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How Many Washington, D.C. Museums Can You See in a Day?

By Lola Méndez

Jan 5, 2022

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The Smithsonian American Art Museum is just one of many cultural delights in D.C.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum/Ken Rahaim

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is just one of many cultural delights in D.C.

You don’t have to do a museum marathon to experience D.C.’s best. Local experts weigh in on their favorite itineraries and tips for the perfect museum day in Washington.

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Some of this country’s greatest museums and galleries are in Washington, D.C. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Washington is simply a static repository of culture—recent arrivals like the National Museum of African American History and Culture will soon be joined by newer institutions like the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum.

We spoke to local experts about which museums they like to pair together and got their tips on where to grab a bite or a drink along the way.

How to plan the perfect D.C. museum day

  • You don’t have to do a museum marathon. A little planning ahead means you can arrange a day that suits your own interests. Do you prefer dinosaurs to fine art? Space capsules and Prince’s guitar or portraits of presidents?
  • Consult a map to order your multimuseum itinerary by location. Then prioritize the galleries and works you’re most eager to see in each.
  • Start your day early to beat the crowds still lingering over breakfast.
  • Consider joining guided tours to enrich the experience.
  • Most of D.C.’s museums have resumed walk-up visits since the pandemic restrictions have eased, so advance tickets are no longer needed for most. One popular exception is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which still operates on free timed-entry passes.

Dorothy’s slippers are on view in the National Museum of American History.

A classic tour of the Smithsonian museums

Eric Lewis, owner of Grand Atlas Tours, has crafted what he believes to be the ideal all day tour of Smithsonian museums. “Start with the Smithsonian Castle to learn the fascinating, enigmatic origins of the Institution,” he says. Next on Lewis’s list is the National Museum of American History. “Don’t miss the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem, and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat [the last one he wore].”

Follow that up next door with a wander through the largest Smithsonian by collection size, the National Museum of Natural History. It includes the Bones Exhibit, the Hall of Mammals, the Hall of Fossils (including a T-Rex), and the Gems and Minerals exhibit where you can see the Hope Diamond, the world’s largest blue diamond, renowned for its clarity and—Lewis notes—its reputed curse.

While you’re here, grab lunch. The Washington Post named the on-site Ocean Terrace Cafe among the best of the Smithsonian museum restaurants. Plus, you get to eat with a view of a megalodon, an extinct mega-toothed shark that used to swim (and dine) in the nearby Chesapeake Bay.

If you have energy for one more museum, pop over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which Lewis says is not just great for art lovers but also places you “in the perfect neighborhood for a post-museum dinner: right across the street is Zaytinya by José Andrés.”

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According to Lewis, “A grand day at the Smithsonians is eminently doable. But museum fatigue is real. Only the most endurance-minded travelers should aim to see more than three major museums in a day—distances on the National Mall can be deceptive, so the walk between them is longer than people anticipate.”

D.C. has art lovers covered, too.

The art lover’s museum day

“For a day of art-minded museum hopping in the DMV, what we call the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area, start your day at the National Gallery of Art, one of the nation’s most important cultural repositories,” recommends Ariana Panbechi-Cole, program manager for curriculum and instruction at Sotheby’s Institute of Art

Panbechi-Cole, a self-declared Renaissance nerd, suggests heading straight to the museum’s Italian Renaissance collection. That’s where you’ll find the only da Vinci painting on permanent public view in the Americas, Ginevra de’ Benci. “There’s also an impressive work by Raphael called The Alba Madonna that is breathtaking,” she says.

The NGA’s West Building holds works by van Gogh as well as masterpieces by Rembrandt and Monet. The East Building houses modern and contemporary art by the likes of Pollack and Picasso. “I greatly admire pop art, so I always visit Roy Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey, Andy Warhol’s A Boy for Meg, and Wayne Thiebaud’s Cakes, which is one of the most visually delightful pieces in the NGA’s collection,” Panbechi-Cole says.

After this much art appreciation, you’ll surely need a pick-me-up. Enjoy a scoop of gelato at NGA’s Espresso & Gelato Bar or take a break in the NGA Sculpture Garden where you can sit and admire Robert Indiana’s AMOR or Louise Bourgeois’s Spider.

For your afternoon viewing, Panbechi-Cole offers up two possible itineraries; one stays local and one ventures farther afield.

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Option 1: A 40-minute drive northwest from the National Mall, Glenstone is a private contemporary art museum in Potomac, Maryland. “It’s arguably one of the coolest and most unique institutions in the country,” says Panbechi-Cole. “Glenstone boasts one of the most impressive collections of postwar art and is on a lush campus of 230 acres. Part of what makes it so unique is the lack of didactic material. The galleries are curated to emphasize the experience of the visitor. The gallery space invites the visitor to draw their own conclusions from the artwork they encounter, rather than having a curator tell them what a work is ‘supposed’ to mean. Installations of landscape and sound art make the museum grounds such an interactive and dynamic space to have a one-on-one encounter with art.”

Glenstone offers a couple of tasty choices for lunch: there’s an indoor restaurant with a simple menu composed mostly of soups, salads, sandwiches, and a few hot entrées. Outdoors on the patio, you’ll find a pared-down menu and a scenic place to contemplate the grounds.

Option 2: If you’d prefer to stay in town, walk a few blocks off the National Mall to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), the only place besides the White House with a permanent portrait exhibit of all the U.S. presidents. Lunch is just as important to Panbechi-Cole as the art she’s viewing: “Near NPG, at Crane’s, you can enjoy a $35 Michelin-starred lunch. The Spanish-Japanese fusion restaurant has a beautiful bento box and a stunning dining room.”  

After lunch, she recommends the intimate Phillips Collection (timed tickets: $16/adults, 18 and under free), a 25-minute ride on the Metro’s Red Line to Dupont Circle. Founded in the 1920s in the Phillips family home, this collection was America’s first museum of modern art. Because the works by Picasso, Monet, van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, and the celebrated Renoir painting Luncheon of the Boating Party are hung on the walls of a family home, it really feels like you’re viewing a private art collection. It also has thought-provoking contemporary exhibits that have reflected on the COVID pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement.

Another plus: Locals know the entry fee keeps the Phillips Collection less crowded than the free-admission museums along the Mall.

If you can only see one (OK, two) contemporary museums . . .

The horror! Just kidding. AFAR suggests you make time for the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The former is a fully immersive conversation about race and racism, while the latter has a special Laurie Anderson exhibit on through July 31, 2022.

>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Washington, D.C.

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