27 Best Museums in DC | 2023 (with Photos)
Washington DC is a cultural hub that boasts an impressive array of museums that showcase the history, culture, and achievements of the United States and the world at large.
Whether you're interested in art, science, history, or technology, DC's museums offer a wealth of information and inspiration that will leave you feeling enriched and enlightened.
In this guide, we'll take a closer look at the best and most visited museums in the nation's capital that you won't want to miss.
Most Recommended Thing to Do
Visit the Smithsonian Institution.
Top Choice Hotel
Four Seasons Hotel Washington, D.C.
Our Top Choice Restaurant
Our Top Choice Bar for Nightlife
18th Street Lounge
Best Time to Visit
Spring and fall months for pleasant weather conditions.
The average temperature in Washington, D.C. is moderate.
Metro, bus, taxi, bike share, scooter, walking, car
Average Cost ($, $$, $$$)
My Top Recommendation
Washington D.C. is a city filled with history and iconic landmarks, making it the perfect destination for any traveler. Start your day by visiting the stunning Lincoln Memorial, where you can take in the breathtaking views of the National Mall and reflect on the significance of this important historical figure.
Afterward, head to the vibrant neighborhoods of Georgetown, where you can explore the charming streets lined with boutique shops and cozy cafes. Don't miss the opportunity to indulge in a delicious cupcake from the famous Georgetown Cupcake, a local favorite. End your day with a visit to the captivating Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where you can immerse yourself in the wonders of space exploration and aviation history. Washington D.C. offers a unique and memorable experience for every visitor.
What You'll Need to Bring
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Lightweight and breathable clothing
- Sunscreen and a hat for sun protection
- Umbrella or rain jacket (for unpredictable weather)
- Cash and credit/debit cards
- Travel guide/book or map
- Camera or smartphone for capturing memories
- Portable charger for your electronic devices
- Reusable water bottle
- Any necessary medication or prescriptions
- Transportation card or passes if needed
- Snacks or food for on-the-go
Table of Contents
1. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is one of the most popular museums in DC and home to a collection of over 145 million artifacts, including dinosaur fossils, gems, and minerals.
Visitors can explore the Hall of Mammals, the Sant Ocean Hall, the Butterfly Pavilion, and the Hope Diamond.
With free admission and hours of entertainment, the National Museum of Natural History is a top destination in DC that visitors won't want to miss.
2. The Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum boasts over 45,000 pieces of art from the 18th century to the present day.
The collection includes works by famous artists, such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper, and Winslow Homer. Its outdoor sculpture garden features pieces by Alexander Calder and David Smith.
With free admission (free timed entry passes) a location just steps away from other popular DC attractions, this museum is a top destination for art lovers.
3. The National Museum of African American History and Culture
Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture is the only national museum devoted solely to the exhibition of African art.
Its collection includes over 37,000 artifacts, along with reminders of slavery and the civil rights movement. You can delve into African American history and gain a deeper understanding of African art and culture in the US.
With free admission and an immersive experience, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is one of the places to visit in Washington DC.
4. The National Gallery of Art
Perched near the U.S. Capitol Building, the National Gallery of Art comprises two buildings: the West Building and the East Building. The West Building was modeled after the Roman Pantheon, while the East Building was designed by modernist architect I.M. Pei.
You can see masterpieces such as Da Vinci's "Ginevra de' Benci," Vermeer's "Woman Holding a Balance," and Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait" at the National Gallery.
The East Building is home to works by Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, and other legends.
Aside from its fine collection of European and American art, the National Gallery of Art is also an architectural masterpiece designed by John Russell Pope.
5. National Museum of Women in the Arts
The National Museum of Women in the Arts has a collection of over 5,000 works of art, spanning from the 16th century to the present day. Visitors can see works by artists such as Frida Kahlo and Mary Cassatt, among many others.
The museum offers visitors a unique opportunity to see works by women artists that are often underrepresented in traditional museums and galleries, making it a must for anyone interested in art, history, and gender equality.
6. The International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum is a fascinating museum in Washington, DC that is dedicated to the world of espionage, famous spies, gadgets, and the techniques used to gather information.
The museum also offers interactive activities, including a Spy Challenge, where visitors can test their own spy skills.
The International Spy Museum opens up a mysterious world that few people know much about. You can also find cool some spy gadgets in the museum shop.
7. National Museum of Health and Medicine
The National Museum of Health and Medicine offers visitors a fascinating insight into the world of medicine and health.
Visitors can see everything from preserved human specimens and medical equipment from the Civil War to modern-day medical technologies.
A visit to the museum is an excellent opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the advancements in medical technology over time.
8. The National Air and Space Museum
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum showcases everything from the Wright Brothers' first airplane to the Apollo 11 command module.
Visitors will be able to get up close and personal with some of the most iconic pieces of aviation and space history.
This cool museum offers a unique experience that is both educational and entertaining. The museum is admission-free but requires timed entry passes.
9. The National Museum of the American Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian in DC features a collection of over 800,000 artifacts showcasing the diverse cultures of indigenous communities from North, Central, and South America.
It works closely with indigenous communities to ensure that their cultures are accurately represented.
Visitors will come away from the American Indian Museum with a deeper understanding of Native American culture and contemporary issues, making it a valuable experience for people of all ages.
10. The National Museums of Asian Art
The Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art, the National Mall's first art museum, is composed of two galleries—the Freer Gallery and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
The collection spans over 7,000 years of history and art from China, Japan, Korea, India, Southeast Asia, and the Islamic world. Over 45,000 unique objects of Asian art are collected at the Freer Gallery.
This free museum also regularly hosts temporary exhibits and cultural programs that encourage visitors to learn all about Asian art and traditions.
11. The Textile Museum
The Textile Museum in Washington, DC houses a vast collection of fabrics, textiles, and carpets from all over the world, with a particular focus on the Middle East and Asia.
Visitors can admire the intricate designs and patterns of ancient textiles, learn about traditional weaving techniques, and appreciate the beauty of fabrics that have been made for centuries.
12. The Kreeger Museum
The Kreeger Museum is a hidden gem located in Washington, DC It is dedicated to showcasing contemporary art in a tranquil setting.
The building itself is a work of art, with its modernist design and scenic location. Inside, visitors can admire paintings and installations by renowned artists such as Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, and Mark Rothko.
In addition to the indoor galleries, the outdoor sculpture garden provides a serene setting for visitors to appreciate larger-than-life installations by artists like Tony Smith and Henry Moore.
13. The United States Botanic Garden
The United States Botanic Garden in Washington, DC is home to over 10,000 living plants, including rare and exotic species from around the world.
There is also an outdoor National Garden, where visitors can stroll through the Butterfly Garden and the Rose Garden. This is also the only certified living plant museum in the nation.
With free admission and a location in the heart of the city, the United States Botanic Garden is a top destination for visitors to Washington, DC.
14. The Phillips Collection
The Phillips Collection is a museum hosting an exceptional modern and contemporary art collection. Visitors can see iconic works such as Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" and Van Gogh's "The Road Menders," as well as contemporary works by emerging artists.
The museum also offers a variety of educational programs, designed to help visitors deepen their understanding of modern and contemporary art.
The Phillips Collection is housed in a Georgian Revival house that once was the family home of museum founder, Duncan Phillips.
15. The Renwick Gallery
The Renwick Gallery is a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and is dedicated to showcasing contemporary craft and decorative art.
One of the most popular exhibitions is the annual "Wonder" exhibit, which showcases immersive installations created by contemporary artists.
The museum's permanent collection includes more than 3,000 objects, ranging from furniture and textiles to glass and ceramics.
16. The National Children's Museum
The National Children's Museum, just a few blocks from the National Mall, is an innovative and interactive space that encourages learning through play.
Its "Dream Machine'' exhibit explores the science of flight, while "Superheroes" celebrates the qualities that make heroes of all kinds. The Visiting Exhibit Hall highlights traveling exhibits for children from around the world.
A visit to the museum is a great way for families to spend time together and create lasting memories.
17. The National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC features over 23,000 portraits of famous and influential people from American history, such as George Washington, Obama, and Edith Wharton.
The National Portrait Gallery hosts the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.
Notable pieces include Gilbert Stuart's iconic portrait of George Washington and Andy Warhol's screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Although this painting of George Washington is so famous, it is actually unfinished.
18. The National Geographic Museum
The National Geographic Museum is home to a wide range of exhibitions that highlight the beauty and diversity of our planet.
From captivating photography to interactive displays, visitors can expect to be amazed by the discoveries featured at the National Geographic Museum.
Visitors can explore the mysteries of ancient Egypt and discover the incredible adaptations of creatures living in extreme environments.
19. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden hosts an incredible collection of modern art, including works by some of the most influential artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The museum stands out with its distinctive cylindrical building and its stunning outdoor space.
The sunken sculpture garden features several works of art including Wish Tree for Washington, DC by Yoko Ono, and Are Years What? by Mark Di Suveroa.
20. The Newseum
The Newseum in Washington, DC is a one-of-a-kind museum dedicated to the history and importance of journalism in society. It stands out with its commitment to promoting freedom of the press and the First Amendment.
Visitors can see the front pages of newspapers from around the world, and learn about the challenges faced by journalists working in war zones and authoritarian regimes.
21. The Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Holocaust Memorial Museum hosts personal items from victims and survivors that bring the history to life.
The museum offers a sobering reminder of the atrocities committed against Jewish people and other marginalized groups, including people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and Romani people.
22. The National Law Enforcement Museum
The National Law Enforcement Museum is a one-of-a-kind museum dedicated to telling the story of law enforcement in America. Visitors can see weapons, uniforms, and vehicles used by law enforcement officers throughout history.
Visiting the National Law Enforcement Museum leaves guests with a greater appreciation for the sacrifices that they make to keep our communities safe.
23. The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection are dedicated to advancing scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.
The research library is home to over 250,000 volumes that span a wide range of disciplines, from art history to Byzantine studies.
Visitors can see rare manuscripts and view exceptional works of art that represent some of the highest achievements of human creativity.
24. The National Postal Museum
The National Postal Museum is dedicated to stamp collecting and the postal history of America from its earliest days to the modern era.
Visitors can see mail coaches, postal uniforms, and rare stamps, as well as interactive exhibits that allow them to experience what it's like to sort and deliver mail.
You can gain a deeper understanding of how the postal service has connected people across the US for more than a century.
25. The Smithsonian Institution Building
The Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as The Castle, is a historic landmark in DC and the administrative center of the Smithsonian Institution.
The Castle is an impressive example of Gothic Revival architecture, with its towers, turrets, and pointed arches. Visitors can also see the crypt of the museum's founder, James Smithson.
The Castle offers guided tours, special events, and educational programs that make it a fun destination for visitors of all ages.
26. The National Building Museum
Built-in the late 19th century as the headquarters of the United States Pension Bureau, the National Building Museum was modeled after a Roman palace.
The museum's collection has exhibits on architecture, design, and engineering and explores the many meanings of ''home''.
Access to the full museum requires a ticket but some areas can be freely enjoyed by the public.
27. The National Archives Museum
The National Archives Museum, located near the National Mall, houses some of the nation's most important documents: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
You can see these founding documents up close and in person and also explore other important historical artifacts, including presidential records, military records, and photographs.
FAQs about the Best Museums in DC
Let's also look at some frequently asked questions about the best museums in DC.
What is the #1 site visited in Washington, DC?
The number one site visited in Washington, DC is the National Mall and Memorial Parks.
This area includes famous landmarks such as the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, World War II Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
It also includes museums such as the National Museum of American History, the Museum of Natural History, and the National Air and Space Museum.
What is the coolest Smithsonian museum?
Each Smithsonian museum in DC has its charm, depending on individual interests and preferences.
Some visitors may find the National Air and Space Museum the coolest, with its impressive collection of spacecraft, while others may enjoy the National Museum of African American History and Culture, with its immersive exhibits on African art.
Which Smithsonian is the best in DC?
All of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC are unique and worth visiting. Some popular museums that visitors tend to enjoy are the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of American History, and the National Museum of Natural History.
Is the International Spy Museum worth it?
The International Spy Museum has received generally positive reviews but some visitors say that some of the interactive exhibits may have long lines.
Admission to the museum can be a bit more expensive than other Smithsonian museums in DC, but there are discounts available for students, seniors, and military members.
Which are the museums in the National Mall?
The National Mall features many free museums, including some 'Smithsonians'. The Smithsonian Museums are the most widely visible part of the Smithsonian Institution and consist of 20 museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoological Park.
Seventeen of these are located in Washington, DC and 11 of them are located on the National Mall.
Summing Up: The Best Museums in DC
Washington DC is rich in museums and galleries to explore. The nation's capital offers a diverse range of cultural experiences to locals and tourists alike.
From exploring modern art to discovering the stories of African Americans at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, there is no shortage of things to see.
A museum crawl through DC is an excellent way to explore the city's rich history and culture. With the Smithsonian Institution's free museums, there's no need to break the bank to enjoy a day of fun and discovery.
So plan a trip to Washington and discover the wonders of the best museums in DC for yourself.