DC is a paradise for museum-goers, to the point where most visitors here already know or recognize the Smithsonian Institution and its many free museums. Those spots alone are more than any tourist or local could explore in a day, with hours of displays on art, nature, astronomy, and much more. But beyond the iconic National Mall, DC is filled with plenty more to see for people of all tastes. Proximity to culture and history is one of the most edifying aspects of living here, after all. Whether it’s meandering through historic mansions and manicured gardens or experiencing the thrill of live television, here are the best museums to visit in the city.
National Gallery of Art
National MallA taste of the European masters in Washington
Wander the wings of the National Gallery of Art and you’ll come across masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, El Greco, and other renowned artists. The impressive collection here has welcomed traveling exhibits on Edvard Munch and Vermeer. Later this year, the museum will bring in marine paintings from the Dutch Golden age and works from Camille Corot. The outdoor sculpture garden is a popular summer hangout.
Know before you go: Admission is free, and hours are Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from 11am to 6pm It’s closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
National Museum of American History
SmithsonianStars, stripes, and ruby slippers
This is the place to soak up Americana, including the permanent and beloved display of the Star Spangled Banner that inspired Francis Scott Key’s poem. Fashion fans can gaze at Michelle Obama’s inaugural gowns and the ruby slippers that Judy Garland’s character Dorothy famously wore in the film, The Wizard of Oz. Past exhibitions included “Puppets & Muppets” and a memorial to the musician Prince. There’s also the 261-seat Warner Bros. Theater, which shows 2D and 3D films.
Know before you go: Admission is free, and hours are 10am through 5:30pm every day except Christmas.
Judiciary SquareThe history of “the first rough draft of history”
National news breaks every single day in DC, so it is appropriate that many of the most iconic moments in journalism history are memorialized at the Newseum. Ongoing displays include somber reminders of September 11 and Berlin Wall events, along with an interactive newsroom and “pictures of the year” galleries. It’s touched on watershed issues like the 2016 presidential election and the Vietnam War. Beginning in March of 2019, it will welcome an exhibition commemorating the 1969 gay rights riots at the Stonewall Inn and the subsequent fight for equal rights.
Know before you go: Admission is $24.95 for adults (ages 19-64), $19.95 for seniors (ages 65 and over), $14.95 for children ages 7-18, and free for children under seven. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday from 10am to 5pm The museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
International Spy Museum
Gallery PlaceWhatever you do, don’t blow your cover
Channel your inner secret agent at the International Spy Museum. Learn what it takes to become a spy or get briefed on some of history’s most important methods of encryption and communicating secret information. Take note that the collection doesn’t change much, so repeat visitors can expect most of the same experience. They do, however, host talks with espionage veterans, authors, and experts, so keep an eye on the calendar if the topic interests you.
Know before you go: Admission is $22.95 for adults (ages 12-64) and $16.95 for seniors (ages 65 and older), military, veterans, fire and law enforcement, and college students (with valid ID). Hours are 10am to 6pm daily, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
SmithsonianDC’s best mecca of modern art
The Hirshhorn is a favorite for fans of modern art and sculpture. Guests can view an exhibition “Art and Commodity in the 1980s,” and the mind-bending art of “What Absence is Made Of.” Past showcases gave a platform for Ai Weiwei, Yoko Ono, and the insanely popular Infinity Mirrors display. An exhibit on Baselitz will open in June and run through September 2018.
Know before you go: Admission is free, and it’s open daily from 10am to 5:30pm every day except Christmas.
National Portrait Gallery
Chinatown Up close with Barack, Michelle, and presidential families past
The National Portrait Gallery made headlines recently when it unveiled the colorful official portraits for former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. The walls are lined with paintings of all the presidents, along with images of American history from sports figures to revolutionaries. Beginning in May, the National Portrait Gallery will celebrate its 50th anniversary with photos of 50-year-old celebrities. Prior displays included a feature on Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
Know before you go: Admission is free, and hours are 11:30am to 7pm daily, except for Christmas. The building also houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
National Air and Space Museum
SmithsonianTake flight through the skies and the solar system
The floors of the Air and Space Museum are classic even among the vast Smithsonian collection, appealing to fans of all things space and flight. Gaze up at the Spirit of Saint Louis or take in a show at the Eisenhower planetarium. Buy some astronaut ice cream and learn about all things to do with the air and solar system. Or, catch a movie or a show at the IMAX theater. Past highlights have included Hawaii by Air and Suited for Space.
Know before you go: Admission is free, and hours are 10am to 5:30pm daily, except Christmas.
National Geographic Museum
Farragut SquareAn explorer’s paradise you can see without leaving town
You can unleash your inner explorer at this hub of research, history, and curiosity. An extension of the National Geographic brand, this museum boasts a rotating slate of top-notch and interactive exhibits, along with a permanent gallery of some of the brands best magazine covers. “The Tomb of Christ” exhibition runs through January 2, 2019, and a feature on the history of the Titanic opens on May 30, 2018. Some of the best previous exhibits have touched on sharks, crocodiles, Greek history, and Indiana Jones.
Know before you go: General admission is $15 for adults, $12 for students, seniors, and military members, and $10 for children ages 5-12. Hours are 10am to 6pm every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Smithsonian A super-popular celebration of the African-American experience
Opened in 2016, this museum’s floors are lined with music, sports, and pop-culture memorabilia along with powerful reminders of slavery and the civil rights movement. Guests can also learn about the museum’s long road to reality. Same-day timed-entry tickets are released online at 6:30am daily (limit four per order) and are still hot commodities. Be sure to make time for a meal or a snack at the very-cool Sweet Home Café onsite, which features dishes from regions like the Agricultural South and the Creole Coast.
Know before you go: Advanced online tickets of up to six per group can be requested on the first Wednesday of the month. Single-ticket walk-ups are given out on weekdays starting at 1pm. Admission is free. Hours are 10am to 5:30pm daily, except Christmas.
The National Archives Museum
Archives/Navy MemorialA shrine to our democracy, including the declaration that started it all
Touring the National Archives can get a little wonky, as it’s primarily a library for historical documents and records. But the magnitude of its collection can’t be discounted — visitors here can see the Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights. Those alone are worth a quick glimpse. The museum has displayed papers from World War I and, through June 6, 2018, it’s hosting “Remembering the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Know before you go: Admission is free, with hours to the public gallery from 10am to 5:30pm daily, except Christmas and Thanksgiving.
National Museum of the American Indian
SmithsonianIts traditional Native American food alone is worth a visit
Located on the east end of the National Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian pays homage to this country’s diverse indigenous population. Learn about the Chesapeake region’s earliest inhabitants and marvel at American Indian crafts and apparel. The museum also has Mitsitam Café, one of the standout cafeterias on the National Mall. The quick-service food stalls feature dishes from various Native American cultures, from the Great Plains, to Northwest Coast, and even South America.
Know before you go: Admission is free, and hours are 10am to 5:30pm daily, except for Christmas.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon, Northern VirginiaOur first president’s home, a half-hour away
Get outdoors and travel back in history to the time of George Washington at this Virginia estate, located just a 30-minute drive from the city. The onsite museum and education center has 23 galleries and theaters, each packed with information on America’s first president. Objects include Washington’s own presidential chair and even a set of his dentures. Guests can also get a tour of the mansion and explore the grounds and onsite distillery.
Know before you go: Tickets purchased online are $18 for adults ages 12-61, $17 for seniors ages 62 and older, and $11 for children ages 6-11. Hours are 9am to 5pm from April through October, and 9am to 4pm from November through March.
L’Enfant PlazaUnbeatable for mind-bending, immersive art
Since opening in June 2017, Artechouse has become a favorite for its blend of digital imagery, art, music, film, theater, and technology. The current exhibit, “Sakura Yume Cherry Blossom Dream,” runs through May 6, 2018. Features of the exhibit include an interactive 3D koi pond sculpture and a lantern-lit street. Past installations have included “Parallel Universe,” “Kingdom of Colors,” and “Spirit of Autumn.”
Know before you go: General admission is $15 for adults, $12 for students, seniors, and members of the military, and $8 for children 12 and under. Daytime hours run 10am to 5pm and evening hours (ages 21+) are 7pm to 11pm.
The Phillips Collection
Dupont CircleOutstanding art away from the crowded bustle of the Smithsonian
At the Phillips Collection, French impressionist works hang alongside other European masters and renowned American painters like Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe. Perhaps the most famous work here is Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Past exhibits have included drawings and paintings by George Condo as well as Markus Lupertz. A limited-time exhibition of the museum’s archives is on display through the end of 2018.
Know before you go: Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for students and visitors ages 62 and older, and free for visitors 18 and under and museum members. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10am to 5pm and Sundays from noon to 6:30pm It’s closed Mondays, Christmas Eve, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Independence Day.
National Botanic Gardens
Capitol HillYour local (free) rainforest, accessible any time of the year
Expose your senses to the flora of the US and the world at this plant-based museum in the shadow of the Capitol building. Highlights include a year-round tropical rainforest in the glass conservatory and an outdoor garden that’s home to mid-Atlantic regional plants. Previous exhibits have included carnivorous plants and orchids. A series of botanical murals is on display through October 15, 2018.
Know before you go: Admission is free. The conservatory and garden are open 10am to 5pm daily.
Van NessThe fancy mansion of one of history’s premier socialites
Purchased by Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1955, the Hillwood estate, museum, and garden is one of the gems of Washington’s museum world. It’s home to one of the largest collection of Russian imperial art anywhere outside of Russia and also has lots of French decoration and architecture. Guests are free to wander the gardens, get a tour of the mansion, or kick back for some food at the café.
Know before you go: The suggested donation is $18, $15 for seniors, $10 for students, and $5 for students ages 6-18.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
L’Enfant PlazaA powerful and necessary reminder of tragic history
The Holocaust is undeniably a heavy subject, but it’s one that begs for remembrance and reflection. This museum’s permanent exhibition walks through the events leading up to and through the horrible Holocaust of the late 1930s and 1940s. There’s also a free section focused on Americans in the Holocaust, including showcases of first-hand accounts and experiences.
Know before you go: Tickets are free and not required from September through February. The rest of the year they can be reserved in advance online for a $1 fee, or walk-ups on the day of. From March 26, 2018 through June 18, 2018, hours are 10am to 6:30pm, Monday through Friday; otherwise the museum closes at 5:30pm. It’s closed on Yom Kippur and Christmas.
Freer Gallery of Art
SmithsonianA home to Buddhist sculptures and ornate Asian creations
The museum’s tagline of “Where Asia Meets America” sets the stage well for the Freer Gallery and its stunning artifacts and artworks. Start with the Peacock Room, which was relocated from Frederick Leyland’s London Mansion and reassembled in Washington. There’s also a selection of Buddhist sculptures and Japanese prints. In the past, the Freer Gallery has also displayed exhibits on the mummified cats of Ancient Egypt, as well as Islamic ceramics. Down the line, expect to see modern Japanese prints and photography.
Know before you go: Admission is free, and hours are 10am to 5:30pm daily, except Christmas.
Metro CenterA front-row seat to the last days of Lincoln’s life
In addition to being a working theater, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination also hosts about 650,000 visitors a year. The tour of the historic site includes exhibits on President Lincoln’s administration and also features the Deringer pistol John Wilkes Booth used in his 1865 assassination. The neighboring Petersen House, where Lincoln was cared for and ultimately died after being shot, is closed for renovations through June 2018.
Know before you go: Tickets range between $3 and $8, and hours are 9am to 4:30pm.
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian This one gets more foot traffic than NYC’s
Tourists at this museum are immediately met with up-close taxidermy of mighty mammals, tiny insects, and the chance to explore the diversity of sea life. A new exhibit puts the spotlight on the whimsical arctic narwhal. Other permanent displays include the glitzy Hope Diamond and other colorful minerals and gemstones. The fossil hall is expected to reopen in 2019 after renovations, though another, smaller dinosaur exhibit has taken residence in the meantime. In 2016, it attracted 7.1 million visitors — more than any natural history museum in the world.
Know before you go: Admission is free, and hours are 10am to 5:30pm daily, except Christmas.Sign up here for our daily DC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.
Travis Mitchell is a DC-based food and drink writer, with stories appearing in outlets including Eater, DCist, Paste, the Washington City Paper and others. He is originally from New Hampshire and studied journalism at American University. Follow his travels and eating adventures on Twitter at @travisjmitchell and Instagram at @_travisjmitchell.
Washington DC is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, and for those of us who call the District home, it’s easy to see why. With dozens of world-class museums, murals that transform streets into galleries, and sites brimming with history, DC offers a full agenda-completely free of charge. Whether you want to try a new farmer’s market, explore a new hike, or polish off your roller skating or canoeing skills, here are some of our favourite free things to do in the District.
The historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is one of the most accessible nature escapes from the District. Thanks to a multi-year restoration project, the first mile of the canal is an idyllic walk that’s easy to access in Georgetown. Stick to a short stroll there, or grab a bike or lace up your hiking shoes for a longer adventure along the 184.5-mile canal.
Jump on the pickleball craze
Pickleball is working its way up the ladder past kickball and softball as one of America’s favourite games. Jump on the craze and practice your paddling at one of the District’s pickleball courts in Takoma Park, the Palisades, and more. Plus, Washington DC Pickleball invites guests to drop in to beginner sessions to try their hand at the sport before signing up for a $30 annual membership.
DC is incredibly bike-friendly, and luckily that applies to the land immediately outside of the city as well. Start in the city and bike along the Mount Vernon Trail, a scenic route that hugs the water and cuts through the woods. It’s about a 10-mile trip from DC to Mount Vernon, but you can cut the trip slightly short and end at the Old Town Alexandria waterfront-just make sure to factor in time for ice cream before pedalling home.
Explore a sculpture park
While not located in the District proper, Glenstone, an expansive sculpture park in Maryland, is worth the 45-minute drive. Tickets to the park are free (just be sure to reserve several weeks in advance), and the 300-acre space offers stunning art, architecture, and open land. In addition to its indoor gallery spaces, you can spend hours walking on paths that wind through sculptures, meadows, and forests.
See the monuments at night
When the sun goes down-and the summer humidity somewhat dissipates-head to the National Mall for the rare chance to see the monuments without busloads of tourists. Moonlight will give you a different perspective as you traverse the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial or gaze up at the Washington Monument set aglow with lights.
Museum hop the day away
One of DC’s greatest strengths is its world-class Smithsonian museums that are open to the public free of charge. There is no shortage of options, from the intimate Renwick Gallery, to the sprawling National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonians offer something for everyone. Pro tip: Some of the museums are open late in the evenings, making for an ideal date night.
Explore the city’s murals
Washington is home to hundreds of murals that are becoming as much a part of the city’s landscape as the monuments on the National Mall. Take a self-guided tour of these colourful creations no matter which neighbourhood you happen to be in. MuralsDC, the organization behind 150 of the District’s public artworks, is a great resource for mapping out a route to explore the city’s street art.
Take in a birds-eye view of the city
Washington looks pretty stunning from up high, and there are few spots within the city that make for phenomenal vantage points. Rooftop bars and restaurants offer epic views for the price of a drink or two, but there’s no more iconic sight than seeing the city from the top of the Washington Monument, which is completely free. Book a ticket ahead of time and ride an elevator all the way to the top of the monument and step out on the 500-foot observation deck.
Wander through a garden
DC is home to some of the most beautiful urban gardens in the country, and many of them are open to the public for free. There is nothing like an afternoon spent strolling through, or picnicking, at the expansive 446-acre United States Arboretum or wandering through the Botanic Garden on the edge of the Mall. For something a bit smaller, explore the grounds at Tudor Place or Dumbarton Oaks (free in the winter), both of which are in Georgetown.
Hike the Billy Goat Trail
You can catch one of the District’s most popular hiking trails, the Billy Goat Trail, from the C&O canal. The full trail is 4.7 miles and ranges from easy to strenuous, so hike a section in and back or make the full loop for the variety.
Pay your respect at Arlington National Cemetery
Just across the Potomac from DC, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 veterans. The cemetery is an expanse of 639 hallowed acres and the ANC Explorer allows visitors to locate graves, notable sites, and take self-guided walking tours to spots including the tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as the final resting place of President John F. Kennedy.
Lace up your roller skates
When was the last time you went roller skating? Chances are it’s been too long. So get back into this nostalgic activity at the Anacostia Park roller skating pavilion. You can rent skates for free, just show proof of a government-issued ID, and the skating pavilion is open from 9 to 5 every day.
Help clean up the Anacostia River
We all know there’s a lot of work to be done to keep our waterways clean. Do your part, and have some fun, by participating in the city’s Green Boat initiative. On select weekends, DCers can join a two-hour guided paddle along the Anacostia River to collect trash and monitor the river’s progress.
Stroll your local farmer’s market
DC’s close proximity to the farms of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and beyond mean that the city’s farmers’ markets always have something to offer. Check out the year-round markets like Eastern Market in Capitol Hill and the Sunday market in Dupont Circle or head to seasonal markets like the pop-up in front of the White House that draws vendors like Cucina al Volo and Call Your Mother Deli.
Play tourist all around the city
It’s easy to forget that all those traditionally touristy activities can be fun for locals too. If you haven’t been on a tour of the White House, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or the Capitol, this is your sign. All are free with advanced reservations. Plus, tucked in the northern quadrant of NW, the Washington National Cathedral is free and open to all. Tour the cathedral’s impressive architecture, 215 stained glass windows, 112 Gothically-inspired gargoyles, and enormous pipe organ. See if you can spot the sculpture of Darth Vader.