One of the things Washington DC is most famous for is its world-class museums and exhibits. According to some sources, there are over 100 museums in the city! Tourists flock from all over the United States (and the world) to visit the amazing museums and galleries that are open in Washington DC. But what if I told you that there are DOZENS of free museums in Washington DC that you can visit on any day of the week?
Yeah, I know. It’s pretty magical.
When I first moved to Washington DC, I had no idea that many of the incredible museums in Washington DC don’t charge an admission fee. When I found this out, my mind was blown. So now, dear reader, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite free museums in Washington DC so you can keep that extra cash in your pocket (or spend it at happy hour).
The Top 21 Free Museums in Washington DC: A Guide
History & Science Museums
The Smithsonian Castle
This beautiful, brick castle on the National Mall serves not only as a beautiful piece of eye candy for DC’s city center, but also as an information center and exhibit hall for ALL of the Smithsonian Museums. If you didn’t know, all of the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC are free (but we’ll get to that later).
Year round, the Castle serves as a center for planning your trip to the rest of the Smithsonian Museums, including little samplers of what you can expect to find in each one. There are also rotating exhibits in the building, which span from photography to history exhibits and more.
Address: 1000 Jefferson Dr SW, Washington, DC 20560
Contact: By phone at (202) 633-1000 or by email at email@example.com
The Museum of Natural History
One of my favorite museums in Washington DC, the Museum of Natural History is sure to bring out your curiosity of the amazing wildlife and plants the world has to offer. With full-sized dinosaur skeleton replicas and plenty of animal and plant specimens (taxonomy and alive), there’s no shortage of things to see and explore here.
Some of my favorite exhibits include the Hope Diamond, Lucy, and of course, the dinosaurs. But before I give too much away, I’ll leave you to wonder about what those things actually are until you go visit the museum yourself!
Address: 10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560
Contact: By phone at (202) 633-1000
National Air & Space Museum
Were you one of those kids who dreamed of being an astronaut when you grew up? Or one who enjoyed learning about physics, meteorology, or astronomy? Well then, you’ll be sure to have a field day at the National Air & Space Museum, a museum totally dedicated to the exploration of our atmosphere and universe.
This museum is not only perfect for the former science nerd in you, but it’s also fantastic for kids because of the sheer number of interactive and hands-on exhibits. Live demonstrations in the museum help kids learn about physics, and there are many rooms full of activities just waiting to be taken advantage of.
Address: 600 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560
Contact: By phone at (202) 633-2214
Holocaust Memorial Museum
DC’s Holocaust Memorial Museum is a somber and moving museum that centers around the history and events of the Holocaust during WWII. Photos, artifacts, and immersive exhibits are sure to leave you well-educated about the horrifying events of the Holocaust. It’s a building full of sights, smells, and a lot of feelings, but it’s one whose cause is incredibly important to revisit and remember for generations to come.
Address: 100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl SW, Washington, DC 20024
Contact: (202) 488-0400
National Museum of American History
How much do you actually know about American History? It’s much more than your 8th grade textbook might have you believe. Saddle up and get ready for a ride through all of the United States’ history, from the early settlements of Native Americans all the way to modern history.
Honestly, I never fancied learning about American History when I was growing up, but after visiting this awesome museum, I found myself fascinated by it. You could spend an entire day here just reading, looking at preserved artifacts, and watching the videos about various aspects of American History.
Address: 1300 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560
Contact: By phone at (202) 633-3270
National Museum of the American Indian
Not only is the National Museum of the American Indian the National Mall’s most beautiful building, but it’s also one of my absolute favorites. This museum focuses not only on the history and customs of indigenous groups in the United States, but also across North, Central, and South America. Spread throughout the museum’s many floors are artifacts, traditional garments, information, and videos that detail what we know about each indigenous group.
In the various times I’ve been to the National Museum of the American Indian, I’ve seen exhibits on the Cherokees and the Incas in one day. I love that this museum allows me to get to know a variety of indigenous groups and ‘travel the world’ while I’m in my own city.
Address: 4th St SW & Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560
Contact: By email at firstname.lastname@example.org
National Museum of African American History and Culture
As one of the newest free museums in Washington DC, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is a gorgeously-curated collection of African American history in the United States, starting with the dark days of slavery to Jim Crow Laws to the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. It’s a refreshingly honest look at the journey of African Americans through time and space.
The museum doesn’t just address slavery and civil rights; it also focuses on the role of many influential black figures across American history. There are exhibits on the upper floors about the role of African Americans in American sports, music, art, and culture as well.
Due to high demand for the NMAAHC, you must reserve a free ticket online in advance. You will have an assigned entrance time for the museum during which you are free to enter and explore the various exhibits in the building. If you’re in DC and did not reserve a ticket, you can also check same-day availability at exactly 6:30 AM to try and secure a day-of ticket, but it is not guaranteed.
Address: 1400 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560
Contact: By phone at (202) 633-1000
Nature & Wildlife
There are few places more fun or cheerful in Washington DC than the National Zoo, which is also run by the Smithsonian. Home to cuddly pandas, curious giraffes, and many, many other beautiful animals, the zoo is the place to go if you want to admire the amazing variety of nature. Here, you can also learn about many endangered animals and how the zoo is working to help preserve many of these fragile species.
Address: 3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008
Contact: (202) 633-4888
United States Botanic Garden
The Botanic Garden is kind of like DC’s version of Alice in Wonderland, because each room has something surprising and colorful to explore. This building near the Capitol is full of all kinds of tropical plants. There are also all kinds of art installations and lights that change throughout the seasons.
One of the best things about the Botanic Garden is that, because it’s a greenhouse, it’s a year-round plant exhibit that’s just as vibrant in the middle of the winter as it is in the summer!
Address: 100 Maryland Ave SW, Washington, DC 20001
Contact: By phone at (202) 225-8333
One of the most beautiful museum areas in Washington DC isn’t a building at all – it’s a park. The National Arboretum is an outdoor garden area that’s dedicated to educating visitors about the various local plant life in the area. There are many walking trails and benches to hang out on, and it’s the only “museum” on our list that’s dog-friendly!
A “living museum” of sorts, the National Arboretum obviously has a variety of trails and plants, but only one central “exhibit” – the old Capitol pillars. Brought to the park in the 1980s, the Capitol pillars are some of the most iconic DC landmarks and stand out remarkably against the fields and forests of the rest of the arboretum. During the spring, visitors can walk around the park and admire the blooming flowers with the backdrop of the pillars and it’s pretty magical, to say the least.
Address: 3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002
Contact: (202) 245-2726
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The National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is the central art museum in Washington DC, and it’s full of hundreds of works from various time periods and styles, including some by Degas and DaVinci. There’s also an adjacent sculpture garden with several interesting works, that also hosts free live music in the summertime on Friday afternoons.
Address: 6th and Constitution Avenue NW Washington, DC 20565
Contact: By phone at (202) 737-4215
One of the most offbeat museums on this list, the Hirshhorn Museum is a national museum of contemporary art and, as in most modern art museums, there are a lot of strange things to see here. Many of the exhibits are politically-infused and some are just flat-out wild, but there are always bright and complex visual treats to be discovered here. To make things even stranger, the building is shaped like a donut and houses the exhibits in its rounded hallways.
Address: Independence Ave SW & 7th St SW, Washington, DC 20560
Hours: 10 AM-5:30 PM daily
Contact: By phone at (202) 633-1000
Blind Whino SW Arts Club
While we’re on the topic of strange museums, here’s another one for you: Blind Whino, the abandoned church-gone-art gallery and workshop. It’s only kind of a museum, because the majority of the building space is actually used for events, shows, and demonstrations. However, there’s a small free art gallery open on certain days of the week that has rotating exhibits by local artists. The works here at Blind Whino are different than anything else you can find in the city.
Address: 700 Delaware Ave SW, Washington, DC 20024
Gallery Hours: Wednesday 5-8 PM, Saturday and Sunday 12-5 PM
Contact: By phone at (202) 554-0103
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery houses paintings of all of the United States presidents, plus several other influential figures in the history of the United States. Some of the most recent additions include the portrait of former President Barack Obama and, separately, one of his wife, Michelle.
Address: 8th and F Streets NW Washington, DC 20001
Contact: By phone at (202) 633-8300
American Art Museum & Renwick Gallery
If you’re interested in seeing some of the finest works from the United States, look no further than the American Art Museum. Here there are several exhibits across two floors that range in topic and time period.
The Renwick Gallery is an annex of the Museum of American Art, and is home to seasonal special rotating exhibits. The exhibits range from fine are to fairly psychedelic, depending on the time of year. You can check what the latest exhibit is on their website.
Address: Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW Washington, DC 20006
Contact: By phone at (202) 633-7970
Historic Buildings, Homes, & Gardens
The Capitol Building
Many people are surprised that the Capitol Building allows visitors and is open to the public. To that I say: take advantage of it! You can have the chance to see where many important decisions for our country are made, and best of all…it’s free!
All you have to do is show up at the building and request a tour, or make an advanced reservation online.
Address: First St SE, Washington, DC 20004
Contact: By phone at (202) 226-8000
The White House
While in DC, you can visit a living museum that allows you to walk where presidents past have walked. Yes, you guessed it: much like the Capitol, you can schedule a free tour of the White House! During the tour, you can see many of the various rooms in the White House, such as the Family Theater, the Blue Room and the State Dining Room. And, if it’s the season, you can also add on a Garden Tour on top.
To schedule a White House tour, you must request an invitation 21 or more days in advance from your local Member of Congress (either the House or the Senate). For more information and instructions on how to schedule a tour, visit the official website.
Address: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500
Old Stone House
As the capital city’s oldest home, the Old Stone House in Georgetown may be one of the most unique free museums in Washington DC. It’s a fairly small home, but free guides in the house can give you special information about the people who lived there and the different purposes that the house served over the years. The Old Stone House is a designated historic site under the US National Park Service.
Address: 3051 M St NW, Washington, DC 20007
US Bureau of Engraving and Printing
The US Bureau of Engraving and Printing is exactly what it sounds like: the place where money is made. This institution is where dollars have been manufactured throughout American history, and you can see just how they do it on a guided tour of the facility.
To register for a tour, you must claim a free ticket at the Roaul Wallenburg Place SW. There are a limited number of tickets each day, so if you’re planning on going, be sure to get there early.
Address: 301 14th St SW, Washington, DC 20228
Contact: By phone at (866) 874-2330 or by email at email@example.com
Library of Congress
Located behind the Capitol, the Library of Congress is home to some of Washington DC’s most beautiful interiors and exhibits, and they’re completely free and open to the public. Here, in addition to a *real* library, there are rotating exhibits and various guided tours of the premises, including the Jefferson Building. There’s also a large Reading Room where you can sit for hours, reading and people watching at one of the most influential buildings in the United States.
Address: 101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540
Contact: By phone at (202) 707-5000
If you’ve ever been curious about where they keep all of those important documents that, you know, served as the foundation for our entire country, then look no further! Many of them are on display at the National Archives Museum. While there are many Archives facilities around the Metro DC area, the main one is downtown, just off the National Mall.
Here, every day, you can go to see documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. There are also rotating exhibits that have other important official documents that have played a significant role throughout history.
Address: 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001
Contact: By phone at (866) 272-6272 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Travel Tips for Washington DC
Getting to Washington DC
There are three major airports in the Washington DC metropolitan area: Reagan National Airport (DCA), Dulles International Airport (IAD) , and Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI). All major airlines in the United States fly to at least one of these airports. The most accessible airport from the city is Reagan National, which is about 20 minutes from the city center on the blue or yellow metro lines.
By Ground Transportation
If you’re coming from somewhere else on the East Coast, there are trains and buses that will bring you from most major nearby cities to Union Station. Amtrak services the passenger trains, and prices vary greatly depending on where you’re coming from. Greyhound and MegaBus both operate several bus lines that arrive in Washington DC as well.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
The best and most beautiful hotel in town, hands down, is the St. Regis. Located just steps away from the White House, this beautiful and gold-embellished luxury hotel has a very classic feel. If you’re feeling extra snazzy, opt for one of their suites, and don’t forget to join the staff in the lobby for their daily evening champagne toast.
For mid-range travelers, The Line DC hotel in Adams Morgan offers chic, spacious rooms at a good price, and their lobby is one of the locals’ cool hangout spots.
Featured image by m01229 (Flickr CC)