The Best Museums in Washington, D.C.

National Air and Space Museum Photo by m01229/Flickr

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

 
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National Air and Space Museum Photo by xiquinhosilva/Flickr

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. 

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Phillips Collection Photo by Tim Evanson/Flickr
The building that houses the Phillips Collection, which is widely considered America’s first museum of modern art, was once the home of Duncan Phillips, grandson of the cofounder of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. The modern-looking newer wing generally shows fresh exhibitions; the museum also plays host to special lectures and tours. Some of the 2,472 artworks housed here include Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–81), Vincent van Gogh’s The Road Menders (1889) (pictured above), Edgar Degas’s Dancers at the Barre (1900), and Georges Rouault’s Christ & the High Priest (1937).
 
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Museum of Natural History Photo by Phil Roeder/Flickr
Kids go ape over this museum dedicated to "understanding the natural world and our place in it.” Thousands of natural relics, some of which date back millions of years, are displayed here. If you care to learn about global warming, human evolution, the social habits of insects, the Big Bang, or fossilized bones, you might end up wishing you’d devoted your entire trip to the largest of the Smithsonian Institution’s 14 museums. In fact, nearly 90% of the 142 million objects belonging to the Smithsonian are in the care of the Museum of Natural History.
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Patrick Dougherty's "Shindig", on display at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. Photo by bobistraveling/Flickr
The Renwick houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of contemporary craft and decorative arts. Edgy and creative modern artwork abounds here, including Andy Paiko’s Spinning Wheel (2007), and Lino Tagliapietra’s Mandara (2005), made of intricate, colorful glass. Revolving special exhibitions featuring modern artists are also on view. 

Photo: Patrick Dougherty's Shindig, on display at the Renwick Gallery
 
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Museum of American History Photo by Carol M. Highsmith / Wikimedia commons
Calling all pop culture fans and American history buffs: This seriously entertaining Smithsonian museum is home to more than three million national treasures. Check out Dizzy Gillespie’s angled trumpet, Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, Julia Childs's kitchen, and Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves. The original flag that inspired the national anthem is here, too, housed in a high-tech gallery dedicated to its preservation. Plan to spend a few hours soaking up your fill of good ole Americana.
 
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The Sackler Gallery of Art Photo by Javier Ditzel/Flickr

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. 

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National Museum of African American History and Culture Photo by Ted Eytan/Flickr
The newest museum on the National Mall spotlights the African American experience through its history and culture. The collection spans the era of slavery, the period of Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights movement, and ranges from works of art to photographs, archival documents, electronic data, and audio recordings. 
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Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Photo by Leeann Cafferata/Flickr
Opened in 1974, the Hirshhorn Museum—built 14 feet above ground on sculptured supports—is a unique vessel for a singular collection of modern and contemporary art. Amassed around Latvian émigré Joseph Hirshhorn’s original donation of more than 9,500 works to the United States, the collection now includes works by Christo, Joseph Cornell, Arshile Gorky, and others. In the outdoor plaza, visitors can gawk at a giant fountain and surreal sculptures. The Hirshhorn also has a sculpture garden across the street, with some 60 works of outdoor art by Alexander Calder, Rodin, and many more.
 
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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo by NCinDC/Flickr

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. 

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National Gallery of Art, East Building Photo by son of groucho/Flickr
The trademarks of this 1978 I. M. Pei–designed building are its adjoining triangles, in pink Tennessee marble (from the same quarry as the neoclassical West Wing), that form sharp, acute angles at the corners. Inside, the centerpiece is the 76-foot-long, 920-pound mobile by Alexander Calder, which hangs from the ceiling of the main atrium. The mobile’s construction includes aluminum tubing and aluminum honeycomb panels, which allow its arms to slowly and gracefully rotate. With 295 paintings and more than 650 sketches, the National Gallery has one of the largest collections of Mark Rothko artwork in the world. The East Building is also home to works by Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alberto Giacometti. 
 
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National Museum of the American Indian Photo by angela n/Flickr
It’s one of the most distinctive museums on the National Mall, with exterior walls that are organically curved to suggest rock worn down by water. Dedicated to preserving the culture and history of Native Americans, the museum is also one of the most technologically advanced: Exhibits routinely incorporate video and other multimedia, including displays showing how Native American tribes live in contemporary times.
 
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The National Portrait Gallery Photo by Tim Evanson/Flickr
Portraits of noteworthy Americans, from Rosa Parks to George Gershwin, along with American pop culture icons such as Babe Ruth and Marilyn Monroe can be found at this museum, set in one of Washington’s oldest buildings. The gallery also has one of the nation's only complete collections of presidential portraits outside the White House, including Gilbert Stuart’s famous painting of George Washington. Don’t miss the Kogod Courtyard with its surreal glass ceiling, pictured above.
 
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Newseum Photo by Mack Male/Flickr

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.

 
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Kreeger Museum Photo by bobistraveling/Flickr
This private museum is housed in the former residence of David and Carmen Kreeger, well-known collectors who amassed a sizable holding of 19th- and 20th-century paintings and sculptures. Highlights include works by Monet, van Gogh, Pissarro, Rodin, Kandinksy, and Cezanne. As you tour the museum, take note of its modern architecture. Designed by Philip Johnson, the building features a steel and concrete frame with glass walls and a free-form design. 
 
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National Postal Museum Photo by m01229/Flickr

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. 

 
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National Museum of African Art Photo by art around/Flickr

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.

 
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National Geographic Museum Photo by Greyloch/Flickr

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.

 
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Frommer's Washington, D.C. day by day Photo by

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. 

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