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Washington DC, the capital of the United States, is a treasure trove of culture, history, and learning. It is home to some of the world’s most prestigious and diverse museums, catering to various interests.

These museums offer a window into the past, present, and future, making DC a must-visit destination for museum enthusiasts and those looking to learn more about the nation. But out of everything this city offers, what are Washington DC’s must-visit museums?

As experts in the DC area tours, we’ve compiled our top picks of the best museums to visit, ranging from world-renowned Smithsonian institutions to hidden gems frequented by locals. In this comprehensive guide to National Mall’s museums and monuments, we’ll help you navigate the vast array of museums the city offers, ensuring you don’t miss out on any of Washington DC museums with iconic exhibits.

The Best Museums in DC You Absolutely Have to See

Washington DC, is an ideal destination for museum enthusiasts and visitors eager to delve into the heart of the capital and the nation. With a diverse array of museums, exceptional exhibit quality, and easy accessibility, DC has something for everyone. 

The Smithsonian Institution Museums are some of the best museums in DC

Caption: The Smithsonian Institution Museums are a collection of world-class institutions that showcase the diverse facets of American history, culture, and scientific achievement, providing visitors with unparalleled educational experiences.

In fact, the city’s captivating charm and wealth of opportunities may inspire you to make it your new home. If you decide to embark on an adventure of moving to DC, remember that you can reach DC with expert help by hiring long distance movers. This way, you can focus on exploring DC’s history through its museums and fully immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of history and culture that awaits you. But even if you’re coming for a short visit, here’s a comprehensive list of the best museums DC has to offer.

Guide to the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC

The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum complex. It boasts an impressive array of museums and galleries that cater to a wide range of interests. In addition to the best art galleries and museums in Washington DC, we’ll touch on the several of the most popular and well-known Smithsonian museums, which showcase the diverse aspects of American history, culture, and innovation. So, let’s explore these remarkable, world-renowned institutions.

Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle)

The Smithsonian Institution Building, or “The Castle,” serves as the central information center for all Smithsonian museums. This architectural marvel, built in 1855, is an excellent starting point for your Smithsonian adventure. Here, you can find maps, schedules, and information on exhibits and events throughout the Smithsonian complex. For a more comprehensive list – check out out Overview of the Smithsonian Museums in DC blog.

Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle)

National Museum of American History

If you’re a history buff fascinated by the rich past of the United States, make sure to explore the National Museum of American History. This iconic museum features exhibits on the American Revolution, Civil War, and beyond. With over three million artifacts, this must-visit destination has something for everyone. The artifacts include the Star-Spangled Banner, the First Ladies’ Inaugural Gowns, and the original Kermit the Frog puppet.

The National Museum of American History

National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History takes you on a journey spanning 126 million years. It showcases the wonders of the natural world; from the smallest insects to giant mammals and the mysteries of the cosmos, this museum offers a comprehensive look at Earth’s history. During your visit, don’t miss the Hope Diamond, the giant squid, and the Hall of Human Origins.

The National Museum of Natural History

Caption: The National Museum of Natural History houses the famous Hope Diamond, a stunning 45.52-carat blue gemstone surrounded by mystery and intrigue, rumored to carry a centuries-old curse.

National Air and Space Museum

Reach for the stars at the National Air and Space Museum, which chronicles the history of aviation and space exploration. The museum houses over 60,000 artifacts and tells the story of humankind’s journey into the skies and beyond. This museum is home to Wright Brothers’ plane, the Apollo 11 command module, the Space Shuttle Discovery, and so much more.

National Air and Space Museum
Washington DC: Inside in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Established in 1946 and opened its main building on the National Mall in 1976.

Discover the faces that shaped America at the National Portrait Gallery. This museum showcases the nation’s most influential figures through a vast collection of portraits. Highlights include the famous “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington and the acclaimed “HOPE” portrait of Barack Obama.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Explore the African American experience at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This groundbreaking museum celebrates the triumphs and struggles integral to American history. With over 36,000 artifacts on display, including Harriet Tubman’s shawl, a Jim Crow-era segregated railcar, and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, this museum is essential for understanding our nation’s past. With so much incredible history inside, this is a must-see stop that we’ve included in our African American History and Culture Tour guided experience!

The National Museum of African American History and Culture building during the night

Caption: The National Museum of African American History and Culture museum serves as a powerful testament to the resilience and achievements of African Americans, highlighting their profound impact on American history and society.

Beyond the world-famous Smithsonian museums, Washington DC, is home to numerous noteworthy institutions that capture the essence of history, art, and innovation. D.C.’s museums: From science to espionage–these captivating, family-friendly museums in Washington DC cater to diverse interests and provide an enriching experience for visitors. So, let’s take a closer look at some other renowned museums in DC.

International Spy Museum

Uncover the secretive world of espionage and intelligence gathering at the International Spy Museum. This exhilarating museum offers a glimpse into the lives of spies. You’ll find everything from historical gadgets like the Enigma machine to contemporary cyber warfare. On top of that, visitors can also test their own spy skills in interactive exhibits and immersive experiences. This place is definitely one of the coolest interactive and educational museums in DC.

International Spy Museum

National Geographic Museum

The National Geographic Museum takes you on a journey through the natural world and the achievements of human exploration. This museum features stunning photography, artifacts, and cutting-edge technology. It truly brings the pages of National Geographic Magazine to life, covering topics like wildlife conservation, ancient civilizations, and cutting-edge scientific discoveries.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is, as the name says, a sobering tribute to the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust. This powerful museum takes visitors on an emotional journey through the events of World War II and the Holocaust. It showcases personal stories, photographs, and artifacts as a stark reminder of the importance of tolerance, understanding, and empathy.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Caption: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, stands as a poignant reminder of the tragic events of the Holocaust

The Newseum

The Newseum is a one-of-a-kind museum that celebrates the power of free expression and the role of journalism in society. With seven levels of interactive exhibits, visitors can explore the evolution of news, the challenges journalists face, and the media’s impact on our lives. Highlights include the Berlin Wall Gallery, the 9/11 Gallery, and the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery.

The Newseum

National Building Museum

Discover the world of architecture and urban design at the National Building Museum—one of the best museums in DC. This unique institution explores the built environment through engaging exhibits and interactive installations, from historic buildings to modern skyscrapers. The museum’s centerpiece is the breathtaking Great Hall. With its 75-foot-tall Corinthian columns, it often hosts temporary installations and special events.

Tour Guide’s Secret Picks

In the bustling city of Washington DC, there are also plenty of hidden gems waiting to be explored by curious visitors such as yourself. These hidden gems are lesser-known museums in Washington DC, which offers a refreshing change of pace from the more frequented institutions. So, let’s explore our experienced DC tour guides’ picks for some of DC’s most intriguing and off-the-beaten-path museums.

National Museum of Women in the Arts

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is the only major museum in the world dedicated solely to praising the artistic achievements of women. This inspiring institution showcases a diverse range of works by female artists from different periods and cultures. It truly highlights their contributions to the world of art. From Renaissance painters to modern sculptors, this museum is a testament to the creative spirit of women across the centuries.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is dedicated to the artistic achievements of women

Caption: Washington DC’s thriving art scene, including the best museums in DC, offers visitors a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in diverse artistic styles and periods, enriching their cultural experience.

National Postal Museum

The National Postal Museum, located in the historic City Post Office Building, offers a fascinating look into the history of the American postal system. Discover the evolution of mail delivery, the role of the postal service in shaping the nation, and the art of stamp collecting. With interactive exhibits and rare artifacts, this is a hidden gem that both history buffs and philatelists will appreciate.

Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens

Step into a world of elegance and grandeur at the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, once the home of the American socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post. This opulent mansion-turned-museum houses an exquisite collection of decorative arts. This collection includes Fabergé eggs, French and Russian porcelain, and an impressive array of paintings. To top it all off, the estate is surrounded by lush, beautifully landscaped gardens that provide a serene escape from the city.

The Renwick Gallery is a part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It’s dedicated to contemporary craft and decorative arts. Housed in a historic building, steps away from the White House, the Renwick Gallery showcases thought-provoking and innovative works of art that challenge the boundaries of traditional craftsmanship. With exhibitions that change frequently, you’ll discover something new and engaging with each visit.

Planning Your Museum Tour in DC: Tips & Recommendations

Visiting the best museums in DC can be an unforgettable experience. However, to make sure you make the most of your time in the nation’s capital, especially if it’s your first-time visit to DC, we’ve compiled a list of pro tips to help you easily navigate the top cultural attractions in D.C.

#1 Plan ahead

Before embarking on your museum adventure, take the time to research each institution’s hours, admission fees, and special exhibits. Some museums offer free admission or have specific days with extended hours. Knowing this information will allow you to maximize both your time and budget.

#2 Timing is key

To avoid crowds, consider visiting museums on weekdays. It’s always best to go early in the morning or later in the afternoon. Many of the most popular museums can get quite busy during weekends and holidays, so planning your visit during less busy times can make for a more enjoyable experience.

#3 Utilize public transportation

Washington DC, has an extensive public transportation system. This makes it simple and easy to get around the city. The Metrorail and Metrobus networks can take you to most museums, often with minimal walking. 

#4 Wear comfortable shoes

Museums often involve a considerable amount of walking and standing. To ensure you can fully enjoy each exhibit without discomfort, make sure to wear comfortable shoes that provide ample support.

#5 Take breaks as needed

Many larger museums, such as those within the Smithsonian complex, can be overwhelming due to their size and the sheer volume of exhibits. Schedule breaks throughout the day to rest, grab a bite to eat, or recharge your energy levels.

#6 Take advantage of guided tours

Engaging in guided tours can significantly enhance your museum experience. Local, knowledgeable guides can provide valuable insights, answer questions, and help you navigate the vast collections on display. Guided tours can also help you better manage your time and ensure you see the most important exhibits.

#7 Be mindful of museum etiquette

Remember to respect the exhibits and other visitors when visiting museums. Keep your voice low, avoid touching displays, and follow any posted guidelines. This will contribute to an enjoyable experience for everyone.

#8 Stay hydrated and carry snacks

Exploring museums can be both mentally and physically demanding. Stay hydrated and carry a water bottle at all times. Also, pack some snacks to keep your energy levels up throughout the day.

M\A man exploring one of the museums in DC

Caption: To make the most of your museum adventure, plan ahead and arrive early in the morning, allowing ample time to explore the exhibits while avoiding the afternoon crowds.

Which One of The Best Museums in DC Will You Visit?

The vibrant city of Washington DC, offers a treasure trove of cultural experiences catering to various interests and passions. As you explore some of the best museums in DC, both renowned and hidden, you will not only gain a more profound knowledge of the nation’s history, art, and culture but also create lasting memories that will stay with you long after you leave the city.

The practical knowledge acquired from these museums serves as a reminder of the importance of learning from our past and celebrating the achievements that have shaped our world. So, whether you’re a history buff, an art enthusiast, or a casual visitor seeking new experiences, the museums in DC provide a unique opportunity to expand your horizons and enrich your perspective on our world.

Therefore, wait no more – explore some of the best guided tours in Washington DC, embark on this unforgettable journey, and let the nation’s capital inspire your curiosity and ignite your imagination with USA Guided Tours.

Amy Baker, Freelance Writer in Collaboration With USA Guided Tours Blogging Team