Washington, DC, is the nation’s capital and the absolute pinnacle of American history. If it has happened, you can bet that there is an ode to it in Washington, DC, and this fixation and centrality within American history is what gives the city its fantastic museums. Washington, DC, has some of the most visited museums in the United States.
With your cultural cravings ready and waiting, options like the Spy Museum, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum guarantee you a fantastic museum itinerary.
Top Museums in Washington DC
This guide has compiled all the best of Washington DC’s museums into one extra-convenient list. Get a taste of Washington’s notorious museum scene with these top 10 museums in Washington, DC.
1. National Museum of African American History
The National Museum of African American History is one of the most visited museums in Washington, DC. It is the only national museum dedicated to documenting the African American experience in the United States, and if you are ready for powerful exhibits and more than 40,000 artifacts, this is the museum to spend a morning at. The museum founder is Lonnie G. Bunch III – an esteemed historian and the first ever African American to serve as head of the Smithsonian Institution.
Lonnie has pioneered an absolute icon in the Washington museum scene. Visitors can learn about everything from the civil rights movement to the talented artists throughout the ages at the museum’s separate African art museum. There are even temporary exhibits like Afrofuturism – an artistic envisioning of ‘liberated futures for Black life’ – to browse through.
The Museum of African American History is right in the middle of Washington, DC, the perfect addition to a busy day of sightseeing. Logistically it makes sense to squeeze this museum onto your itinerary. Since it is free to enter, it’s light on the budget, too – win-win.
2. National Building Museum
- Opening times: 10 am until 4 pm Thursday until Monday
- Cost: $10 per adult
The National Building Museum might sound like a randomly themed museum. Still, it is one of the most fascinating options in Washington, DC. Draw your mind away from Bob the Builder-style scenes and instead envision a Corinthian-columned building with a massive grand hall.
Would you really expect anything less from a museum dedicated to architecture, engineering, and design? The Building Museum is stunning. Visitors wander through rooms upon rooms of unique scenes – from the Harry Potter-style grand hall to a room of (slightly bizarre-looking) blue spikes.
The museum interestingly displays that we spend ‘close to 90% of our lives inside’, presenting the idea that we should pay more attention to interior design and its impact on our well-being. Located just a short stroll from the nation’s capital, the museum is the most fun place to question and explore the human relationship with design.
3. International Spy Museum
- Opening times: 9 am until 7 pm Monday to Thursday, 9 am until 8 pm Friday to Sunday
- Cost: $26
Okay, it doesn’t get much cooler than an International Spy Museum. The spy museum is an engaging haven for all things spy-related, be its interactive exhibits, artifacts like old spy devices, and some fascinating stories. While it is family-friendly, the International Spy Museum caters to people across the board.
And despite its slightly steeper entrance prices, it remains one of the best museums to visit in Washington, DC. Its interactive promise is fulfilled with codes and challenges to crack throughout your experience. While you also get insights into past spies, with American history, international stories, and spy figures.
The Spy Museum is located near the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of museums, including the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. It is a fantastic attraction to combine with one of these museums, and it is also scenically located nearby the Washington Channel – perfect for river views.
4. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is dreamy. The entire venue is flight-themed, and you walk underneath suspended planes and early flight contraptions. The different exhibits create an enjoyable feeling of sensory overload, with something on display at all levels and areas.
There are around 8 rooms, and the whole experience at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum takes at least a few hours. The museum documents everything from the Apollo missions to the early planes and even a solitary tardis to venture into fictional flight history. This spot is one of the top museums in Washington, DC – a personal recommendation and brilliant attraction for your wallet. It is also one of the iconic Smithsonian museums.
This museum is located within the vicinity of most other Smithsonian museums. It is accessible via public transport and easily slotted into your Washington, DC, itinerary. Keep this as one of your best options for anyone wanting an insight into space and flight history.
5. National Mall
- Opening times: 24/7
- Cost: Free
This free museum is one of the most unique options in this guide. Rather than being a traditional building with drab banners and measly exhibits here and there, the National Mall covers over 300 acres of monuments and American history. The different monuments and landmarks are connected by a network of hiking trails. If you can do one thing in Washington DC, we suggest you stop by National Mall to sightsee. In fact, the National Mall has some of the best of Washington DC’s monuments and landmarks.
The park has over 100 monuments and memorials. It is a symbol of not only the heart of Washington, DC but also the United States. You can visit the Washington Monument, Martin Luther King JR Memorial, and the dramatic waterfront Lincoln Memorial. It is a total dream to visit with a camera.
And if you like history and aesthetic places, you’ll be in for a real treat with this combination. The National Mall also lets you see a lot in a short time, as it is home to many of the major landmark attractions in Washington, DC.
6. National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC, does art galleries, and it does them well. If you fancy browsing contemporary art exhibits, then the National Gallery of Art is your choice by default. The National Gallery of Art is home to modern and contemporary art in various formats – from a beautiful sculpture garden to elegant wood-paneled corridors of gold-framed portrait after portrait. If you are an art enthusiast, this is the sort of place where dreams are made of. The National Gallery of Art is elegant to its core, with columns, atriums, domed ceilings, and elongated corridor after corridor. You could easily spend hours here. The whole place is a piece of art in itself.
Rather than that eclectic modern art museum interior, the National Gallery of Art is super luxurious and more of a timeless, classic museum. Keep this in mind when choosing between Washington DC’s art galleries.
7. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Holocaust is one of the saddest historical events of our time, and to pay your respects while learning more, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a sobering place to visit. The United States Holocaust Museum opens 7 days a week and offers free timed entry slots staggered from 10 am until 5:30 pm. The museum is a not-for-profit and living memorial to the events of the Holocaust and those who experienced it.
The main exhibition spreads over three floors and contains eyewitness testimonies, historical artifacts, film, and photographs. If you want to know more about Holocaust, plan to spend a couple of hours in this section, as it details everything from the rise of the Nazi party to the liberation of the camps in 1945.
There are then further exhibitions on different floors – including one dedicated to the ‘Americans and the Holocaust’ and an alternative insight into genocide with an exhibition on ‘Burma’s Path to Genocide’. Most hauntingly, there are two exhibitions, one dedicated to the children of the Holocaust and one called ‘One Thousand and Seventy-eight Blue Skies’ – a photographic exhibition with individual images of the skies above every concentration camp in Europe.
The United States Holocaust Museum is a powerful and important museum to visit. It is located just a short walk from the Washington Monument and ideally combined with a visit to the National Mall.
8. Hirshhorn Museum
- Opening times: 10 am until 5:30 pm
- Cost: Free
Hirshhorn Museum is an absolute testament to the fascinating phenomenon of modern art. The museum is set in a rather bizarre-looking doughnut-shaped building – a direct nod to its outlandish, quirky personality if we ever did see one. Hirshhorn Museum has a constant conveyor belt of nonstop exhibitions. In just a few months in 2023, exhibits are dedicated to contemporary Chinese photography and Baseera Khan. The same goes for events, too, and you can always check out the rammed activity schedule after the activity. These temporary events are great for families wanting low-cost kids’ entertainment. While permanently, Hirshhorn Museum has over 12,000 pieces of artwork to gawp at and analyze.
Hirshhorn Museum is set within the little bubble of Smithsonian Institution museums. It is easy to access by public transport or on foot. As we mentioned, it is the ideal place for family activities. Hirshhorn Museum attracts the more outgoing, action-loving art lover. So if you want to avoid the elegant but slightly stuffy grandeur of some of the more formal galleries in Washington DC, Hirshhorn Museum is your best bet.
9. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
When you think of natural history, what do you think of? Probably David Attenborough and dinosaur fossils. Well, from now on, you can add the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to that list. Every city needs a natural history museum, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is one of the best museums in Washington, DC. It takes a particular caliber to be the capital’s natural history museum, so you best believe that this museum is the top.
Visitors can glimpse some of the world’s rarest gems and get up close to not one but dozens of dinosaur skeletons and fossils. And besides all that, there are also stuffed animal species and other biological examples throughout the museum. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is one of the most comprehensive examples of natural history preservation in the United States. We recommend paying a visit.
10. National Museum of Asian Art
- Opening times: 10 am until 5:30 pm
- Cost: Free
This stunning Asian art museum is easily one of Washington DC’s top galleries, which, as you now know, is saying something. The museum is a fantastic ode to Asian artwork from numerous different countries. You’ll find Middle Eastern, Korean, Indian, and Japanese art, to name a few. There is beautiful Arabic calligraphy to admire, Indian sculptures and pottery work, and elegant Japanese silk works. There are over 46,000 works to admire and floors and floors of exhibits to take in. The firm favorite room is the Peacock Room – so watch for that.
The National Museum provides a more diverse insight into historic art than many modern art galleries in Washington, DC. If you are an enthusiast interested in Asian art or just want to visit one of the specialist art museums, then the National Museum is a fantastic option. It is in and amongst all the Smithsonian museums, so you’ll find it easy to squeeze into your sightseeing.
11. Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of the top museums in Washington, DC. As far as Smithsonian museums go, American art is one of the most specific but least unusual museum categories. For any art enthusiast, having such an extensive collection of one type of art in a single place is handy.
And the Smithsonian American Art Museum prides itself on being one of its largest, most inclusive collections worldwide. The artwork dates back to the colonial period, but you’ll also see a few pieces from today. You can tour independently or make the most of a complimentary walking tour that is run daily.
Kogod Courtyard is an architectural feature of the museum itself that visitors love – a substantial glass-enclosed courtyard with tropical plants and tons of natural lighting. It is worth noting that the Smithsonian American Art Museum is also situated in the third-oldest federal building in Washington, DC. And once you are done, you can easily combine it with a trip next door to the National Portrait Gallery.
12. Museum of the Bible
The Museum of the Bible is one of the most religious Washington DC museums, if not the most religious Washington DC museum. It has a complete collection of highly prized sacred relics and exhibits, including ancient scrolls and ‘rare Bibles’. The building is beautifully designed with stained glass windows and church-like decor throughout, and since it is split across six floors, you have loads of sights to get through. It isn’t just historically valuable with its exhibits; there are immersive opportunities in the Museum of the Bible. You could catch an Old or New Testament show and check out sculpture scenes like the Jesus Nazareth scene.
The museum pioneers and funds massive amounts of research. Its museum displays cover over 4,000 years of history, and because of this, it is a really active point of research. It is worth checking in to see what talks and events are available, as the museum attracts some real industry experts.
13. Planet Word
- Opening times: 10 am until 5 pm Wednesday to Friday, then 10 am until 6 pm Saturday to Monday, and closed Tuesday.
- Cost: Suggested donation of $10-15
Planet Word is an entire museum devoted to the spoken word. The museum circles around the concepts of language and words, with everything from karaoke to Scrabble. As visitors, you indulge in visiting exhibit hall after hall of word-themed attractions – from word trees outdoors to elegant libraries inside.
There are interactive activities, like a recording studio and a room teaching you how to create ad copy. Planet Word is incredible for anyone with children or young adults interested in a writing, journalistic, and musical career. It is somewhere to venture for an hour or two for some thought-provoking entertainment.
The museum is situated in a 19th-century building with Victorian-style architecture and is actually set in the historic Franklin School. The Franklin School has National Historic Landmark status because it was the first public education school in the United States as an independent country. So it is fitting to see that its legacy has continued with Planet Word – a museum devoted to learning and language.
14. White House
- Opening times: 7:30 am until 4 pm
- Cost: Free
Did you know that the White House is actually a fully functioning museum? With capped numbers and limited hours, of course. This iconic museum boasts some of American history’s most famous scenes. And if you submit your tour requests with plenty of warning- which is no less than 21 days and up to three months in advance – then you can spend a few hours treading the same carpets as the Obamas and Trumps. You can also stop by the White House Visitor Center, which has over 90 different White House artifacts and a 14-minute film. There are many interactive exhibits, archives, and even a museum shop at the end for you to splurge in.
Visiting the White House from the outside is exciting enough. Just peering through the gates is a bucket list attraction for many. However, touring the inside and having the White House museum experience takes the cookie. We’d recommend this wholeheartedly to anyone with a die-hard interest in American history and politics.
15. Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum
- Opening times: 10 am until 5:30 pm
- Cost: Free
Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum is one of the most unusual museums in Washington D.C. Believe it or not, the postal story in the United States is actually fascinating. The process began with the Pony Express, a brigade of horseback riders who ran America’s postal system for around 18 months. It is famed for being a financial shambles, but the whole thing makes a great story. Then after that, the first transcontinental telegraph system halted the service in 1861, and standard mail service began as we know it.
The National Postal Museum is another Smithsonian museum for your list – situated in that familiar bubble of Smithsonian Institution museums. The museum documents everything from the creation of postal stationery to the early vehicles that used to deliver mail. The museum tells a fantastic story of every aspect of American postal history and offers a fine collection of memorabilia. There’s even a 1920s-style post office where you can pick up free stamps to start your stamp-collecting hobby.
The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum is located in the East End, relatively centrally in Washington, DC. It is well combined with a visit to the United States Capitol and DC Fire and EMS Museum (which is our ‘honorable mention’ since we couldn’t squeeze it onto this list).
16. National Archives Museum
Let’s finish with a bang; National Archives Museum has some of the most historically significant artifacts in the United States. The esteemed museum’s collection includes the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. If you are visiting Washington DC, you are undoubtedly familiar with or even planning your trip around embracing American history, so don’t miss this pivotal spot. The National Archives Museum is where to get up close and personal with early American history.
Aside from the founding documents of the United States (how cool is that to say?), the National Archives Museum also has a series of smaller exhibits. These include an area dedicated to the Suffrage Movement and full of civil rights letters and petitioning. The National Archives Museum is a fabulous place to get a bitesize but intense introduction to American History and Washington DC’s experience.
Fun Museums in Washington DC
Which of these best museums in Washington, DC, do you think best suits you and your itinerary? Washington, DC, really comes into its own with art galleries and history museums, but the variety is endless. After all, who’d have thought you could visit the National Building Museum, Museum of the Bible, International Spy Museum, and the White House all in one city?
Check out presidential portraits, European and American art, dinosaur fossils, and more. Have a wonderful time museum shopping in one of the best destinations for exhibits in the world.