The museums in Washington, D.C., are among the most renowned globally, as a great deal of American history makes its permanent home in the city. You’d be hard-pressed to find another location in North America that matches D.C.’s pure volume of recognizable museums, and wandering the downtown D.C. area takes you to several of them.
Many of these facilities are part of the Smithsonian, an organization the United States government established as a public trust in 1846. There are also some independent museums, each offering something different for those looking to learn about the past.
These museums cover a wide range collectively, as some focus on the nation’s achievements, some provide insight into the country’s history, and others show off the most significant artwork in American history. This guide will take you through the best museums in Washington, D.C.
8 of the Best Museums in Washington, D.C.
There are museums everywhere in D.C., with an exceptionally high concentration at the National Mall. Many of these are also free to attend, so you don’t have to worry about accumulating costs as you attempt to visit them.
The Smithsonian Institution contains 18 museums and art galleries spread all over the city, in addition to the National Zoo. It’s the largest museum complex in the world and features about 155 million artifacts, so you’ve got your work cut out for you if you’re planning to experience everything it has to offer. Smithsonian Institution locations include:
- The National Museum of African American History and Culture
- The National Museum of the American Indian
- The National Museum of African Art
- The National Air & Space Museum
- The National Museum of Natural History
- The National Museum of American History
That impressive list of some of the country’s top museums is still only a handful of what the Smithsonian has to offer. It would be a wonderful month to try to visit them all.
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is a large campus with two buildings and the 6-acre Sculpture Garden. The museum’s West Building is easily recognizable thanks to its Roman-style architecture, while the East Building is more modern in appearance. You’ll find thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and prints inside the museum, including the only original painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
The National Museum of Women in the Arts sits in a former Masonic Temple on New York Ave. in D.C. It’s the world’s only major museum dedicated exclusively to the works of women in performing, visual, and literary arts. The facility has an impressive collection of more than 4,500 pieces of art, including works by Frida Kahlo, Sarah Miriam Peale, Mary Cassatt, and Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun. The building also contains the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center, which is open to students, researchers, and members of the public who want to learn more about women in the visual arts.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
It’s a somber place to visit, but the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is worth checking out. This facility, which sits across from the National Mall, focuses on bringing attention to the atrocities committed during World War II by promoting human dignity and confronting hatred. The museum has over 12,000 artifacts, 85,000 photographs, and 49 million pages of documents, allowing visitors to learn as much as possible about the horrors of the Second World War.
National Geographic Museum
The National Geographic Society has a museum at 1145 17th St. that features permanent and rotating exhibits showing the work of well-known explorers, scientists, and photographers. Some of the museum’s famous artifacts include the camera Robert Peary used on his expedition to the North Pole in 1909 and pottery recovered from a shipwreck by Jacques Cousteau.
International Spy Museum
Those with an interest in the world of espionage won’t want to miss the International Spy Museum, a nonprofit venue located at 700 L’Enfant Plaza. The museum is home to over 7,000 artifacts, including photographs, videos, and interactive collections, with about 1,000 of these items on permanent public display. There’s a lot of history covered at the museum, as it traces espionage back to the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian empires and continues through to modern spy activity.
Museum of the Bible
One of the most famous museums in Washington, D.C., is the Museum of the Bible, a newer facility that first opened its doors in late 2017. This museum has over 1,150 permanent artifacts, including one of the Bodmer Papyri from the third or fourth century and an additional 2,000 items on loan from other institutions. You’ll also find a restaurant, a rooftop viewing area, and a 500-seat theater at the venue.
O Street Museum
A more off-the-beaten-path experience is available at the O Street Museum at 2020 O St. This museum sits on a large complex featuring five interconnected houses that are home to 15,000 pieces of artwork, 20,000 books, and numerous manuscripts. Well-known works here include drawings by John Lennon, paintings by Kurt Wenner, sculptures by Frederic Remington, and guitars signed by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen.
These museums in Washington, D.C., are worth visiting because they offer insight into important national and global issues. You can learn a great deal about the world by checking out these facilities in the D.C. area.
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