Washington D.C. is not only famous as the capital of the United States of America but also it is a home to some of the finest world-class museums that boast of rich history, art and culture of not only this nation but also showcase the exhibits and artifacts from around the world. If you love history and always eager to learn about various cultures, from immersing yourself in a classic art to marveling at the wonders of aviation and the natural world, DC has plenty of museums to explore depending upon your interest.
Based on my last trip to Washington D.C. during Labor Day weekend, here is my list of seven must-see museums that you shouldn’t miss during your DC trip!
1) Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
This was one of my favorite places to visit on the trip to DC! No trip to the Washington D.C. would be complete without visiting National Air and Space Museum that prides itself in having the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft, including the Wright brothers’ original 1903 flyer, astronaut space suits and a lunar rock sample. You can see the gazillion of aircraft models, exhibits and artifacts related to the history of jet aviation, space travel and satellite communications. There is an Albert Einstein Planetarium that offers multimedia presentations about stars and outer space; the Langley Theater shows IMAX films on air and space flight. If you have at least some interest in technology, engineering or science you will appreciate the vastness of the exhibits and the importance of these inventions. It took me more than 5 hours to explore the entire museum. So, if you’ve limited time, ask the visitor desk for the best way to proceed through the exhibits. The right order can make it more interesting.
My favorite was the Wright brothers exhibit as well as ‘Journey to the stars‘—a 25-minute film in the full-dome digital theater at Einstein Planetarium!
2) National Archives
If you want to learn about the history of birth and growth of this great nation, a visit to National Archives is a must! It has the original documents, maps, photos, recordings, films and a miscellany of objects. The major attraction of National Archives is the Rotunda, where the original Charters of Freedom—the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights—are mounted, triptych-like, in a glass case at the center of a roped-off horseshoe containing other key documents. Photography or videography is strictly prohibited inside the museum. You can spend around 1-1.5 hours at this awe-inspiring place. There is also a National Archives gift shop from where you can buy some unique souvenirs for your history buff friend!
3) Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
National Museum of Natural History is the most popular of Smithsonian’s museums and one of the most visited Natural History Museum in the world. With more than 127 million artifacts on display including dinosaur bones, ancient Egyptian mummies and plenty of other things to explore. You will meet Henry – the elephant who guards the rotunda! Some highlights include tarantula feedings in the O. Orkin Insect Zoo which is the kid-packed venue as well as the replicas of giant whales and other marine life in the 23,000-square-foot Sant Ocean Hall. You can also venture to the IMAX Theater for a show or the Butterfly Pavilion for some fluttery fun with multi-colored bugs with an admission fee.
My favorite part of the Natural History museum was stopping by the Hall of Human Origins, which traces the history of human species over the past 6 million years and displays life-size models of early human faces generated using modern forensic techniques. This is a must stop for any Natural History museum visitor.
4) Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
If you’re a modern art lover, then Hirshhorn Museum would be a paradise for you! You’ll see an extensive spectacular collection of modern and contemporary art from around the world, including significant works by Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. The Hirshhorn Museum is an attraction in itself, made up of an open cylinder elevated on four massive “legs,” with a large fountain occupying the central courtyard giving it a striking contrast in comparison to other DC’s buildings and monuments.
I was fascinated by a poor 1992 Chrysler Spirit, crushed by a nine-ton volcanic boulder, sitting in front of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. At first look of this piece, I thought that it was a deadly crash but then got to know that it was a great piece of art created by Jimmie Durham’s “Still Life with Spirit and Xitle”. This spot is famous among selfie crowd and curious tourists!
Outside the museum is a sculpture Garden, featuring works by artists including Auguste Rodin, David Smith and others. It also includes the famous Wish Tree by Yoko Ono which is a major attraction of the Sculpture Garden.
5) Smithsonian Institution Information Center in the Castle
The Smithsonian Castle— a National Historic Landmark along the DC skyline and a perfect place to start your day of exploration. While the Victorian arches and dark woodwork of the Castle suggest a bygone era, it now holds a thoroughly modern visitors center with interactive 3-D maps pinpointing and detailing the 17 DC-area Smithsonian Institution properties, including museums, galleries and the National Zoological Park. You can find important information on each Smithsonian museum and marvel at the structure’s striking architecture. Located inside the north entrance is the crypt of James Smithson, benefactor of the Institution, while outside on the Mall, a bronze statue of Joseph Henry executed by William Wetmore Story, honors the eminent scientist who was the Institution’s first Secretary.
Situated behind the iconic Smithsonian Castle, there is a beautiful Enid A. Haupt Garden which is one of the few peaceful and contemplative places on the Mall. This public garden covering over four acres, standing on the roofs of the National Museum of African Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and the S. Dillon Ripley Center has a splashing fountain, brick paths and the parterre and hanging baskets. The garden has a free wifi and it the best place to have a break!
6) Freer Gallery of Art & The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
The Freer|Sackler Gallery is home to some of the world’s most important holdings of Asian art. In the Freer, you’ll also find late nineteenth-century works by James McNeill Whistler and his American contemporaries, while the Sackler hosts contemporary art from Asia as well as international loan exhibitions. Together, the collections hold more than 25,000 objects spanning 6,000 years. While the Sackler is open, the Freer is closed for renovation until 2017.
Freer|Sackler Gallery is smaller, specialized, and less publicized than many of the other Smithsonian galleries on the National Mall. My favorite part of this gallery was ‘Turquoise Mountain’ which is an Afghan exhibit. The exhibition’s namesake, Turquoise Mountain, is British heritage organization that has helped facilitate this. Turquoise Mountain has trained Afghans in traditional skills such as woodworking, jewelry-making, and ceramics, and has also participated in historic preservation work. You’ll see the touching videos of Afghan artists that showcase their lives during the terror of Taliban government, how they had to leave their passion when their tools were destroyed by the government and how they had to start everything all over again! I was amazed to see the fine intrinsic wooden work as well as the making of the beautiful ceramics which I’ve never seen before!
7) National Gallery of Art
If you’re any kind of art connoisseur, you should make a stop at the National Gallery of Art whose collection spans two major buildings – one classical, the other modern – and encompasses a six-acre sculpture garden containing a rotating display of permanent works and traveling exhibitions. The permanent collection spans ancient to contemporary art, including the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Degas and Calder, while the museum offers classical concerts and hands-on activities for kids.
My favorite part was the American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection that includes more than 200 objects, many of which were featured in the 1986–1987 Gallery exhibition and catalog. Few favorite pieces were Boston dressing table with exotic japanned designs (1700–1730) and a chest-on-chest (1765–1790) with four sculptural carved shells!
I had an amazing time exploring these museums and would definitely visit again on my next trip to the Washington D.C.!
Do share about your favorite museums if you’ve been to Washington D.C. in the comments below? If not, which museums would you love to visit from this above list?