contemporary art.
We’re really glad we decided to take a quick look inside on our Washington DC Holiday Trip. We loved the modern art displays inside and the sculpture garden was cool. Don’t miss Yoko Ono’s Wishing Tree.
16. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is a truly awe-inspiring place. As soon as you walk in, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most popular museums in Washington D.C.
Everywhere you look, there is something fascinating to witness; from the actual Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer or the original Spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong, anyone interested in air and space travel will love this museum.
One of the highlights of this museum is the Apollo Lunar Module 2. Being able to witness the technology that went to space really highlights how far we have come as the human race. It makes you feel humble and appreciative of life on Earth.
Make sure to check out the special exhibits that explore multiple topics in greater detail. And of course, make sure to wander through the galleries displaying some of history’s most iconic aircrafts, spacecrafts, and inventions.
Learn about the most exciting items in the museum on this small group tour of The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum! This will guarantee an entry to the museum. This museum is super popular, and your free entry must be reserved in advance.
17. United States Capitol
The U.S. Capitol building is one of the most iconic buildings in D.C. that sits on top of Capitol Hill on The National Mall. It’s famed for Renaissance-inspired architecture and a large domed roof.
The United States Capitol Building is the meeting place of the American legislature and congress and is where the Senate and the House of Representatives come together to debate and deliberate political issues.
Visitors can visit the building for free, but they must reserve a spot on a tour. Visitors can also check out the Exhibition Hall which is part of the Visitors Center. This is a museum showcasing interactive exhibits about Congress and the U.S. Capitol.
Here you can learn about the development of the 12 major pieces of legislation, have a go at passing legislation, view the table from President Lincoln’s second inauguration, and take a virtual tour of the building.
You must book in advance as it’s incredibly popular. It’s recommended you book as far in advance as possible as there are only 50 slots per day.
18. Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art is a breathtaking place that has over time become more than just a space for art.
It was established in 1979 and houses more than 9,000 works of traditional and modern African art, more than 300,000 photographs, and 50,000 books. It was the first institution to ever be dedicated to African art and has the largest collection in the United States.
When you walk through its doors, you are immediately transported to a different time and place. The paintings, sculptures, and artifacts on display offer a glimpse into the culture and history of the African American people.
The museum is also a testament to the power of art to inspire and educate.
19. National Museum of Asian Art
The National Museum of Asian Art was founded in 1982 and houses a collection of more than 45,000 pieces of Asian art, which includes paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and more.
The museum also has a garden with a pond that is home to koi fish. The National Museum of Asian Art represents the cultures of countries such as China, Japan, Korea, India, and Southeast Asia.
It is a place where people can learn about the history and art of Asia. The museum also hosts events and programs that promote understanding and appreciation of Asian cultures.
FAQs About Museums in Washington D.C.
Here is what people usually ask us about museums in Washington D.C.
Does Washington D.C. have free museums?
Yes, Washington D.C. has many free museums. All of the museums belonging to The Smithsonian Institute are free to enter, as is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Archives Museum, Hirshhorn Museum, and Sculpture Garden to name a few.
What is the most visited museum in Washington D.C.?
The National Museum of Natural History was the most visited museum in Washington D.C. in 2021 with around 983,000 visits.
Where are the Smithsonian museums in Washington D.C.?
The Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C. are mostly located on the National Mall, along Independent Avenue. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is located in the Penn Quarter and the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum is in the East End. All of them are within walking distance of each other.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
When choosing accommodation for Washington DC, it’s best to look for a hotel within walking distance to the National Mall. Especially, if your stay is short and it’s most focused on the popular DC attractions in this area. If traveling a little further out, you’ll also want accommodation close to a Metro station. Parking is at a premium in DC, so we don’t recommend driving around.
Here are some hotel recommendations from us:
- We stayed at The Madison Hotel on 15th street only a couple of blocks away from the White House. We could walk everywhere – Georgetown was even a 3-minute walk from our hotel. The room was comfortable but most important of all, was the convenient location. Book your stay here.
- The Duo Nomad Hostel is a great budget accommodation option for those wanting to stay in the city.
- Previously, we’ve stayed at The Hilton Garden Inn in the Georgetown area / west end of downtown when we visited the White House which met all our needs as a tourist AND business traveler.
- I also love the look of the Kimpton Banneker – it’s our favorite hotel brand and within walking distance to the National Mall. You will have amenity fees at this hotel, however, so will need to factor that into your budget.
- Click here if looking for vacation rentals.
Before You Go
So there you have it, those are the best museums in Washington D.C, and as you can see, there is so much to see and learn in this fascinating city.
Before you go, we highly recommend you hire a bike to get from A to B. Many of the museums are located on the National Mall, but it’s massive, so save yourself some time (and energy) walking and cycling from place to place.
We highly recommend renting bikes from Unlimited Biking.
We had a blast cycling from monument to monument on the National Mall. It saved us lots of time and made it more manageable to do with kids prone to complaining.
We created a 3-day itinerary guide to Washington DC and a guide on the National Mall (where most of the museums and memorials are) to help you plan your trips and fit in all these incredible DC Museums. You may also like our guide on free or cheap things to do in DC and how to spend 48 hours in DC and all you need to know about visiting the Library of Congress.
And above all, have the best trip to Washington D.C!
Are there any museums in Washington D.C. that you enjoy visiting? Let us know in the comments.
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