The Ultimate Guide to Visiting the Smithsonian in Washington, DC

“Can we visit the Smithsonian?” It’s a common question I get asked when people visit me from other states. But the Smithsonian isn’t just a single place that you can visit in a day! The Smithsonian Institution includes 21 museums plus the National Zoo making it the largest museum, education, and research complex in the world. Most of the museums are on the National Mall in Washington, DC plus two in New York City and one in Chantilly, VA. So, it’s going to require some time to visit everything! That said, the Smithsonian museums are a great way to spend any kind of day in the city. They are perfect for first-time tourists, locals, and escaping any kind of harsh weather.

If you are visiting DC or guiding out-of-town friends, remember that bucket list item to “visit the Smithsonian” might take a little more planning for someone who didn’t realize how big it is. This guide will break down the 21 museums and give you a sense of what you’ll see when you visit. 

Table of Contents

Visit the Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall

Smithsonian Gardens

The Smithsonian Gardens are behind the Smithsonian Institution Building, affectionally referred to as The Castle. The Castle is a great place to start your trip as it is home to the Smithsonian Visitor Center. While you are there, make sure you take photos of The Castle and visit the garden in the back. You’ll find the Enid A. Haupt Garden, Moongate Garden, and Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden. The gardens change with the seasons and make great backgrounds for photos year-round. 

The museum is walkable from 2 metro stops: Smithsonian & Federal Triangle (orange, blue, silver) and L’Enfant Plaza (green, yellow, orange, blue, silver). Open daily except Christmas. 

Enid A Haupt Garden
Smithsonian Gardens

National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History is one of the most recognizable of the Smithsonian museums due to the large African Elephant in the lobby. You’ll find larger-than-life exhibits including the Hall of Fossils (lots of dinosaurs), Ocean Hall, and the Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals (including the Hope Diamond). Plus, don’t miss the smaller natural world with the Insect Zoo and Butterfly Pavilion. 

This museum is great for all ages but it is also a particularly good place to start if you are traveling with children. There is so much to see and a lot of it is interactive. Because of the sheer size of many exhibits, it’s easy to keep short attention spans interested and fill an entire afternoon. Plan for 2-4 hours. 

The Museum of Natural History is easily walkable from three metro stops: Smithsonian or Federal Triangle (orange, blue, silver) and Archives (green, yellow). Open daily except Christmas Day. Timed tickets are not required.

Natural History Museum
Museum of Natural History

National Museum of American History

Many of the Smithsonian museums cover aspects of our country’s history but the Museum of American History is a great place to start. This museum usually features a variety of rotating exhibits to cover as much history as possible throughout the year. 

Ongoing exhibits include American Democracy, The First Ladies, Food: Transforming The American Table, and The Star Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem. The Museum of American History is great for all ages but might be better for kids and teens who already have some context for history through school. 

The Museum of Natural History is easily walkable from three metro stops: Smithsonian or Federal Triangle (orange, blue, silver) and Archives (green, yellow). Open daily except Christmas Day. Timed tickets are not required.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016 and remains one of the most popular Smithsonian museums. You can easily spend an entire day exploring this museum. Generally, the museum covers early American history on the lower flowers and works its way up to the present day. If you only have a few hours, I would recommend selecting a few sections of the museum. You’ll find everything covering slavery and freedom, sports, pop culture, visual arts, and more. 

Timed tickets are required to visit the Museum of African American History. They are available for groups up to 6 people 30 days in advance on a rolling basis. The museum is walkable from 2 metro stops: Smithsonian and Federal Triangle (orange, blue, silver). Open daily except Christmas. 

National Museum of African Art

The National Museum of African Art features both traditional and contemporary art representing the entire continent. Current ongoing exhibits include Currents: Water in African Art and Visionary: Viewpoints of Africa’s Arts. This is a great museum to stop at if you are short on time but want to see a museum during your time on the National Mall. Not only is the museum on the smaller side but it tends to be less crowded. Even if you only have an hour or so, you’ll have room to spend as much time as you’d like with each piece. 

The museum is walkable from 2 metro stops: Smithsonian (orange, blue, silver) and L’Enfant Plaza (green, yellow, orange, blue, silver). Open daily except Christmas. 

National Museum of Asian Art

The National Museum of Asian Art includes two galleries: the Freer Gallery of Art and and Slacker Gallery. The art collections across both galleries include more than 45,000 objects from present day and dating back to Neolithic times. You’ll find pieces from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Islamic World. It is also home to the world’s largest collection of works by James McNeill Whistler. Walking tours are available at 1:00 pm from Thursday to Sunday. 

This museum also smaller than some of the other Smithsonian museums and can still be appreciated if you are short on time. Or for a longer day of art appreciation, pair it with the National Museum of African Art right next door. 

The museum is walkable from 2 metro stops: Smithsonian (orange, blue, silver) and L’Enfant Plaza (green, yellow, orange, blue, silver). Open daily except Christmas. 

Hirshhorn Museum

The Hirshhorn Museum features modern and contemporary art. You can visit anytime but some of the more popular temporary exhibits require timed passes. Always check the website before you go to see what is on display. Additionally, don’t miss the sculpture garden right outside the museum with both sculpture and water features. You can also visit the notable cafe with coffee and small snacks. 

The museum is walkable from 2 metro stops: Smithsonian (orange, blue, silver) and L’Enfant Plaza (green, yellow, orange, blue, silver). Open daily except Christmas. 

Hirshhorn-Sculpture-Garden
Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden

The Air and Space Museum

The Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC was recently renovated in 2022 and requires free timed passes to visit.  Passes are released in 6-week blocks. Don’t confuse this location on the National Mall for the larger Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The DC location features a variety of exhibitions from The Wright Brothers, the first trip to the moon, and exploring other planets. 

The IMAX theater at the Washington, DC location remains closed until further notice. 

The museum is walkable from 2 metro stops: Smithsonian (orange, blue, silver) and L’Enfant Plaza (green, yellow, orange, blue, silver). Open daily except Christmas. 

National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian is home to one of the most expansive collections of Native artifacts. Like the African American History Museum, this museum has a wide variety of exhibitions covering both the extensive history of the American Indians and their impact today. The museum also has a reputation for offering some of the best cafe food. 

The museum is walkable from 2 metro stops: Smithsonian & Federal Triangle (orange, blue, silver) and L’Enfant Plaza (green, yellow, orange, blue, silver). Open daily except Christmas. 

Renwick Gallery

The Renwick Gallery is very close to the White House and is set a little farther away from the rest of the museums on the National Mall. This gallery is a branch of the American Art Museums that focuses primarily on contemporary art. It is on the smaller side but is highly visual with regularly rotating exhibits. Art lovers of all ages will find these exhibits fun and engaging. 

The museum is walkable from 2 metro stops: Smithsonian & Federal Triangle (orange, blue, silver) and L’Enfant Plaza (green, yellow, orange, blue, silver). Open daily except Christmas. 

Smithsonian Musuems in Downtown DC

The Portrait Gallery

The Portrait Gallery is the only place you can see all the Presidential Portraits outside of the White House. Wandering through the progression of US Presidents not only highlights snapshots of American history but also highlights pop culture and art trends used to portray each one. Additionally, you’ll find paintings and photographs of notable people from various points in history. While portraits of early Americans are often limited to the wealthy and powerful, The Portrait Gallery is actively working to make sure the stories of all Americans are represented. 

The Portrait Gallery is connected to the American Art Museum by a large covered courtyard. You can easily experience both in the same afternoon. Outside food is allowed so you can grab a bite from a nearby restaurant to enjoy in the courtyard. The courtyard also has wi-fi and is a lovely place to spend a “work from home” day.  

The museum is walkable the Gallery Place – Chinatown metro stop (green, yellow, red). Open daily except Christmas. 

The American Art Museum

The American Art Museum is home to one the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world. Collections include photography, paintings, sculpture, and more representing artists from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Currently, you can see a special exhibit from self-taught American artists. Because it is located so close to the Portrait Gallery, visitors get to see both artistic interpretations of both the American people as well as American life and culture in the same afternoon. 

Be sure to spend some time in the courtyard that connects the Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum (mentioned above). 

The museum is walkable from the Chinatown metro stop (green, yellow, red). Open daily except Christmas. 

Smithsonian Museums Outside Downtown DC

Anacostia Community Museum

The Anacostia Community Museum is a space in the Anacostia neighborhood that is committed to telling the overlooked stories of the city. Exhibits are meant to shed a positive light on the stories of people making the most impact toward creating a more equitable future for all. Highlighted issues include social, economic, and environmental opportunities for growth. 

The museum is about a 30-minute walk from the Anacostia metro stop (green). Open daily except Christmas. 

National Postal Museum

The National Postal Museum is committed to the preservation and study of postal history. Dive into postal history with a massive collection of stamps and a special look at baseball through the lens of postal history. Visitors can also learn about what happens once a letter is dropped in the mail and how letters, magazines, and packages have traveled for the past 200 years.  

The museum is walkable from the Union Station metro stop (red). Open daily except Christmas. 

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

 The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is located outside the city in Chantilly, Virginia. It is an extension of the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. The Udvar-Hazy center is worth a trip for all aviation lovers to see bigger aircrafts including Space Shuttle Discovery. While the planetarium remains closed in DC, don’t miss the IMAX theatre at the Chantilly location. Shows include topics like the moon landing, deep sea exploration, and aircraft carrier history. The theatre also features special showings of popular mainstream movies. 

The Udvar-Hazy Center is not metro accessible but has plenty of on-site parking. The museum is free like the rest of the Smithsonian museums but plan to pay $15/car. Open daily except Christmas. 

The National Zoo

The National Zoo in Washington, DC is free but requires timed tickets to visit. In the warmer months, the best time to visit the zoo is in the morning before the animals get too hot. There are also many food stalls available and daily animal demos. 

While many of the food stands are closed during the winter, the colder months are an under-rated time to visit. The zoo is not very crowded and you can warm up in a little of the indoor exhibits including the Small Mammal House and Reptile Discovery House.

The National Zoo is easily walkable in a day but sometimes feels like it’s uphill both ways. If you have small children, it’s important to keep their physical limits (and yours if you are pushing a stroller!) in mind. 

While the zoo offers plenty of snacks, consider grabbing lunch nearby at restaurants like Duke’s Counter or Open City. 

The National Zoo is walkable from 2 metro stops: Woodley Park and Cleveland Park (both red). Open daily except Christmas. 

National Zoo