Looking for a mind-blowing bargain in Washington D.C.? How do 19 free museums and galleries sound? The Smithsonian Institution’s huge, amazing family of museums and galleries dishes up the deal of a lifetime. Branches of the Smithsonian pepper the city — there’s one in NYC too — but you can check out most of them right on the National Mall, where one short walk serves up Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane, watercolors by the famous artist Winslow Homer, a life-changing look at African-American culture, and powerful Native American art — all free of charge.
Along with the National Gallery of Art (a separate federally-funded museum), the Smithsonian’s 19 branches deliver a rich, world-class mash-up of arts and culture and a mother-lode of human-made wonders that few cities around the globe can match.
In a crazy twist, the Smithsonian is named after the British scientist James Smithson, who never set foot in D.C. during his lifetime (1765-1829). It turns out that Smithson’s last will and testament gave his estate to a nephew with the condition that the big bucks go to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase of and diffusion of knowledge” if the heir died without heirs of his own.
The Red Castle
The original Smithsonian Institution was in a red Gothic-style castle that still stands to this day. You can’t miss the red sandstone castle, now the Smithsonian Visitor Center, with all its pointy steeples and towers. Swing by there first to pick the brains of experts on the Smithsonian, grab maps and other guide info, and plan your day (or two) at Smithsonian sites that will knock your socks off.
The Air and Space Museum, with its shiny steeple-like tower in front, houses thousands of flight artifacts, including a moon rock you can touch and historic aircraft and spacecraft — some dangling from the ceiling like they’re flying. The headliners are Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis; the 1903 Wright Flyer, which Wilbur Wright flew 120 feet in 12 seconds in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; and the Apollo 11 Command Module, which carried three astronauts into orbit around the moon during the first historic moon landing in 1969. You can also check out the planetarium and the IMAX theater here.
The museum’s sister facility, the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, boasts an even bigger collection of flying machines in a pair of hangars near Dulles International Airport.
Egyptian Mummies and the Hope Diamond
The National Museum of Natural History is bigger than 18 football fields, billing itself as the “largest natural history collection in the world.” Hit exhibits have included The Story of Our Planet, Dinosaurs in America, The Origins of Life on Earth, and Life in the Oceans as well as crowd favorites like Egyptian mummies and the Hope Diamond.
To see portraits of big-name historic figures, including every U.S. POTUS and every First Lady, book it to the National Portrait Gallery. Most of the presidential portraits are oil-on-canvas, but there are also marble busts, lithos, pen-and-ink drawings, and a cast of Abraham Lincoln’s massive hands. Special exhibits zero in on famous folk, like American poet Sylvia Plath and 19th-century photographer Mathew Brady.
It’s also a great place to soak up nice weather and grab a bite to eat. The outdoor Courtyard Café next to the National Portrait Gallery serves up dishes with a Mediterranean twist and tasty desserts, like cheesecake and bread pudding.
From Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle
The National Museum of the American Indian is packed with a huge treasure trove of artifacts, historic records, and artwork dating back 12,000 years and covering cultures from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle. It even includes a gigantic photo collection, with 324,000 images. Housed in a cool, curvy stucco building, the museum plans exhibitions together with tribes and American Indian communities to reflect the diverse spirit of Native America.
Stop by the Mitsitam Café inside the museum for to dig into different types of Native American dishes. Bison chili and fry bread from the Great Plains are some of the in-demand eats that get raves.
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is a top modern art museum, with a permanent set of works by famous artists like Edward Hopper, Ed Ruscha, Joan Miro, Willem de Kooning, and many others. Don’t miss the sunken sculpture garden’s eye-catching works by Alberto Giacometti, Auguste Rodin, Alexander Calder, and Yoko Ono.
Louis’ Trumpet and Michael’s Fedora
Opened in September 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest branch of the Smithsonian. It tracks African-American history and culture mostly through all kinds of historic artifacts, plus items from everyday life. Displays include Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, a segregation-era railway car, and Michael Jackson’s hat. The museum is wildly popular, so it’s a good idea to book tickets in advance.
Whether you pick a two-hour walk-through or a two-day tour that dives deep, share your Smithsonian experience with us on Instagram.