Editor’s note: Please note that due to COVID-19 restrictions, some locations may be closed or have varying hours. Please contact the location for specific information.
With so much to see in our nation’s capital city, it can be overwhelming to decide what to do. Here’s a guide to seeing the best the city has to offer at your own pace. Each of these museums and tours is free, so take in an exhibit at a time (or three!) if you have the ability to spread them out.
The best museums to visit when stationed near Washington D.C.
Government in action
For those who wish to watch our government in action, visitors are welcome in the Supreme Court, the Capitol Building, and the White House — with a little planning.
The Supreme Court has displays open to the public, and two options for viewing the court in session: a line to hear the entire argument and one to hear only a three-minute portion of the argument. Both lines open on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Tours of the Capitol Building are free and open to the public but require an advance reservation. They do not include visits to the House or Senate galleries, which require a separate pass, available by contacting the office of your representative and/or senator.
The White House and its grounds are open to the public for several events each year, including the spring and fall Garden Tours. Separate tours must be booked to view the East Wing or the West Wing, however, and both can be scheduled by contacting your members of Congress.
For younger crowds
For kids of all ages, the Museum of Natural History, the National Air & Space Museum, and the National Museum of American History — all along the National Mall — are a perfect place to start.
The Museum of Natural History has floors of wonders to entertain small children, from a giant elephant in the rotunda and a stunning dinosaur fossil exhibit, to a dazzling display of jewels and jewelry that includes the legendary Hope diamond. There are exhibits dedicated to bugs and rocks and two rooms for hands-on exploration: one for younger kids filled with puzzles, fossils, and books and one for older kids with microscopes and meet-a-scientist opportunities.
The National Air & Space Museum is a flight lover’s dream. Dedicated to the history and exploration of flight, kids can climb inside Skylab, America’s first space station, try out a flight simulator, or take in an IMAX film. Science demonstrations throughout the museum pull together how ship navigation, ancient astronomy, and engineering work together to make modern aviation and space exploration possible.
The National Museum of American History is full of Americana — from the original “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Julia Child’s kitchen to the Batmobile and costume Lin-Manuel Miranda wore on Broadway’s “Hamilton” and everything in between. This museum shows the broad strokes of how America evolved into the nation we know today. With an indoor playground for the smallest kids and a hands-on invention playroom for the older ones, it’s a must-see for those only spending a short time in our nation’s capital who want to hit all the highlights.
The history buffs
Joining the National Museum of American History as must-sees are the National Museum of African American History and the National Museum of the American Indian, which show a fuller picture of our country’s past and how it shapes our present.
Two often overlooked museums — both near the National Mall — are the National Archives and the Library of Congress. The National Archives is home to formative documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation. In addition to a spectacular reading room — open twice a year to the general public —– and a stunning interior, the Library of Congress’ exhibits include Thomas Jefferson’s library and a Gutenberg Bible.
For art lovers
The National Gallery of Art is the big draw and for well-deserved reason, but if you’re short on time, you can meander through their outdoor Sculpture Garden across the street on your way down the National Mall (and there’s also another sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn located across The Mall). The Sculpture Garden also hosts a weekly Jazz in the Garden series during the summer months and ice skating during the winter. The Renwick Gallery, located away from the National Mall and behind the White House, is a smaller, more convenient location for a quick visit and is especially good for introducing kids to art.
Walk the monuments
For a more in-depth look at the monuments, neighborhoods, and history, the National Park Service offers free guided tours. Or you can join one of D.C. By Foot’s free walking tours, where you tip your tour guide what you can. If you can, schedule a tour around the Tidal Basin monuments during the city’s famed cherry blossom season in early spring each year.
What are your favorite museums to explore in the city and to take visitors to see?
Kate Lewis has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and is the monthly book critic for Military Families Magazine. Find her online @katehasthoughts and join our book club here!Read comments