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Ultimate Guide To Visiting The Smithsonian Tips

Growing up in Virginia, I ended up visiting the Smithsonian Institution a lot (like for every class trip, after-school trip, and weekend trip – y’all, Northern Virginia schools only have one go-to field trip idea).

I lived in a small(ish) town in NOVA, went to school roughly fifteen minutes from DC, and was a museum geek.

So (unsurprisingly) in elementary school and middle school, when my mum was done with work, we’d visit the Smithsonian together. And by the time high school rolled around, I practically lived at the Smithsonian (I used to pretend to be a tour guide at the National Museum of Natural History – a cringe-worthy part of my life I’m trying to forget).

But I hands-down love the Smithsonian Institution. Every time I go back, I immediately feel at home.

I’ve been to all twenty complexes, including the two in New York, and to every one of them at least a dozen or so times.

In this guide, I’m going to be spilling all my top tips for visiting the Smithsonian!

Smithsonian Travel Guide

Smithsonian postal museum

About

The Smithsonian Institution is a cluster of museums and research buildings on the East Coast.

Each year, roughly 28 million people visit the Smithsonian, making it one of the most popular cultural centers in the United States.

How Do You Get To The Smithsonian?

building with flags in D.C.

It’s really hard to find good parking near the Smithsonian (especially for the museums by The Mall).

Although D.C. follows an easy to understand grid system, driving in-and-around the city is not my favorite thing on the planet. Metered parking is expensive (unless you are planning on visiting the Anacostia Community Museum).

Parking at the National Zoo itself is $25 (yikes)!

As a result, my favorite way to travel around D.C. is by metro.

You’ll need a metro pass (which you can purchase at the station). The metro stops by the main museums on the blue, green, orange, and yellow lines. I usually hop off the metro at the closest stop and walk from there.

Complete List Of Smithsonian Buildings

Top 10 Smithsonian Museums To Visit

hishorn sculpture garden

Over the years, I’ve definitely developed a soft spot for certain museums. Here are my personal favorites (in no particular order).

Smithsonian National Museum Of African Art

The African Art Museum is easy to miss. It’s right behind The Castle in a small square building topped by a blue dome. Inside is traditional African art – classic wooden statues that play on proportions, oil paintings that manipulate mood, vivid colored works cut to extravagant detail.

The museum is small so if you want a slower-paced visit (where you don’t feel rushed to see everything), this is one of my top picks!

National Museum Of Natural History

National Museum of Natural History elephant in entrance

By far my favorite museum in the Smithsonian Collection is the National Museum of Natural History.

You’ll need an entire day (or two) to see this museum (it is h-u-g-e). And the exhibits vary from historic to art-focused to straight-up insect pavillions.

Travel Tip: You can take a virtual tour of the National Museum Of Natural History.

American Art Museum

American Art Museum

The interior of the American Art Museum feels like a time warp – extremely modern and charming at the same time.

Museums get a bad rap for being old, stuffy buildings, but the American Art Museum really slashes that stereotype. It’s incredibly photogenic.

P.S. One of my favorite oil paintings of all time, “Cape Cod Morning” by Edward Hopper is on the South Wing of the first floor. Despite the cheerful colors, it is stark and slightly broody, which is why I love it.

P.P.S. The National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum are in the same building (so you can visit both whilst there).

Freer Gallery Of Art

My mum used to work five minutes (by foot) from the Freer Gallery Of Art so this is the Smithsonian Museum I ended up visiting the most (so I’m a little biased when I say it is one of my favorites).

Freer focuses on Asian Art. And the best exhibit (though, they’re all good) is the Peacock Room – an entire wall colored jade, shelves of bright vases, gold paneling.

American Indian Museum

circles of the American Indian Museum

The American Indian Museum is my favorite museum architecturally. The building is beige and built to look like a ripple. The curved walls are layered like waves.  It’s all-things modern, but the thin blocked windows are reminiscent of the distinctive Pueblo adobe-home style. 

P.S. This museum has the best gift shop out of all the Smithsonian complexes (the gift shop feels like an exhibit unto itself).

American Museum Of National History

This is one of the lesser-visited Smithsonian Museums (lots of tourists get it mixed up with the Natural History Museum and skip it, thinking they’ve already visited).

The American Museum of National History is home to the star-spangled banner, but there are lots of other exhibits (about everything from food during war times to women’s history stories) that are worth seeing.

National Zoo

While I’ve stopped visiting zoos (for environmental reasons), I loved visiting the National Zoo as a kid (so much so that it still warrants a mention).

From the Cheetah Conservation Station to the Think Tank to Amazonia, there are so many animals here (I actually wrote a book when I was eight based on what I observed at this zoo. It was just as terrible as you’d expect and I’m so incredibly grateful it remains unpublished, collecting dust in my parent’s house).

National Museum Of African American History

Smithsonian African American History Museum at sunrise

This museum was under construction while I lived in Virginia so I only got a chance to see it during my most recent trip to the Northeast (a few days after visiting Philadelphia).

And it’s now one of my favorites. To make the most of your visit, hit up the history exhibits first (before heading to the L-level community galleries).

10 Travel Tips For Visiting The Smithsonian

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
  • Although you can’t bring food into the museums, you can bring bottled water (which I highly recommend because the museums are gigantic and you’ll be walking a lot).
  • You’ll want to plan for a max of two museums a day (just to take in the whole experience).
  • And you don’t have to visit every museum! Just visit the ones you are truly interested in (it took me a full year to see them all as a quasi-local so if you only have a weekend, don’t stress out).
  • The Hope Diamond is the Natural History Museum’s premier display and it gets off-the-walls crowded (so head there first, when the museum opens at 10 AM, then make your way around the rest of the floors).
  • The National Postal Museum is a bit further away so it gets very few visitors, but it’s also one of the coolest museums to visit if you love stamp collecting (they sell gorgeous stamps in their gift shop too).
  • A few of the museums have IMAX theatres. With the exception of the Udvar Hazy Museum (hint), these get really crowded (to guarantee good seats, try to select a documentary-style movie versus big-budget screenplay).
  • Street food right outside the museum is much cheaper (and better) than what’s served inside.
  • The best time to visit is early in the week (Mondays, Tuesdays) in the fall, winter, or spring.
  • Empty your pockets before the screening (and try to pack light) to streamline the security process.
  • The National Gallery of Art has a gelato bar. You can thank me later (just kidding. but seriously, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do).

Did you find this guide to visiting the Smithsonian (plus Smithsonian tips) useful? Let me know your top Smithsonian tips for visiting the Smithsonian in the comments below!

35 Comments

  • Avatar
    northierthanthou.com
    February 16, 2016 at 1:22 AM

    Quite a tour. Thank you for sharing it.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 16, 2016 at 2:21 AM

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Tarah and Tip Vongbouthdy
    February 16, 2016 at 4:14 AM

    Awesome post! I haven’t gotten to the smithsonian yet, but will save this post for future-lots of good tips!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 16, 2016 at 1:07 PM

      Thanks! I used to live near DC, so I ended up visiting quite a bit 🙂

      Reply
  • Avatar
    KimmConn
    February 16, 2016 at 6:43 AM

    Love this! I had no idea there were so many different parts of the Smithsonian.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 16, 2016 at 1:09 PM

      Oh, yes! There are actually several other parts – the Postal Museum and the American History Museum, just to name two, but they never had a huge impact on me, so I left them out of the list.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Taylor
    February 16, 2016 at 2:23 PM

    This will be on my list of places to see now! Thanks for the tips 🙂

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 16, 2016 at 8:46 PM

      Yay! I’m so glad you found my guide to the Smithsonian useful 🙂

      Reply
  • Avatar
    The Traveling Gals
    February 16, 2016 at 11:02 PM

    First of all, I love your writing! Very fun to read. And I went to the Smithsonian several years ago but didn’t have enough time to go through all the museums. I definitely want to go back!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 17, 2016 at 2:34 AM

      Thank you so much! I’m excited to know that you’ve visited some of the museums as well! Which ones did you visit?

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Hannah of Cats and Coffee
    February 16, 2016 at 11:41 PM

    This is a great post! I live in the DC area and absolutely love going to the Smithsonian(s). This post is what I aspire to right about! Lovely writing voice, too! Subscribing. 🙂

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 17, 2016 at 2:37 AM

      Thank you! That means so much to me! What is your favourite Smithsonian institution? P.S. I think it’s amazing that Dave Grohl inspires you to write 🙂

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Hannah of Cats and Coffee
        February 17, 2016 at 7:00 PM

        Thank you! I think my favorite is a toss up between the Zoo and the Air & Space Museum. Both are so great, but so different!

        Reply
        • Avatar
          Anshula
          February 17, 2016 at 9:49 PM

          Yes! My personal favourite is the Zoo, but I love the Air & Space Museum as well (it’s the most visited for a very good reason).

          Reply
  • Avatar
    Shenali Gunawardhana
    February 17, 2016 at 5:09 AM

    Hi Anshula!
    Love this post!I really like you pics of the beautiful flowers and national zoo.Very helpful guide and great tips.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 17, 2016 at 9:51 PM

      Thank you so much! I’m glad that you found it helpful!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Coveted Places
    February 17, 2016 at 12:45 PM

    Great post! Bookmarking for future travels 🙂

    Reply
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    Emma {Emma's Little Kitchen}
    February 17, 2016 at 9:07 PM

    Wow! I had no idea on the history. Fab tips Anshula 🙂

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 17, 2016 at 9:52 PM

      Thank you so much! The history is kind of swept under for the most part. No ones like to admit that Smithson pretty much just donated money to upset his father, but I’ve always found it fascinating.

      Reply
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    Kaylene
    February 18, 2016 at 1:24 PM

    I would love to get there soon! It’s been on my list for awhile now! Awesome info! This will definitely be useful whenever I go 🙂

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 18, 2016 at 1:58 PM

      Thank you so much! I’m so happy that you found my little guide useful 🙂

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Deborah Ward
    February 18, 2016 at 3:35 PM

    Great post! We love all things Smithsonian! It inspired my daughter so much that she has decided to become an archaeologists. On a side note: I’m totally jealous of those hydrangeas!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 19, 2016 at 11:32 PM

      That’s amazing! PS: I wish I had Smithsonian-level hydrangeas too.

      Reply
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    Kevin Wagar
    February 18, 2016 at 5:17 PM

    I’ve never been to the Smithsonian but I have always heard some incredible things. I’ll be sure to check it out the next time I’m in Washington!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 19, 2016 at 11:35 PM

      The Smithsonian is wonderful! It is definitely a Washington bucket list item!

      Reply
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    Alexa Williams Meisler
    February 19, 2016 at 3:18 PM

    Love the infograph. Such a great idea. The botanical gardens look amazing! I could spend a day there!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 19, 2016 at 11:37 PM

      I’m so glad you liked the infograph! The Botanical Gardens are indeed amazing (I’ve been there six times already and I still want to go back)!

      Reply
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    Cynthia
    February 19, 2016 at 3:48 PM

    Really great guide to the Smithsonian! Makes me really want to go! My favourite museum might be the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). I went there when I was a kid, and I remember I loved it so much. It was huge and had so much in it!!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 19, 2016 at 11:39 PM

      I’ve never been to the Royal Ontario Museum, but I just googled ROM and it looks architecturally astounding! That geometry is crazy! I’m definitely adding it to my bucket list!

      Reply
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    Leslie Rossi
    February 19, 2016 at 7:16 PM

    i’ve always wanted to go! it’s on my list for soon.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      February 19, 2016 at 11:41 PM

      You should go if you’re in D.C.! Visiting the Smithsonian is a great way to spend a day or two or three 😉 Every time I revisit, I manage to find something new.

      Reply
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    Our Wanders
    March 5, 2016 at 1:20 PM

    Oh, we’ve spent only 4 days in Washington, D.C., but loved the Smithsonian so much! Te castle is so beautiful and we ended up spending 1,5 days of our 4 in the Natural History Museum alone. We have to go back one day, it’s so much to see there. And your pics about the botanical gardens are quite tempting… 😀

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anshula
      March 5, 2016 at 4:06 PM

      There is so much to cover in the Natural History Museum. I still don’t feel like I’ve covered it all (and this is coming from a girl who spent fourteen days there). Yes! Definitely see the botanical gardens the next time you go. Did you visit any other institutions on the other three days? What else did you see?

      Reply
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        Our Wanders
        March 5, 2016 at 10:19 PM

        Haha, we believe you! We mostly visited the attractions of the National Mall during our stay in DC and honestly, we haven’t really planned to spend much time in any of the Smithsonian museums, but we just couldn’t resist the temptation in the end. But we did it right. 😀 We briefly visited the National Museum of American History, too, but that was really just a couple of hours before closure.

        Reply

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