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8 Underrated Smithsonian Museums, Galleries, and Gardens You Should Visit in DC

Washington, D. C. Museums
by William Fleeson Morgane Croissant Jun 2, 2023

In Washington, DC, the Smithsonian Institution runs a large network of world-class museums. The network owes its existence to James Smithson, a British scientist who died in 1829 and left his fortune to the capital of the young American republic.

What started as one man’s wish has turned into one of the most renowned museums and research institutions in the world. Smithson never visited DC or the United States (at least not until after his death — his remains lie in a dedicated crypt on Smithsonian grounds today), but his impact on the country has been felt by countless people.

Many of the Smithsonian museums are justifiably famous, while others are unfairly obscure to the average visitor. Out of the 21 Smithsonian museums and galleries (as well as a zoo), these 8 Smithsonian sites warrant more attention on your next visit to the nation’s capital.

What is unique about the Smithsonian Institution?

The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world. All the Smithsonian locations are free, except for one: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York City.

List of Smithsonian museums: How many are there?

There are 21 Smithsonian museums and one zoo within the Smithsonian Institution:

  • The Freer Gallery of Art
  • The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
  • The Natural History Museum
  • The Portrait Gallery
  • The Postal Museum
  • The Renwick Gallery
  • The African American Museum
  • The African Art Museum
  • The Air and Space Museum
  • The Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center
  • The American Art Museum
  • The American History Museum
  • The American Indian Museum
  • The American Indian Museum New York
  • The Anacostia Community Museum
  • The Archives of American Art
  • The Arts and Industries Building
  • Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
  • The Sackler Gallery
  • The S. Dillon Ripley Center
  • The Smithsonian Castle/The Smithsonian Institution Building
  • The National Zoo

Map of the Smithsonian museums in the Washington, DC, area

There are 18 Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC, as well as one zoo, the National Zoo. All of them are indicated on the map below.

Are all Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC? Which Smithsonian museums are in New York?

Not all the Smithsonian museums are in Washington, DC; two are in New York City (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and the American Indian Museum New York) and one is in Chantilly, Virginia (the Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center).

Do you need tickets for the Smithsonian museums? Are they free?

All the Smithsonian museums, galleries, and gardens are free, except for Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, located in New York City. The following locations require entry tickets or passes, including:

  • The African American Museum: A free timed-entry pass is required. Book online before your visit.
  • The Air and Space Museum: A free timed-entry pass is required. Book online before your visit.
  • Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum: A ticket is required.
  • The National Zoo: A free pass is required. Book online before your visit.

Smithsonian museums hours

All the Smithsonian locations in Washington, DC, are open every day, except for December 25.

In New York City, the American Indian Museum is open every day, except December 25. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, is open every day except Thanksgiving and December 25.

The Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantily, Virginia is open every day, except December 25.

Hours of operation vary for all 21 museums. Visit each Smithsonian location’s website for its specific opening and closing times.

Which Smithsonian museum is the most popular?

In 2022, the American Art Museum (With the Renwick Gallery, which is a branch of the American Art Museum) is the Smithsonian location that received the most visits: 1.1 million.

What famous items are kept in the Smithsonian museums?

At the time of writing, the Smithsonian houses 157.2 million objects and specimens, ranging from works of art to artifacts, and animals. A small sample of the most famous items in the Smithsonian collection are:

  • 1903 Wright Flyer. The first powered airplane built by the Wright brothers is kept at the National Air and Space Museum
  • Abraham Lincoln’s Top Hat kept at the National Museum of American History
  • The Command Module, Apollo 11, kept at the National Air and Space Museum
  • Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, kept at the National Museum of American History
  • Pumpkin by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

What is the oldest museum in the Smithsonian Institution?

The Arts and Industries Building in Washington, DC, is the oldest Smithsonian museum. It opened in 1881 and was America’s first National Museum.

8 underrated Smithsonian museums in DC, including galleries and gardens

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is an underrated Smithsonian location

Photo: BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock

Of all the Smithsonian garden spaces in DC, the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden deserves a special mention. Set in a rectangular space 14 feet below ground level, the space redefines the sunken garden concept for contemporary enjoyment. Here, you’ll find priceless works by Auguste Rodin and Yayoi Kusama, as well as Yoko Ono’s wish tree.

Hours of operation: The garden is open daily from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM.

Where: Independence Avenue and 7th Street, Washington, DC, 20560

National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of President Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC

Photo: Bumble Dee/Shutterstock

Located in Washington’s Chinatown neighborhood, the National Portrait Gallery exists so that visitors can “experience portraiture beyond the frame.” The space has the only complete set of presidential portraits in the US outside of the White House (a mere eight blocks away). But the presidential portraits are just one facet of a much larger collection that includes depictions of Marilyn Monroe, Venus and Serena Williams, and many more. The space has evolved from its former paintings-only policy to show portraits in photography, sculpture, and video.

Hours of operation: The National Portrait Gallery is open daily from 11:30 AM to 7 PM.

Where: 8th and G Streets NW, Washington, DC, 20001

National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian is a Smithsonian museum

Photo: Cvandyke/Shutterstock

Offering one of the most exhaustive collections of Indigenous art, media, objects, and photographs — not just in the US, but in the world — the National Museum of the American Indian is a must-visit to appreciate the past and present of Indigenous peoples. The site displays artifacts from the full breadth of inhabited lands in the Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America.

Hours of operation: The National Museum of the American Indian is open daily from 10 AM to 5:30 PM.

Where: 4th Street and Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC, 20024

Renwick Gallery

The Renwick Gallery is a Smithsonian museum in Washington DC

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This exhibit space, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is devoted to modern decorative and craft arts. Easily accessible by public transportation, and a stone’s throw from the White House, the Renwick Gallery promises an engaging visit and a feel for what’s happening in contemporary art right now.

Hours of operation: The Renwick Gallery is open daily from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM.

Where: 1661 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC, 20006

National Postal Museum

Vehicles on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Photo: Kit Leong/Shutterstock

Much more than a collection of stamps, the National Postal Museum tells the multi-layered story of the postal service in the United States, from Colonial America until now, thanks to a large collection of objects, including vehicles that have carried the mail (like the first post office bus), mailboxes, letter carrier uniforms, advertisements, and more.

Hours of operation: The National Postal Museum is open daily from 10 AM to 5:30 PM.

Where: 2 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, DC, 20002

Smithsonian Gardens

The Enid A. Haupt Garden is one of the Smithsonian Gardens

Photo: Kit Leong/Shutterstock

Summertime in Washington brings the capital’s green spaces to full bloom, and nowhere is this more true than in the Smithsonian Gardens. The Smithsonian Gardens is a 13-site group of outdoor zones for domestic and exotic plant life. Standout locations include the Ripley Garden, with its serpentine brick walkways and wide variety of plants; the Haupt Garden, which has large magnolia trees that are particularly beautiful in the early spring; and the Landscape of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where the plants were chosen to symbolize optimism, resiliency, and strength.

Hours of operation: All of the Smithsonian Gardens remain open 24 hours, except for the Haupt Garden which is open daily from dawn to dusk and closed on December 25.

Smithsonian Institution Building

The Smithsonian Institution Building also known as The Castle

Photo: Rob Crandall/Shutterstock

It’s easy to understand why the Smithsonian Institution Building is also known as The Castle. With its red stone facade and soaring turrets, the landmark on the National Mall has long delighted children and adults alike. Completed in 1855, the building houses the Smithsonian Visitor Center, the nerve center for the Smithsonian network. The site offers guidance on how to see and enjoy Washington, whether inside or outside the Smithsonian system of public spaces.

If you need a break from on-your-feet sightseeing — or need to cool off from the DC summer — the Castle Café has refreshments. For a different kind of chill, seek out the final resting place of James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian organization, near the building’s north entrance.

Hour of operation: Smithsonian Institution Building is currently closed for renovations.

Where: 1000 Jefferson Dr SW, Washington, DC, 20560

Anacostia Community Museum

The Anacostia Community Museum is located in the historically Black neighborhood by the same name. On its website, the museum states that its mission is to “preserve communities’ memories, struggles, and successes,” by offering events and other opportunities where “diverse voices and cultures can be heard.”

The Anacostia Community Museum’s exhibits center around themes like gentrification, cultural encounters, food justice, and more.

The Anacostia Musemm is open daily from 11 AM to 4 PM.

Where: 1901 Fort Pl SE, Washington, DC, 20020

The best hotels nears the Smithsonian museums in DC

Check out Matador’s selection of chic Airbnbs in Washington, DC, and our list of historic Washington, DC, hotels that have seen secrets and scandals.

We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend in DC! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay.

Hyatt Place Washington DC/National Mall

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Located within walking distance from many of the Smithsonian museums and only six minutes away from the National Mall, the Hyatt Place Washington DC/National Mall is a modern property that offers free breakfast, and free WiFi. There is a 24 hour-fitness center, 24/7 dining in three different venues, a rooftop bar, and a seasonal saltwater outdoor pool.

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Hilton Washington DC National Mall The Wharf

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Just a few minutes’ walk from several of the Smithsonian museums, including the Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art, the Hilton Washington DC National Mall The Wharf is a modern urban hotel with spacious and light-filled rooms and suites, a fitness center, and an outdoor pool. There are four dining options on side, including a Starbucks and a 24-hour grab-and-go market.

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citizenM Washington DC Capitol

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Located as close as you can be to the museums, galleries, and gardens of the Smithsonian Institutions in Washington, DC, the citizenM Washington DC Capitol is a modern, vibrant, and trendy property that offers huge XL king-size bed into each of its rooms and free WiFi. There’s a rooftop bar, a buffet breakfast (for a surcharge), and 24/7 food and drinks available.

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