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
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?
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
- African American Museum
- African Art Museum
- Air And Space Museum
- Air And Space Museums Udvar-Hazy (Virginia)
- American Art Museum
- American History Museum
- American Indian Museum
- American Indian Museum Heye Center (New York)
- Anacostia Community Museum
- Archives Of American Art
- Cooper Hewitt (New York)
- Freer Gallery Of Art
- Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden
- National Zoo
- Natural History Museum
- Portrait Gallery
- Postal Museum
- Renwick Gallery
- S. Dillon Ripley Center
- Sackler Gallery
- Smithsonian Castle & Gardens
Top 10 Smithsonian Museums To Visit
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
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
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
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.
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
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
- 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!