20 Best Free Museums in Washington, D.C. (From a Local)

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If you’re looking for free museums for your next trip to Washington, D.C. then you’re in luck, because D.C. is home to over a dozen incredible museums that are completely free! 

The Smithsonian Institution is comprised of 18 museums and the National Zoo, and they’re all free to the public!

These world-class museums cover such diverse subjects as air and space, natural history, American history, contemporary art, Native American art, and much more. 

Where else but at the Smithsonian museums can you come face to face with a Tyrannosaurus Rex and wooly mammoth, peer across the universe, or see the original Star-Spangled Banner

I grew up in Northern Virginia and had the opportunity to visit most of the major D.C. museums as a child during school field trips. I want to give you an inside glimpse of my top museum recommendations in D.C.!

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Map of the 20 Best Free Museums in Washington, D.C.

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20 Best Free Museums in Washington, D.C. 

Below is a full list of the Smithsonian Museums located in Washington, D.C.: 

1. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The Air and Space Museum is one of my personal favorites. I love astronomy, and so thoroughly enjoy the exhibits on space exploration and exploring the planets. 

Two airplanes hanging at the Air and Space Museum - one of the best free museums in Washington, D.C.

I also recommend watching a show at the Planetarium, which features immersive programs on the night sky, “Worlds Beyond Earth”, and Dark Matter. 

For an even more immersive experience, check out the shows at the enormous IMAX theater. Astronomy in particular lends itself well to the big screen and earth rattling sounds of an IMAX experience. 

Some of the programs include “Deep Sky”, which highlights the incredible images of distant galaxies, stars, and nebula from the Webb telescope.  

Other exhibits at the Air and Space Museum include the history of early flight and the Wright Brothers, which includes models of the first, rudimentary flying machines and airplanes. 

There are also incredible artifacts on display, including the Wright Brothers 1903 flyer, the Apollo 11 Command Module, Neil Armstrong’s pressure suit, and a model of the Starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek television series. 

The Air and Space Museum has a second location in Northern Virginia near Dulles International Airport. The Udvar-Hazy Center features many rare and noteworthy air and spacecraft, including a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the Space Shuttle Discovery, “Enola Gay”, and a Concorde. 

2. Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The National Museum of American History naturally features art and artifacts from American History. 

Museum of American History

Many of the artifacts and exhibits focus on prominent Americans, including the U.S. presidents. You can find Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, George Washington’s uniform, and Thomas Jefferson’s desk all on display. 

As you can imagine, American History is a very broad topic, and so the museum reflects a wide range of topics that go far beyond the more academic history you read about in books. For instance, you can see Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Prince’s electric guitar, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, and C-3PO from Star Wars. 

You can also find famous artifacts of Americana, including the Star Spangled Banner and a Babe Ruth autographed baseball. 

The exhibits cover an eclectic range of topics, including Disney Theme parks, Women and Music, Latino History in America, and Art in Industry. 

As you can see, you’re sure to find something for everyone at the American History Museum. 

3. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is another personal favorite museum of mine. Like the Air and Space, the Natural History Museum focuses more on science and study. 

Museum of Natural History, one of the best free museums in Washington, D.C.

But unlike the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum focuses on the Earth, including geology, climate, plants, and animals. 

One of the coolest parts of the museum is the Hall of Fossils, which includes massive dinosaur skeletons, like Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, and Diplodocus; as well as a woolly mammoth! 

Another highlight for me is the Insect Zoo, which is definitely not for everyone! If you’re more fascinated than creeped out by creepy crawlers like tarantulas and grasshoppers, then you’ll want to stop by the oldest insect zoo in America! 

Another highlight of the Natural History Museum is its collection of gems and minerals, including the world-famous Hope Diamond! 

4. National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest of the Smithsonian museums, and it is located in a unique and striking brown lattice building that is positioned prominently at the intersection of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue. 

Museum of African American History and Culture - one of the best free museums in Washington, D.C.

The museum is beautifully designed both inside and outside. From the lower levels, the museum is laid out in chronological order, tracing the history of African slaves brought to America by European settlers. The exhibits are wrenching and emotional, filled with artifacts from ships and colonial life. 

The museum halls then trace the history of African Americans fighting in the Revolutionary War and fighting for their freedom through the Civil War. 

Further along, the museum includes the difficult path forward during Restoration. Throughout this poignant narrative, the lives of such luminaries as Harriet Tubman; Martin Luther King, Jr; and Frederick Douglass are highlighted. 

The upper levels of the museum focus on notable African Americans in pop culture, including musicians, actors, and athletes. The rich collection ranges from Chuck Berry, James Brown, Beyoncé, and many more. 

It can easily take a full day to explore all that the museum has on display.

5. Smithsonian American Art Museum 

If you love art, you’ll want to check out The Smithsonian American Art Museum. It’s home to the country’s first collection devoted to the works of American artists, and it features such acclaimed names as Gilbert Stuart, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Cassatt, and many more. 

The art ranges from classical paintings dating back to the earliest colonial days all the way to contemporary exhibits highlighting modern life. 

The museum also features one of the world’s largest collections of works by African-American artists. 

Beyond just paintings, the museum features sculptures, craft and designs, multimedia art, and more. 

The American Art Museum shares the same space as the National Portrait Gallery, which means you can easily get a double-dose of world-class art when you visit. 

The museum also includes the Renwick Gallery, which is located near the White House about a 25-minute walk from the American Art Museum. 

The National Portrait Gallery is a perfect companion to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In fact, both museums are located in the same building!  

As you can guess from the title, the National Portrait Gallery specifically highlights portraits. This ranges from famous historical figures, including U.S. Presidents, to entertainers and everyday people. 

Some of the noteworthy portraits on display include George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Harriett Tubman, Mary Cassatt, Abraham Lincoln, and Pocahontas. 

Many of the portraits are paintings, while others are daguerreotypes, photographs, and videos. The portraits offer an illuminating glimpse into the lives and personalities of each subject. 

The National Portrait Gallery showcases these artworks through special exhibits that add yet another dimension to the subjects. Some of the exhibits have included Powerful Partnerships: Civil War-era Couples, and Kinship, which reflects interpersonal relationships.  

The Renwick Gallery is technically part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but it is located in a separate building near the White House about a 25-minute walk away. 

The gallery focuses on contemporary crafts and decorative arts, such as artwork made of glass, fiber, metal, wood, and other materials. 

The gallery also presents elaborate sculptures and multimedia works that reflect contemporary subjects and themes. One work featured light and fiber suspended from the ceiling like a colorful spider web that served as a symbol of human interactions with each other and the physical world. 

8. National Museum of African Art

The National Museum of African Art was originally located in a townhouse on Capitol Hill that had been the home of Frederick Douglass. 

The museum is devoted to highlighting the art of African artists. Many of the exhibits portray contemporary art and artists that address major world events like racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Other works illuminate the wrenching realities of slavery. More abstract subjects focus on water elements in African art. 

The museum features many unique pieces coupled with poignant, thought-provoking commentary on African culture and history.

9. National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian is dedicated to showcasing the rich art, culture, and history of Native Americans. 

National Museum of the American Indian

There are many artifacts from tribes on display, including elaborate headdresses, clothing, shoes, and jewelry. 

One ongoing exhibit called “Americans” highlights the innumerable ways that native Americans have shaped American life, through pop culture, place names, entertainment, and more. 

Another exhibit focuses on the complex history of the numerous treaties that were created between American Indian tribes and the U.S. government. 

10. Anacostia Community Museum 

The Anacostia Community Museum is located in the Anacostia neighborhood in southeast D.C. Its mission is to preserve the rich history of the African-American community in Anacostia. 

The museum began in 1967 and marked a uniquely community-centered approach to curating a museum. The museum’s mission focuses on telling the stories of the neighborhood’s residents and ensuring that their legacies live on to teach and inspire future generations. 

Beyond the borders of Anacostia and D.C., the museum is also devoted to highlighting the stories of urban communities throughout the country. 

11. Arts and Industries Building

The Arts and Industries Building is the second oldest Smithsonian building, with the Castle being the oldest. It dates all the way back to 1881!

Arts and Industries Building

The most recent exhibit at the museum was called Futures and presented interactive multimedia installations about artificial intelligence, an internet balloon, a thermonuclear fusion device, and much more. 

Please note that the Arts and Industries Building is currently closed for extension renovations until 2028. 

The National Museum of Asian Art focuses, naturally, on Asian art. It is also known as the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. 

National Museum of Asian Art

The rich collection includes works from Ancient China, such as stunning bronze figures and statues, ceremonial weapons, and jade ornaments. There are also exhibits highlighting vivid Japanese paintings, elaborate Hindu sculptures, jewelry from Cambodia and much more. 

The museum also features Islamic artwork such as a section of the Qur’an dating from the 14th century, textiles, and vividly colorful manuscripts. 

There is also an excellent collection of Ancient Egyptian art that includes jewelry, pottery, and manuscripts. 

One of the centerpieces of the museum is the striking Peacock Room, which was originally designed for a London home and then shipped to America. The room features a beautiful blue, green, and gold peacock design on the wall. 

13. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is another one of my favorite of the Smithsonian museums. 

Yayoi Kusama's Mirrors exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum

A few years ago I had a chance to visit and see an incredible exhibit by the ground-breaking Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. 

The immersive exhibit featured mirrored rooms that you enter with just one of two other people at a time. The repeating patterns and inventive use of light created a magical world that was like walking into an abstract work of art. 

The museum specializes in these kinds of unique contemporary art displays. In fact, it is one of the premier modern art museums in the country. 

Equally noteworthy is the sculpture garden behind the building. Definitely take the time to walk amidst masterpieces by Rodin (including “The Burghers of Calais”), as well as towering red beams, mirrored geometric shapes, and more. 

14. National Postal Museum

The National Postal Museum is all about the history of the United States Postal Service. Within its walls, you’ll learn everything you could imagine about the postal service, including its history from colonial times to the present. 

You’ll also learn that the word “philately” is all about the collection and study of postage stamps! 

Speaking of postage stamps, one of the most fascinating parts of the museum is the Stamp Gallery, which features 20,000 stamps laid out thematically! 

Most of the collection is from the 20th century, but some stamps date all the way back to the 1760s and early 1800s. 

You can even search their immense collection online. 

In total, there are over 6 million objects in the museum’s collection, which makes it the second-largest collection out of all of the Smithsonian Museums. 

There are numerous exhibits that teach you about what happens as a letter journeys through the postal system from mailbox to mailbox. You can also learn more about the law enforcement functions of the postal service. 

15. Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Castle is worth the visit just for the gorgeous, striking design of the building itself. It was completed in 1855 and was constructed using red sandstone, which makes it hard to miss along the National Mall.

Smithsonian Castle and gardens

The surrounding gardens are also beautiful and worth a visit as well. 

The castle is home to the Smithsonian Visitor Center and offers tours to learn about the architecture, history, and design of the castle. 

Please note that the castle is closed starting February 1, 2023 for renovations. 

16. Smithsonian Gardens 

The Smithsonian Gardens actually encompass many gardens around the various Smithsonian museums. 

Smithsonian gardens

Many of the gardens are located around the National Mall, and they can be a peaceful sanctuary amidst the crowds and noise in D.C. 

One of my favorite gardens to explore is the Enid A. Haupt garden in front of the Smithsonian Castle. The garden is 4 acres in size and features a beautiful geometric parterre, as well as the fountain garden and moongate garden. 

17. National Zoo

National Zoo is not technically a museum of course. However, it is part of the Smithsonian Institution and admission is free. 

It’s located a little further afield in Rock Creek Park, but it can be conveniently reached by metro. Take the red line to either Woodley Park or Cleveland Park. 

As you make your way through the 163-acre park, you can spot cheetahs, zebras, and ostriches along the African Trail; exotic frogs, salamanders, and boa constrictors in Amazonia; and red pandas, clouded leopards, and Asian otters along the Asia Trail. 

The zoo also hosts special events like Zoo Lights around Thanksgiving and Christmas and Boo at the Zoo around Halloween. 

The National Gallery of Art is not part of the Smithsonian, but admission is also free. The gallery features an incredible collection of masterpieces that makes it a must-see for any art lover. The artwork ranges from the Renaissance period to the contemporary. 

National Gallery of Art

There are over 4,000 paintings and 3,000 sculptures in the collection, as well as prints, drawings, photographs, and more. 

The collection rivals the best art museums in the world, and features such notable masterpieces as “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” by Degas, “The Boating Party” by Mary Cassatt, and “The Japanese Footbridge” by Monet, 

There are countless other notable works by artistic giants like da Vinci, Picasso, Manet, Cezanne, Mondrian, Vermeer, Titian, Raphael, Jackson Pollock, and many more. 

19. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is also not part of the Smithsonian, but it is also free. 

The museum features moving exhibits highlighting the Holocaust, including harrowing personal experiences, photographs, video, and letters that give an intimate and poignant view into the lives of those who lived during one of the most devastating events in human history. 

As you can imagine, the museum features difficult and weighty but vitally important subject matter. 

Other exhibits have focused on Americans and the Holocaust, as well as other holocausts that have occurred around the world.  

FAQs About Free Museums in Washington, D.C.

Are the museums in Washington, D.C. free? 

Most major museums in Washington, D.C. This includes the 18 museums that are part of the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the National Gallery of Art as well as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

What is the best time of year to visit Washington, D.C.?

The spring is the best time to visit D.C. The weather is generally good and flowers in the gardens around the National Mall are in bloom. 

How much time is needed at the Smithsonian Museums? 

Each museum can take as few as one or two hours to visit, or as long as a full day or more to visit, depending on how quickly and thoroughly you move through the exhibits. 

What is the best time of day to visit the Smithsonian Museums? 

The best time of day to visit the Smithsonian Museums is generally early in the day or late in the day. The museums are most crowded on weekdays around lunch when school groups visit and on weekends. 

Conclusion: 20 Best Free Museums in Washington, D.C.

As you can see, there is no shortage of amazing free museums in Washington, D.C. to fill your next visit. Whether you’re interested in natural history, fine art, American history, astronomy, or African-American history and culture, the biggest challenge will be having enough time to see them all!

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