The Smithsonian Institution is one of the world's most breathtakingly impressive cultural foundations. You only need to hear the numbers to understand how impactful its reach is: nineteen museums and galleries, 154 million artifacts, nine dedicated research centers, 30 million visitors... oh, and one zoo. And this doesn't even account for the 200 affiliate museums across the rest of the country.
Most of the Smithsonian Museums proper are located in Washington, D.C. In fact, there are 20 assorted Smithsonian spots to visit in the city. These are some of the most renowned museums in the world... and they're entirely free to visit, making them a huge draw. Of course, the Smithsonian might have everything totally together now, but the institute got off to a bit of a bumpy start.
It's named for British scientist James Smithson, who left most of his wealth to a nephew named Henry Hungerford when he died in 1829. Hungerford himself died a few years later, leaving the estate to "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men".
The estate amounted to 105 sacks of gold sovereigns which added up to a current-day total of about $11 million. Naturally, the funds were tied up for 8 years as Congress haggled over how to spend it. When they finally did put it to use, they immediately lost it all investing in bonds that defaulted. Former President John Quincy Adams persuaded Congress to restore the lost money with interest, and then actually use it for its intended purpose. In 1846, James Polk signed the legislation that established the massive institution, and it's been proving itself a powerful force in preserving and studying culture, science, and history ever since.
Here's our guide to the best of D.C.'s Smithsonian spots to explore... for free!
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of the foremost collections of American art. It includes photography, modern folk and self-taught art, African American art, Latino art, New Deal art, impressionist paintings, and loads more. Experience history through the masterpieces created by visionary artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, Mary Cassatt, Roy Lichtenstein, and hundreds of others, along with modern pieces and exhibitions. It's all housed in one of D.C.'s oldest, most historic buildings.
The National Portrait Gallery is a collection of visual arts dedicated to the cast of characters that make up the story of America. It's not just Presidents, either (although it does contain the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House). "Poets... actors, activists, visionaries, villains... and everyone in between" from precolonial times to present day are on display here. Mark Twain, Pocahontas, Jay Z, Mary Todd Lincoln, Steve Jobs, W.E.B. DuBois, Kurt Cobain, Thomas Jefferson, Shaun White... all of your favorites and more can be seen!
You've got mail! The National Postal Museum is dedicated to a fascinating little niche of our country's history: the Postal Service. From shipping and receiving all-important letters in the Colonial era to stagecoaches crisscrossing the country to small town post offices in the early 20th century, you can learn a lot here. See stamps, vehicles, mailboxes, letters, and loads more on display at this surprisingly engaging museum.
Ok, so the Anacostia Community Museum is a bit out of the way, but it's an important museum nonetheless. It provides an in-depth look at America's urban communities and the issues affecting them: modernization, gentrification, environmental issues, employment, and more. While it takes the point of view of the D.C. metro area, its messages and values speak to all of America's urban communities. Exhibits cover topics ranging from the Civil War's effect on D.C., the art of quilting, black baseball teams, and loads more.
Curated in collaboration with American tribes and communities, the National Museum of the American Indian honors the culture and history of its earliest peoples. Their collection contains 825,000 items from across 12,000 years of history and 1,200 indigenous cultures. You'll see everything from ancient artifacts to modern-day art pieces, along with photographs, documents, and other records. It also boasts a can't-miss museum restaurant, Mitsitam Cafe (which means "Let's eat!" in the language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples). Several food stations incorporate flavors, cuisine and cooking techniques used by the inhabitants of various parts of the country, from the Northern Woodlands to the Great Plains and beyond.
The National Air & Space Museum is one of the most famous Smithsonian museums. It's not hard to see why, either; for starters, it's huge. 23 galleries with aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, rockets and loads more mean you can easily spend a full day here. There's even a planetarium! The Lunar Module, the 1903 Wright Flyer, and the World War II exhibit are not to be missed.
The museum has a second building near the Dulles International Airport in nearby Chantilly, Virginia, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. It's got a hangar-like feeling, with hundreds of historical aircraft and the ability to watch museum specialists at work restoring artifacts.
If you're a fan of contemporary artists, then definitely make sure to stop by the Hirshhorn. Dedicated to international modern art, this collection is housed in a circular Gordon Bunshaft building that's a masterpiece in and of itself. Wander the sculpture garden, or head inside to see work by Jeff Koons, Yoko Ono, Alberto Giacometti, and more. It's a wild experience to explore the space as it works to preserve and present these pieces, in all of their forms.
Ok so the Arts & Industries Museum is currently only open for special events, it's a gorgeous building (a great example of nineteenth-century world’s fair architecture). And, the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden and carousel outside are worth checking out. Plus, this building is pretty historic. It's the second-oldest Smithsonian building, having once served as a second spot to display objects from natural history collection that didn't fit in the castle (which we'll talk about later). After that, it was an "incubator" of sorts for the history museum, art museum, and air and space museum before they leveled up to their own buildings.
The Smithsonian also runs the country's only national museum dedicated to studying, collecting, and preserving the art of Africa. Music, sculpture, paintings, photographs, and tons more from all across time (including modern and contemporary works) and the continent (it was originally focused on sub-Saharan Africa, but its focus has been expanded) are on display. It was founded by Warren M. Robbins, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, and was originally located in a townhouse where Frederick Douglass once lived. It became part of the Smithsonian in 1979, and the collection has been growing ever since, eventually moving to its current location on the National Mall.
One of two Smithsonian galleries dedicated to Asian art, the Sackler Gallery is where you'll find ancient and contemporary pieces, ranging from Near Eastern metalware and ceramics, South and Southeast Asian sculpture, Chinese jade and bronze pieces, and Chinese lacquerware and paintings. It's also where you can view the Vever Collection, a collection of Persian and Islamic paintings and manuscripts collected by jeweler Henri Vever.
The Sackler Gallery is actually attached to the Freer Gallery. The Freer houses over 26,000 objects from across 6,000 years of history, up to the present day. On display, you'll find ancient Egyptian stone sculpture, ancient Near Eastern ceramics and metalware, Chinese paintings and ceramics, Korean pottery and porcelain, Japanese folding screens, Persian manuscripts, and Buddhist sculpture. The centerpiece of the museum is The Peacock Room, a breathtaking example of interior decorative mural art by James McNeill Whistler, painted between 1876 and 1877. The rich blue-greens and abundant gold leaf exemplify Anglo-Japanese style.
The small domed kiosk of the S. Dillon Ripley Center leads to the underground complex that connects to the Sackler and Freer Galleries and the Museum of African Art. It mostly houses offices, but there are also an art gallery and exhibition space for rotating and traveling exhibits inside as well. It's named for S. Dillon Ripley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian who shepherded the institute through a period of massive expansion, between 1964 and 1984. Ronald Reagan actually rewarded him for his work with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985.
Perhaps the best starting point for anyone looking to explore the breadth of the Smithsonian's collections, the Smithsonian Institution Building (aka The Castle) is a visitor center of sorts for the museums. The gorgeous building was completed in 1855 and originally served as the only Smithsonian Museum. Check out the interactive displays dedicated to the various other museums, take an architectural tour of the castle, chat with a volunteer about what you'd like to see, and soak up the historic vibes.
All of the Smithsonian buildings have assorted gardens that serve as "museums without walls", and many of which are open 24 hours a day. Whether it's the formal Enid A. Haupt Garden outside The Castle, the Butterfly Gardens at the Museum of Natural History, the Greenhouse, or even the WWII-inspired recreation Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History, the amount of love put into the landscaping, caring for the plants, and adding in interpretive signs is pretty incredible.
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is itself an icon. The world's largest natural history collection is housed here, and it's the most visited natural history museum as well. The total size is larger than 18 football fields. Yeah, you're gonna need more than a day to fully explore the whole place. If, however, you're short for time, pick out a few of your must-see exhibits and make a beeline for those. Whether it's mummies, dinosaurs, the Hope Diamond, the Human Origins exhibit, Ocean Hall, or even one of the daily tarantula feedings, you can't go wrong.
America might not even be 250 years old, but The National Museum of American History has amassed three million historically significant objects telling the country's story. General George Washington's uniform, the original Star-Spangled Banner, the inaugural gowns of America's First Ladies, and Dorothy's ruby red slippers from the film "The Wizard of Oz" are among the most famous objects on display. Displays on food, transportation, innovation, the military, music, and more let you pick a topic that interests you and go in-depth.
The Smithsonian's newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened in 2016 to massive popularity. As the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history, and culture, it's telling an important part of US history. Here, you'll find artifacts from all different eras of African American history, ranging from Nat Turner's Bible to Michael Jackson's fedora.
Not only is the Renwick Gallery housed in the first building in America constructed to be an art gallery (meant to be an American Lourve), it's dedicated to American contemporary craft and decorative arts. Expect to find "high art" versions of everyday objects, like furniture from Sam Maloof and glasswork from Dale Chihuly, along with, on occasion, some modern art installations.
The Archives of American Art mostly collects and preserves the papers and primary records of the visual arts in America. Think, letters, diaries, scrapbooks, manuscripts, financial records, photographs, films, oral histories, and audiovisual recordings of artists, dealers, collectors, critics, scholars, museums, galleries, associations, and other art world figures. But, there's rotating and traveling exhibits often on display at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery.
Last, but certainly not least, is the National Zoo. The 163 acre park houses 1,500 animals across 300 different species, and has been in operation since 1889. Its most famous residents are probably its pandas, including Bei Bei. Other highlights include the bison, the cheetahs, the elephants, and the giant anteater.
Again, all of the Smithsonian museums are free to visit. They're all open 364 days a year (they only close on Christmas), and while you might find you'll need a timestamped ticket to enter some of them on occasion (such as the recently opened African American History Museum), for the most part, you're free to wander in and out. Seriously, go take advantage of all of this incredible free history and culture and art!