Free Museums in D.C.

by Madelaine

Washington D.C. can be a daunting place to go. The stretch of museums on and off of the mall can seem to be endless. I know that once I step inside each museum, I can feel lost in the expanse and history hidden behind each exhibit. The copious amount of people can feel overwhelming and make me instantly tired and wanting to head home. Even after all of this, the copious amount of knowledge held behind each museum/ Smithsonian is awe inspiring. Most of that knowledge can be accessed for free and in less stressful ways when not going in blind. As a person who has had to visit each museum each time a family member wished to visit D.C. there are good and bad ways to visit the museums, and expecting to go to all of them in one day isn’t realistic, but knowing what you want to do beforehand can leave plenty of energy to fully appreciate each exhibit. Like all cities, three days can get you far in this list.

National Museum of Natural History:

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If you’re into Animals, Rocks, or Mummies this is the place to be. I tend to make a quick circle around this museum for I’m not much of a reader in this one. I go past the Elephant in the atrium and make a Bee-line for the animals. After the Animals, I cut through the bugs and circle around to the rocks, where the Hope Diamond lies, then finish with the Egyptian mummies. Over all this Natural History Museum is the same as the rest throughout the world, but still worth seeing.

National Museum of American History:

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This museum if you have the inclination to read everything can take all day. I tend to get overwhelmed by a lot of information that isn’t really pieced together, but feels randomly spread out. If you’re like me, here are some highlights that are my favorite to see. The First Lady’s inauguration dresses, the Pop culture section where Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Muppet memorabilia are, and the flag that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner. If you see these exhibits then split, you will still feel fulfilled.

National Gallery of Art:

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I’m a sucker for art galleries. I can spend all day there. They’re relaxing and usually not annoyingly crowded, and this gallery is no exception. If you have a back pack you will have to wear it in front of you, so I don’t recommend bringing one. There are two buildings that eclipse this museum, the Classics and the modern art building. Both are spaced out well and are easily navigable.

Air and Space Museum:

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This museum can brag that it has the largest assembly of aircraft in a museum. As a person who has been to way too many Air Museums I prefer smaller ones (which are usually located outside of Airforce bases or airfields), but, hey, you can see the Wright Brothers original 1903 flyer and moon rocks which isn’t anywhere else. You can also eat space ice cream here (but if you miss it at the Air and Space museum, it’s conveniently located in every Smithsonian gift store.)

National Museum of the American Indian:

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This museum, even though the content is good, is laid out a bit weird and can feel slightly overwhelming. This museum, though, offers engaging programs and traveling exhibits about the indigenous people of North and South America. It also has my favorite cafeterias on the National Mall with a variety of Native American inspired food. If you don’t wish to go here for anything else, please go for the food, then tour the exhibits for a couple of minutes since you’re there anyways. Most of the other Smithsonians just have chicken fingers, pizza, and salads, but this museum truly went all out.

National Museum of African American History and Culture:

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The newest of the Smithsonians, it opened on the Mall in 2016. This museum is dedicated to African American History, art, and culture. With a trendy design in and out, this museum is enjoyable to walk around and engaging in its content. It’s location is near the end of the mall, which makes it a great spot for knowledge and pictures.

National Archives Museum:

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If you’re a National Treasure movie fan like I am then you should definitely see where the Declaration of Independence is held. There are also other documents such as the Bill of Rights so it’s not just a one hit wonder. I advise going to this museum during the off season so you don’t feel rushed or trapped in the tight area of the rooms. There can be a long line to get into the Declaration of Independence if you’re there on a busy time, for every school and tour group will be in there, so keep that in mind when planning your day.

U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing:

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Even though this is a free exhibit, you’ll need a ticket before hand during the busy season (AKA summer, winter, and Spring Break). Inside, you can see how money is made during a fifteen minute guided tour that’s held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. You can even get samples of unpressed pennies at the end of the tour.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

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If you go to any museum in D.C. go to this one. The haunting telling of the atrocities of the Holocaust is structured within this museum in the best layout that I’ve ever seen. I went to this museum for an entire day and still felt rushed in the last room where they have Holocaust survivors share their stories on heartbreaking videos. If you’re traveling with children who are eight and up there is a children’s exhibit that is shorter. The permanent exhibit meant for adults does have some images of shootings and beheadings but if you don’t wish to see graphic images it can be avoided by paying attention to warning signs. You’ll need to get timed tickets before going to this museum, but it is free.

U.S. Botanical Garden:

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If you wish to pretend to be in a tropical jungle, or you’re trying to get away from the cold, the Botanical Garden is a great place to be. A variety of plants await visitors and even a butterfly garden. The cool humidity inside is refreshing and the smells make me smile every time.

Quick Tips before you start traveling

Above is a ripped, wrinkled map that I prefer to use. During a hot day in the summer I do not suggest walking the entirety of the mall for all the monuments (I’ve done it multiple times and trust me its not worth it, just spend that six dollars and Uber), but the museums can be a nice break from the heat.

Spring time before spring break, during late March to Early April is my personal favorite time to go. The crowds besides some school groups are nonexistent and the Cherry Blossoms will be in bloom making it perfect for pictures. On top of that the weather hasn’t gotten unbearably hot yet. If you hate melting in the heat and large crowds like me, spring is the best time to go.

Recently D.C. has gotten better about having more food trucks, which aren’t too expensive. But if you don’t wish to go outside if it’s raining or hot, eat at the Smithsonian’s (the National Museum of the American Indian has amazing food). Try to eat a bit early or late to get ahead of school groups. It will be cafeteria style where you grab a tray and take food from different stations, you don’t have to talk to people if you want non personalized foods such as chicken tenders.

Each museum will have security. If you bring a bag, make sure it’s a medium size purse that’s easy to unzip. Water with a cap can be brought into the museums. You’ll need to walk through a metal detector, so don’t worry about taking off jackets or shoes, but put any metal in your pockets into your bag.

Make a top five list of what you want to see. All these museums are expansive and if you have a limited time in DC you can’t see them all. Generally three days in a city is a perfect amount of time to see almost everything you wish to see, but if you wish to do a speed run and not read everything in the museums, I have done three museums and all the monuments in one day (in the summer too, which honestly shouldn’t be attempted by sane people). Don’t try to overwhelm yourself by seeing everything at once, but spread things out. In the long run you’ll be able to remember what you did in DC more fondly.

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