Washington DC

Smithsonian Museums: 2-Day Itinerary

Smithsonian museums

If you can only devote two days to visiting the Smithsonian museums, don’t despair. I have the itinerary for you! You can see all nine Smithsonian museums in Washington DC. PLUS admission is free to all Smithsonian museums.

I have left time in the early morning and evening to walk the full length of the National Mall, explore the U.S. Capitol grounds and the U.S. Botanic Garden, and watch the sunrise over the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial.

But the #1 thing you need is comfortable walking shoes! You’ll walk a minimum of five miles a day on my self-guided Smithsonian Museums tour. (You will also fall instantly to sleep when your head hits the pillow at night.)

Fortunately, adidas offered to send me a pair of hiking shoes which provided ample arch support. They had a good workout on the gravel and dirt paths on the National Mall. Also, if it rained, I wouldn’t be sloshing around in wet shoes.

Collection of Museums

Smithsonian Institution

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Visitors often mistakenly think it is one big museum.

“Collectively called the Smithsonian Institution, this world-renowned museum and research complex consists of 17 museums, galleries and a zoo.”


The Smithsonian Institution is home to some of the world’s most famous objects, including the Hope Diamond, the original “Star-Spangled Banner,” the 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, and the space shuttle Discovery.

“The scope of objects in Smithsonian collections is staggering—from ancient Chinese bronzes to the Star-Spangled Banner; from a 3.5 billion-year-old fossil to the Apollo lunar landing module; from the ruby slippers featured in The Wizard of Oz to presidential memorabilia,” according to the Smithsonian.

Self-Guided Smithsonian Museums Tour

My self-guided tour will consist of visiting nine Smithsonian museums over a two-day span. Eight museums are located along the National Mall. The National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum are situated in the Penn Quarter neighborhood (which is just four blocks away).

Day One Smithsonian Museum Tour

Start your first day by taking a stroll around the U.S. Capitol grounds. Stop to rest on a bench at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Your first stop is the National Museum of Natural History at 10 a.m.

If you allocate 1.5 hours to each museum visit, you can see four museums on your first day of the tour: the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, the African American History and Culture Museum, and the National Museum of Asian Art.

While all these museums close at 5:30 p.m., the gates of the Enid A. Haupt Garden will stay open until 6 p.m. (7 p.m. on Sunday). Enjoy a stroll around the 4.2-acre public garden, which is set outside the Smithsonian Castle.

National Museum of Natural History

Address: 10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560

The tour will start at the National Museum of Natural History. It is located at 9th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, which is a short five-minute walk from the Archives-Navy Memorial Penn Quarter or the Smithsonian metro stops.

Be sure to read the biography of Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean before you stop by to ogle the Hope Diamond. Although she denied it, her life seemed cursed after she acquired the Hope Diamond. The gem is dark grey-blue. 

TIP: Check out the Butterfly Pavilion, Giant Great White Shark teeth, Triceratops, and Easter Island heads.

National Museum of American History

Address: 1300 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560

Rather than trying to see everything historical at the National Museum of American History, consider seeking one unusual object. I suggest Abraham Lincoln’s Top Hat.

Washingtonian hat designer J. Y. Davis created this top hat. After his son Willie’s tragic death, Lincoln added a black silk mourning band. The last time he put it on was to go to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Today it is one of the Institution’s most treasured objects.

Leave ample time to browse the First Ladies exhibit. Examine more than two dozen gowns from the Smithsonian’s 100-year-old collection worn by Jacqueline Kennedy, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Frances Cleveland, and Lou Hoover.

TIP: Check out Babe Ruth’s bat, Julia Child’s kitchen, Dorothy’s red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and former President Bill Clinton’s saxophone.

African American History and Culture Museum

Address: 1400 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560

The stately building that houses the African American History and Culture Museum cannot escape the attention of anyone walking toward the Washington Monument.

Although the building didn’t open its doors until 2016, its base and shaft feature a classical Greco-Roman form. Lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon styled the corona (top) after three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. An ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice wraps the building.

“This Museum will tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture. This is America’s Story and this museum is for all Americans.”

Lonnie G. Bunch, III (Founding Director, NMAAHC)

Free timed-entry passes are required for entry.

TIP: Check out Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac, Harriet Tubman’s hymn book, the Greensboro lunch counter, and the slave shackles.

National Museum of Asian Art

Address: 1050 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20004

The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery together form the National Museum of Asian Art.

Journey through time and examine more than 46,000 objects from the arts of China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, the ancient Near East, and the Islamic world at the National Museum of Asian Art. Peruse 19th Century American art.

The #1 thing to visit is the “Peacock Room,” designed by artist James McNeill Whistler. This extravagant room features an avian motif. It showcases a Chinese blue-and-white porcelain collection.

TIP: Learn more about the Hindu deity Vishnu, the deities Brahma and Indra, the crowned and bejeweled Buddha, and the Hindu deity Shiva.

Day 2 Smithsonian Museum Tour

Set an ambitious goal to visit five Smithsonian museums on the second day of your self-guided tour: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of the American Indian, the National Portrait Gallery, and the SAAM.

(I suggest purchasing food in the cafe so you can enjoy a picnic outdoors. (See my guide to Top 10 Things To See at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Gardens.)

The National Portrait Gallery and the SAAM are open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. so this allows you to visit in the evening. You’ll want to plan your visit at the end of your day two tour to maximize the late closing time at the SAAM and National Portrait Gallery. They are located in Penn Quarter so you can choose from dozens of restaurants. I recommend getting a reservation for one of Jose Andres’ four award-winning restaurants, such as Oyamel.

Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building

Address: 900 Jefferson Dr SW, Washington, DC 20004

The second oldest building in the Smithsonian Institution, the Arts and Industries Building (AIB) opened in 1881. It was the first U.S. National Museum. This architectural gem reopened in 2021 with the landmark FUTURES exhibition. It is now temporarily closed. 

Pantere Garden at Smithsonian
Pantere Garden

But you will definitely want to take a photo outside the building as well as stroll through the Enid A. Haupt Gardens outside the Smithsonian Castle.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Address: Independence Ave SW &, 7th St SW, Washington, DC 20560

This museum houses abstract and modern art as well as an outdoor sculpture collection. Architect Gordon Bunshaft designed this strikingly modern geometrical cylindrical building. The structure features preset concrete and crushed pink granite. 

“The Hirshhorn holds one of the most important collections of twentieth-century art in the world. We also collect significant works by contemporary living artists.”


My favorite part is the outdoor Sculpture Garden. While the sunken garden is currently closed for renovations, you can see more than 30 sculptures displayed in the garden surrounding the building.

“With more than thirty works of art displayed year-round, the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden and Plaza offer visitors a contemplative haven in the heart of our nation’s capital,” according to the museum.

National Air and Space Museum

Address: 600 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560

By visiting the National Air and Space Museum, you can learn how the Wright Brothers inaugurated the aerial age. The former bicycle mechanics navigated the world’s first successful flights of “a powered heavier-than-air flying machine.”

The Canard biplane features one 12-horsepower Wright horizontal four-cylinder engine. It drives two pusher propellers via a sprocket-and-chain transmission system. The Non-wheeled, linear skids act as landing gear. The biplane features a Natural fabric finish; there is no sealant or paint of any kind.

Free timed-entry passes are required for entry.

TIP: Check out Air France Concorde, Stealth Bomber, and Space Shuttle Discovery.

National Museum of the American Indian

Address: 4th St SW, Washington, DC 20560

The National Museum of the American Indian is one museum with two locations (Washington DC and New York City). You will be visiting the DC museum. See a rotating lineup of exhibitions, such as “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.”

I highly recommend the “Return to a Native Place: Algonquian Peoples of the Chesapeake.” The Nanticoke, Powhatan, and Piscataway tribes lived in the Chesapeake Bay region. (This region now comprises Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC.)

Examine their everyday possessions as well as ceremonial objects in this compact exhibition. See maps and photographs as well as interactive exhibits. The Native People exhibit provides an overview from the 1600s to the present.

Leave time to explore the outdoor gardens. Signs scattered around the museum grounds remind visitors that they have entered a “Native place.” It should be treated with respect, so visitors are requested not to climb on the boulders on rocks. The museum faces the U.S. Capitol and the U.S. Botanic Garden. You will definitely want to visit the Bartholdi Fountain.

Through their plants and trees, the Smithsonian recreates the habitats of forests, meadows, wetlands, and croplands to show the restored environments of the Chesapeake Bay and Piedmont regions from four hundred years ago.

National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Address (National Portrait Gallery): 8th St NW & G St NW, Washington, DC 20001

Address (SAAM): G Street Northwest &, 8th St NW, Washington, DC 20004

The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) have been housed together in the old Patent Office Building since 1968. They are two different museums. Book a free docent-led walking tour to learn more about the historic Greek Revival building as well as the collection. 

The Presidential portraits are a favorite for visitors. “The nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, this exhibition lies at the heart of the Portrait Gallery’s mission to tell the American story through the individuals who have shaped it,” according to the museum.

I also enjoy their special exhibitions, such as “Many Wests: Artists Shape An American Idea.” It runs through January 14, 2024.

TIP: Check out First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait, Adams Memorial (Augustus Saint-Gaudens), and Lexington (horse portrait).

Early Morning Outing

If you are not exhausted after day one, I recommend you start your second day at the Lincoln Memorial. If you can manage to arrive at sunrise, you will be treated to a beautiful spectacle at the reflecting pool.

Steer left to visit the equines at the brand-new U.S. Park Police Horse Stables on the National Mall. The state-of-the-art and sustainable facility is located next to the Korean Veterans War Memorial. As you glide past the Wall of Remembrance, you will spy horses in the double-fenced viewing paddock.

Feel free to say hello, sing a song to the horses, or just act silly. They may be the friendliest furry ambassadors that you’ll meet on the National Mall. Stare into the eyes of a horse and you won’t be able to turn away. The only thing you can’t do is pet the horses because they are on their “break” from work.

You’ll even have time to enter the Washington Monument when it opens at 9 a.m. if you reserve your tickets in advance. Or you can stand in line to get free, same-day tickets at the Washington Monument Lodge on 15th Street near the Washington Monument. But supplies are limited and advance reservations are strongly recommended.

You Might Also Like

  • Adéle Land
    October 28, 2023 at 6:56 am

    So interesting! I’d particularly love to see the Air and Space museum.

    • Terri
      October 28, 2023 at 1:12 pm

      It is a favorite for so many people. I have taken my son and daughter repeatedly since they were toddlers. I hope you get to visit the Smithsonian museums one day.

  • simplyjolayne
    October 28, 2023 at 8:04 am

    Funny story about the Air and Space Museum. My husband is a bit of an airplane nerd. He was explaining to our daughters about the attitude of plane, when it shifts right to left. He then asked, “Do you know what it is called when the nose goes up and down?” Our oldest promptly replied, “Sass?”

    • Terri
      October 28, 2023 at 1:11 pm

      Hahaha I love it! And so true.

  • Amy Tull
    October 28, 2023 at 9:56 am

    Some of the US treasures! It’s definitely time for me to go back! Thanks for sharing.

    • Terri
      October 28, 2023 at 1:11 pm

      I agree! I think you should visit every 5 years at minimum. There is always new things to see.

  • Wendy
    October 28, 2023 at 11:37 am

    I was just in D.C. two weeks ago and saw several of these museums. I absolutely love walking the National Mall, seeing all the monuments and just taking it all in. Such a great city!

    • Terri
      October 28, 2023 at 1:10 pm

      I love my city! I walk almost every day on your National mall and US Capitol grounds with my dog. I am always excited to hear about visitors’ positive experiences visiting the Smithsonian museums. They are a jewel in the nation’s capital.

  • Linda (LD Holland)
    October 28, 2023 at 12:13 pm

    We were amazed at how many different Smithsonian museums there were. Hubby and I are space geeks so we visit the Air and Space Museum on every trip. I like the idea of picking just one key thing to see in a museum if you are doing a lot of them in one day.

    • Terri
      October 28, 2023 at 1:09 pm

      The Smithsonian museums can be overwhelming and frankly exhausting if you try to see everything. I think if it a first (or second) visit to the Smithsonian museums that you should try to visit all 9 due to their proximity on the National Mall. This way you can admire the different architectural styles of the buildings as well as see the gorgeous gardens.

  • Heather
    October 28, 2023 at 7:25 pm

    Such a great itinerary and post. I studied in DC so it’s fun to see all the places I used to know much better than I do now. 😱

    • Terri
      October 29, 2023 at 6:44 am

      Students are so lucky! They get four years to slowly visit all DC’s museums and art galleries.

  • Sharyn McCullum
    October 28, 2023 at 7:32 pm

    I’ve seen the Smithsonian on TV shows and would love to visit. Not sure I would last 2 days though! Too much interesting stuff all at once to absorb, I’d probably have to do a different museum over a week or two!

    • Terri
      October 29, 2023 at 6:43 am

      It is absolutely better if you can “slow visit” one museum at a time but some people only get 1 or 2 trips to Washington DC in a lifetime.

  • Tara | Silly Little Kiwi
    October 28, 2023 at 8:36 pm

    I’ve been wanting to make it back to DC! Will have to save this post to reference later 🙂

    • Terri
      October 29, 2023 at 6:42 am

      I hope you get to visit Washington DC. There is so much to see & do. I am a local and I still have a long list of places to see lol!

  • Stephanie
    October 28, 2023 at 9:41 pm

    This is such a great itinerary for exploring the Smithsonian museums! I’d love to spend a couple of days exploring these museums

    • Terri
      October 29, 2023 at 6:42 am

      Thank you Stephanie. I think if visitors decide to just see a few things at each Smithsonian museum, they can really enjoy the breadth of the Institution’s collections.

  • Alanna
    October 29, 2023 at 10:47 am

    There’s so many to choose from. I really enjoyed the Air and Space Museum but I’d love to checkout the Museum of the American Indian.

    • Terri
      October 31, 2023 at 6:17 am

      The Air and Space Museum 🚀 is a favorite for visitors.

  • Danielle
    October 29, 2023 at 1:19 pm

    Phew! I don’t know if I have the stamina to get all these Smithsonian museums in a single trip, let alone just 2 days. Good for you!

    • Terri
      October 31, 2023 at 6:16 am

      It is definitely a hard core way to tackle all 9 Smithsonian museums in two days but I hate for visitors not to see all these gems.

  • Ashley
    November 1, 2023 at 2:31 pm

    Oh wow! I definitely did not know that it was actually a collection of museums. Sounds like a lot to see there!

    • Terri
      November 3, 2023 at 7:15 am

      I only listed the Smithsonian museums to locate on or near the National Mall in Washington DC. There are other museums in the city elsewhere plus the National Zoo!