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.
Table of Contents
Collection of Museums
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.”Smithsonian
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.
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.”Hirshhorn
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.