With 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoological Park, it's no surprise the Smithsonian Institution is one of the most famous collections of museums in the United States and around the globe. Whether you're a history buff, a science lover, or an art enthusiast, you'll definitely want to spend at least a few hours—or maybe even a few days—in these world-renowned collections.
Since 10 of the Smithsonian museums are located on the National Mall, you'll see them on most Segway, bus, bike, and walking tours of Washington, DC, some of which include free time to enter the museums of your choosing. Many visitors get their bearings on a guided city tour and then head back to the Smithsonian Castle, home to the Smithsonian Visitors Center, to pick up free guides and maps before heading to a museum. Great news: all of the museums are free, though be aware you'll need a timed entry pass for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (bookable online and offered with some tours; a small number of same-day walk-up passes are also available on weekdays).
Things to Know Before You Go
- Cameras are allowed, but leave the selfie sticks and tripods at home, as they're prohibited.
- Avoid bringing large bags and packages, as they'll be subject to a lengthy search process. Lockers are available for small items at some museums.
- All museums are wheelchair accessible.
- You can grab a cup of coffee at the Smithsonian Visitor Center cafe.
- To avoid crowds when exploring a museum, start on the top floor and move toward the ground floor, rather than starting at the first level.
How to Get to the Smithsonian
All of the museums are easily accessible via public transportation, with most on the National Mall and a few others in convenient downtown DC locations.
When to Get There
The museums are open year round, and each has its own hours. You can expect to have company no matter the season, though the busiest times tend to be weekends, holidays, and during the National Cherry Blossom Festival. To avoid the biggest crowds, start your visit early in the morning on weekends or later in the day on weekdays.
What to See at the Smithsonian
It's impossible to see everything, so do a little research before you go to decide which site is at the top of your list. Is it the Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History? The flight simulators at the National Air and Space Museum? The rare giant pandas at the National Zoo? Or perhaps you have to see the collections at the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer Gallery of Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, or the Renwick Gallery. Each has something special, so choose what's most appealing to you.