Best Museums in Washington

See How History Was Made in DC's Many Museums

What parts of history do you enjoy? Have your answer? Well, whatever you picked, Washington, D.C. most likely has a museum for it and an unbelievable collection of relics to boot. With more than 50 museums to chose from, everyone can find something to get excited about seeing in person.

The National Museum of American History features a pair of Judy Garland's "Wizard of Oz" ruby slippers, the flag that inspired composer Francis Scott Key to pen "The Star Spangled Banner," and gowns worn by the First Ladies. While Fossil Hall is closed, the National Museum of Natural History has the Hope Diamond and a mummified cat among other exhibits. For those who are drawn to beauty, check out the National Gallery of Art to witness the real creations of world-renowned artists like Picasso, Monet, Degas and Pollock.

For those looking for a more singular focus, the nation's capital offers the Newseum that delves into journalism both past and present. The International Spy Museum is dedicated to those in an invisible profession and showcases both movie and real life tools used by undercover agents. 

One of the best parts of the district's museums is that many are free. A tourist could take an entire day just museum hopping and spend zero dollars to see priceless artifacts and historical items. So get your bags ready to be screened and have those cameras ready if you are allowed because Washington, D.C. has some incredible museums to see.


Admit it. You still get excited when opening up the mailbox – except of course if bills are in there. For those who still prefer snail mail to email, make your way to the National Postal Museum. Located in the historic City Post Office Building, the museum features a treasure trove of artifacts including three suspended airmail planes, a Confederate copper printing plate, the rare 'inverted Jenny' postage stamp and a USS Oklahoma handstamp bearing the date before its Pearl Harbor sinking. And those are just a few of the highlights of this impressive collection.

Recommended for Museums because: While you may not think about how your mail gets from point A to point B, the museum showcases a rich history of the process.

Gina's expert tip: If you own some historic stamps, do not ask museum employees for an appraisal or to place a value on an object. They are prohibited from saying.

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Think no one is watching? Think again. The International Spy Museum pays tribute to the all-but invisible profession that has helped to shape history and impact world events. Opened in 2002, the museum is the only one of its kind in the world and features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts on display. Fans of the James Bond movies will get to see movie props such as the Aston Martin DBS from "Goldfinger" and Jaws' teeth from "Moonraker." Young kids will also have fun by testing their spy skills on several computer games and climb through duct work while on a secret mission. While spies are told to deny everything, you will want to tell others you have been here. Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown

Recommended for Museums because: If you love watching the Bourne and Bond movies or just enjoy hearing about true tales of secrecy, this is the place for you.

Gina's expert tip: Strollers are not allowed in the general exhibition. They do provide baby carriers for infants to borrow for free.

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George Washington's Mount Vernon
Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon

Known as America's first home, George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, just outside of Washington, D.C., features a mansion, outbuildings, gardens, animals, a distillery and gristmill, and a four-acre farm. What was once an active plantation is now a bustling tourist attraction. Visitors may purchase tickets to one of ten tours offered including a cruise down the Potomac River, a visit to the rarely opened basement and see the first president's garden and landscaping designs for the grounds. Washington took his last breath inside the manor's master bedroom in 1799 and the estate serves as his final resting place. His wife Martha and other relatives are also buried in The Tomb. METRO: Huntington Station

Recommended for Museums because: Mount Vernon is the most popular historic estate in the country and offers a great glimpse at George Washington's life after the presidency.

Gina's expert tip: A majority of your visit will be spent outdoors so dress accordingly.

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National Archives
Photo courtesy of National Archives

Remember in school when you learned about America's Founding documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? All of them can be found at the National Archives Museum. (John Hancock's signature really does stand out!) If that's not enough, visitors can also get a look at one of the four original 1297 Magna Carta documents. The William G. McGowan Theater shows a film history of the museum by day but showcases documentary films by night. Go to the website to see if a program will take place during your visit. METRO: National Archives/Navy Memorial/Penn Quarter

Recommended for Museums because: With the three tiers of government within walking distance, the museum that holds its founding documents is a must-see.

Gina's expert tip: In order to protect the documents, photography is not allowed so don't try and take a selfie with the Declaration of Independence.

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The best and most popular exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History is the Fossil Hall. Unfortunately, it is closed for renovations until 2019. (Yikes!) This museum is still a must-visit though thanks to a variety of different artifacts. The gems and minerals exhibit is a favorite and includes the 45.52 carat Hope Diamond and the Dom Pedro Aquamarine, the world's largest aquamarine gem. One of the oldest pieces is a mummified cat in the Ancient Egypt display. When you tire of displays, take a walk to the second floor butterfly pavilion to see a huge variety of live butterflies on display. METRO: Smithsonian

Recommended for Museums because: The large collection of gems and minerals including the famous Hope Diamond is not to be missed.

Gina's expert tip: Monday is the least busiest day for the museum so if you prefer fewer crowds, plan your trip accordingly.

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Patrons will witness images of dehumanizing treatment and forced labor inside concentration camps and listen to survivors tell their stories. Established in 1993, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is dedicated to inspire citizens and leaders to confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity. Upon entry, patrons are given identification cards containing the story of a Holocaust survivor or victim. The Hall of Remembrance offers visitors the opportunity to light candles and visit an eternal flame honoring those who died. If you go between peak visiting months, March through August, you must obtain free timed passes to enter the permanent exhibition. METRO: Smithsonian

Recommended for Museums because: This museum offers a moving educational tribute to those who died and suffered through one of the worst genocides the world has ever known.

Gina's expert tip: Be prepared for an emotional visit. Many of the haunting images and stories will stay with you forever.

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With 300,000 square-feet of exhibition, programming and public space, the National Museum of American History presents all aspects of the country's back story. There are approximately 3 million objects in its collections with only about 5 to 8 percent on display at any one time. See the actual flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen 'The Star Spangled Banner' or gaze at the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz." Meet Jim Henson's Kermit the Frog puppet or take in gowns worn by The First Ladies. Be sure to check out their daily programs to enhance your experience. METRO: Smithsonian

Recommended for Museums because: The museum is undergoing a $37 million renovation of its west wing. The first floor is set to open in July 2015.

Gina's expert tip: Many objects rotate in an out of public view so check the website to see if the object you want to see is still on display.

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This spot on the list is actually dedicated to two companion museums. The National Air and Space Museum is easily the most popular building along the National Mall and features the 1903 Wright Flyer, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and a lunar rock that visitors may touch. Many take in shows at the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater or sight see in the Albert Einstein Planetarium. Take a short drive to Chantilly, Va. to check out the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center which features two huge hangers and houses the space shuttle Discovery. Many go to the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower to get a 360-degree view of Washington Dulles International Airport. METRO: Smithsonian and Wiehle-Reston East

Recommended for Museums because: Many only see planes as small dots in the sky. These two museums showcase some of aviation's most treasured creations.

Gina's expert tip: Parking is free at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center after 4 p.m. Before then, it costs $15 for a spot.

Read more about Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum - Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center →

We have all seen paper copies of fine works of art hanging in homes and businesses. Once, you step inside the National Gallery of Art, you get to see the real pieces for your own eyes. The west building features early European and American works and boasts the only painting by Leonardo Da Vinci in the Americas. Meander over to the east building to take in contemporary art work including Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso. For those coming here in the winter months, head over to the museum's garden ice rink where you can rent skates and take lessons. METRO: Smithsonian

Recommended for Museums because: If you open an art history book, many of pieces you will find are located in this museum.

Gina's expert tip: Touching the art is a big no-no. Many are fragile and can damage easily.

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Meet Gina Gallucci White

Gina Gallucci White is an award winning freelance writer with articles appearing in such regional publications as Frederick Magazine, The Daily Record, Montgomery Magazine and The Gazette. She...  More About Gina