Part 2 in my Washington, D.C. Travel Guide Series – Check out Part 1: Ten Tips to Plan a Great D.C. Trip, Part 3: Tried and True D.C. Restaurant Guide, and Part 4: Ten Free Things to Do in D.C. for more.
In fourth grade, my dream place to live when I grew up was Washington, D.C., even though I had never even visited. But I knew that it was full of museums, and I guess that was enough for my fourth grade self.
Flash forward a few years and I found myself living in D.C. and taking every possible museum tour I could get myself into. Today, I’d love to share with you a few specific Smithsonian spots that I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I do!
Let’s Go to the Smithsonian
When we’d have out of town guests and ask them what they wanted to do or see, about 95% of the time they’d answer “Go to the Smithsonian!”
And often times, what they thought that meant was go to the The Air and Space Museum (which is a good time, don’t get me wrong). BUT, many people are surprised to learn that the Smithsonian is not just one giant museum, it’s actually a network of museums and research facilities (the largest network of its kind in the world).
There are 19 museums and galleries, plus the National Zoo which is also part of the Smithsonian. With a few exceptions, most of the Smithsonian museums ring the National Mall. And because they are all FREE, you can feel free to wander at your own pace up and down the mall and pop in to whichever galleries or exhibits interest you the most.
So, to try to help you avoid overwhelm before you visit, here are five of my favorite Smithsonian spots.
Annie’s Favorite Smithsonian Spots
One of the few Smithsonian museums not on the National Mall, I need to spread the word about this one!
It’s a hold-in-your-hand sized museum. There’s something satisfying about seeing a whole museum in one visit.
It’s a combination of beauty (stamps!!) and systems (509 million pieces of mail processed delivered by USPS each day alone! How on earth?). You’ll find teeny-tiny artwork in the displays of stamps from across time and around the world, coupled with interactive exhibits about the emergence of a national postal service in the U.S. It’s fascinating to see the development of an organization over time, especially something so integral to daily life.
Lots of kid-friendly exhibits, and one gallery where kids can rifle through a big pile of stamps to take home a few to start their own collection make it a good stop for families.
Location: 2 Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002 (It’s inside the beautiful historic City Post Office Building, right across the street from Union Station)
Food nearby: Union Station food court (both ground level and basement have lots of good options). Ebenezer’s Coffeehouse on F street is a nice place to take a quiet breather in some air conditioning, as well.
My first visit to the NMAI, I saw a photograph of a Native American man lying in a glass display case (similar to one housing artifacts in a museum). It was as if to say, “Enough! I am not an artifact and I don’t belong at a natural history museum in a wing next to the dinosaurs.”
There were current portraits of men and women from tribes all over the western hemisphere and throughout the wing were exhibits curated by eight different tribes, telling their own stories in their own words. My tour guide that day was from the Pamunkey tribe in southern Virginia and he was able to share above and beyond about the display curated by his people. (I do enthusiastically recommend planning your visit to include a tour. It’s helpful to have some firsthand explanation of how the museum is set up and why). New exhibits are in process, but on display currently is one of the most well-done exhibits I’ve ever seen in any museum. It’s called “Nation to Nation” and it is all about treaties and it is worth a visit alone.
Location: Fourth Street & Independence Ave., S.W. Washington, DC 20560 (It is the closest museum to the Capitol Building, to its southwest)
Food nearby: The Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe inside the NMAI is the best museum food court you ever will see, complete with seasonal selections from various native cuisines. Plus they always have fresh fry bread available. Otherwise, there’s a Quizno’s and a Potbelly a couple blocks south on third street at the Federal Center Metro stop. Stick with Mitsitam Cafe though if you can 🙂
This exhibition is located on the first level of the National Museum of American History. You’ll find Julia Child’s Kitchen – fully recreated with her kitchen appliances, utensils, and decor, all in place exactly as they were in her own home. It is a really neat sneak peek into the life of this legendary cook.
This exhibit is also a walk through time as it chronicles the evolution of convenience foods, grocery store norms, and drive-thru culture. It’s fascinating (if not slightly depressing) to see how much has changed in the past century.
Location: National Museum of American History on Constitution Avenue, NW. Between 12th and 14th Streets. Level 1.
Food nearby: There are a couple cafes within the museum, some hot dog carts and overpriced McDonald’s. The closest fast-casual cluster of restaurants is about a mile walk, near the Verizon Center at 7th and G. I recommend ShopHouse Asian Grill, and there is a Chipotle and Fuddrucker’s in that block as well.
This is one of the many great exhibitions at the the Natural History Museum. Now, most people do a quick swing by this exhibit to see the Hope Diamond. It’s nice. But to me, it was underwhelming compared to the 2,500 other minerals and gems in the halls behind it! Incredible feats of nature, mined from the earth in all their majesty line the walls. Beautiful obelisks that look like the colors of the sea, and alien-like minerals that resemble cotton candy. Plus moon rocks. You may be inspired to become a geologist.
Location: Natural History Museum. 10th & Constitution Ave., NW Washington, DC. 2nd Floor, East Wing.
Food nearby: See recommendations for the National Museum of American History above. I’ll also throw in Clyde’s at happy hour to that list if you are a fan of raw bar (also on 7th).
I don’t think I can say it better than the Gallery itself – essentially it exists to tell “the diverse story of America through leaders, rebels, artists, entrepreneurs, and other prominent personalities who shaped our culture.”
One of my favorite things about it is the variety of the mediums used to create the portraits. Some are photographs, some are paintings and drawings, and some exhibitions include sculpture. And of course the tone in which each of these players in America’s story are represented is interesting as well. There are always new exhibitions rolling through (currently one on Babe Ruth, Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, and Muhammad Ali) in addition to their permanent collection (which include the official president and first lady portraits).
Visually, the galleries are pretty peaceful to walk through and I’ve never found it to be incredibly crowded — probably because it is also not on the national mall (though I’ve never gone on a Saturday, so perhaps it is different then). As an introvert who can feel overstimulated sometimes in other museums where there exhibits are packed with people and there are artifacts tucked into every nook and cranny, the Portrait Gallery feels much more calming. It might be a good thing to do on a day when you need to be in a cool air conditioned place and are trying to ward off information overload.
Location: 8th and F Streets NW
Food nearby: You’re literally at the doorstep of all the great fast casual restaurant options, mentioned on 7th street above. Also, a little further down that block is Nando’s Peri Peri, a Portuguese grilled chicken place that’s worth a visit (7th between H and Eye street)
Museum Fatigue – Do you know what your threshhold is for museums? Because I have seen a LOT of people NOT being honest about their museum thresholds on the train. Whole families of them. Looking like they are either going to collapse from exhaustion or hurt each other. Neither of these sound like ideal family vacation scenarios. So, please for your own sakes’, know your limits. For me about 2 hours is optimal before I need a little break….four hours and I’m well past overstimulated and hangry. Balancing the museuming and hot-sun-national-mall walking with a good amount of shaded, hydrating activities can be a good move.
Security – At all Smithsonian museums (and government buildings as well, such as the Capital Building, National Archives, and Library of Congress), expect a security check at the entrance. Often you’ll have to remove belts and coats, walk through a metal detector, as well as have small bags screened. You can’t bring in outside open beverages or food, and no pocket knives or scissors or anything of that sort that might be in your purse. So, if you’re like me and hate taking off belts in security lines, dress accordingly 🙂
Hours – Most museums are open every day (except Christmas). And with exceptions, most open at 10am and close at 5:30pm daily. There are a few that have regular extended hours, and seasonal extended hours. Check individual museum websites, but essentially, if you are planning to visit Smithsonian museums, this is a good range to assume they will be open.
That’s my list!
Next time you’re in D.C., I hope you have a great time exploring and perhaps get to swing through a few of these Smithsonian exhibits. You’ll have to let me know if you discover any of your own favorites too. There’s always new exhibits coming through and too many nooks and crannies for one person to possibly cover on their own!