Six Must-Visit Museums In Washington, DC
The Most Important and Impressive Museums In The Nation's Capital
Washington, DC is home to one of the most important and impressive collections of historic landmarks, memorials and museums. Many of these museums are owned and operated by The Smithsonian Institution and are free to the general public. Whether you live in the DC area or are planning a trip to the Nation’s Capital, be sure to make time to visit the city’s amazing museums. There are too many to list, and they are all great in their own special way, but this list describes the best museums in Washington, DC, including a “must-see” exhibit and interesting fact for each.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl, SW
Supported both by Federal funds and private donors, the United States Holocaust Museum is a permanent memorial to the Holocaust, the mid-century genocide of six million Jews by the Hitler-led German Nazi regime. The word “Holocaust” literally means, “sacrifice by fire”.
The Holocaust Museum has attracted over 30 million visitors since its inception in 1993, but it’s more than jut a building full of exhibits. The Museum works with current and futures leaders from local and international societies to promote tolerance, education and democratic values.
Visiting the Holocaust Museum is an intense experience, and guests should be prepared to see vivid, realistic depictions of the horrors that the Jewish people endured throughout the course of the Nazi dictatorship. That said, a trip to this museum is truly a life-changing event, and people from all walks of life should be encouraged to make their way through its halls at least once.
Must-See Exhibit: The Holocaust – Spanning three floors, this exhibit tells the story of The Holocaust using an intricate tapestry of video, eyewitness testimonials, wax figures, pictures and writing.
Interesting Fact: The Museum’s architect, James Freed, designed the building with the intent of allowing visitors to truly experience the horrors and sadness of The Holocaust. He visited Holocaust camps and ghettos to inspire his architectural vision.
National Air and Space Museum
6th St & Independence Ave, SW
Housing the largest collection of historic aircraft in the world, the Air and Space Museum is quite possibly the most popular museum in Washington, DC. This Smithsonian Institution actually has two locations. The more popular and well-known facility is right on the National Mall, while the larger collection of planes and spacecraft is displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.
Both Air and Space facilities are great for anyone who is interested in the history of flight and space travel. The museum is especially great for children – they can touch a moon rock and then head to the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater for a thrilling movie experience.
Because of its popularity, the Air and Space Museum gets very crowded, especially on weekends. It draws in huge numbers of tourists during the spring and summer, so try to plan your visit during the off season or on a weekday.
Must-See: Milestones of Flight - From the first working airplane to the first Lunar landing, Milestones of Flight is a classic A&S exhibit that you literally can’t miss. It is featured in the grand entry hall and will amaze children and adults alike. To get an idea of its majesty, check out the Milestones of Flight Online Exhibition.
Interesting Fact: The Air and Space Museum was built in July of 1976 as part of the bicentennial celebrations and cost a total of $40 million to construct.
National Gallery of Art
4th St & Constitution Ave, NW
Created in 1937, The National Gallery of Art was a joint effort by Congress and Andrew Mellon, a wealthy art collector who left his premium collection and charitable trust to the United States upon his death. His remarkable actions prompted others to follow suit and donate gifts to the ever-expanding gallery.
The Gallery seeks to preserve, collect, exhibit, and foster understanding of art through education, research and outreach.
This Smithsonian Institution now features two main buildings. The West Building displays everything from 13th century Italian sculptures to historic American paintings and drawings. The East Building is dedicated to modern and contemporary art, as well as select special exhibitions.
Must-See Exhibition: Augustus Saint-Gaudens Shaw Memorial – Applauded as the greatest American sculpture of the 19th century, this piece portrays Colonel Shaw and his military unit, the first African American infantry division to fight in the Civil War.
Interesting Fact: The Sculpture Garden, a relatively recent addition to the Gallery, is an enclosed outdoor area that houses a growing collection of modern and contemporary sculptures. During the winter, the fountain in the middle of the garden is converted into an ice skating rink. In the summer months, you can sip sangria and listen to live jazz in the Garden every weekend.
National Museum of Natural History
10th St & Constitution Ave, NW
The Museum of Natural History is another amazing Smithsonian Institution museum. Located in the heart of downtown Washington, this museum is open almost every day of the year and is always free to the general public.
The Museum is dedicated to “inspiring curiosity, discovery, and learning about the natural world through its unparalleled research, collections, exhibitions, and education outreach programs” (mnh.si.edu). From priceless gems and the world’s largest diamonds to dinosaur bones and ancient fossils, this museum has something for everyone.
The sheer size of the Museum is impressive. At 1.5 million square feet, visitors can literally get lost in diverse worlds of ancient culture and history. The Museum of Natural History is absolutely one of the best museums in DC.
Must-See Exhibition: The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins – This permanent exhibition was built in 2010 to narrate the story of human evolution. Explore six million years of adaptation and change to gain a thorough understanding of what it means to be human.
Interesting Fact: The construction of this museum was halted in order to design what is now the most recognizable feature of the building, the central domed rotunda under which the iconic giant woolly mammoth stands.
Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
1050 Independence Ave, SW
The Freer and Sackler Galleries are The Smithsonian’s museums of Mediterranean and Asian art. The Freer Gallery also contains many important works of American landscape and portraiture. Together, these two galleries boast an impressive and ever-changing collection of amazing artwork. Like the other Smithsonian Institution museums, the Freer and Sackler Galleries wish to disseminate knowledge through exhibitions, research and publications.
Must-See Exihibtion: The Orchid in Chinese Painting – This Sackler presentation of twenty pieces related to orchids shows the importance of the flower in Chinese artwork created from the fifteenth to nineteenth century.
Interesting Fact: The Freer Gallery was the first Smithsonian museum dedicated to the fine arts. It was created from a private collector’s donation, and The Smithsonian was hesitant to accept the gift since the donor sought to maintain exclusive curatorial control. However, President Roosevelt personally intervened and allowed for the program to proceed.
National Portrait Gallery
8th St & F St, NW
Located on the outskirts of Washington’s Chinatown, the National Portrait Gallery “tells the story of America through individuals who have shaped its culture…through visual arts, performing arts and new media” (npg.si.edu). Visitors to this museum will find drawings and paintings of distinguished American leaders, artists, criminals and zealots whose names and legacies will forever be remembered as a crucial part of America’s history and development.
From founding fathers and celebrated civil rights activists to sports legends and renowned entertainers, the National Portrait Gallery has something for every history buff and patriot alike.
Must-See Exhibition: American Presidents – One of several classic permanent exhibitions of the Portrait Gallery, this collection is the only complete compilation of presidential portraits outside the White House.
Interesting Fact: The Portrait Museum shares a building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Together, they occupy one of the oldest building in DC.
That concludes the list of the best museums in Washington, DC. If you’ve already been to these museums, consider planning another trip. They are constantly updating their exhibitions and always have something new for you to experience. If you have not yet been to DC, consider this culturally rich and historic city for your next vacation, and be sure to visit the museums!