The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is arguably one of the most recognizable Smithsonian museums. Remember, the Smithsonian includes 21 museums plus the National Zoo. The Museum of Natural History stands out due to the welcoming African Bush Elephant in the beautiful rotunda. The recognizable landmarks provide a great backdrop for photos and the museum is easy to navigate for first-time visitors.
What’s on Display at the Natural History Museum
One of the reasons I recommend this museum for first-time visitors is because the permanent exhibits are so intricate and there are enough rotating exhibits to keep things interesting. The permanent exhibits cover a wide range of topics including the ocean, dinosaurs, fossils, gems, and more. A few highlights:
African Bush Elephant: This elephant greets visitors as soon as they arrive in the rotunda. Don’t miss this photo opportunity whether this is your first or 100th visit.
The Hall of Fossils: Fossils and history covering Earth’s very first days to the present fill this hall but I am always most excited to see the dinosaurs. This well laid out storytelling through fossils will take you on a trip through history and see how today’s actions will impact the future.
Sant Ocean Hall: This Hall is similar to the Hall of Fossils with many skeletons and models of different creatures but – you guessed it – exclusively from the sea. Both of these halls are perfect for kids and anyone who enjoys hands-on learning.
Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals: If smaller things are more your style, head to the Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals. There is plenty to learn about the Earth in this hall but I especially enjoy the National Gem Collection and the Hope Diamond.
Butterfly Pavillion: Enjoy beautiful live butterflies in a special enclosure! They flutter freely around the exhibit and may land on or near you! The pavilion is open Tuesday to Saturday and requires timed tickets available at the front desk. Tickets are $8 for adults and $7 for children under 12. Visit on Tuesday for free entry but you will still need to get a timed entry slot.
Lights Out: Recovering Our Night Sky (through December 2025): This exhibit examines artificial lighting throughout human history and its effect on the night sky. It highlights how astronomy has influenced human history, science, and cultures through the centuries and how it might impact our future.
Do I Need Tickets?
No. Timed tickets are not required for the Museum of Natural History like some of the other museums. Admission is free but you might need some money for the butterfly exhibit, souvenirs, or snacks. Small bags are also allowed.
When is the Museum of Natural History Open?
The museum is open every day except December 25 from 10 am to 5:30 pm. However, since this is one of the most popular museums, you might want to be strategic about when you visit. The best times to visit are:
In the off-season: The off-season is usually January to March and September to November. Summer and cherry blossom season (April) are very busy. The city is beautiful in the fall but generally, the tourist numbers slow down after Labor Day.
On a weekday: Monday to Friday tends to be less busy since people are at work and kids are at school. You may run into a school group or younger families.
Before noon: If you can’t avoid the busy times, get to the museum before noon and enjoy some of the more popular exhibits like The Hope Dimond, Ocean Hall, and Hall of Fossils before the afternoon crowds arrive.
Allow at least 1.5 to 2 hours to get through the highlights. You can easily spend an entire afternoon here depending on how much you like to read and linger at exhibits. However, if you are short on time or trying to see multiple museums, about 2 hours should give you enough time to see the main halls.
The Museum of Natural History is easy to find on the National Mall – right across from the Smithsonian Castle. Guests can walk from the Federal Triangle or Smithsonian metro stop (both serve orange, blue, and silver lines). The Smithsonian metro stop will put you right on the National Mall. Metro Center (red, orange, blue, silver) and Archives (green, yellow) are also a short walk from the National Mall but landmarks are less visible when you first exit. Have Google Maps handy to point you in the right direction.