In the DMV area, you’ve either lived here your whole life, or you just moved and find the District an overwhelming combination of politics, bars, and monuments. One thing that most DMV natives will tell you to explore first is easy (as it’s what many of us first explored on school field trips growing up)- the museums. Because of its historical significance, as well as it being the location to the world’s largest research and educational complex, the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC proudly considers itself a historical hub of the country. The Smithsonian Institute was founded in 1864 by James Smithson, whose wishes were that the Smithsonian Institute would be “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” To this day, the Smithsonian includes 21 museums, and one zoo, all of which span many topics, from natural history to the history of journalism, as well as air and space. Conveniently, some of the more popular Smithsonian museums are located right on the National Mall, which is central to many other tourism locations, such as Capitol Hill, the Washington Monument, and the Reflecting Pool.
With the entirety of the Smithsonian Institution at your disposal (because the Smithsonian receives federal appropriations and income generated from gifts and revenue generating activities, it is completely free to the public!), it is recommended that you start at the heart of the Institution: The Castle. This stunning building is centrally located on the Mall and, being built it 1855, is the oldest attraction the Smithsonian has to offer. Not only does The Castle have exhibits outlining the history of the Smithsonian and it’s many branches, but it also houses the visitor center, which can give you an overview of what to expect, and help you decide where to begin.
Located right next door to The Castle is the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which is arguably one of the more recognizable buildings in the District, due to its cylindrical shape and modern façade. The Hirschhorn which focuses on both modern and contemporary art, as well as houses a sunken sculpture garden. The National Air and Space Museum, another popular DC landmark, is home to aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, rockets, and other flight-related artifacts exhibits. If this museum is right up your alley, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Udvar Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, which houses many additional aircraft in it’s large, hanger like building.
Heading back to the National Mall and directly across from The Castle, you’ll fine the Natural History Museum, which might be most well-known for its rotunda exhibit (and a DC staple) Henry. Henry is African Elephant who has been in the rotunda since 1959, and who is meant to educate museum goers on an African Elephant’s lifespan, as well as the threats they face from poachers. Other exhibits include The Hall of Fossils, The Hall of Human Origins, Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt, and the Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals. Located right next door is the National Museum of American History, which features exhibits on the history of American democracy, automobiles, an exhibition of America’s First Ladies, and more!
While the Smithsonian Institute definitely has it’s most popular museums, there are an additional 15 branches that we’d recommend checking out to find one that fits your interests! You can find a complete list of those museums here.