12 Must-Visit Museums in Washington, DC, For Art, Culture & History Lovers

Planning to peruse the nation’s capital? If so, be sure to carve out time to meander through all the marvelous museums in Washington, DC! Yes, “The District” is the political power center of the United States, but it’s also home to a thriving arts and cultural scene that’s reflected in the city’s rich and eclectic museum community.

Washington DC’s museums are among its crowning jewels, making them among the city’s top attractions for visitors. Whether you’re into art, history, culture, or science, you’ll find plenty of gems among the city’s 70 world-class museums.

Explore the wonders of the natural world at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Immerse yourself in the rich cultural heritage of America’s First Peoples at the National Museum of the American Indian. Lose yourself in the beauty of masterworks at the National Gallery of Art. Dive into the thrilling world of espionage at the International Spy Museum.

Ready to dig into The District’s cultural riches? Discover its unique art, history, and culture with this complete Washington DC Museums guide!

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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Recommended for natural history & science

Looking for a surefire, family-friendly hit? Round up your crew and head over to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on the National Mall. As with all of Washington DC’s hugely popular Smithsonian institutions, admission is free!

Founded in 1910, this historic building is one of the world’s most-visited museums. Step inside, and you’ll see why. Give yourself plenty of time: This place is massive! Boasting over 130 million natural science specimens and artifacts, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is an enthralling celebration of the natural world.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Explore this iconic museum and discover everything from dinosaur fossils to ancient paintings to rare gems to a living coral reef—to name just a few. Get fascinating glimpses into the planet’s history and take an amazing journey through millions of years of evolution.

Check out star attractions among the permanent collections. Don’t miss the majestic African Bush Elephant in the rotunda, the legendary 45.52-carat Hope Diamond, the Butterfly Pavilion, and the Ancient Egypt exhibit.

And for the ultimate wow, take a deep dive into prehistory in the Hall of Fossils. Pay homage to the towering skeleton of the legendary T-Rex, the Predator King.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Recommended for aviation & space history

You don’t have to be an aviation fanatic to be star-struck by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. This awesome site is home to just about everything that human beings have learned and wondered about the Wild Blue Yonder after generations of air and space travel.

One of Washington DC’s top tourist attractions, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum features rotating exhibitions that explore some interesting questions: “What was it like to sit in one of those early flying machines?”, “What might have caused Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance?” or “What planet will be the next human destination?:”

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum houses the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft. Get a thrilling close-up look at legendary aircraft like Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer, and early aerobatic stunt planes.

Marvel at artifacts like the Apollo 11 command module and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. This interactive museum lets you sit in the cockpit of an iconic Boeing 747 or take a spin with a flight simulator.

Want to fly higher? Check out films and educational programs that explore the history of flight and space exploration.

International Spy Museum

Recommended for espionage history

Tempted to go to the dark side – at least for an hour or two? Gear up and sashay into the world of skullduggery at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC’s L’Enfant Plaza.

Chock-full of over 750 amazing pieces, the International Spy Museum is the largest public collection of international espionage artifacts in the world. And it recounts the fascinating story of spy history, dating from the Roman Empire to the present day.

International Spy Museum

Steep yourself into the cloak-and-dagger world with exhibits showcasing famous figures like Mata Hari and James Bond and iconic intelligence operations like the Cold War. Take a stroll through the International Spy Museum, and you’ll encounter an amazing collection of authentic spy gadgetry, including cameras, weapons, and the legendary “lipstick pistol.”

Want to get down and dirty? Dive into some interactive experiences and embark on a simulated mission. Crack codes, do some surveillance work, and check out your espionage skills on the museum’s interactive exhibits.

And psst … don’t blow your cover!

National Gallery of Art

Recommended for ancient to modern art

If you’re in the mood to be immersed in visual delights, treat yourself to a trip to Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art on the National Mall in Downtown DC. Created from the private collection of financier Andrew Mellon, it’s grown from the original 126 artworks to a whopping total of 155,000. Today, it’s considered one of the finest art galleries in the world.

Wander through the National Gallery of Art, and you’ll discover a vast collection of works reflecting a wide range of eras, styles, and media. Savor the splendors of the Old Masters and Impressionists in the neoclassical West Building. Take in the haunting beauty of “Ginevra de’ Benci,” a work by Leonardo Da Vinci, in the Western Hemisphere. Be dazzled by the vibrant works of Monet, Renoir, Gaugin, and other Impressionists.

National Art Gallery

View their modern contemporary counterparts in the East Building, designed by legendary architect I.M. Pei. Here, you’ll find gems from creators like Georgia O’Keefe, Diane Arbus, and Mark Rothko.

After taking in the museum’s magnificent permanent exhibition, check out its intriguing temporary exhibitions, educational programs, tours, and lectures for visitors of all ages. Go deep!

Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Recommended for American history

Want to dig deep into the rich past of the United States? You’ll strike gold at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, affectionately known as “the nation’s attic.” Home to nearly three million items and over three shelf miles of archival collections, this amazing site is where you’ll find the country’s most treasured artifacts – and an enduring record of the past.

Set on the National Mall, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is one of Washington, DC’s most popular museums, housing iconic gems that reflect the country’s vibrant political, cultural, and military heritage. Browse this enthralling site and trace the complex American experience from pre-colonial times to the present.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History

See the past brought to life with amazing displays of one-of-a-kind items like Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Julia Child’s Kitchen, Judy Garland’s Ruby Red Slippers, the First Ladies’ Inaugural Gowns, the first artificial heart, and the original Star-Spangled Banner.

Explore a myriad of permanent exhibits that delve into compelling subjects ranging from native cultures to the lgbtq+ community to the history of America’s favorite pastime.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Recommended for African-American history

If you want to delve into one of the most complex and compelling pieces of America’s past and present, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a must-see. This unique site is the only national museum that devotes itself entirely to reflecting the past and present experiences of African Americans in the United States.

Set on the National Mall, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a relative newcomer to Washington’s museum community, but it’s become one of the city’s premier attractions. Epic in scale, it boasts a total collection of over 40,000 artifacts ranging from artwork and clothing to historical photographs and documents.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Start your journey on the lower level, where you’ll trace the fateful passage of African peoples into lives of servitude in Europe and North America. The exhibits feature both the dark and the hopeful, highlighting landmarks like the Civil War, the post-war Restoration, the Jim Crow era, and the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights.

Climb to the upper levels and immerse yourself in a celebration of African-American culture and art featuring remarkable artifacts, including Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. Take a seat in the Oprah Winfrey Theater, where you can savor live performances and cultural events.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Recommended for WWII history 

Step into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and be prepared for a profoundly moving experience. Set adjacent to the National Mall, this museum is solely dedicated to exploring the shattering history and repercussions of the Holocaust.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum aims to honor the memories of the millions of Jews, Roma, LGBTQ community members, and other marginalized groups who were targeted by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Upon entering, you’ll be given the ID card of someone who actually experienced the Holocaust. Explore the site and take a challenging journey through one of the darkest periods of human history. Spanning three floors, the main exhibit guides visitors through a chronological account of the Holocaust with compelling survivor testimonies, photographs, film footage, and historical documents.

By the end of your journey, you’ll know whether your character was a survivor. Before leaving, take a moment in the Hall of Remembrance to pause and reflect on what you’ve just experienced.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also provides educational programs, lectures, and special events to deepen public understanding of that infamous era.

National Museum of the American Indian

Recommended for Native American history

If you want to take a deep dive into the rich history and traditions of Native Americans, there’s no better place to do it than at the National Museum of the American Indian. Set on the National Mall, this museum showcases the vibrant cultures of Indigenous peoples from around the Western Hemisphere.

The building itself is a thing of beauty, evoking the design of traditional Native American structures. The museum’s architecture, grounds, and displays were created in collaboration with Indigenous communities, and the results are visually stunning.

The National Museum of the American Indian houses an extensive collection of over 800,000 cultural artifacts gathered from Indigenous communities throughout the Americas. Among the treasures you’ll find are ceremonial pieces, artwork, clothing, pottery, and photographs.

National Museum of the American Indian

Explore an array of fascinating themed exhibits. Learn about the engineering genius of the Incas, the history of treaties between the US and its First Peoples, the diversity of Native American languages, and how traditional knowledge is shaping our world.

Immerse yourself in live performances, cultural demonstrations, and a variety of educational programs.

And don’t leave without treating your taste buds to delicious traditional and contemporary Native American cuisine at the Mitsitam Café!

Hirshhorn Museum

Recommended for modern & contemporary art

Craving a shot of modern and contemporary art? Head over to the Hirshhorn Museum, and you’re guaranteed a full dose!

Set on the National Mall, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is part of the treasured fleet of Smithsonian Museums. Housed within a striking circular structure, this is one of the world’s leading collections of works by postwar European and American artists.

Step inside, and you’ll be dazzled by an impressive collection of over 12,000 pieces of art, including paintings, sculptures, and enthralling multimedia exhibits by artists from around the world.

Hirshhorn Museum

The Hirshhorn Museum is packed with star power, including works by the likes of Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Marcel Duchamp, and Cy Twombly. But there’s plenty more to fix your gaze on. Check out stunning postwar pieces like Yayoi Kusama’s eight-foot “Pumpkin.”

Head outside to the beautiful sunken Sculpture Garden, and you’ll encounter a showcase of works by renowned artists, including Auguste Rodin, Alexander Calder, and Yoko Ono.

If you want to dig a little deeper, check out the museum’s events and educational programs for visitors of all ages.

Museum of the Bible

Recommended for Christian history

If you’re looking for a truly “epic” museum experience, look no further than the Museum of the Bible. Celebrating the best-selling book of all time, this site is suitably massive. Beautifully lit by stained glass windows, this vast 430,000-square-foot space houses about 40,000 artifacts spanning six floors.

The Museum of the Bible takes you on a deep dive into the Bible’s history and profound impact on human civilizations, with each floor highlighting a particular element of the narrative. With its vivid displays, this fascinating exhibit offers deep insights into the Bible’s backstory.

Museum of the Bible

There’s nothing “old” about this museum’s approach to history. You’ll be wowed by its cutting-edge, interactive displays. A 4-D movie will take you on a virtual flying tour through DC to hunt for biblical references. A living history experience brings first-century Nazareth to life.

Take plenty of time to browse a vast, awe-inspiring collection of prized treasures from Israel and the Vatican, including sacred relics, ancient Torah scrolls, and rare Bibles.

Your six-floor exploration is bound to work up an appetite, so check out one of the onsite eateries like Manna for exclusively Kosher cuisine.

National Portrait Gallery

Recommended for American art history

Want to get a good look at some of the major players in American history? History buffs, art lovers, and pop culture fans alike flock to the National Portrait Gallery in the Penn Quarter to get an eyeful. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the gallery shares the building with the American Art Museum. If you’re feeling ambitious, do a twofer!

Created in 1962, the National Portrait Gallery aims to “tell the story of America” by showcasing over 20,000 portraits of the people who shaped it. Stroll through this historic museum, and you’ll come face-to-face with historical figures from the worlds of science, entertainment, sports, and—of course—politics.

National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery houses the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. Among the highlights are the iconic life-sized portrait of George Washington and the haunting final photograph of Abraham Lincoln.

But these aren’t all “formal” portraits. Check out intriguing variations like the rendering of Grover Cleveland in French Impressionist style, the abstract depiction of Bill Clinton, and the powerful portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama.

Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Recommended for American craft & decorative arts

If you’ve developed an appetite for hand-crafted artistry in this deeply digital age, satisfy your cravings at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This site celebrates art rendered by human hands by offering one of the country’s most inclusive collections of craft objects and decorative arts.

The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is housed in a striking historic mansion set across that dates back to 1859. Modeled on the Louvre, it was originally built to house the private collection of a local tycoon. It was adopted and refurbished by the Smithsonian in 1972 – but the building retains much of its 19th-century appeal.

Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Take a stroll and explore this treasury of American crafts that dates back to the 19th century. Discover a wealth of contemporary works featuring a mosaic of intriguing mixed media, and browse a rich array of jewelry and furniture in the permanent collection.

Adjourn to the mansion’s refurbished Grand Salon, where you can savor gilt-framed landscapes and portraits that were all the rage among wealthy 19th-century art collectors.


Ryan O'Rourke is a seasoned traveler and the founder & editor of Treksplorer, a fiercely independent guide to mid-range luxury travel for busy people. With over 20 years of extensive travel experience, Ryan has journeyed through over 50 countries, uncovering hidden gems and sharing firsthand, unsponsored insights on what to see & do and where to eat, drink & stay. Backed by his travel experience and in-depth research, Ryan’s travel advice and writing has been featured in publications like the Huffington Post and Matador Network. You can connect with Ryan on Twitter/X at @rtorourke.

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