A Quick Trip Guide to Washington DC’s Museums

The sheer number of museums in Washington DC is overwhelming, especially if you are only there for a short visit. We’ll help you decide where you should go!

Jun 14, 2024By Fayge Horesh, BA History with Honors 'Phi Alpha Theta'

washington dc museums guide

Washington DC is known for its vast number of world-class museums. Knowing which of DC’s 80+ museums you should visit can be challenging between visits to memorials and government buildings. Washington DC’s museums allow guests to explore science, history, culture, and art. It would be easy to spend an entire day or multiple days in any of those fantastic institutions. Here are some tips to help you decide which museums to visit and which to skip.

 

A general Washington DC tip: always check the websites of the places you want to see ahead of time to get a feel for their security procedures. Every location is different, and what you can and cannot bring in is not always intuitive. Additionally, rules about timed tickets and hours constantly change, so always check before you go!

 

The Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian Institute. Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

The story of how the Smithsonian came to be is in itself interesting. James Smithson, a British chemist who had never set foot on US soil, left his considerable fortune to the United States for the dispersion of knowledge. That founding gift has spawned 21 museums, most of which are in Washington DC. Besides being a famous historic institution in and of itself, these museums have the considerable advantage of being free to visit.

 

The most famous Smithsonian museums surround the National Mall between the United States Capitol and the Washington Monument. This makes it very easy to visit several museums in a single day.

 

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The most famous of these museums are the Museum of African American History and Culture, the Museum of American History, the Museum of Natural History, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and the Museum of the American Indian.

 

The Museum of African American History and Culture

Photograph of Young Marcher, Selma to Montgomery March by James H. Karales, 1965. Source: National Museum of African American History and Culture

 

The Museum of African American History and Culture has several discrete sections that guests follow in a particular narrative direction. At the lowest level are the history galleries and a “contemplative court” to allow you to process the difficult history before returning to the present. The upper levels are dedicated to community, sports, the arts, and more. The Museum of African American History and Culture also has an excellent food court based on African American food culture.

 

The National Museum of American History

Photograph of The Star-Spangled Banner, c. 1964. Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives

 

The National Museum of American History has extraordinarily varied exhibits. When you walk in, you are greeted with the entrance to see the famous “Star Spangled Banner,” responsible for the American national anthem. The Star Spangled Banner is worth seeing, if for no other reason, because the exhibit around it is fascinating. The rest of the museum you can pick and choose based on your interests. Some famous exhibits are the First Lady exhibit, the Greensboro lunch counter, and a revolving parade of notable popular culture items. Check their website or a map when you arrive to plan what you want to see because this place can suck you in.

 

The National Museum of Natural History

Glossophaga commissarisi commissarisi, N. Woodman, 2002. Source: National Museum of Natural History

 

The National Museum of Natural History is famous for its dinosaur bones, the Hope Diamond, the butterfly pavilion, and a huge taxidermied elephant named Henry. The Natural History Museum is among the oldest of the Smithsonian Museums and, like its contemporaries, has many unethical items in its collection. They have worked to correct this by creating new exhibits that are more inclusive, such as the “African Voices” exhibit. If you just want to hit the big-name exhibits, they have those marked both on the map and when you enter.

 

The Hirshhorn Museum

Flowers–Overcoat by Yayoi Kusama, 1964. Source: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

 

The Hirshorn is one of several Smithsonian art museums. Its focus is on modern art, much of it by living artists. The museum itself is a piece of art with a circular building surrounding a courtyard. Around the outside of the building is a sculpture garden that is the perfect place to get a taste of the collection if you don’t want to dedicate much time to it. If you are a fan of modern art, though, this unique museum is worth spending some time in.

 

The National Museum of Air and Space

American Airlines Sky Lounge, DC-7 Flagship by Glen Embree-Paul Hesse Studios, ca 1956. Source: National Air and Space Museum

 

The National Museum of Air and Space was, until recently, woefully outdated. They have spent the last years updating their galleries to appeal to a younger audience again. While the museum still covers the familiar topics of early flight and humanity’s trips to the moon, its new exhibits focus more on the overall impact of air travel on our society and more recent discoveries about our universe.

 

The National Museum of the American Indian

Anishinaabe Fishing Rights by David Bradley, 2013-2014. Source: National Museum of the American Indian

 

The National Museum of the American Indian is dedicated to telling the stories of the Indigenous people of the United States, both past and present. Their Nation to Nation gallery covers the history of treaties between the United States and Indigenous nations. The remaining galleries focus on Indigenous people and nations’ modern struggles and triumphs. Indigenous artists and educators have frequent demonstrations and events in their central atrium.

 

The National Portrait Gallery

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald, 2018. Source: National Portrait Gallery

 

The National Portrait Gallery is not on the National Mall, but it is worth a mention. It is two museums in one: a museum of American art and a portrait gallery of presidents and other notable Americans. Between the two buildings is a beautiful atrium that can be a much-needed respite from the busy streets of Washington DC.

 

The presidential portraits are fascinating, and it is fun to see how different presidents decided to present themselves. This is a niche museum, and most people skip it. That said, this is worth a stop if you are interested in portraiture and American art.

 

Government Buildings & Their Museums

Apotheosis of Democracy by Paul Wayland Bartlett, 1916. Source: Architect of the Capitol

 

Most people coming to Washington DC want to see the levers of power at work. The good news is that while the likelihood of seeing a famous politician is low (but not impossible), famous government buildings have some excellent museums to give you a more in-depth view of what happens in the three branches of government.

 

The White House & The White House Visitor Center

Photograph of The White House. Source: Whitehouse.gov

 

The White House Visitor Center isn’t in the White House proper, but it is very close by and worth the extra walk. Getting into the White House itself is a complicated and involved process. If you want tickets, contact your Member of Congress or your country’s embassy for help.

 

The White House itself can be viewed either from The Ellipse, north of Constitution Avenue or on the other side from Pennsylvania Avenue or Lafayette Square, depending on the level of security that day.

 

Once you get pictures of your family standing awkwardly in front of the several security fences surrounding the White House, head over to where Pennsylvania Avenue continues a few blocks down 15th Street to the Visitor Center.

 

The Visitor Center packs a lot of information into a tiny space. It is filled with artifacts and interpretive panels playing original videos on repeat. If you have zero interest in artifacts, this place probably isn’t worth the wait in line. They do a lot with very little, though, and getting in and out of the space won’t take long.

 

There is also a gift shop where you can buy the Presidential Seal on nearly anything you desire. This is perhaps not the most important thing, but their bathrooms are also very nice.

 

The National Archives Museum

Photograph of The Declaration of Independence. Source: National Archives

 

What is a visit to Washington DC without seeing the Declaration of Independence? The Archives are often a high priority for people, but it can take an unreasonable amount of time just to get in.

 

The Archives is an exciting stop once you get in their doors. Not only do they have the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights on display, but they also have a copy of the Magna Carta and ever-changing exhibits on the rest of their collection.

 

The trick with the Archives is to book timed tickets ahead of time. If none are available, just keep an eye on the building for times when the line isn’t around the block. First thing in the morning is usually a good bet, but depending on group tours, that isn’t a sure thing.

 

The United States Capitol & Visitor Center

A Photograph of The US Capitol Dome Framed by Cherry Blossom Trees. Source: Architect of the Capitol

 

While most people go to the Capitol to take a tour with professional, red-coated guides or an intern from their representative’s office, there is much to see in the visitor center without a ticket.

 

Once you get through the extensive security to enter the underground visitor center, walk down the stairs to the main hall and towards the gigantic statue of a lady with an eagle on her head. That statue is among many in the visitor center and the larger Capitol complex. Her name is “Freedom,” and she is the model used for the bronze version standing on the Capitol dome.

 

Many signs about her history surround her, but it is not unusual to also see an educator nearby eager to chat about the history of the building and the legislation written there.

 

Behind Freedom is the actual museum. This museum is an often overlooked but well-constructed exploration of the architecture of the Capitol building and the history of the Legislative branch.

 

The Library of Congress Jefferson Building

Photograph of The View of the Great Hall in the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. Source: Architect of the Capitol

 

After touring the Capitol Building, follow the signs for the tunnel to the Library of Congress. If you go outside to enter, you must go through security again.

 

The Library of Congress was built to be a temple of learning, and the ornate space certainly delivers on that. Everywhere you look, there is a dizzying display of carvings, mosaics, and murals representing America and Humankind’s artistic and academic achievements.

 

Dusk shot over Washington, featuring the Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC, by Carol Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. Source: Library of Congress

 

It is worth going into the building just to view the great hall, but there is a lot more to see than that. During certain hours, you can enter the main reading room. There are also ever-changing exhibits on the various levels of the building. It is easy to get lost, but it is worth the wander if you have the time. There are few places in the world where you might stumble across a Gutenberg Bible and Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection, but this is one of them!

 

Supreme Court of the United States

Photograph of the Supreme Court. Source: The Architect of the Capitol

 

The Supreme Court rounds out the places of interest on Capitol Hill. They have rotating exhibitions about the court’s history and how the judicial system works. You can see where the Supreme Court sits when the court is not in session. Check their website ahead of time for their schedule.

 

This one is great if you are excited about seeing the Supreme Court, but if you are uninterested or short of time, it is also fine to miss.

 

Arlington National Cemetery

Photograph of Arlington National Cemetery. Source: Arlington National Cemetery

 

While technically not in Washington DC, Arlington National Cemetery is accessible from the DC Metro or a moderate walk across the river from the Lincoln Memorial.

 

Arlington National Cemetery is the most famous US military cemetery and is very moving. Spending a whole day here would be easy, especially if you get lost. It is worth grabbing a map or pulling up the cemetery on your favorite map app to navigate. If you can, walking is the best way to get around, but there is a shuttle for those unable to walk up the hill.

 

The main sights people usually want to see are John F. Kennedy’s (JFK) grave, Arlington House, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

 

Photograph of John F. Kennedy’s Grave. Source: Arlington National Cemetery

 

You will head straight up the hill from the visitors’ center to see JFK’s grave. JFK’s grave is a complex of Massachusetts Marble and the graves of John F Kennedy’s family and brothers. Once you see the eternal flame, follow the path on the left to see Robert, Edward, and a memorial marker for Joseph.

 

The access to the Arlington house is most accessible up the stairs found when you follow Sheraton Drive to the West. The view from the house is spectacular and worth the hike up there. There are bathrooms up there, and it can be an interesting stop when the house is open. Before it was a cemetery, Arlington was the plantation of Robert E. Lee, and that history is memorialized in and around the house.

 

Photograph of the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Source: Arlington National Cemetery

 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is south of the house, and JFK’s grave—a lovely, tree-lined footpath cuts from the house to the tomb. The changing of guard schedule changes depending on the time of year, so check the website or with a staff member when you arrive. During the busy months (March-August), getting to the tomb as early as possible is a good idea if you want to have any choice in your viewing position. It gets very crowded very fast.

 

There are also bathrooms under the amphitheater, next to the Tomb Sentinel living area for their 24-hour shifts. Behind the amphitheater, you can also find the Challenger Memorial and the mast of the USS Maine.

 

If you plan carefully and stay on the path, it is possible to hit these big Arlington spots in an hour to an hour and a half, but most people will take at least half a day here.

 

Historic Sites & Museums

Photograph of the Washington Monument as it stood for 25 years by Mathew Brady, ca. 1860. Source: Library of Congress

 

Besides the Smithsonian Museums and government buildings, there are plenty of historic sites and museums in and around Washington DC to enjoy. Here are some top picks.

 

The Petersen House – Ford’s Theater

Assassination of President A. Lincoln, April 14th 1865 at Ford’s Theater, Washington, D.C. by Gibson & Co., 1870. Source: Library of Congress

 

Ford’s Theater, with the Petersen House across the street, is still a working theater and a memorial museum to President Abraham Lincoln. If you go during the day, depending on your ticket type, you will have time to explore their underground museum about Lincoln and his assassination. The museum has some interesting artifacts, but you are usually stuck down there longer than most people need to get through it.

 

Once through the museum, the rangers open the door, allowing you into the theater proper. If there is a ranger talk, they will talk about the history of the building and the assassination. Depending on who is telling the story, this can be fun or boring.

 

After the story, you are sent across the street to stand in line to see the Petersen House, where Lincoln died.

 

If you are excited about Lincoln, this is worth seeing, but with the many lines, it is a time-sink for those who are not as interested. It is advised to instead buy a ticket to see a show at Ford’s Theater. The shows happen on the stage that John Wilkes Booth jumped onto after firing his shot, and the famous box that held the president is clearly marked with bunting and can be seen from nearly anywhere in the theater.

 

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

140-degree Panoramic view from southeast lawn looking north towards the house, by Renee Bieretz, 2010. Source: Library of Congress

 

Mount Vernon is a half-hour drive outside of DC, but it seems wrong not to include it in a DC guide.

 

Mount Vernon was George Washington’s plantation and is now a huge museum about him, his legacy, the legacy of enslavement, and a working farm. There is something for everyone here.

 

This site is a half or full-day experience with the drive, but there is much to see here. Besides touring Washington’s home, you can see a variety of garden styles Washington would have had in his lifetime. There are a variety of displays and buildings talking about the experience of the enslaved people, as well as living historians wandering around telling those stories.

 

There are also plenty of farm animals, a museum, and a stunning view of the Potomac River. If you have the time to dedicate, this is a charming stop.

 

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

US National Holocaust Museum names of victims on glass, Washington DC, by Carol Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. Source: Library of Congress

 

Located just off the National Mall, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum includes a profoundly impactful permanent exhibition and several changing exhibits. If you are traveling during a busy time of year, it is a good idea to try to get timed tickets for the permanent exhibition ahead of time.

 

That said, even without tickets, there is plenty to see. There is a small exhibit called “Daniel’s Story” that explains the lead-up to the Holocaust and is geared toward a younger audience. There are also exhibits about the history of antisemitism and other genocides around the world.

 

This museum is an intense visit and can take a few hours, but it is filled with artifacts and information.

 

Additional Places of Note

Dupont Circle Fountain, Washington DC, by Carol Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. Source: Library of Congress

 

These museums and famous sites did not fit in with the rest of the categories, but they are notable and worth a visit!

 

The United States Botanic Garden

Photograph of Conservatory Garden Court at the US Botanic Gardens. Source: United States Botanic Garden

 

It is amazing how many plants they squeeze into the Botanic Garden, sitting at the foot of Capitol Hill. Something interesting is always happening here, whether it is a cooking demonstration or a docent explaining where chocolate comes from.

 

This isn’t the sort of Botanic Garden where you are expected just to look at plants from afar. This garden works hard to make its exhibits engaging and hands-on. There usually isn’t a line to see this, making it a good, quick stop between other activities.

 

International Spy Museum

Photograph of a Tools of the Trade Exhibit at the International Spy Museum, 2019. Source: International Spy Museum

 

There are few things kids in DC love more than the Spy Museum. When you enter the exhibit, actors give you an “undercover identity” and a “mission” to follow as you explore the museum.

 

The exhibits are a mix of real-life spy gadgets and stories and memorable artifacts from spy movies like James Bond. There are also many interactive exhibits where guests can try their hand at spy skills like codebreaking and how to make sense of covertly gathered information.

 

If you have a young person with you who is perhaps less than enthusiastic about all the memorials and history, this is a good release valve for them. They might even learn something without realizing it!

 

National Gallery of Art

The Fortress of Königstein by Bernardo Bellotto, 1756-1758. Source: National Gallery of Art

 

While not a Smithsonian museum, the National Gallery of Art on the National Mall’s extensive collections are free. With two buildings and an outside sculpture garden, there is plenty here to entertain an art lover.

 

If you love art and want to make a fast stop here, look at what is on display ahead of time. The sculpture garden is lovely if you are just looking for a nice art experience without too much time spent. There is also a cafe and fountain where you can take a break from the art.

Author Image

By Fayge HoreshBA History with Honors 'Phi Alpha Theta'Fayge is a public historian and teacher, certified tour guide, and contributing writer. She is the creator and host of the podcast “D Listers of History.” On the podcast, Fayge brings her research skills, curiosity, and irreverence to discuss important but mostly forgotten historical figures. In all the work Fayge does, their primary goal is to make both historical stories and the study of history accessible to everyone. Fayge also teaches private music lessons in the greater Philadelphia area and only sometimes sneaks history in between etudes.