Best time to go: 09/01 - 05/31
When Washington, DC was little more than a hole plowed out of the surrounding swamp, Dr. Edward Cutbush, the first President of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences shook down the crowd for donations to a new Botanical Garden to be built on the Capitol Grounds. “Every parent within the District of Columbia” he implored, “who is desirous of seeing his children possessed of general information, should contribute toward the establishment and support of the garden, museum, and library.” 
It would be the first great step to establish the National Mall as the center of learned culture for the burgeoning republic. Although the Columbian Institute is no more, the result of Cutbush’s efforts has become The Smithsonian Institution, arguably the greatest collection of free museums in the world.
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). Note that Natural History, American Indian and American Art are all closed on Monday and Tuesday. American History is closed on Wednesday and Thursday. 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.
The Smithsonian Castle opens at 9am (an hour earlier than most museums on the mall), so it’s an excellent place to begin. If you’re there before 9:30am, you can usually park right in front for a nominal fee (and it’s free on Sundays). Inside the castle is a pu pu platter of all that the Smithsonian has to offer, with maps and guides to the current exhibits available at other nearby museums.
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.
The castle also has its own (albeit small) exhibit space. I find the frequently rotating exhibits inside the hall to be inspiring: they are like little haikus of American History. And with the works of taxidermists featured alongside space rocks, the Castle has the quirky feel of a 19th Century European museum.
Air and Space Museum
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.
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.
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. The East Wing surrounds its art collections in the sleek, modern beauty of I.M. Pei’s architectural masterpiece. The building was a predecessor to Pei’s work on the Louvre, with a more original take on the Parisian museum’s iconic glass pyramid, poised over an indoor waterfall. With sweeping views of the Capital and National Mall, the rooftop gardens are not to be missed.
Inside, The East Gallery is more than just a giant contemporary art space. Its central atrium and luxurious colloquium theater features daily film festivals, family activities and talks by renowned art historians. The lowest “concourse” floor has works by contemporary artists, while the upper galleries house early twentieth century modern art, with works by Picasso, Calder, Rothko and Modigliani.
Walking the halls of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, by contrast, 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.
National Portrait Gallery & the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Although the SAAM is a bit of a hike from the National Mall, the five blocks go by quickly and are among the most scenic in DC. With a mixture of modern art (see the post-apocalyptic Brooklyn Bridge above) and classic works, the SAAM is another great Art museum to get lost in. Best of all, it shares a building with the National Portrait Gallery and features a spacious internal courtyard with water features and botanicals galore.
The Rosa Parks statue plays with perspective to show how, in the long arc of history, authoritarian regimes fade into the background in the permanent exhibit The Struggle for Justice at the National Portrait Gallery.
The Renwick Gallery
Although it is affiliated with the SAAM, The Renwick is in another part of town (directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House). Our mini-MoMA, the Renwick has a constantly rotating display of meticulously curated modern art displays.
The Natural History Museum
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.
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.
If the last time you went to the National Archives was on a school trip back in the day, you might want to duck in and see the major changes since then. The Archives building does so much more than protect our sacred founding documents from that thieving fink Nicholas Cage. Skip past the snaking line in the rotunda and explore the seemingly endless exhibit halls that house the more personal documents of our nation’s history. Think of it as an introductory course to document research with carefully curated evidence, from the entry logs at Ellis Island to whatever Presidential Memoranda aren’t mouldering in the basement at Mar a Lago.
Archives also has the best museum gift shop on the mall, perfect for those last-minute gifts.
African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is the most recent addition to the Mall, and one worth visiting if you can get a ticket. The best way to get enough passes for the whole family is to plan your trip on a weekday.
Pro tip: 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.
Once inside, you’ll descend to the bottom floor to experience the sights and sounds of early America through the eyes of those who built so much — and enjoyed so little — of our national prosperity.
As you ascend to the museum’s higher levels, you’ll confront the horrors of the Civil Rights Era and end with the cultural and artistic triumphs that can only be won through hard struggle and heroic courage. NMAAHC pulls no punches: some images and concepts may be disturbing for small children. If you’re traveling with children under the age of 8, be sure to keep a few steps ahead of their wanderings so you are able to moderate and provide context. Disturbing photographs are easy to spot at a distance by their red borders.
American Indian Museum
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 museum also has a number of exhibits on native culture and a playroom for the kids.
Smithsonian 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!
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.
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.
The American History Museum is last, and certainly least, not because it devotes more floor space to its cafeteria, video arcade, and flag than it does to actual history, but because the history it does present is so distorted.
As just one example, James Loewen posits that even though more than 70% of Americans believe the Vietnam War was morally wrong, “the Smithsonian Institution awkwardly shoehorned its treatment of the war into the heading of ‘The Price of Freedom'” to placate the other 30% . Some freedom. Even as a child, I resented the people who dragged me into this dusty funhouse mirror of our supposed past.
Very small children may be awe-struck when you ask them how the curators managed to get a whole train locomotive in their basement, but older kids are better off getting their history from a book. I recommend Loewen’s book (referenced below) as a starting point, as well as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
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!
- Rathbun, Richard. The Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences: A Washington Society of 1816-1838, which Established a Museum and Botanic Garden Under Government Patronage. United States, p. 12, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1917.
- Loewen, James W., Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything American History Textbooks Get Wrong, Young Readers’ Edition, New Press, p. 190, 2019.