Every Smithsonian Museum You Need to See in Your Lifetime

As America’s attic, the Smithsonian Institution is an overwhelming trove of discoveries and historic souvenirs laid out for your viewing. The nearly 20 museums, galleries, zoo and research centers boast American iconography, natural wonders and world cultures for free in Washington D.C.’s metro area. 

Before deciding which of the Smithsonian Museums you want to tackle, simply ask yourself “What do I want to learn today?” No matter what it is, the Smithsonian can likely enlighten you. Here’s what you won’t want to miss:

Smithsonian Institution [Washington, D.C.]

The Castle | This turreted fairy tale of a building serves as the Smithsonian Visitors Center, A.K.A. what should be your first stop on the National Mall. Inside an orientation film will introduce you to all things Smithsonian and free maps and an expertly staffed information desk will help you plan your day. You can even pay tribute to James Smithson, the institution’s founder himself. His crypt rests in a little room off the main entrance. 

African American History and Culture Museum | This is the only national museum dedicated solely to the documentation of African American, life, art, history and culture. It’s here that the richness and diversity of the African American experience is celebrated, highlighting its place in the shaping of the nation. The exhibits and galleries are meant to stimulate conversation amongst all, and is scheduled to open its doors in 2016. 

African Art Museum [Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.]

African Art Museum | Devoted to ancient and modern African art, this National Museum is a quiet shrine dedicating itself to galleries of masks, textiles, ceramics, ritual objects and more leading you on a visual timeline of traditions from the continent. The more than 900 distinct heritages of Africa are represented, with an in-depth focus on West Africa. Contemporary culture comes alive with African dance troupes, theater companies and multimedia artists frequently showcasing their work here. 

Air and Space Museum | If you only have time for one Smithsonian museum, make it the Air and Space Museum, the most popular of them all. The wonders of the sky including the Wright brothers’ flyer, Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo 11 command module bring the heavens down to earth for you to explore. More than 23 galleries lead you through the history of flight, tracing our history in the clouds. 

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center [Washington, D.C.]

Alan Freed | Shutterstock
Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center | The fun of flight continues over at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, showcasing the aviation artifacts that are too large for exhibition on the National Mall at the Air and Space Museum. Hundreds of legendary aeronautics and space memorabilia like the space shuttle Discover are on display here. 

American History Museum | The American experience is personified at this Washington, D.C. museum, displaying everything from the historical to pop culture. The centerpiece includes the very flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner, but also cinematic icons like Dorothy’s ruby red slippers and Kermit the Frog himself. It’s a fun and lighthearted walk through the times, one that’s best suited for families and children rather than serious studiers of Americana past. 

Modern and Contemporary Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum [Washington, D.C.]

American Art Museum | An unparalleled record of the American experience is displayed here in paintings, sculptures, photographs and folk art from colonial times through today. There’s no better collection of American art in the world, with this building also offering the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a look into the changing faces of America and the history of the country’s humanity captured forever more. 

Anacostia Community Museum | With a mission dedicated to enhancing the understanding of contemporary urban experiences and strengthening community bonds by conserving the past, the Anacostia Museum is a hard-hitting institution that encourages you to challenge perceptions and explore new knowledge of the people around you. Diversity is the name of the game here, working directly with residents, neighborhood organizations, community activists and artists to get you talking about social issues. 

Shapur Plate, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery [Washington, D.C.]

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery & Freer Gallery of Art | A peaceful day is spent at these two Smithsonian Institution museums dedicated to the ancient and current arts of Asia. Immerse yourself in primeval transcripts and astound yourself with the intricate beauty of Japanese silk screens. Browse amongst antique Asian ceramics and fill your head with Eastern music. You can wander freely between these two adjoining galleries, which together create the National Museums of Asian Art. 

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden | Housed in a unique cylindrical building designed by Gordon Bunshaft, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden displays the art of our time. The early days of modernism to pop art to contemporary are presented in chronological order with must-sees including works by Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe, Auguste Rodin and Anselm Kiefer. Let young ones explore their creative sides on Friday and Saturdays when they’re invited to make their own pieces in the Improv Art Room.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History [Washington, D.C.]

Natural History Museum | This colossal building could keep you busy for hours. It’s a world-famous collection that dissect the surrounding natural world, touted as a ‘cathedral to nature.’ The building is dramatic enough to sidetrack you from the dinosaur skeleton that greets you, but not for long. You’ll dive headfirst into discovery with an animatronic T-rex shaking you in your boots, the Mineral Gallery dazzling your eyes with 300 colored diamonds and your senses are literally swarmed in the Sensational Butterflies tent.

National Zoo | It’s one of the world’s best zoos, with 2,000 animals representing nearly 400 species, but its giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian whom steal the show. Coming in a close second though is the African lion pride, Asian elephants and mischievous orangutans that swing overhead. Full of fun facts, impressive grounds and endangered creatures, just about everyone will love the National Zoo.  

U.S. Postal Service Museum [Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.]

Postal Museum | Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. This most serious of creeds is the promise of the U.S. Postal Service, a legacy that’s on display at the Postal Museum. Exhibits include uniforms of yore, stamp collections and historical tidbits, housed in a grandly decorated 19th century building. 

Renwick Gallery | Closed to the public for now, expect a grand reopening in 2016. The 1859 mansion which houses the collection is undergoing a renovation, all the better to display the American tradition of decorative arts and crafts. Eccentric and whimsy, these playful pieces serve as a manageable introduction to art for young minds. 

Snap some pics to commemorate your trip. Here’s How to Take a Decent Picture in a Museum. 


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Alyssa Derby

Passionately curious about the world around her, Alyssa Derby is a self-proclaimed wanderlust aficionado. She’s tallied a count of seven countries visited, with New Zealand, Greece and Bolivia next up on the bucket list. To reminisce about past trips, s