The Best Museums in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., is home to one of the world's most remarkable collections of museums, the Smithsonian Institution. The "Nation's Attic" preserves and displays a vast number of historical and cultural objects—and, best of all, admission is free. But beyond the Smithsonian there are a surprising number of top-notch museums in D.C., celebrating everything from journalism to stamp collecting.
With so much to see, it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why we’ve complied a list of the best museums D.C. has to offer.
And for a deeper dive into the nation's capital, check out Frommer's Washington, D.C. day by day and Frommer's EasyGuide to Washington, D.C.
Photo: the National Air and Space Museum
Maybe you fantasize about soaring high above the clouds or visiting galaxies far, far away. Since it opened in 1976, the National Air and Space Museum has been one of the most visited museums on the National Mall. It’s also one of the largest, holding some 30,000 aviation artifacts and 9,000 space artifacts ranging from the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer to passenger jetliners, rockets, lunar rocks, and spacesuits. It also houses the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, where you can tour the galaxies from the safety of your seat. You could spend a couple of hours here or an entire day, depending on the extent of your aviophilia.
Photo: Patrick Dougherty's Shindig, on display at the Renwick Gallery
The Smithsonian has two museums dedicated to Asian art: the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The latter features both permanent and temporary exhibitions, as well as contemporary works. Highlights include South Asian sculpture, Chinese jades and bronzes, and modern Japanese ceramics.
Be prepared to take an emotional journey when you enter this space, a living memorial to the genocide of Europe’s Jews, and the murder of all who opposed the rise of Germany’s Nazi party, before and during World War II. Upon entering, you will be given (to keep) a faux passport of an actual Holocaust victim; some survived, but the great majority did not. The museum’s centerpiece is a three-floor exhibit divided into three subsections: Nazi Assault, Final Solution, and Last Chapter. Through hundreds of artifacts and film footage, the story of one of humankind’s biggest tragedies is laid out in exhaustive detail. The museum recommends that visitors be 11 years of age or older, due to the intensity of the material. There is also a museum shop, a cafe, and the Wexner Learning Center on the second floor, where visitors can explore the survivors’ registry and view materials about topics such as the Nuremberg Trials.
All the news that’s fit to print—and then some—can be found in this seven-level, high-tech monument to journalism. The history of news is told through interactive games and close-up views of hundreds of publications. Hear first-person accounts from reporters in the field, see a comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalists’ images, and discover the secrets to electronic news reporting. The “Be a Reporter” exhibit puts visitors in the hot seat: With a deadline looming and a breaking news story to report, grab a microphone and test your skills in front of the camera.
If you're a stamp collector, nirvana awaits you right next door to Union Station. One of the world’s largest stamp collections resides at this ode to the U.S. Mail Service, established in 1886. Listen to tales of the early Pony Express and browse a vast assortment of historical postage dating back to the nation’s infancy, plus international stamps, the first piece of correspondence to be flown across the Atlantic, and some original 24-cent inverted stamps.
The only national museum solely dedicated to the acquisition, study, and exhibition of African art, this collection features both traditional and contemporary pieces, including everything from the spiritual (a Koranic writing board from Nigeria, an ivory pendant from the Congo) to the beautiful but practical (a carved wood fly whisk handle from Cote d’Ivoire). Ongoing exhibits include one focusing on African textiles: woven tapestries, robes, and clothes with particularly notable decorations and designs. Another exhibit features more than 130 contemporary and traditional works from the continent. The museum also features regular music programs and tours.
Fans of the magazine and kids of all ages will love this museum’s interactive experiences, which highlight different species and cultures around the world. Impressive photography exhibitions feature the work of National Geographic explorers, photographers, and scientists.
For a fuller guide to making the most of your time in the nation's capital, Frommer's Washington, D.C. day by day is a handy resource that's both portable and reliable. It features hundreds of photos, dozens of maps, itineraries for seeing the city tailored to time constraints and special interests, and expert advice for finding the best hotels, restaurants, and attractions to suit every budget.