Uncategorized · Washington DC

A Guide to DC’s Smithsonian Museums

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It’s Museum Monday! Today I’ll be giving you the ins and outs of the largest museum institution in the world: The Smithsonian. Why do I say “museum institution” and not just “museum”? Because, you may or may not know, the Smithsonian is not just one museum; there are 19 museums across the country. Eleven of these museums are in or near Washington, D.C., so if you’re planning a trip to the Nation’s Capital, your guide to our Smithsonians is below!

Things You Need to Know

Admission

All Smithsonian museums are FREE of charge! The only semi-exceptions are the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, VA, and the National Zoo in Upper Northwest DC. Because there’s no metro out at Chantilly, you have to drive or take a bus; parking is $15 per car until 4:30 (then you can park for free!). Parking at the Zoo is $22, so I recommend Metroing unless you have a large group that will require more than $22 in Metro passes.

When to Go

All Smithsonian Museums and the Zoo are closed on Christmas Day, but they are open the other 364 days of the year–so any time is a great time to go! Most of the facilities are open from 10:00am-5:30pm, but some stay open later in the summer (see below). The National American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery’s hours are 11:30am-7:00pm!

How to Get There

Most of DC’s Smithsonian Museums are accessible by DC’s Metro System. The exception is the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum, which is accessible by car or Fairfax Connector 983 bus, which also stops at Dulles International Airport. The closest Metro stations are listed below for each museum.

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If Admission if Free, How Do They Afford to Stay Open?

Funding for the Smithsonian Institution came from an unlikely source–a British scientist! James Smithson (1765-1829) left his estate to the United States of America for the express purpose of creating an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The trust fund created from his estate still contributes to the institution, along with private donations and some federal funding as well. 

Do They Have Food at the Museums?

Yes! Many of the museums have cafes available with coffee, sandwiches, salads, soups, sweets, etc. You will pay a premium for the convenience, but the food is actually pretty good, and there are always multiple options to choose from. Here is a sampling of the options at the Smithsonian Castle Cafe, all sandwiches $10.95:

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Sandwiches galore

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Beverage options

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Salads, cut fruit, snacks

How Many Artifacts does the Institution Have?

There are 154 million individual artifacts! And the National Museum of Natural History has the most artifacts with 145 million!

African American Museum

15th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 10:00-5:30*
Closest Metro: Smithsonian stop; Blue, Orange, and Silver lines
*Timed passes required: get yours here

At the time I’m writing this, the African American Museum is the newest in the Smithsonian collection, having opened in 2016. As you might imagine, it covers African American history and culture. Because tickets are still tricky to get, I haven’t been yet. But if you’re lucky enough to get in, be sure to look out for Nat Turner’s Bible, Michael Jackson’s fedora, and a leotard worn by Olympian Gabby Douglas during her first competitive season!

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African Art Museum

950 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C.
Open daily 10:00-5:30
Closest Metro: Smithsonian stop; Blue, Orange, and Silver lines

The Smithsonian boasts several art museums, but only one has the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection. Here you’ll also find art from all regions of the continent of Africa.

Air and Space Museum

Independence Avenue and 6th Avenue, SW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 10:00-5:30 (until 7:30pm during extended summer hours!)
Closest Metro: L’Enfant Plaza stop; Blue, Orange, Silver, Yellow, and Green lines

This one might just be the most popular of all the Smithsonian museums! When people come visit me here, they want to go to the Air and Space Museum. You can see pressurized space gear that has actually been in space, vintage airline artifacts, and there’s even an IMAX theater here, too!

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Lunar Lander

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Aircraft

American Art Museum

8th and F Streets, NW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 11:30-7:00
Closest Metro: Chinatown stop; Red, Yellow, and Green lines

This museum boasts one of the largest collections of American art in the world, and it is located in one of the oldest public buildings constructed in Washington, D.C. You’ll find photography, folk art, impressionist paintings, and more here. You can see works such as Cape Cod MorningNeapolitan Meringue, and Man Playing Drums.

American History Museum

14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 10:00-5:30 (until 7:30 pm during extended summer hours!)
Closest Metro: Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stops; Blue, Orange, and Silver lines

I love this museum–it’s one of my favorites! It had just re-opened a few months after I moved to town in 2008, and I got to attend the grand re-opening! Whether you’ve been born and raised in America or you’re visiting from anywhere else, this is a must-see when in the District. My favorite parts include the authentic Star-Spangled Banner, the Presidents exhibit, and George Washington’s uniform. I highly recommend spending an hour or two in here–and don’t be surprised if you spend more time than that without realizing it!

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General Colin Powell at the re-opening of the American History Museum

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George Washington’s Continental uniform

American Indian Museum

4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 10:00-5:30
Closest Metro: Federal Center SW; Blue, Orange, and Silver lines and L’Enfant Plaza stops; Green, Yellow, Blue, Orange, and Silver lines

Yes, it’s official title is the National Museum of the American Indian, not the Native American Museum. I asked about this one day, and the employee at the information desk said it’s because the Museum covers native peoples of all the Americas (North America, Central America, Polynesia, and South America), not just the United States. You’ll find exhibits about tribes from the Inuits to the Pacific Islanders to Mayans, Aztecs, and more. Their resourcefulness and adaptability are highlighted in many exhibits, and this museum is the only one whose entrance faces east to greet the sun! Some of the things you’ll find here include dug-out canoes, pottery, and an informative film entitled Who We Are.

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Traditional Dress

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National Museum of the American Indian

Anacostia Community Museum

1901 Fort Place, SE; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 10:00-5:00
Closest Metro: Anacostia Stop; Green line to W3 Metro Bus toward United Medical Center

I actually never knew about this museum until I started researching this blog post! Its purpose is to “examine, document, and interpret the impact of historical and social issues on urban communities.” Artifacts include a Ndeble doll, WWI Army Hat, and a carved Chota drum.

Archives of American Art

8th and F Streets, NW; Washington, D.C. 
Open daily 11:30-7:00
Closest Metro: Chinatown stop; Yellow, Green, and Red lines

Does that address, time, and metro information look familiar? That’s because this is in the same historic building as the American Art Museum. Its purpose is to “collect and preserve the papers and primary records of the visual arts in America.” You can find this Museum’s rotating exhibits in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery.

Arts and Industries Building

900 Jefferson Dr, SW; Washington, D.C.
Closed for renovations 
Closest Metro: Smithsonian stop, Orange, Blue, and Silver lines; and L’Enfant Plaza stop, Yellow, Green, Orange, Blue, and Silver lines

Unfortunately, this one is mostly closed and has been since I moved here in 2008. It is open for special events (like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival), but for the time being, you can certainly enjoy its impressive architecture from the outside! I can’t wait to see what they do with it next. Be sure to ride its beautiful carousel right outside!

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Carousel at the Arts and Industries Building

Freer Gallery of Art

Jefferson Drive and 12th Street, SW; Washington, D.C.
Closed for renovations; re-opening October 2017
Closes Metro: Smithsonian stop, Orange, Blue, and Silver lines

This is one of two Asian art museums. Having lived in Japan a few years before I moved to D.C., I was delighted to find this museum! There are beautiful silk screens, paintings, statues, and more artifacts are available to see from Japan, Korea, China, Indonesia, India, and every other Asian country.

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Freer Gallery

Hirshhorn

Independence Avenue and 7th Street, SW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily at varied hours: Museum 10:00-5:30; Plaza 7:30-5:30; Sculpture Garden 7:30-dusk
Closest Metro: Smithsonian stop; Orange, Blue, and Silver lines

This is the Smithsonian’s answer to modern art. Even the building itself is unique, as it is circular. But they don’t stop with statues and paintings! They also show films and display interactive art as well.

National Zoo

3001 Connecticut Avenue, NW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily, hours seasonal: March 15–September 30, 9:00-6:00 (Grounds open 8:00-7:00); October 1–March 14, 9:00-4:00 (Grounds open 8:00-5:00)
Closest Metro: Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan and Cleveland Park stops, Red line
Parking: $22 flat fee

This is an incredible zoo, and can you believe it–it’s FREE! I could spend all day watching the pandas, flamingoes, orangutans, and more! It is by far one of my favorite things to do in D.C. It’s a little farther off the beaten path, but it’s worth the metro trip to get there!

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The Zoo!

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Shake your tail feather

Natural History Museum

10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 10:00-5:30 (until 7:30 pm during extended summer hours!)
Closest Metro: Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stops, Orange, Blue, and Silver lines; Archives/Navy Memorial, Yellow and Green lines

This museum boasts the most artifacts out of the entire Smithsonian Institution! It’s also one of the most popular with locals and tourists alike. What’s my favorite memory at the Natural History Museum? Watching Night at the Museum 2 in their IMAX theater! They do cool stuff like that at several of the museums. But on a daily basis you can see the Hope Diamond, a black rhino shot by President Teddy Roosevelt while on safari in Africa, and a full whale skeleton, along with many other artifacts from the natural world!

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Teddy’s Rhino

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National Museum of Natural History

Portrait Gallery

8th and F Streets, NW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 11:00-7:30
Closest Metro: Chinatown stop; Yellow, Green, and Red lines

We’re back in Chinatown at 8th and F! I have to say, this is one place I always recommend to people because of the U.S. Presidential Portrait Gallery here on the second floor of the historic building. They have the official portrait of every U.S. President since George Washington. It’s fascinating to see the changes in fashion, demeanor, and traditional stance through the years!

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General and President George Washington

Postal Museum

2 Massachusetts Avenue, NE; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 10:00-5:30
Closest Metro: Union Station, Red line

To me, the National Postal Museum is the Smithsonian’s hidden gem. I love this museum! It’s literally right across the street from Union Station, so it’s easy to find, and it’s a smaller museum, so it’s a quick one to go through in an hour or less. Make sure you see their Original Route 1 exhibit (and find out why it exists where it is!), the Pony Express exhibit, a stagecoach, their stamp collection, and you can even make your own stamp!

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Old school mailbox

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Stagecoach

Renwick Gallery

1661 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 10:00-5:30
Closest Metro: Farragut West, Orange, Blue, and Silver lines

Welcome to the first building in America to be built with the sole purpose to be an art museum! It’s just a block from the White House and in the thick of downtown D.C. This art museum is unique because it highlights the art of craft–weaving, woodworking, etc. You’ll find many unique pieces here in their ever-changing galleries!

S. Dillon Ripley Center

1100 Jefferson Drive, SW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 10:00-5:30
Closest Metro: Smithsonian stop, Orange, Blue, and Silver lines

This might look like a space ship, but it’s a museum! This smaller museum houses changing exhibits, such as tiny gardens, posey holders, and photographs of the Smithsonian family.

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It might look like a hat, but it’s a museum!

Sackler Gallery

1050 Independence Avenue, SW; Washington, D.C. 
Closed until October 14, 2017
Closest Metro: Smithsonian stop, Orange, Blue, and Silver lines

This is the second of two Asian art galleries in the Smithsonian Institution. Here you’ll find ancient Chinese stones and metal work, but the museum also offers lectures, films, concerts, and more to give visitors a taste of Asian art and artifacts.

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Smithsonian Castle

1000 Jefferson Drive, SW; Washington, D.C.
Open daily 8:30-5:30 (opens earlier than other museums!)
Closest Metro: Smithsonian stop, Orange, Blue, and Silver lines

This is where you need to start your Museum Day in D.C.! Because this museum opens at 8:30am instead of 10:00am, you can start here to get an overview of the other Smithsonian museums. It’s the visitor information center for the museums, and it is the original Smithsonian museum, completed in 1855. And of course, who doesn’t want to visit a castle? While you’re there, you’ll see highlights of the other museums and have the opportunity to ask the employees and volunteers the best way to see what you want to see without wandering around wondering which museum houses that one artifact you wanted to see!

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Smithson at the Smithsonian Castle

Smithsonian Gardens

Smithsonian Grounds
Open daily, at all times
Closest Metro: Multiple

The Smithsonian Museum grounds are home to multiple gardens, referred to by the Smithsonian Institution as a “museum without walls.” When the weather is nice between mid-April through September, you can participate in a 30-45 minute guided tour with a horticulturist. Ask at the museums’ information desks or check nearby kiosks for more information when you arrive.

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Smithsonian Garden at the Arts and Industries Building

Udvar-Hazy Center Air and Space Museum

14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway; Chantilly, VA
Open daily 10:00-5:30
No Metro train; Fairfax Connector 983 bus; $15 parking fee until 4:30pm

If you’re coming into town via Dulles International Airport, be sure to stop off at this lesser-known, but more impressive (in my opinion) air and space museum. They have more full-sized airplanes from a Wright Brothers plane to WWI aircraft to commercial planes of the “Golden Age” of flying. Don’t miss the Enola Gaye, space shuttle, and the Concorde while you’re there! You can also go up into the tower to hear the air traffic control chatter and watch planes fly in and out of Dulles International Airport. It’s a sight to see!

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Early Aircraft

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WWII Fighter plane
***The synopses above are a combination of anecdotes from my trips to the museums and information from the Smithsonian Institution website.

Are you planning a trip to DC? Which Smithsonian museums are you most excited to visit?

7 thoughts on “A Guide to DC’s Smithsonian Museums

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