10 Must-Visit Museums in Washington, D.C.

The best part about museums in Washington, D.C.? Most are free.

Inside the National Air and Space Museum, with numerous visitors looking at planes suspended overhead

Could Washington, D.C. be one of the best museum cities in the country?

Photo by TJ Brown/Shutterstock

There are many reasons for visiting our nation’s capital: the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial among them. But what’s truly one of the best things about Washington, D.C.? The incredible amount of museums in the city—there are over 70. And many of them are free to the public.

But don’t worry—the museums in the D.C. area go far beyond U.S. history (though you’ll find plenty of that here). There are multiple options for art lovers, museums dedicated to African American and Native American history, as well as one covering all things related to espionage. And don’t worry about keeping the kiddos entertained—there’s a museum for them too.

These are the 10 best museums in Washington, D.C.:

Exterior of front entrance of the National Museum of American History, with vertical U.S. flag and a silver abstract sculpture

For an in-depth look into events that were important to the founding of the USA, the National Museum of American History is the place to be.

Photo by Orhan Cam/Shutterstock

1. Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Location: 1300 Constitution Ave. NW
Hours: Every day 10 a.m. –5:30 p.m.
Admission: Free

Originally founded as the National Museum of History and Technology in 1964, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History has more than 3 million artifacts and national treasures related to formative events in U.S. history. Highlights include the original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a collection of First Ladies’ gowns, the John Bull locomotive (built in 1850, it became the world’s oldest operable steam locomotive when the Smithsonian ran it in 1981), Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, the original Greensboro lunch counter from the 1960 Civil Rights protest sit-ins, and an American Stories exhibit that includes Dorothy’s ruby slippers and a Kermit the Frog puppet. It’s an impressive and gargantuan survey of American history.

The striking facade of the National Museum of African American History and Culture at dusk, with a few green trees

Plans to open a Smithsonian museum focused on Black American history can be traced back to 1915.

Courtesy of Bernd Dittrich/Unsplash

2. The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Location: 1400 Constitution Ave. NW
Hours: Tuesday–Sunday 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m., Monday 12 p.m.–5:30 p.m.
Admission: Free

The most recent addition to the Smithsonian’s large collection of museums is also one of its most interesting and important. Housed in a sleek, modern building, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened at its current permanent location in 2016 (complete with a ceremony led by President Barack Obama) and spans eight floors packed with exhibits. The museum is the largest of its kind dedicated to African American history and culture and has more than 40,000 items in its collection. Notable artifacts include Harriet Tubman’s shawl, an original cabin from South Carolina that once housed enslaved people, as well as feet and wrist manacles that enslaved people were forced to wear. It’s a moving experience and you may need more than one visit to see everything.

The atrium of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum, with replicas of a plane, mail truck, and horse-drawn carriage

The U.S. Postal Service was founded in 1775, with Benjamin Franklin as its first postmaster general.

Photo by Kit Leong/Shutterstock

3. National Postal Museum

Location: 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE
Hours: Every day 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Admission: Free

Founded in 1993, the National Postal Museum is perhaps one of the most niche museum offerings in the city and is completely devoted to the history of the postal service (as in the U.S. Postal Service, not the Seattle indie band) from its humble beginnings in the colonial era to modern times. Here, visitors can find the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, the world’s largest stamp collection, with more than 20,000 stamps on display, including artifacts from John Lennon’s personal collection, as well as a comprehensive exhibit dedicated to city mailboxes. On the ground floor, visitors can explore how mail was once delivered around the country with the help of stagecoaches, carriages, steamboats, and trains.

The curvilinear, terra-cotta colored exterior of the National Museum of the American Indian

There are two branches of the National Museum of the American Indian: one in Washington, D.C., the other in New York City.

Photo by Cvandyke/Shutterstock

4. The National Museum of the American Indian

Location: Fourth St. SW
Hours: Every day 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Admission: Free

When it opened its doors in 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian became the first museum in the country dedicated to Native American and Alaska Native history and culture presented from an Indigenous perspective. The more than 80,000 artifacts within its collection make it one of the world’s largest—it geographically runs the gamut from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. Current notable exhibitions include Nation to Nation: Treaties, which was curated by Native American rights activist Suzan Shown Harjo and focuses on important and influential Native American diplomats who fought with the U.S. government for the rights of Indigenous peoples. At the on-site restaurant, Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, seasonal dishes like Bolivian style chili braised pork shank and ceviche by executive chef Freddie Bitsoie are served. And if you can’t make it to D.C., the National Museum of the American Indian has a second location in New York City.

A painting displayed in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 1 & 2, Dean Road, Edinburgh. National Galleries of Scotland.

Photo by Nick Pryde/Unsplash

5. National Gallery of Art

Location: Sixth and Constitution Ave. NW
Hours: Every day 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Admission: Free

With two buildings and a sculpture garden, the National Gallery of Art is a treasure-filled art trifecta. The West Building provides visitors with a chronological history lesson of Western art that showcases the European masters including Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh. Continue onto the contemporary East Building by traversing its moving walkway which is illuminated by Multiverse, a light sculpture created by Leo Villareal that’s composed of 41,000 LED bulbs. In the East Building, art lovers can find Alexander Calder’s largest mobile hanging from the atrium roof, works from Warhol and Pollock, and Katharina Fritsch’s 15-foot blue rooster sculpture standing cockily on the rooftop terrace. And if you haven’t yet had your fill of art yet, head a few blocks north to the nearby National Portrait Gallery, which collects portraits of famous Americans, including paintings of every president.

Planes hanging from ceiling inside the National Air and Space Museum

The National Air and Space Museum houses a treasure trove of spacecraft, aircraft, other flight-related artifacts.

Courtesy of Nils Huenerfuerst/Unsplash

6. The National Air and Space Museum

Location: 600 Independence Ave. SW
Hours: Every day 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Admission: Free

Opened to the public as part of the country’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, the National Air and Space Museum is the largest of the Smithsonian Institution’s 20 museums—and one of its most recently renovated. After undergoing a four-year-long transformation, it reopened in October 2022 with more than 100 new interactive and digital experiences. They include exhibits dedicated to a T-38 flown by Jackie Cochran, a full-sized X-Wing Starfighter used in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and a WR-3 air racer constructed by Neal Loving, the first Black American certified to race airplanes. The museum holds the world’s biggest collection of air- and spacecraft, an IMAX theater, the Einstein Planetarium, and interactive flight simulators.

The more than 60,000 objects connected with aviation and human flight housed here included the Wright brothers’ 1903 Wright Flyer; Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis; Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1, Glamorous Glennis, which broke the sound barrier; astronaut John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury capsule; the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, which carried the first men to the moon; the Apollo-Soyuz hook-up; and Skylab. As immense as the museum may seem, visitors can only view 10 percent of the entire collection here. The remaining 90 percent is located at the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, the largest air and space museum building in the world.

Red and white signage of the International Spy Museum

The International Spy Museum holds the biggest collection of espionage artifacts available to the public

Photo by Yohan Marion/Unsplash

7. International Spy Museum

Location: 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW
Hours: Monday–Friday 10 a.m.–6 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.–7 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.–6 p.m.
Admission: Tickets start at $29 per person

If you are intrigued by spies, and want to separate fact from fiction (move over Austin Powers), then head over to the International Spy Museum, the only museum in the USA dedicated to espionage. Here, you can learn all about the gadgets and techniques that real spies used, from German watch cameras to the lipstick pistol. Discover the realm of ciphers and codes that spies use to transmit messages, learn about the secret cool kids club of woman spies, and see how carrier pigeons were used in espionage. But perhaps one of the neatest things about this museum is its interactive elements. Upon entering the International Spy Museum, guests can assume the identity of one of 16 spy identities. Throughout the museum are plaques—and even ”guards”—to test how well visitors have remembered their spy identity.

A taxidermied elephant on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is the most popular museum devoted to natural history in the world.

Courtesy of J. Amill Santiago/Unsplash

8. The National Museum of Natural History

Location: 10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW
Hours: Every day 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Admission: Free

The National Museum of Natural History is home to one of the largest natural history collections; its more than 147 million specimens include hundreds of mammals from Africa, Australia, and the Americas. It’s easy for visitors to lose hours here marveling at things like the Hope Diamond (said to be cursed—it was on the Titanic when it sank), the recently renovated Hall of Fossils, and the enchanting Butterfly Pavilion. This museum is always busy, but more so on holidays and weekends. It’s best enjoyed early in the day and during the week, if possible.

Interior of dark, high-ceilinged room at the Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Holocaust Memorial Museum is mean to serve as a living memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Courtesy of J. Amill Santiago/Unsplash

9. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Location: 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW
Hours: Every day 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Admission: Free, but a timed reservation is required

The Holocaust Memorial Museum serves as a memorial to the more than 6 million Jewish people who were systematically murdered by the Nazi German regime between 1933 and 1945. It’s also an educational center working to raise awareness of antisemitism and threats of genocide and hatred around the world. Built in 1993, the museum tells the Holocaust’s full chronological history through artifacts, archival footage, and survivors’ testimonies. In addition to recordings, Holocaust survivors regularly volunteer at the museum, so visitors are able to hear their accounts firsthand. The museum’s exhibitions begin with the rise of the Nazi party, cover the subsequent ghettoization of German cities, the use of concentration camps for Jewish people and other groups, and ends with modern-day genocides, such as the targeting of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Topics like the Nazis’ eugenics program, the Jewish resistance, and the murder of millions of other victims (including political prisoners, Romani and Polish people, LGBTQ individuals, and people with disabilities) are also covered. Visiting this museum can be a somber experience; you may want to block off a day to fully take everything in.

The front entrance of the National Children's Museum, with bright blue awnings

The National Children’s Museum encourages kiddos to explore STEAM topics through interactive exhibits.

Photo by Rosemarie Mosteller/Shutterstock

10. National Children’s Museum

Location: 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Hours: Wednesday–Monday 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Admission: $19 per person (including children over the age of one)

OK, OK, so you’ve dragged your kids to every museum located along the National Mall, and let’s just say they maybe weren’t able to appreciate the Jackson Pollock at the National Gallery of Art. Never fear—the National Children’s Museum is here to save the day. Devoted entirely to hands-on experiences designed to spark interests in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM), the National Children’s Museum is primarily targeted at kids 12 and younger. For the very little ones (infants and toddlers), check out the Little Dreamers cloud-and-flight-themed area, which encourages the development of gross and fine motor skills through sight and sound exploration. And don’t forget to check out the Art and Tech wing (presented by Nickelodeon), which offers fun exhibitions featuring characters from shows like SpongeBob and Paw Patrol.

Mae Hamilton is a former associate editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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