Smithsonian and Beyond! Museums along the National Mall

Millions of tourists pose each year in front of what was once an 11-ton African Elephant brought down by a Hungarian hunter. But fear not, foreign animal lovers! After decades of work by meticulous taxidermists, the carcass, like many of our celebrities, is mostly made of beeswax.

In pleasant weather, the mall is an ideal place to stroll our monuments or take in the view along the duck pond. And when the weather doesn’t cooperate, there are over a dozen major museums to explore. Below are a few of our favorites. But first…

How to get there

If you arrive early (before 10a on weekends, earlier on weekdays), you’ll have no trouble finding parking in front of any of the major museums along the mall (and parking is free on Sundays). If waking up early is not in the cards, you’re better off taking metro. The Orange-Blue-Silver lines stop at Smithsonian (right in front of the castle). If you’re on the Green-Yellow lines, you’ll want either Archives/Navy Memorial just north of the mall, or L’Enfant to the south.

Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Castle is the first museum to open on the mall every day.

Since most museums open at 10 (and some even later), the Smithsonian Castle is a good place to start.

3D Model of the Mall

The Castle opens daily at 8:30am and has an excellent 3D model of the mall to help you plan your visit.

Deeper inside the castle is a pu pu platter of all that the Smithsonian has to offer. With the works of taxidermists featured alongside space rocks, the Castle feels more like the exhibition halls of 19th Century Europe than a modern museum.

Inside the Smithsonian Castle is a sampler plate of exhibitions from other museums.

Air and Space Museum

I didn’t write a great review of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum because, well, rockets just aren’t my bag. But here’s a picture of my kids in their aspirational flight suits.

If you’re a first-timer or someone who loves the smell of stale jet fuel, you’ll probably want to begin your tour with the Air and Space Museum. Here you can walk through one of the main engine thrusters of a Saturn V Rocket, pause with gaping maw under Glamorous Glennis, the X-1 rocket that Chuck Yeager rode to immortality, or wander through a gallery of World War II fighter planes.

If Air and Space doesn’t satisfy your need … for speed, a free bus is waiting to take you to the larger Udvar-Hazy Museum out by Dulles. But, be warned, there goes your day: Udvar is a good 40 minute ride each way and the only food out there is served by McDonalds.

Hirshhorn Gallery

The Hirshhorn Gallery is the perpetual host of avant-garde installations, such as this kid-friendly heap of white paper, dropping slowly from a white ceiling, into a white room.

Inside the doughnut-shaped building on the National Mall is a modern art palace known as the Hirshhorn Gallery. In addition to the many works of sculpture collected by the museum’s original benefactors, Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn, you will find many rotating exhibits that explore many novel uses of public space.

The National Gallery of Art

The East Building of the National Gallery of Art has a small roof-top garden with rotating sculptures.

Because it is not part of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art is often open during government shutdowns. The NGA is also overlooked by tourists and can be a great place to escape the sweaty crowds in peak season. Walking the halls of the West Building feels a bit like taking a Grand Tour of Europe. Here you’ll find a central atrium reminiscent of the Parthenon in Rome that opens into a salon that resembles the Musée d’Orsay.

The West Building of the National Gallery of Art follows the Neoclassical style and attempts to be a cohesive amalgamation of many famous European Galleries.

The East Gallery is more of a giant contemporary art space that also features film festivals, family activities and talks by renowned art historians.

The East Building of the National Gallery of Art frequently hosts family art exploration activities on Saturday mornings.

The Natural History Museum

The 50-foot model of a Megalodon Shark is suspended over the Atrium Cafe in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Because the region was underwater when the Megalodon roamed the seas, an actual Megalodon may have swum in the exact position of the current model. Or, at least, that’s what I tell my kids.

Though not the most popular museum on the mall (that honor goes to the Air and Space Museum), the Natural History Museum is certainly the most Iconic. From the Rotunda sprout three major galleries, the Ocean Hall, the Mammal Hall, and the Fossil Hall.

The Fossil Hall is a recent (2019) addition to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.
The mammal hall at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum is America’s greatest collection of stuffed animals.

Upstairs, you’ll find the Hope Diamond among many treasures in the national gem collection, along with exhibits dedicated to human evolution, insects, and egyptology. For a small fee, you can also spend half an hour among the many specimen of live butterflies in the museum’s collection.

Downstairs, you’ll discover the archeology and anthropology center of the museum, which includes a number of fossils and curiosities that you can touch and examine under a microscope.

Q’rius is the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s collection of touchable artifacts.

American Indian Museum

Jeffrey Deerfoot stepping up to perform a Blackfeet buffalo ceremony at the American Indian Museum. This is not a costume. It is regalia.

The American Indian Museum hosts a number of festivals (especially in November, which is Native American Heritage Month). Unlike the many native fests across America, you won’t have to sweat with the crowds under a hot son to catch a glimpse of shimmering feather.

The Inca Trail exhibit at the American Indian Museum does not invite you to cross the bridge.

The museum also has a number of exhibits on native culture and a playroom for the kids.

On the 3rd Floor of the Smithsonian American Indian Museum in Washington, DC is a children’s area where kids can experience native habitats in a temperature-controlled environment.

Smithsonian Cultural Underground

The Ripley Center is really just a portal into the Smithsonian’s enormous Cultural Underground.

Few possess the courage to descend into the subterranean hall of curiosities accessible from the Ripley Center (that small gazebo-thing next to the Castle). On a Saturday morning, you are likely to find hoards of septuagenarians making holiday cards under the watchful eye of an art master. And on very special Saturdays you can take in a cultural festival with stunning performances and acrobatics. The surprise is half the fun!

Xu Bing’s Monkey’s Grasp for the Moon sculpture accompanies you as you descend into the Smithsonian Underground

After descending the stairs, review the various activities going on and don’t be afraid to crash the party. Signs outside the door will alert you in the event is for registered guests only. If you are unable to find an activity that matches your interests, the main hall will connect you to the African Art Museum on one end and an Asian art museum on the other.

The Buddha sleeps serenely in the Smithsonian’s cultural Hades

It seems fitting that the subterranean section of the Smithsonian’s Asian Art collection is named for the father of America’s opioid epidemic, Arthur Sackler, while the above-ground section is named for Charles Freer, who made rail cars. As you ascend from the world’s largest collection of Chinese art outside China, you’ll find a number of important masterworks of architecture (such as Whistler’s Peacock Room), painting and sculpture.

When my son wasn’t looking, this sculpture in the Freer Gallery repositioned itself to mock his pose.

American History

The American History Museum crowds a number of artifacts around the vault that houses the Star Spangled Banner.

The American History Museum, and it’s much more interesting neighbor, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), house the Smithsonian’s artifacts of struggle, industry, and American culture (whatever that is).

Pro tips: if you’re visiting the NMAAHC on the weekend, be sure to stop by their website in the morning (as early as 6:30) to procure a timed-entry pass. Whatever your pass says, they likely won’t check the time, so you should arrive at 9:45 and head straight to the basement exhibits when the museum opens. The rest of the museum is line-free, but you’ll want to hit up the basement before the crowd arrives.

Here we are on the National Mall, where my son celebrates briefly after hitting the camera-man with a rock. Believe me, his celebration was brief.

Well, you’ve made it to the end of your virtual tour of the National Mall Museums! Remember, a single metro stop (or parking spot, if you get there early) can serve as the embarkation point for a dozen major museums. Enjoy your adventure!

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