Scoping out the best museums in Washington D.C.? You’ve come to the right place.
DC is awash with museums. With the Smithsonians and other private museums, the city is mainstream museum mania.
The museums are some of the most educational and inspirational on the planet. Many of them are completely free to visit.
Every time I’m in Washington, I set aside time to visit some of my favorite museums and attend some temporary exhibitions. On a recent visit, I hit seven museums.
The sheer number of museums in Washington D.C. can be overwhelming though, both for residents and first time visitors.
There’s visual art in all forms — classical, Renaissance art, Impressionism, contemporary art, Asian art, African Art, etc. There are also history and culture museums and hidden house museums without crowds.
If you’ve already seen the permanent collections, you can check out the special exhibitions on view. Whatever your art or museum geekery, there is something for everyone in DC.
Best Museums In Washington D.C.
Here’s my list of the best must visit museums in Washington D.C.
1. National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is the best museum in Washington D.C. and one of the best in the world. The collection is encyclopedic, home to some of the world’s greatest masterpieces.
The collection includes over 140,000 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 13th century to the present. The art ranges from Byzantine/Medieval altarpieces to Pop and Conceptual art.
The art works are housed in the West Wing (11th century to Impressionism) and the East Wing (modern and contemporary art).
The East Wing was designed by I.M. Pei, of Louvre pyramid fame. The two wings are connected by a remarkable walkway called Multiverse.
The museum’s top masterpiece is Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de Benci, the only Leonardo in the United States.
You’ll also find works by Sandro Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt, Raphael, Vermeer, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollack, Wassily Kandinsky, and Vincent Van Gogh.
The NGA also puts on spectacular temporary exhibits, which are also free. I just attended one on Vittore Carpaccio, a master of the Venetian Renaissance.
Here’s my complete guide to the National Gallery of Art, with a description of 30 must see masterpieces, 15 from each wing. You may want to book a guided highlights tour.
2. Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
The Hirshshorn is Washington D.C.’s contemporary art museum. It was the first national museum dedicated to post–World War II art and the first modernist building on the National Mall.
Opened in 1974, the museum was founded with a gift from Joseph H. Hirshorn, an oil and mining tycoon. He donated over 12,000 works of art amassed over 50 years of collecting — paintings, sculptures, drawings, and mixed media pieces.
Inside, there are four floors. The first floor is the entrance hall and houses the cafe.
Floors two and three are each divided into two circles, inner and outer. Special exhibitions are held in the level two.
The museum’s permanent collection includes modern and contemporary works of sculpture, paintings, digital media, photography, video, performance-based pieces.
There are works by Yayoi Kusama, Joan Mitchell, Damien Hirst, Laurie Anderson, Edward Hopper, and Willem de Kooning. The most beloved are Kusama’s Infinity Mirror rooms.
The Hirshhorn also has a magnificent Sculpture Garden with works by August Rodin and Henry Moore. It’s closing in the spring of 2023 for a multi-year renovation.
Here’s my complete guide to the Hirshhorn Museum.
3. National Air & Space Museum
Founded in 1876, the National Air and Space Museum is one of the best museums in DC and one of the most visited museums on the planet. The museum explores the evolution and science of air and space in America.
It houses the world’s largest collection of aviation and space artifacts. The museum has over 23 exhibition galleries.
You’ll see aircrafts, spacecrafts, Wright Brother planes and experiments, the Apollo 11 command module, and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. The museum caters to both children and adults. There are IMAX movies, planetarium shows, and flight simulators.
In 2021, Jeff Bezos gave $200 million to the museum to finance necessary infrastructure renovations and establish the Jeff Bezos Learning Center. New exhibition spaces are still being unveiled.
If you want to visit both the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of American History, great museums for kids, you can book this 2 hour tour.
4. Museum of Natural History
The massive two story National Museum of Natural History is beloved by children, science lovers, and wannabe paleontologists.
It boasts the largest natural history collection in the world. There are over 124 million objects and artifacts.
Highlights are the Hall of Human Origins, Sant Ocean Hall, Live Butterfly Pavilion, Last American Dinosaurs exhibit, a giant beehive, and a Live Insect Zoo.
Perhaps the most famous exhibit is the 46 karat Hope Diamond in Hooker Hall. In a setting designed by Cartier, 16 white diamonds surrounded the central gem, which is the largest known blue diamond in the world.
Its brilliant deep blue sparkle caught the eyes of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette before disappearing during the French Revolution.
In February 2023, the museum unveiled the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. It added 230,00 square feet of space to the museum, including a new Invisible Worlds Theater and reading room.
The museum could take all day to visit. Click here if you want a 2 hour guided tour of this fine museum.
5. National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery must be one of the most underrated museums in Washington D.C. It’s not on the National Mall, so that may account for it being rather a hidden gem. The gallery is near Chinatown and the Penn Quarter neighborhoods.
The NPG is a beguiling combination of history, biography, and art all in one go. It’s brilliant, a must visit destination in D.C. for history buffs, art lovers, and pop culture aficionados.
Tthe National Portrait Gallery tells the story of America, from pre-Revolutionary War to the present.
The museum has the world’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. And over 25,000 images of famous Americans — politicians, business tycoons, celebrities, influencers, and sports figures.
The addition of the portraits of Barack Obama (second floor) and Michelle Obama (third floor) in 2018 sparked a pilgrimage effect.
They were the first portraits of a president and First Lady painted by African American artists.
Here’s my complete guide to the National Portrait Gallery.
6. National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest of the Smithsonian museums and one of the best museums to visit in DC.
Opened in 2016, the museum is housed in a gorgeous African-influenced building that looks like an exotic temple. Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye led the design team. The building cost over $500 million, and was paid for with both federal and private funds.
The museum chronicles the ups and downs of the African American experience from slavery to the present day. It is divided into three sections: (1) history; (2) community; and (3) culture.
The most significant, and gut wrenching, is the history exhibit. To get to the history section, take the escalator or stunning spiral staircase from the first floor down to the Concourse.
Once there, look for the “History” elevator, which takes your underground. You’ll find exhibits chronicling the slave trade, emancipation, segregation, and the civil rights movement.
Head up to the third floor for the community section (sports, military). Then, finish your visit with a bang on the fourth floor in the culture section (film, TV, music, food, art).
Here’s my complete guide to the African American Museum in DC. The museum is free. But you need to pre-book a time slot online for a $1 fee.
7. National Museum of African Art
The National Museum of African Art began as a private collection and then joined the Smithsonian in 1979. It’s housed in a granite building with double domes. Inside are the soaring ceilings of the grand vestibule.
The museum is the only one in the United States dedicated to the collection, exhibition, conservation, and study of the arts of Africa.
It houses some of the finest examples of traditional and contemporary art from the entire continent of Africa.
The collection includes textiles, ceramics, photographs, masks, ritual vessels, musical instruments, sculpture, and jewelry.
The museum had a collection of Benin bronzes. But they returned then to Nigeria in 2022, with an agreement that there would be a future exhibition curated by Nigeria onsite.
8. National Museum of Women in the Arts
It’s hard to believe, but this is the only museum in the word dedicated to women in the arts. And it’s a stunner.
Once a Masonic temple, the National Museum for Women in the Arts has the decadence of a Parisian palace. It’s Great Hall is clad in marble and decorated with crystal chandeliers.
The museum’s main mission is to showcase and promote female artists, who have long ignored or underrepresented in most museum spaces.
It also presents provocative exhibitions about the portrayal of women. The art ranges from the 16th century to the present.
There are works by Suzanne Valadon, Georgia O’Keefe, Amy Sherald, Alice Bailly, Mary Cassatt, Vigee-le-Brun, Lee Krasner, Berthe Morisot, and Frida Kahlo.
9. Renwick Gallery
The Renwick Gallery is dedicated to contemporary fine arts and crafts. It’s a branch of the Museum of American Art.
It’s housed in a beautiful Second Empire style building that was modeled after the Louvre’s Tuileries addition.
The museum displays its permanent collection in a series of rotating exhibits. Right now, it has works on display in This Present Moment.
The Renwick’s exhibitions are always innovative and though provoking. The pieces are so finely made, and have such compelling themes, that they seem to blur the distinction between “art” and “crafts.”
Highlights of the permanent collection include Nick Cave’s Soundsuit; Wendell Castle’s Ghost Clock; Karen LaMonte’s Reclining Dress Impression with Drapery, Debra Baxter’s Devil Horns Crystal Brass Knuckles (Lefty), Albert Paley’s Portal Gates, and Leo Villareal, Volume (Renwick).
Here’s my complete guide to the Renwick Gallery.
10. Phillips Collection
The Phillips Collection is one of my favorites and one of the best museums in Washington D.C.
The collection is housed in two Georgian Revival buildings in the DuPont Circle area. This gives it an intimate feel.
The museum was founded over a century ago by Duncan Phillips. He was a visionary American collector who focused on late 19th century and early 20th century works.
There is an especially strong collection of American Impressionism, Post-Impressionist and Modernist art works.
The museums display works by Paul Cézanne, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keefe, and Pablo Picasso.
The two stand outs are Renoir’s Lunch of the Boating Party and the Rothko Room. The artist himself helped design the room, which has four luminous Rothko works from the 1950s.
Here’s my complete guide to the Phillips Collection.
11. Museum of Asian Art
The Museum of Asian Art is an underrated museum in Washington D.C., where you can escape the usual Smithsonian crowds.
The museum is in two parts, the Freer Gallery and the Sackler Gallery.
The Freer Gallery contains the collection of railroad tycoon Charles Freer, who bequeathed his art to the nation upon his death.
Opened in 1923, the museum was the first American public collection devoted primarily to the art of Asia. The Sackler, with its own collection, opened next to the Freer in 1987.
The Sackler Gallery has exhibits from China, South Arabia, Yemen, the Near East, and Iran. A highlight is a Tibetan Buddhist shrine.
The stupendous Freer collection includes fine arts from the classical antiquity of China, the Far and Near East, Japan, Korea, Tibet, India, Iran, Syria, and Egypt. You will see examples of bronze, jade, pottery, lacquer, sculpture, glass, metalwork, and Japanese screens.
Freer also collected paintings by American artists, includes James Whistler, Winslow Homer, Child Hassam, and John Singer Sargent.
The highlight of the Freer Collection is the famous Peacock Room decorated by Whistler. It’s one of the most extravagant 19th century interiors in existence.
The room’s centerpiece is Whistler’s wondrous The Princess of the Land of Porcelain. The shelves are filled with the Chinese porcelain and the walls are decorated and gilded with peacocks.
Here’s my guide to the Museum of Asian Art.
12. Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the top attractions and best museums in Washington D.C.
The Museum is a living memorial to the Holocaust, one of the world’s most horrific tragedies. It’s a place for sober reflection on man’s inhumanity to man.
Founded in 1993, the Holocaust Memorial Museum captures the visceral memories of a long nightmare. It shines a harrowing light on the insane megalomania and savagery of the Nazi party.
With unflinching eye-opening detail, the museum documents the rise of the Nazi party and its atrocities. It reveals the evil not in a grandiose way, but in the most minute bone chilling details.
The centerpiece of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is its permanent exhibition, simply titled The Holocaust.
The exhibit covers three floors. There are artifacts, photographs, and films that give the viewer a chronological telling of the tragedy.
Each floor covers a different era. Along the way, you will see personal objects that belonged to survivors, as well as hear eyewitness testimonies.
The exhibits explore how Hitler and the Nazis come to power and why Jews were singled out for persecution and extermination.
Here are some of the most moving exhibits:
- the Tower of Faces, portraits of Lithuanians killed in the Holocaust
- diorama of the Auschwitz death camp and crematorium
- bridge with names of erased communities
- bridge with names of vanished persons
- mountain of stolen shoes
- rail car for deportations
- Warsaw Ghetto milk can used to hide art and artifacts
- photo of bales of female hair, shorn by the Nazis and sold for profit
Here’s my complete guide to the Holocaust Museum in DC.
13. Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History collects and preserves significant artifacts from American history and popular culture. There are more than 3 million items in the collection.
The treasures include the original Star-Spangled Banner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “dissent collar,” Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Julia Child’s kitchen.
Two of the most popular galleries are the First Ladies Gallery and the American Presidents Gallery on the second floor.
In the First Ladies Gallery, you’ll see inauguration gowns of the First Ladies and Jacqueline Kennedy’s iconic yellow silk state dinner dress.
In the Presidents Gallery, you’ll discover the presidents who served the US and found the presidency both a burden and an honor.
With more than 90 objects, the exhibition explores the personal, public, ceremonial, and executive actions of those occupying the United States’ highest office.
The museum hosts myriad public programs, including lectures, tours, demonstrations, and live theater experiences. The museum also offers music programs by resident jazz and chamber ensembles.
14. Museum of American Art
The Museum of American Art houses one of the most comprehensive collections of American art in the world. It celebrates the country’s artistic legacy from the Colonial period to the present day.
You find works of American Impressionism, 20th century Realism, sculpture, contemporary crafts, and media art.
There are works by such luminaries as Jonathan Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Albert Bierstadt, Mary Cassatt, Helen Frankenthaler, Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Some of my favorite paintings there are Cape Code Morning by Edward Hopper, The Eclipse by Alma Thomas, The Wave by Willem de Kooning, and Snails’s Space by David Hockney.
There’s a magnificent piece by the father of video art, Nam Juan Pail, called Electronic Superhighway. Sculptures by Roy Lichtenstein and Luis Jimenez grace the entrance.
A new acquisition, from the Joseph Cornell Study Center are four watercolors by superstar contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama. Dating from the 1950s, the works — with cosmological images — are from a crucial period in her oeuvre, when she moved from Japan to the United States.
The museum is connected to the National Portrait Gallery by the beautiful skylit Kogod Courtyard.
15. National Archives
The National Archives is one of the best museums in Washington D.C. for history buffs.
The National Archives houses the country’s most important documents. The star attractions are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
In the Rubenstein Gallery, you’ll find one of only four copies of the Magna Carta. This was the agreement between King John of England and the barons protecting their rights and land.
Admission is free, but you have to make a timed entry reservation for $1.
16. National Museum of the American Indian
This National Museum of the American Indian boasts one of the world’s most expansive collections of Native American objects.
The museum is dedicated to bringing Native culture voices to life throughout its contemplative exhibitions.
The museum was designed exclusively by Native American architects. It’s visually striking, with pink-gold limestone intended to resemble rock formations formed by wind and water over thousands of years.
Like the Museum of African American History, the museum focuses on Indian triumph in the face of hardship. Indigenous voices tell their stories.
There is a bit more professional Smithsonian curation and scholarship now than when it first opened in 2004.
The collection spans more than 12,000 years of history across 1,200+ indigenous cultures from the Americas. The objects on display are diverse, with aesthetic, religious, and historical significance.
17. Rubbell Museum
Do you like contemporary art? There’s a new entry of the list of Washington D.C. museums, the Rubbell Museum. DC is not especially known for its contemporary art scene, so this museum fills a void.
Opened in 2022, it was inaugurated by the Rubbell family with over 200 works. One of the world’s most ambitious collecting families, the Rubbells concentrate on work from the early part of an artist’s career and the “search for the new.”
The museum is housed in a former school building that’s been given a modern update. The museum features 32,000 square feet of galleries, a bookstore, and cafe.
The museum doesn’t shy away from political topics or controversy either — displaying works with themes of racial equality, gender identity, and climate change.
There are works by artists like Keith Haring, Kehinde Wiley, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, Maurizio Cattelan, and Christina Quarles.
18. Kreeger Museum
Opened in 1994, the Kreeger Museum is housed in the former mid-Century modern home of insurance scion David Lloyd Kreeger and his wife Carmen.
Renowned architect Phillip Johnson designed the house to show off the Kreegers’ art in an intimate setting. Kreeger created his collection “for love,” not as an investment.
The Kreeger is an off the beaten path museum in DC, west of Georgetown, with works from the 1950s to the present. The collection is especially strong in Post-Impressionist and Expressionist paintings, sculpture, and African art.
You’ll find works by Picasso, Milton Avery, Sam Gilliam, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Arshille Gorky, and even Vincent Van Gogh. The dining room is lined with works by Claude Monet.
The museum also has its own sculpture courtyard. You’ll find works by Henry Moore, Jean Arp, Aristide Maillol, and Jacques Lipchitz.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the best museums in Washington D.C. You may enjoy these other U.S. travel guides and resources:
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- Fall foliage road trip in New England
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