The National Portrait Gallery is one of my favorite Smithsonian museums. This may be a reflection of my generation’s love of selfies, but stepping into the gallery feels like a larger than life Instagram experience with snapshots of old friends. The portraits open chapters of history that can only be told by that person. They not only reflect the individuals, but also the art of the era.
If it is your first time at the National Portrait Gallery, you will want to check out the daily Highlights Tour. Unlike many museums, the National Portrait Gallery does not rely on a lot of written plaques to tell the story of each portrait. Information on the plaques is limited to the name of the portrait, time frame, and artist. Many of the photos we share on social media are even more entertaining because we know the context. But if your knowledge of 18th century pop culture is a little fuzzy, some of the jokes or political statements hidden in the portraits many not be easy to recognize. Fear not! The guides on the Highlights Tour will help you understand the culture, struggles, and even scandals of the time period.
The gallery presents a full timeline of American history from civil rights activists to legendary athletes to 20th century innovators. America’s Presidents is my personal favorite – the only place you can see every presidential portrait outside the White House! Continue your presidential journey and find the new portrait of fictional President Frank Underwood, portrayed by Kevin Spacey in Netflix’s “House of Cards.” You’ll also find The Four Justices, a special portrait of the four female justices who have served on the Supreme Court. In addition to the permanent exhibits, the gallery also features temporary exhibits that usually pay tribute to people in pop culture or feature a more in depth look at a particular time period.
The National Portrait Gallery is open daily except December 25 from 11:30 am to 7:00 pm. You can find more information about the Highlights Tours online or in the lobby of the gallery. Admission is free.
Plan Your Trip
Estimated time to see the entire museum: 2.5 hours including the Highlights Tour.
Closest Metro Stop: Gallery Place-Chinatown (red, green, yellow) will drop you right next to the museum. You can also walk from Metro Center (red, orange, blue, silver).
Food: If you go hungry in Gallery Place, you are doing it wrong. Check out Zaytinya (Mediterranean), Oyamel (Mexican), or Penn Commons (American).
While You’re in the Neighborhood: If you have some extra time for another free museum, stop by the American Art Museum or the National Building Museum.