Washington, D.C., is a mecca for museum-goers. Not only is the city home to some of the most intricate exhibits in the world, but many are also free for visitors to check out. If you’re planning a vacation here, keep in mind it’s close to impossible to get through this whole list in one trip. I prefer to hit up just one museum each day, and even that isn’t enough time to truly wander through all the rooms and take in all the sights.
Whether you’re interested in everything space engineering or would rather learn about the history of spycraft, you’ll find the best exhibits worth visiting in the museums listed below.
1. National Gallery of Art
If you consider yourself an art connoisseur — or just enjoy looking at pretty pictures, like me — you’ll want to take time to visit the National Gallery of Art. While you can pay for a guided tour, I prefer to take my time and wander. That way, I can spend more time on the pieces that catch my eye while skipping past the ones that don’t.
The West Building features the classics, European and American art from the 13th to the early 20th centuries, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, estimated to have been painted around 1474. The East Building showcases modern artwork, including a glass atrium with a 32-foot still mobile created by Alexander Calder.
Insider tip: If you plan to visit in winter, don’t forget to head outside to the sculpture garden, where the main fountain is converted into an all-ages ice skating rink.
2. United States Holocaust Museum
This museum is one that will leave you speechless. When you’re finished, be prepared to feel sad or melancholy for the rest of the day. It’s not unusual after seeing firsthand evidence of one of the world’s worst atrocities. To get started, I would suggest visiting the Holocaust exhibit, which gives an hour-long narrative history of what happened, including footage, personal stories, and genuine artifacts.
Once you have the background story, you can learn more about how Americans responded to Nazism, with exhibits detailing the nation’s fight against the Axis as well as the experiences of people who saw the atrocities firsthand. This is a family-friendly museum, so don’t be afraid to bring children along to learn an important piece of history. There’s also an exhibit geared toward a younger audience, Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story. This exhibit details one young boy’s frightening experience during the Holocaust.
Insider tip: Most exhibits are free to enter, except the museum’s permanent Holocaust exhibit, which requires a ticket between March 1 and August 31.
3. National Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is a must-see on many visitors’ to-do lists, and it’s not hard to see why. The first time I stepped through the doors, I was taken aback by what seemed like an impossible amount of artifacts — including huge airplanes, rockets, and missiles — stuffed into one building. The structure itself features three skylit, double-height galleries, with many aircraft suspended from above.
If you plan a visit, be sure to check out the world’s first airplane, the 1903 Wright Flyer, which was built and flown by Wilbur and Orville Wright in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The pair were the first to achieve powered flight, even if only for a few seconds. You can also get up close and personal with a test model of the Hubble Space Telescope, the one launched in 1990 and is still in operation today.
Insider tip: This museum is currently undergoing major renovations, so if there’s a particular exhibit you’re dying to see, be sure to call ahead and make sure it’s open.
Inside tip: There are two different parts of the National Air and Space Museum, consider a visit to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles airport.
4. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
If you’re interested in the kind of modern art that makes you scratch your head or stop and think, then you should plan a trip to the Hirshhorn Museum. Since its doors opened in 1974, the museum’s collection has amassed nearly 12,000 pieces of artwork, including mixed media, sculptures, photographs, and more.
The last time I visited, I spent a lot of time in the What Absence is Made Of exhibit. Here, you can explore art that makes you consider the themes of loss, memories, and what makes you unique. If you’re not feeling philosophical, you can head outside to the sculpture garden, where more than 60 pieces of work are displayed year-round.
Insider tip: Realistic — and life-size — nudity is not uncommon at this museum, so beware before bringing grandma and the kids.
5. National Museum of Natural History
Opened in 1910, the National Museum of Natural History is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Washington. The building is immense, about the size of 18 football fields, and houses millions of natural specimens and artifacts. Be sure to bring the whole family, because everyone will find something they love.
One of my favorite exhibits, which I check out each time I visit, is located on the second floor — Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt. You’ll feel like you’ve taken a step back in time when you see the 2,000-year-old mummies, ancient jewelry, delicate pottery, and handmade tools. You can travel back further in time in the Hall of Fossils, allowing you to get close to over 700 unique specimens.
Insider tip: With construction at the Air and Space Museum, crowds here are larger than usual. Don’t fret — the line to get in moves quick and, once inside, you’ll have plenty of space to roam about.
Just steps away from the White House is the Newseum, a modern building filled with interactive and contemporary exhibits. The building’s exterior is unmissable, embedded with a 75-foot pink marble tablet etched with the First Amendment. Even if you’re not a news junkie, this museum can teach you a lot about the ways media has shaped our culture and politics.
One of my favorite exhibits, perhaps due to my morbid curiosity, is the 9/11 gallery, which explores how journalists cover tragedies like the one that took place in 2001. You can even step into the role of a journalist by taking part in the interactive exhibits, starting with crafting a front-page story and ending with a simulated TV newscast.
Insider tip: If you get hungry after walking around, the museum’s atrium is known as a great place to grab a bite to eat.
7. International Spy Museum
Perfect for kids and adults alike, the International Spy Museum is a one-of-a-kind attraction located in Chinatown. Once you enter, you’ll be given your very own spy identity — be careful not to give yourself away! As you wander through the exhibits, you can learn all about the history of spycraft, even listening to personal stories told by real-life spies.
The first time I visited, I was most impressed by the collection of seemingly normal items that masquerade as tools and weapons, like the car key that’s actually a miniature camera or the umbrella from the KGB that shoots deadly poison pellets. You also get the chance to test out your own spy skills, with interactive RFID experiences.
Insider tip: If you want to hit two museums in one day, a convenient complement to the International Spy Museum is the U.S. Postal Museum across the street.
Your Next Trip to Washington, D.C.
A trip to D.C. isn’t complete without a stop at your favorite museum. From modern art to the history of news, there’s plenty of great exhibits to choose from. Even better, most are free, making them a great option for travelers on a budget or those towing along a family. Remember, many exhibits change out often, so visit multiple times per year to get the most out of the city’s museum experience.
For more ideas read Washington, D.C.: Three Museums Off The Beaten Path.