Washington, DC is one of the top tourist destinations in the United States, and for good reason. The city just oozes history and prestige. You’ll find important government buildings where big decisions are made on a daily basis. You’ll see incredible neoclassical architecture that will take your breath away. And it seems like you can’t walk two blocks without stumbling upon a monument dedicated to a founding figure or a memorial for a larger national cause.
What you’ll also find in Washington, DC are museums — lots of museums. There are more than 60 in all, with a whopping 19 of them belonging to the nationally funded Smithsonian Institution. You could visit DC for a full month, visit two museums per day, and still not see all of them, and therefore most tourists want to know which ones are the must-sees.
It’s not an easy list to narrow down, but we’ve tried our best. If you’re heading to Washington, DC soon or if you live in the capital region and are planning your weekend adventures, read on. Here are the top ten museums in Washington, DC.
10. National Postal Museum
While the phrase “going postal” may elicit a few snickers here and there, the National Postal Museum offers a lovely and serious look at the history of mail service in both the US and throughout the world. It’s housed in the former Main Post Office of Washington, DC (right across the street from Union Station), so the building itself is significant, and there are exhibits on topics like the Pony Express, stamps and stamp art, postcards, and much more. The National Postal Museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution, and therefore admission is free to all visitors.
9. National Museum of the American Indian
It’s perhaps the most unusual structure in the capital district, with its undulating exterior and limestone facade, but what’s contained within the National Museum of the American Indian is truly extraordinary. It’s an examination of history that many of us don’t typically see — at least not with this depth. Exhibits include photographs, artifacts, and more from the many tribes that are native to the North and South American Continents. All in all, this Smithsonian museum is a remarkable space in which visitors can learn about the original cultures of the country and beyond.
8. National Museum of Natural History
Located right on the National Mall, the 1.5 million square foot National Museum of Natural History is the place to visit if you’re interested in anything animal, vegetable, or mineral. Fossils, skeletons, rocks, and all sorts of anthropological artifacts are housed in this enormous facility. In addition to the packed galleries, the Museum also houses an IMAX theatre, which screens large scale films on topics like dinosaurs, National Parks, the world beneath surface of the ocean, and many more. It’s Smithsonian affiliated, so while general admission is free, tickets for both IMAX movies and the Butterfly Pavilion cost a nominal fee.
7. National Building Museum
The entire city of Washington, DC is like an architecture museum, but if you want to get a closer look at the architecture, design, and engineering of our nation and our world, the National Building Museum is the place to visit. Plus, it’s not just for grown ups: the museum’s Building Zone is a hands on space designed especially for young children (ages 2-6) to play with giant blocks to create architectural structures, drive play trucks, and engage in other related activities. The National Building Museum is not affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, and there is an admission charge for $10 for the general public and $7 for students and seniors.
6. National Portrait Gallery
The other art museums in Washington, DC may be more well frequented, but the National Portrait Gallery is a lesser known gem. Fans of photography especially will love this museum’s collection of historic and contemporary portraits. That’s not to say, however, that painting and sculpture aren’t represented as well. The collection includes highlights like portraits of presidents and first ladies, miniatures and daguerreotypes, Time Magazine cover art, and much more. It’s located in DC’s Chinatown district, and admission is free.
5. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
It’s one of the more somber spaces in Washington, DC, but it’s also one of the most valuable. The Holocaust Memorial Museum exists to help visitors, as it says on the Museum’s website, “confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.” Guests can learn about the atrocities of what happened in Europe during World War II through a permanent exhibition and rotating temporary exhibits in the lower level. Tickets for the permanent exhibition are timed and limited during the high season of March through August, and they are always free.
4. National Gallery of Art
Two full wings and a six acre sculpture garden make the National Gallery of Art one of the largest museums in the city. The collection is vast: paintings by the masters from the Italian Renaissance to present day, sculpture and decorative arts, 75,000 prints, and an enormous LED light sculpture in the tunnel connecting the two wings are just some of what you’ll find. You’ll recognize artists and pieces, and a visit to the National Gallery is an unforgettable experience for art lovers and art novices alike. Plan to spend a lot of time here, as it’s not a museum that can be seen in just an hour or two. Admission is always free.
The name, obviously a portmanteau of news and museum, may suggest that the Newseum has a somewhat limited focus, but it’s actually an institution dedicated to the freedoms afforded by our First Amendment. Yes, the press is part of it, but there’s also speech, religion, peaceful assembly, and government petition. Exhibits include historic photographs, world events and how they’ve been covered, communication technology, and more. Tickets are somewhat pricey, at over $20 for adults, but there are discounts available through the Newseum’s website.
2. National Museum of American History
The size of the National Museum of American History’s collection of artifacts from our country’s past is staggering. There’s the original Star Spangled Banner, the John Bull locomotive, the Greensboro lunch counter, lunch boxes, a replica of Julia Child’s kitchen, and so much more can be found within its walls. From the serious to the whimsical, this museum has it all. It’s on the National Mall, and as part of the Smithsonian Institution, it’s free to all visitors .
1. National Air and Space Museum
It’s one of the most visited museums in the entire world, and for good reason: the National Air and Space Museum’s collection of aviation equipment is fascinating, and where else can you get up close and personal with an Apollo Command Module? From the history of flight to the search for intelligent life in the universe, the exhibits will delight and charm visitors of all ages. It’s located on the south side of the National Mall, and admission is always free.