Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
- The 16 Best Museums in Washington, D.C.
- 1. DAR Museum
- 2. International Spy Museum
- 3. Kreeger Museum
- 4. National Air and Space Museum
- 5. National Building Museum
- 6. National Children’s Museum
- 7. National Gallery of Art
- 8. National Museum of African American History and Culture
- 9. National Museum of African Art
- 10. National Museum of American History
- 11. National Museum of Natural History
- 12. National Portrait Gallery
- 13. National Postal Museum
- 14. Renwick Gallery
- 15. Smithsonian American Art Museum
- 16. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- How To Get Free or Reduced Admission to Washington, D.C. Museums
- Final Thoughts
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Washington, D.C. might be best known as the capital of the U.S., but this district has a lot of other things to offer its visitors as well. In particular, it’s home to some of the nation’s most important museums.
D.C. offers opportunities to see world-renowned collections of art and artifacts. From family-friendly exhibits to galleries perfect for solo trips and romantic getaways, there’s a museum in Washington, D.C., that belongs on your itinerary.
The 16 Best Museums in Washington, D.C.
1. DAR Museum
First founded in 1890 by the Daughters of the American Revolution Society, the DAR Museum was intended to collect and preserve family heirlooms of historical significance. This intention was and continues to be mainly focused on American forefathers who participated in the American Revolution.
The museum houses over 30,000 artifacts, documents, and other antiquities from the 18th and early 19th centuries before the Industrial Revolution came to America.
In addition to the permanent collection of items that the DAR’s members, in large part, donated, the museum also hosts temporary galleries. These artifacts are often on loan from other exhibits and collectors.
Of particular note are the 31 so-called period rooms. These exhibits are recreations of what American homes of the 1700s and 1800s looked like, using authentic furnishings from the period. The museum also houses over 500 quilts, the most recent of which were sewn in the early 1900s.
Admission to the museum is free for all visitors, though events and guided tours do have a fee. The museum is open Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The nearest Metro stop is 17th Street.
- Address: 1776 D St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006
2. International Spy Museum
Opened in 2002, the International Spy Museum aims to tell the history of espionage throughout political history. The museum’s founder was a code-breaker for the army and wished to help educate the public about the intricacies of working as a spy.
The museum’s collection tops 7,000 items, though only about 1,000 are viewable at any given time, with the rest kept in preserved archives. Together, this collection follows the evolution of the field of espionage, dating back to the Ancient Greek empire.
The museum doesn’t just showcase displays in its 7 exhibits but also interactive experiences that help visitors step into the shoes of a spy. Codebreaking, briefing, and spy history are just a few topics covered by the artifacts housed here.
Admission prices vary by day. The average price is $15.95 for children, $22.95 for discounted adults, and $24.95 for adults. The museum is open Monday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. The nearest Metro stop is L’Enfant Plaza.
- Address: 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, D.C. 20024
Check out our ultimate guide to Washington, D.C., including monuments, memorials, attractions, and more.
3. Kreeger Museum
Opened in 1994, the Kreeger Museum is a primarily modern and contemporary art museum containing the personal collection of the famed art lover David Lloyd Kreeger and his wife.
All of the art in the collection was acquired between 1952 and 1988 and was turned into a museum shortly after Kreeger’s death. The museum is divided into 9 permanent exhibits spanning historical Roman and Pre-Columbian sculptures to illustrated books from around the world.
Among the artists featured in the collection are Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and even Wassily Kandinsky. The museum also collaborates with other exhibits and collectors by hosting temporary galleries and fundraising events.
Admission to the museum is free for members, military personnel, and children. Student and senior tickets are $8, and general admission is $10. Reserving your visit spot ahead of time is recommended, though you can also purchase walk-up tickets. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The nearest Metro station is Tenleytown, and the nearest bus stop is Macarthur Boulevard NW.
- Address: 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007
4. National Air and Space Museum
First opened in 1946, the National Air and Space Museum predates space exploration by over 2 decades. Since its opening, it has been an important research center for air and space travel and science. The museum houses over 60,000 artifacts in its archives, including important relics from the Apollo 11 mission.
In addition, there are also documents, space uniforms, concept designs, and more included in the museum’s exhibits. While some exhibits have visual displays, others also feature interactive elements.
Though much of the museum’s newer exhibits commemorate space travel and science, numerous displays are also dedicated to aviation. These exhibits document the progression of the field from the first airplanes to a model of the Hindenburg blimp. Lectures and other educational and community outreach events are also held throughout the year.
Admission to the main museum is free for all guests. However, reserving a visit time is required. The facility is open Sunday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. This schedule includes all major holidays except Christmas Day. The closest Metro stop is L’Enfant Plaza.
- Address: 600 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. 20560
5. National Building Museum
Opened to the public in 1980, the National Building Museum is dedicated to architecture, construction, and urban planning. The museum houses over 300,000 artifacts, tools, and historic home goods that document the progression of the building and design industries.
Even the museum’s structure is notable as it’s located in what used to be the Federal Pension Bureau. This building was noted for its unique architectural features, including columns and statues.
Many of the items in the museum were donated by various buildings and homeowners, as well as construction companies and historical societies. To this day, the museum continues to collect donations for its archives and displays.
Among some of its permanent collections are a collection of bricks from around the country and a dollhouse collection from the 1960s, which showcased how the idyllic home permeated all parts of life, including play.
Admission to the museum is free for members and children under 3. Tickets for children between 3 and 17, students, and seniors 60+ are $7. Adult tickets are $10. The museum is open Thursday to Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The nearest stop is F Street.
- Address: 401 F St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001
6. National Children’s Museum
The National Children’s Museum stands out as one of D.C.’s most popular among families with children under 10. The museum is a hybrid facility that aims to combine education and play. It aims to help kids learn about science, art, math, and more STEM-centered topics while fostering a place of imagination and creativity.
The museum currently houses 9 different ticketed exhibits. However, it also has a free area that anyone can visit near the museum’s entrance, which hosts occasional events and gives children a place to play and run around.
In addition to the permanent galleries and hands-on exhibits, the museum also hosts events and courses that are more focused on particular age groups or types of development. In its aim to be accessible for all visitors, the museum is also equipped for visitors with special sensory or mobility needs.
Admission to the museum is free for children under a year. Tickets for all other visitors are $18.95. Groups of 15 people or more can also receive a 10% discount if they book a visit 1 to 2 months in advance. The museum is open Wednesday to Monday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
- 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20004
7. National Gallery of Art
Since its first opening in 1937, the National Gallery of Art has been one of the most renowned art establishments in the country. This is largely thanks to the broad spectrum of work housed within its exhibits and archives meant to help conserve work from great artists in history.
The current collection consists of over 150,000 works of art ranging from oil paintings to sculptures, though this number continues to increase as more pieces are donated. Some of the most prestigious pieces housed in the gallery are Leonardo da Vinci’s sole oil painting, “Woman with a Parasol” by Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse’s “Open Window.”
In addition to these permanent pieces, the gallery also partners with collectors and museums worldwide to display special, temporary exhibits honoring artists and art styles. As one of the largest museums in the U.S., guided tours are held daily to help provide more insight into the different pieces on display.
Admission to the museum is free, though special events and tours sometimes have a fee. The gallery is also open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The closest Metro stop is Archives/Navy Memorial/Penn Quarter.
- Address: 6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20565
“With over 3,000 works on view and places to learn, unwind, and recharge, the National Gallery offers an unforgettable experience. We welcome everyone to explore art, creativity, and our shared humanity. We’re open 363 days a year, and admission is always free.”Eric Bruce, Chief Experience Officer, National Gallery of Art
8. National Museum of African American History and Culture
Though the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was founded in 2003, the current museum didn’t open until 2016.
This museum is the largest establishment dedicated to the history and culture of African-American people. The museum’s current collection consists of about 4,000 artifacts, 3,500 of which are publicly displayed. In addition to the physical museum, the NMAAHC was one of the first establishments to create an online museum that can be visited from anywhere in the world.
The artifacts in the exhibits span history between the 1800s and the modern day. Some of the most impactful pieces are relics from America’s slavery trade era, like pieces of ships, garments, and identification badges.
Since it’s affiliated with the Smithsonian, admission is free for all visitors. However, reservations are still required before your visit. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Monday from 12 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. The closest Metro stop is Federal Triangle and the Smithsonian.
- Address: 1400 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20560
9. National Museum of African Art
Opened in 1964 to celebrate African art and culture, the National Museum of African Art boasts a collection of over 350,000 items. The art displayed and conserved within the library ranges in age from 15th-century sculptures to more modern photographic pieces.
With artwork originating from all over the African continent, numerous cultures and chapters of history can be preserved. However, in recent years, the museum has focused more on contemporary pieces, particularly as some traditional pieces have been returned to their origin countries.
The museum’s special exhibits are among its most popular thanks to the sheer number that are hosted. Over 150 temporary showcases have been held at the center in just a few decades. Events, lectures, and workshops support the museum’s pillars of research and education.
The museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian, so admission is free for all visitors, though a visit reservation is required. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The nearest Metro stop is L’Enfant Plaza.
- Address: 950 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. 20560
10. National Museum of American History
First opened in 1964, the National Museum of American History aims to collect and remember the evolution of American politics, science, military, and culture.
To preserve such an extensive scope of American history, over 1,700,000 artifacts are housed in the museum between its exhibits and archives. In addition to the permanent displays, the museum hosts themed special exhibits that dive deeper into particular topics, particularly regarding moments in U.S. history.
In addition to general history and culture, 15 specific topics are explored in in-person and online exhibits, ranging from food history to Latino history.
Some of the most important pieces immortalized in the museum are the original ruby slippers from the “Wizard of Oz” movie, George Washington’s military uniform, and Thomas Jefferson’s desk.
Like all museums affiliated with the Smithsonian, admission is free for all visitors. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The only day the museum is closed is Christmas Day. The nearest Metro stop is Federal Triangle.
- Address: 1300 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20560
11. National Museum of Natural History
The origins of the National Museum of Natural History trace back to 1846 as part of the main Smithsonian Institute, though it didn’t have its own building until 1910. Housing 148,000,000 objects from around the world, it’s the largest museum of its kind.
The museum is home to 10 main exhibits exploring the natural sciences from geology to evolution. More contemporary exhibits explore plant and animal life as well as world cultures.
Thanks to its interactive puzzles and displays, the Q?rius exhibit has also helped make the museum a favorite among younger visitors. This part of the museum even has 6,000 artifacts that can be seen and handled up close by guests to help inspire an interest in natural sciences. The facility also houses living butterflies in its pavilion, so visitors can observe how butterflies affect plant life in person.
Admission to the museum is free for all visitors, and no reservations are required. The facility is open Sunday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The nearest Metro station is Federal Triangle.
- Address: 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20560
12. National Portrait Gallery
Since opening to the public in 1968, the National Portrait Gallery has captured the likeness of some of the most influential figures in America. The people honored in the gallery span a variety of fields, from the arts to science and politics. Today, the collection consists of over 15,000 portraits, though it’s ever-growing.
One of the most important sections of the gallery is the portion dedicated to the presidents. The museum is the only recognized public place with a complete collection of presidential portraits other than those officially commissioned by the White House.
The museum has also broadened its accepted mediums in recent years, with digital and other art forms now being accepted into the collection. For example, a selection of Time magazine covers is displayed, which represents the graphic arts. Other notable figures remembered in the gallery are activist Frederick Douglass, First Lady Martha Washington, and founding father Alexander Hamilton.
The museum’s association with the Smithsonian means admission is free for all guests. The museum is open Sunday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The nearest Metro stop is Gallery Place/Chinatown.
- Address: 8th Street NW and G Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20001
13. National Postal Museum
The National Postal Museum opened in 1993, and since then, it’s been dedicated to preserving the history of the U.S. Postal Service.
One of the most important exhibits in the museum is the National Philatelic Collection. This stamp collection has over 6,000,000 pristine versions of stamps used for postage, revenue, and other important governmental affairs. The collection is one of the most extensive and valuable in the world and aids in tracking the country’s evolution through its designs.
The museum also possesses various personal collections, like musician John Lennon’s. It also has more than just stamps that are worth seeing, however. An in-depth educational exhibit guides visitors through the complex steps that make up the mail system. There are also models of how letters and parcels have been shipped around the country since the inception of the USPS.
Admission to the museum is free for visitors. Some special events and exhibitions may require a paid ticket, though. The facility is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The nearest Metro stop is Union Station.
- Address: 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002
14. Renwick Gallery
Dubbed the “American Louvre,” the Renwick Gallery has been one of the most important centers for art in the U.S. since opening in 1859.
At any given time, over 100 works of art are displayed in the gallery, many of which were completed between the 19th and 21st centuries. To preserve and honor artists of all types, the museum’s displays and archives contain works in various mediums, from glass to canvas.
The gallery has 14 exhibits that occasionally rotate the collection on display as new pieces are added. Since the gallery is constantly acquiring new art, each visit has the chance to be completely different.
In recent years, Renwick’s curation team has been focused on representing artists from many backgrounds, particularly when acquiring contemporary pieces. Nick Cave, Linda Lopez, and Aram Han are just a few artists featured prominently in the past year alone.
The gallery is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute. As such, admission is free for all visitors. The museum is open Sunday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The nearest Metro stop is Farragut West.
- Address: 1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW #1, Washington, D.C. 20006
15. Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) opened in 1829. Since then, it’s amassed one of the world’s largest and most diverse art collections, featuring over 7,000 artists from the colonial era to the present day.
Though the museum has numerous collections and thousands of works, some of the most notable are those that bring life to American history. For example, the museum is home to the most extensive collection of artwork from the country’s Gilded Age and American folk art from around the country. It also has a sizable collection of work from African-American and Latinx artists.
In addition to the permanent exhibits, which rotate as new pieces are acquired and restored, the gallery hosts several temporary exhibitions. Due to its impressive collection, the SAAM is a highly trusted research institute and frequently sponsors educational and community outreach programs.
The museum is free for all guests, though donations to the Smithsonian Institute are always welcome. SAAM is open Sunday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The nearest Metro stop is Gallery Place-Chinatown.
- Address: G Street NW and 8th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20004
16. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Founded in 1993, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the country’s official memorial museum dedicated to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
The museum’s collection is characterized by its artifacts, replicas, and extensive oral histories. One of the most notable exhibits is the Tower of Faces, which showcases photos of the men, women, and children of the Holocaust. Prisoner uniforms, boxcar replicas, and photo galleries are other important parts of the museum’s collection.
The Hall of Remembrance is the museum’s official memorial, and new exhibits are regularly added to the permanent exhibits. This is in addition to the temporary displays the museum hosts regularly.
The museum doesn’t have or enforce any strict age limits for visitors. However, some of the documents, films, and photos showcased in the galleries can display potentially upsetting material. As such, it’s not recommended for children under the age of 11.
Admission is free, though you must reserve a visiting time. Special exhibits also require a ticket at a fee. The museum is open Sunday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The nearest Metro stop is Smithsonian.
- Address: 100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW, Washington, D.C. 20024
How To Get Free or Reduced Admission to Washington, D.C. Museums
We’ve indicated with each museum whether or not children, students, or seniors receive free or reduced admission. Several other programs offer similar concessions.
All Washington, D.C.–area museums that are affiliated with the Smithsonian have free entry and are open daily except for December 25. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Air and Space Museum, and Smithsonian’s National Zoo require passes or tickets for entry.
The Museums for All program offers free or reduced admission to museums through the U.S. for those receiving food assistance (SNAP benefits). Participating attractions in the greater D.C. are the Museum of the Bible, the National Building Museum, and the International Spy Museum.
Bank of America’s Museums on Us program offers cardholders free general admission on the first full weekend of every month to the following Washington, D.C. museums: the Phillips Collection and the Rubell Museum DC.
Before your visit, please verify participating museums and entry conditions, as participation is subject to change.
Washington, D.C. is one of the best places in the U.S. to visit if you’re a fan of museums. Whether you’re an art lover or have an affinity for history, there’s a place in the nation’s capital for you. With any luck, this list has helped you decide which D.C. museum belongs at the top of your list.
Featured Image Credit: Bernd 📷 Dittrich via Unsplash
Frequently Asked Questions
Are the museums in D.C. still free?
Washington, D.C. has a mixture of paid and free museums. While 41 of the district’s exhibits are always free for all visitors, others offer admission-free days. There are also a few museums that always charge for visits. This information is usually listed online.
Are there any famous museums in Washington, D.C.?
Washington, D.C. has some of the most famous museums in the world. It’s home to the Smithsonian Institute, which is made up of a complex of multiple museums and exhibits covering a variety of topics. There are also multiple national galleries worth visiting.
How long do you spend in D.C. museums?
Many of D.C.’s museums are quite large, so if you have multiples on your list, you could easily spend an entire day in each. However, plan to spend at least a few hours in each gallery you visit, and don’t plan too much.
How many days do I need in D.C.?
The number of days you should spend in D.C. will depend on what you want to do while you’re there. Generally, 3 days is the minimum you should plan to spend in the capital. However, you can easily spend weeks there.
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