While Washington, DC hasn't always been the capital of the USA, it's a city that was specifically built to serve that purpose since its founding at the end of the 18th century. Naturally, a lot of history has occurred since the 1790s so it’s not surprising there are as many museums in Washington, DC as there are.
What sets the museums in Washington, DC apart from museums in other American cities is their incredible diversity. Whether you're hoping to see large collections of contemporary art, delve deep into the complexities of American history or see some dinosaur fossils, you'll find a museum housing them in Washington, DC.
Visiting museums in Washington, DC with a suitcase in hand is a total no-no. You won't get through the security checks and most museums don't provide storage space for large personal items. One way to save yourself some time as you hop around all the museums is to use a Washington DC luggage storage facility.
Bounce has luggage locker facilities in Washington, DC that you'll find are conveniently located, secure and economical places to leave your luggage while you enjoy the many cultural offerings the USA's capital city has to offer.
Best Free Museums In Washington, DC
The Smithsonian Institution is the organization that oversees seventeen museums, art galleries, numerous libraries and several research centers not just in Washington, DC, both distributed through the District of Columbia and at various other locations in the country.
To find out more about the Smithsonian Institution, make the first museum you visit in Washington, DC the Smithsonian Institute Building or as it's often called, the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall.
The castle-like building on the National Mall also serves as a visitor center so you can collect information there on any of the other museums in the group, most of which are nearby, so they're perfectly located for an afternoon of museum-hopping.
There are no admission charges to any of the Smithsonian museums so you can spend all day going from one to another and the experience will be entirely costless. Visiting museums is really one of the best free things to do in Washington, DC.
The Best Smithsonian Institution Museums
It would be impossible to mention every single museum curated by the Smithsonian Institution in one short article so instead, here are a few that may well pique your interest. If they don't, don't worry, there are plenty more amazing museums in Washington, DC that will.
National Museum of American History
This museum located on Constitution Avenue, adjacent to the National Mall, houses more than three million different items pertinent to American history.
Not all of the artifacts are as serious as the original early 19th century Star Spangled Banner flag or Abraham Lincoln's top hat. There are more fun articles from well-known movies, exhibits on transport, and even food over the decades featured in Julia Child's Kitchen Workshop.
National Museum of Natural History
This is another Smithsonian museum that has a Washington, DC National Mall address. Be prepared to be awestruck when you enter the National Museum of Natural History as the internal architecture is as magnificent as the exhibits on display.
At this natural history museum, as well as viewing interesting gemstones like the Hope Diamond plus endless dinosaur fossils and skeletons, you'll find an insect zoo and a science education center for children. If you wanted to choose one of the best things in Washington, DC to do with kids, this museum should feature high on your list.
National Museum of the American Indian
This state-of-the-art museum designed by Native architects is dedicated to preserving the history of America's Indigenous cultures.
Located on Independence Avenue just off the National Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian also has extensive exhibits pertinent to the Inka nation including the 20,000-mile-long Inka Road that runs through several countries in South America.
National Postal Museum
The National Postal Museum, housed in the City Post Office Building in the NoMa district of the city, is close to the Union Market which is where you can get some of the best street food in Washington, DC. The museum traces the development of the American postal service from its inception to the present day.
As well as exhibits on mail transportation methods, there are displays relating to stamp design and printing, and of course, the world's largest stamp collection. For anyone who's into stamp collecting, this museum is a must-see.
National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum and The National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center are the two Smithsonian museums dedicated to aviation and space.
The National Air and Space Museum is on the National Mall so it's easy enough to get to as it's right in the city center. This museum traces the history of flight by man and its collections contain such historical aircraft as the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St Louis. There's also a planetarium, IMAX theater, and a public observatory with a telescope for viewing the heavens.
The National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center is not in Washington, DC itself, but in Chantilly in Virginia which is around thirty miles from DC. The center is where all the large craft is on display. Among them are the Space Shuttle Discovery, a Concorde plane, and a B-29.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is a two-location museum that contains the largest collection of American art in the world.
The National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum occupy the same building on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest in the Penn Quarter of the city right next to Chinatown.
The National Portrait Gallery is home to the faces of not just presidential portraits, but portraits of top artists from the music and literary world and renowned historical characters in painted, photographic, and sculpted forms.
In the American Art Museum, you'll find works covering a time period of 300 years in multiple genres created by thousands of artists who have left their legacy on canvas.
The American Art Museum also has a smaller collection of modern and contemporary art housed in the Renwick Gallery near the White House.
When you're visiting the Smithsonian museums in the Penn Quarter you may want to drop by and take a look at Ford's Theater. The theater on 10th Street Northwest is where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. The theater is a stunningly beautiful historic building in its own right that, while it once hosted live performances, now serves as a museum and learning center dedicated to the life of the 16th US President.
The National Museum of African American History & Culture
The National Museum of African American History & Culture on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC is a museum that explores every aspect of the African American culture.
Exhibits trace African American history from the first arrivals in the country, through the lamentable era of slavery, and the events that happened during the years leading up to abolition.
The museum also delves in-depth into the African American influence on American literature, music, and film with extensive collections of documents, photographs, and artifacts.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum located on the National Mall in the nation's capital preserves the history of the atrocities suffered by minority communities and those in opposition to the Nazi powers during World War II as well as genocide campaigns in more recent times.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum houses both permanent and temporary exhibitions related to the Holocaust, the victims, and the survivors. The exhibits can be emotionally disturbing but are ones no one should avoid seeing.
National Museum of African Art
The National Museum of African Art on Independence Avenue on the National Mall displays temporary and permanent exhibits of African art and artifacts. There are around 12,000 items in total originating from different African cultures. The museum also hosts pieces from the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection.
The Hirshman Museum
The Hirshman Museum is another of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall in the nation's capital, but this one stands on the corner of 7th Street.
The Hirshman Museum is all about modern and contemporary art that's new and innovative no matter what format it's presented in. One of the outstanding features of the Hirshman Museum is its outdoor sunken sculpture garden. The sculpture garden covers a space of over an acre and is 14 feet deep in places. The most well-known sculptures exhibited in the garden are ones by Rodin, Yoko Ono, and David Smith.
There's also a museum shop where you can purchase souvenir postcards and books related to modern art and contemporary craft items.
Are There Cheap Museums in Washington, DC?
With admission to all of the Smithsonian Institute museums being completely free of charge, why look for more or consider visiting one you have to pay to enter? The answer to that is because there are a couple of museums that are not curated by the Smithsonian Institution that you won't want to miss.
The International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum opened its doors in 2002 in Washington, DC's L'Enfant Plaza Southwest to allow visitors to immerse themselves in the world of espionage.
In this exciting museum you can learn about the history of spying and get a fascinating insight into the lives, missions, and accomplishments of some of the top spies of all time.
This is a hands-on museum so when you enter you'll be designated a secret undercover identity in the Briefing Room which you can use on the interactive exhibits while deciphering codes or spying on other participating spies.
At the International Spy Museum there are also eye-opening displays related to spying paraphernalia like listening bugs, gadgets and spy disguises plus biographies on infamous international spies.
The Kreeger Museum
The Kreeger Museum is a contemporary art museum on Foxhall Road Northwest that brings modern art to life in all its forms.
As well as exhibiting a permanent collection of contemporary art by world renowned artists like Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, the museum has a sculpture garden and hosts live music performances of jazz and classical music.
The museum is privately run and so admission charges are a nominal $10 per adult.
The Phillips Collection
Once the private collection of a dedicated art lover, the Phillips Collection is now available for public viewing. The collection consisting of over 5,000 examples of contemporary and modern art is housed in what was the home of the collector, Duncan Philips, on 21st Street Northwest.
As well as exhibiting artworks, the museum hosts art and wellness events plus art-related lectures, and intimate live concerts.
After reading through the details of all of the museums in Washington, DC, and discovering how many of them have free admission, you're probably planning a museum marathon and in all honesty, who can blame you? Washington, DC is the capital of the United States, but it's also known as the capital of free museums. Take full advantage of that fact and after your visit has ended, you'll leave the nation's capital a lot wiser and definitely more informed than when you arrived.