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The outside of the National Museum of African American History in DC

Best Free Museums in Washington DC

Whether it’s your first or fiftieth time visiting Washington DC, it always a good idea to take advantage of the city’s excellent free museums in the National Mall and beyond. The capital’s impressive collection of museums covers everything from science and nature, to history and art, so you’re bound to find something that excites you. If you’re staying at the HI Washington DC hostel and wondering how to plan the perfect day of exploring, we’ve got you covered with this handy guide to a few of the best museums in town.

Art Museums in Washington DC

National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in DC

Housing the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, the National Portrait Gallery offers a mesmerizing look at the history of the country through its many faces. Along with all the past presidents, you’ll find portraits of the first ladies, miniature portraits, early forms of photography and more. There are also rotating exhibits and interesting events and programs, so even if you’ve been here before, you’ll find something to keep coming back for.

National Gallery of Art

national gallery of art in Washington DC

Next, walk to the National Gallery of Art, which is an art lover’s dream with its classical iconic works, including Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait and the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Americas. You could easily lose a few hours here browsing the permanent collections of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculptures, and decorative arts celebrating Western artists. Split your visit up and start with the East Wing on one trip, and the West Wing the next.

Hirshhorn Museum

a fountain at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC

The Hirshhorn Museum is already impressive from the outside as a massive open cylinder surrounding a large fountain in the center courtyard. Once inside, you’ll find a modern art museum dedicated to works from the past 50 years in forms ranging from the traditional to the unconventional, including video and audio installations. Be sure to step out into the sculpture garden as well and check out events, like artist talks and left-of-center performances, while you’re in town.

Renwick Gallery

Renwick Gallery in Washington DC

The final stop on your mini art walk is the Renwick Gallery, which is a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and features a really great store if you want to splurge on a special souvenir created by a local artist. Highlights of the Renwick Gallery include the museum’s collection of contemporary American craft, which is billed as one of the most notable in the country, and its extensive showcase of African American works by more than 200 artists.

History Museums in Washington DC

National Museum of American History

national museum of american history in Washington DC

Covering the social, scientific, cultural, military and political heritage of the country, the National Museum of American History is one of the most expansive of the Smithsonians. There are three floors, each featuring artefacts and exhibitions from extraordinary events and everyday life in America. Two not-to-be missed highlights are the original Star Spangled Banner Flag, and the First Ladies of America exhibit, which looks at the role of these women through history.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

national museum of african american history in Washington DC

One of the most recent additions to the Smithsonian museum set is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, featuring over 30,000 pieces highlighting African American life all the way back to the 19th Century. You can see everything from Harriet Tubman’s eating utensils, to a cape and jumpsuit worn by James Brown. The museum is also extremely popular, so you’ll either have to reserve your free ticket online way in advance, or try to score a walk-up ticket from 1:00 p.m.

National Museum of the American Indian

national museum of the american indian in Washington DC

Learn all about the native cultures of the Americas at the National Museum of the American Indian. Housed in a building made of limestone and designed to mimic a windswept rock formation, the museum features artefacts and artworks that represent tribes from the United States, Canada, South America and the Caribbean. There are also rotating exhibitions and regular daytime film screenings. Pro tip: Make this your stop for lunch and experience delicious traditional and modern Native American food.

National Museum of Natural History

museum of natural history in Washington DC

The National Museum of Natural History is one of the most visited of all the Smithsonians, probably because it never gets old taking in all the displays of plants, animals, fossils, minerals, and cultural artefacts. You’ll be awed by the Hope Diamond in the Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals, and amazed by the life in the Hall of Mammals, which has the largest collection of vertebrates in the world. You can also get interactive at an exhibit featuring specimens you can touch and talks with the resident scientists.

National Air and Space Museum

National air and space museum in Washington DC

Whether you consider yourself a space fanatic or not, the National Air and Space Museum is totally worth a visit. It’s not every day you get to see the plane that the Wright Brothers used to man the first ever flight, or the command module of the Apollo 11, which helped get the first people on the moon. Along with these historic artifacts, you’ll also see fascinating exhibits that cover the history and future of aviation and space exploration.

Bonus: The Monuments at Night walking tour offered at HI Washington DC hostel

National Monument a tonight in Washington DC

Aside from the museums, another must-do in DC is a walkabout to see the historical monuments and statues within the National Mall. The best way to experience them is after dark when they are all lit up and there are fewer crowds. Even better, when you join the walking tour offered at HI Washington DC, you’ll get to go with a local who can give you more insights and history. Sign up at the front desk when you check in at the hostel.