15 Best Museums in Washington, D.C.
Here are 15 of the best museums in Washington, D.C. to check out on your next trip to the capital.
The nation’s capital is home to beautiful government buildings, gardens, and more than 70 museums. The Smithsonian, the largest museum complex in the world, includes the National Zoo and 21 museums, and all are free for visitors, although some require timed reservations. And beyond the Smithsonian, other museums covering a wide range of interests are spread throughout Washington, D.C. with opportunities for enrichment, education, and entertainment.
If your last trip to Washington, D.C. was a class trip, it’s time for a return visit. Plush hotels, new restaurants, and lovely scenery make the nation’s capital a great vacation destination for visitors of all ages. Here are 15 of the best museums in Washington, D.C. to check out on your next trip to the capital.
Related: 27 Best Museums in the U.S.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The newest addition to the Smithsonian, this museum tells the story of America through the lens of African American life, history, and culture. The eight-story museum commemorates historical figures and events in African American history, with priceless objects that include Harriett Tubman’s shawl, Nat Turner’s Bible, a cabin where people who were enslaved lived, and other objects that bring stories to life and encourage discussion and understanding.
National Children’s Museum
This engaging museum encourages children to explore science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) through hands-on experiences. Video programs, experiments, and exhibits entertain and educate with fun for a wide range of ages. For infants and toddlers, a cloud and flight-themed area encourages movement and connection. “Weather Worlds” is an immersive digital experience that allows visitors to control weather with hand gestures that trigger everything from rain to tornadoes and blizzards.
National Postal Museum
Opened in 1993, the National Postal Museum’s exhibits and programs are focused on the preservation and study of postal history from colonial times to the present. The museum celebrates the beauty and lore of collecting stamps, and its William H. Gross Stamp Gallery is the world’s largest gallery dedicated to philately, with stunning displays of interest to both casual and experienced collectors. The website features a variety of hands-on activities and coloring pages for kids.
International Spy Museum
This independent nonprofit museum holds the largest collection of international espionage artifacts on public display. Opened in 2002 to educate visitors on the shadow world of espionage and the changing role of technology in intelligence, the museum visit starts with a briefing film and stories of secret missions. Visitors can play the role of a spy with a new identity, badge, and undercover mission that is tracked as they travel through the museum, with a debriefing at the end.
National Portrait Gallery
Thousands of works at the National Portrait Gallery include visual, performance, and new media art depicting presidents, poets, film stars, scientists, and more. The Gallery strives to present a complete narrative, acknowledging the history of slavery, racism, and inequality in the United States. The collection ranges from pre-colonial times to the present, with a life-sized portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a collection of sports champions, and presidential portraits including those of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama.
President Lincoln’s Cottage
This historic site and museum is located on 250 acres in the northwest Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Petworth. Abraham Lincoln actually lived in the cottage and developed the Emancipation Proclamation there. The home is decorated with period furniture, original art, photographs, and original documents. The cottage is open daily, and advance ticket purchase for guided tours is recommended. Self-guided landscape tours of the grounds and the Armed Forces Retirement Home are available.
Heurich House Museum
The Heurich mansion was built in 1892-94 for German-American immigrant Christian Heurich, whose brewery was the largest in Washington, D.C. The city’s best-preserved example of Richardsonian Romanesque residential architecture, the mansion included many technological advancements of its era, including electric lighting, burglar alarms, and metal speaking tubes. Visitors can explore the lives of the family, household staff, brewery workers, and the craftspeople who built the home. Tours are available by reservation from Thursday through Saturday, and there’s a backyard biergarten.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
One of Washington’s most popular museums, the National Museum of Natural History celebrates the natural world, from dinosaurs to rare gems, mammals, sea life, plants, insects, and the history of the planet. More than 147 million specimens and artifacts make up the museum’s collection, and exhibits include the Butterfly Pavilion, Hall of Fossils, Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt, Nature Photography, Insect Zoo, and Bone Hall.
United States Botanic Garden
Visitors can explore thousands of plants, both indoors and outdoors, in a variety of environments at the United States Botanic Garden. In the Garden Court, colorful flowers and foliage include plants that help create fibers, food, beverages, fuel, cosmetics, and more. A tropical forest, desert, primeval garden, and orchid collection of 3,000 specimens show the diversity of plant life. Plants native to Hawaii, the Mediterranean, and rainforests are there, along with medicinal and rare, endangered plants.
The Octagon Museum
Built between 1798 and 1800 by enslaved workers for a Virginia family, the building was designed by the first architect of the United States Capitol, William Thornton. The house served as temporary quarters for President Madison after the White House was burned in the War of 1812, and the Treaty of Ghent was signed there, ending the war. Recognizing the building’s national importance, the American Institute of Architects restored the building and established its national headquarters there, and visitors can now check out the museum.
National Air and Space Museum
One of Washington’s most popular destinations, the museum features the largest collection of aviation and space artifacts in the world. Open every day (except Christmas Day), the museum offers two locations, one on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and one in Virginia. Exhibits explore early flight, space travel, stories of the Tuskegee Airmen and the Wright Brothers, commercial aviation, the moon landing, the planets, and more. Free timed-entry passes are required.
National Museum of the American Indian
Opened in 2004, the museum features more than 825,000 photographs, documents, and artifacts telling the story of Native Americans from past to present. Exhibits include “Nation to Nation,” describing treaties between the United States and tribal governments. Another exhibit focuses on Native American images in history and contemporary life. The Mitsitam Cafe (Mitsitam means “let’s eat!” in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples) features Indigenous cuisines of the Americas and ingredients found in both traditional and contemporary dishes.
Planet Word Museum
This museum opened in 2020, highlighting the power of words and language. Its interactive galleries and exhibits bring words to life and inspire a love of language through humor, puzzles, and games. As visitors enter, a Speaking Willow tree sculpture sets the stage as murmurs in hundreds of languages can be heard. Songwriting, advertising, poetry, jokes, and famous speeches are explored. Visit Lexicon Lane for clues to a puzzle, great for family and group fun.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is dedicated to helping people understand what happened, so that it may never happen again. Recordings and testimonials from victims, witnesses, and survivors tell the tragic stories of the Holocaust (1933-1945), and according to its website, “The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum teaches millions of people each year about the dangers of unchecked hatred and the need to prevent genocide.” Nearly 50 holocaust survivors volunteer at the museum, sharing their personal histories and acting as tour guides. Free timed-entry tickets are required for museum visits.
National Bonsai Museum
The museum nurtures a collection of bonsai with special emphasis on specimens from Japan, China, and North America, in addition to providing education about bonsai. The Yee-sun Wy Chinese Pavilion houses the penjing (a scene or landscape in a container) collection, demonstrating an art form developed more than 1,000 years ago. The Japanese Pavilion contains masterpiece trees donated by the people of Japan in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial.
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