Every D.C. article you’ll ever find mentions that all Smithsonian Museums are free to the public. This is awesome and all, but there are a LOT of museums, exhibits, galleries, gardens, and shows to see. How do you know where to even start? My first day in D.C., I didn’t know where to go, which museums I should skip out on, how long they would take me to get through and which ones I needed tickets for. So I took notes so none of you will waste as much time as I did when my first time through!
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There are literally so many different forms of art, history, science and language to explore. The best thing about this group of museums is they’re all extremely detailed and packed full of information. If you’re only in the city for a week or less, unless you’re absolutely flying through the exhibits, you won’t be able to see all of them.
Before your trip, make sure to highlight which ones interest you the most! I’m sure you’ll find a Smithsonian Museum that not only intrigues you but straight up screams your name. You don’t need to know everything about a museum to decide if it’ll be worth your time or if it will cater to your interests, however, hopefully, a little more than just a name will you help you sift through your options.
I’ll stay brief about the art museums because in general, if you love art, you’ll love these museums. Art is very much about the experience the viewer has so it’s harder for me to matter-o-factly described them. If you’re more of a history buff like me, maybe prioritize those museums and leave less time for the art ones. If you love art and could care less about world wars, start with those displays.
I gave time estimates because that’s how long it took me to get through the exhibits, however, you could be very different! Remember, this is your vacation and no list on the Internet should tell you exactly where to go or what you have to experience. I just hope this one serves as a good starting point for you!
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Onward towards the museums!
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Starting you off at the beginning of the intercontinental slave trade, the National Museum of African American History and Culture takes you on a chronological journey of the African American story in the history of the United States. From slavery to segregation all the way up to modern times with the presidential election of Barack Obama and Oprah's TV epidemic, a lot of history (good and bad) is covered in only three floors.
The museum screams pride for a people that were constantly pushed down and fought for what they always knew was right. Almost as important, the museum is a good reminder for people of all color that we are still not very far away from our racist past as a nation. The message inspires its viewers to also stand for the change that they believe in as equality in the nation shall always prevail despite low points.
A highlight of the Smithsonian, advanced tickets need to be presented during the busiest hours of the museum’s opening so make sure to prepare in advance. Walk-up from the public is available weekdays after one but don’t think you’ll get in on the weekend without a free, pre-booked ticket. Time to visit: 2-3 hours
National African Art Museum
The National African Art Museum covers many different forms of art and culture. At first, I was under the incorrect presumption that the museum would focus mainly on Africans present in the American history timeline. Even though there were African American sections displayed, I was pleasantly surprised to see the galleries focused on African art and influence worldwide. Time to visit: 30 minutes-1 hour
National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum is one of the most popular of D.C.’s attractions and for good reason! The museum is so big there are actually two locations that make up the one piece. Due to popularity, you might want to make sure to schedule enough time in your day to work your way through this one a little bit more slowly. The main National Air and Space Museum is located in Washington D.C. National Mall on the main strip that most of the other Smithsonian reside. It highlights flight history such as stories from the Wright brothers and launching into space-a lot of the “firsts” in the skies. From IMAX shows to the planes and rockets itself surrounding you, this museum definitely takes your breath away. Also next door you can find a public observatory! If you find that this piques your interest, don’t forget the second building Udvar-Hazy Center. If you’re walking, this one might be a bit harder to get to, but if you can grab an Uber or metro, the massive hangers display all types of aircraft-military to commercial. Time to visit: 3-4 hours (Both buildings)
National Native American Museum
The National Native American Museum, otherwise known as the American Indian Museum, travels through history from what original life looked like for the Native Americans all up to present day embedding in our modern culture. Exhibits showcase, but are not limited to, roles in the Native American society, stories, and cultures differentiated by tribe, explanations of dances and chants and how the people developed in society over time. This museum tells a sad story of broken treaties, coercion and the immense efforts that were taken to “civilize” the Native Americans. Europeans and Americans alike strived to change the cultures of the Native Americans believing they didn’t have room for such tradition in a modern nation or world. Time to visit: 2 hours
Archives of American Art
Not to be confused with the American Art Museum, the Archives of American Art are more focused on preserving visual art throughout America’s history. To get a better idea of what the archives contain, think a little bit differently than your typical painted portraits and sculptures. Although presented along with many other exhibits, the archive contains many catalogs, articles, and books as well. (I feel like it was a great resource for research, but less of a touristy stop.) Time to visit: 2 hours
Arts and Industries Building
The Arts and Industries Building was the very first national museum open in the United States. Beautiful to look at, I would definitely recommend walking by to get a picture of its brick and fantasy like characteristics. Currently, it is closed for renovation and only open for special events. Hopefully, in the near future, it will offer a permanent display for us as well. No need to stress, as there are many other options for now! Time to visit: Walk by- 20 minutes
Hirshborn, more commonly known, as the National Museum of Modern Art is smaller than you might expect. It is one of the few Smithsonian museums to have constantly rotating exhibits. Along with the modern styles of art, in the shapes of sculpture, paint and other abstract means, there is a walking art sculpture garden outside of the main building. Time to visit: 30 minutes (inside museum-up to an additional 30 minutes for outside sculpture garden)
National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History is not only the largest natural history museum in the country but is also the largest natural history museum in the world. It really is an amazing museum for people of all ages and interests as the exhibits dive into figuring out our natural place in the world. From the beginning of time and the galaxies to cavemen and civilization and even society forming wars and people, this museum really should be at the top of your list of places to see. Be warned, to see it all, you will eat up half a day at least.
Consider starting your day here so you don’t get halfway through and have to return the following day. Extremely popular, there is not really a way to completely avoid the crowds. My recommendation would be to go during the weekdays and if your visit is during a slower tourist season (aka not the late spring/summer) then you’ll find it even easier to maneuver. Time to visit: 4-5 hours
National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History is definitely an all-in-one stop seeping with patriotism. It hosts exhibits in a wide degree that will entertain all interests in the family. Everything from wars that America partook in, women and minors through history, inventions, political impacts and growth to transportation, food, and developments in everyday living.
Dependent on interest, this museum will take quite some time to walk through due to vast and in-depth exhibits. Luckily there are many interactive exhibits as well to keep young minds and hands busy. A happy mix of many categories without going too deep into certain topics that other museums in the area are designed for. Time to visit: 3-4 hours
Center for American Art and Portraiture
The Center for American Art and Portraiture holds many different smaller museums. The American Art Museum didn’t actually start out as all American art. Like most art today, European influence is heavy as some of the displays time back to pre-America. Today the collection of artists and artwork is broad relaying of off influences from wars, politics, religion and a growing nation.
Attached to the main building is the Renwick Gallery. What I found most interesting is that this gallery features more exhibits from artists that are still alive which you cannot find at every other museum. (Due to them blending history with art the pieces will clearly be older.) Also displayed is the National Portrait Gallery which houses portraits of famous scientists, politicians, artists, inventors and everyone else you could imagine that played an important role in our history. Time to Visit: 1-2 hours
National Postal Museum
Pretty self-explanatory, the National Postal Museum explores mail service from early colonial times to modern times. If you’re a big stamp collector, you’ll feel like a kid in a candy shop here. Time to visit: 1 hour
S. Dillon Ripley Center
Often called the Ripley Center, the S. Dillon Ripley Center is quite misleadingly small from street level. The kiosk-looking entrance actually takes you underground to a gallery of more contemporary American art. This museum features traveling exhibits and is purposed mainly to create a forum for artists to discuss their works. Time to visit: 30 minutes
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is one of two national galleries of Asian art. Hoisting beautiful bowls, plates, jewelry, shrines, fabrics and much more, the gallery hosts the beauty of art developing over time. From countries including, but not limited to, Nepal, China, Japan, Korea and many more, the displays show how much cultural religions and beliefs are expressed in each piece of artwork. The second Asian art gallery, Freer Gallery of Art continues the same themes only in a co-joined building. Time to visit: 1-2 hours
National Gallery of Art
In hopes to have a national art museum that held to the same standards of other powerful countries, the National Gallery of Art began construction in 1937. Today it houses many rotating galleries along with some permanent exhibits and an outdoor statue garden. The majority of the work is either European or American and post-renaissance period. Time to visit: 1 Hour
The Smithsonian Castle is a focal point for the Smithsonian museums and serves as a visitor’s center. If you need any help at all, would prefer a map or want a brief overlook of what all the other museums have to offer, this should be your first stop. Surrounding the castle, you’ll walk directly through the Smithsonian Gardens. A beautiful park filled with flowers and benches and perfect for a lunch break! (Of course dependent on what time of year you choose to go-I recommend spring ☺)
Time to Visit: 20 minutes
Although not really a museum, The National Zoo does fall under the category of Smithsonian owned. Hoping we all know what a zoo entails, I’ll leave most of this one up to your imagination. On a comparison level, I wouldn’t say this zoo isn’t the best in the country but it does give for a very pleasant afternoon off. Not to mention a little break from all the other information you’ve been pumping into your mind!
If you have kids, I would highly recommend swinging by because how often can you go to a zoo without spending an arm and leg on admission? For me, it was nice but next time I’ll skip and stick with the things I can solely find in D.C. There are also all kinds of cool paid programs where you can spend the night with the animals or different wine events for mom and dad so if you’re looking to find something a little different than the normal zoo experience, you can find it here.
Time to visit 3-4 hours
The Holocaust Museum
Although not a Smithsonian, The Holocaust Museum also advertises a free admission and an amazing story. This museum paints the story of the Nazi terror during WWII in horrific colors. The main exhibit does require tickets due to popularity so either book in advance or line up in the morning for same day entry. This is a must see during your trip to D.C. as it very boldly strives to keep the story alive and to remember those lost in the horrid mass killings that became the Holocaust.
Exhibits that are more children friendly are available and the more graphic videos and pictures are put out of sight of a younger audience. Main discretion surrounding the gore and horrors of the concentration camps, scientific experiments and other elements of the death tolls and living circumstances are left up to parents leading younger children through. At certain points, the museum hosts talks with survivors that are also free and available to the public. If this interests you, make sure to plan in advance.
If you're interested in researching more before your museum visit, I picked up Passport to Life in the gift shop. It's a great read about a survivor's story. It's not to expensive on amazon and will give you an ever better idea of what was experienced during these horrible times. It's always great to know a little bit going in to appreciate it even more once you're there!
Time to visit 2-3 hours
Despite this already being so much to see, the Smithsonian Museums are not the only great things to do in D.C. If you want to learn more about how to make your trip to the capital city just a little bit more perfect and affordable make sure to stay tuned as I'll keep updating you on even MORE free things to do in D.C.!
I was so nervous my first time traveling this city because I was on a super tight budget, but as I hope I’m showing you, you don’t need a lot of money to really experience the beauty that is D.C. Hey, if you’re a savvy traveler like me, you can even survive all the sightseeing with less than $22 a day! I’ll show you exactly how I did it in How to Explore Washington D.C. in less than $22 a day.
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I really hope that this guide will help you stay NOT overwhelmed by the time you get to D.C. It’s so worth the trip I promise. Have you visited any of the Smithsonians before? What museum was your favorite? Make sure to comment if you have any other great advice or stories about the Smithsonian, D.C. or any other travel related adventures! I’ll look forward to hearing from you.
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As always, God Bless and I hope to see you somewhere around the world.