12 Free Museums to Visit in Washington D.C.
The variety and quality of free Museums in Washington D.C. attracts academics, researchers, tourists, and locals to our Nation’s Capital every day. But with so many options, planning an itinerary can be daunting! To make your decision a little easier, we’ve compiled a list of the 12 best free museums you should visit during your trip to Washington D.C.
1. National Museum of American History
1300 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., D.C. 20560
Fall & Winter Hours: Monday – Sunday 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM (October – February)
Spring & Summer Hours: Monday – Sunday 10:00 AM – 7:30 PM (March – September)
The National Museum of American History is home to more than 1.8 million objects and three miles worth of archival collections, all preserved to explore the fundamental ideals and major themes in American history and culture. Within the museum walls you’ll find a range of artifacts from the original star-spangled banner, to the first artificial heart, to Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
Major exhibits revolving around innovation, money, and business provide a rage of perspectives and challenge visitors to consider what makes them distinctly American. This may be one of the very best free museums in Washington, D.C. There truly is too much to capture in a few sentences, so we recommend putting it at the top of your list, as you could easily spend an entire day browsing the collections and connecting with history.
2. National Gallery of Art
6th and Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20565
Hours: Daily, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
The National Gallery of Art was established in 1937 by a Congressional resolution, creating another one of the best free museums in D.C. Funding for the gallery, which was modeled after the National Gallery in London, was provided by Andrew Mellon, an American politician, philanthropist, and art collector. The museum opened in 1941 with roughly 150 paintings and sculptures.
Today the gallery includes two buildings and a sculpture garden, free for all to visit 363 days per year. Inside you’ll find more than 150,000 pieces of art in the form of paintings, sculptures, photos, prints, and drawings which span the history of Western art.
3. United States Botanic Garden
100 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20001
Conservatory Hours: Conservatory – Daily, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Outdoor Garden Hours: Daily, 7:30 AM – 5:00 PM
Among the free museums in D.C., you’ll find a living plant museum, which was part of George Washington’s original vision for the Capital City of our Nation. The U.S. Botanic Garden demonstrates the importance of plants, not just to the well-being of humans, but to the survival of our planet.
This museum maintains an ordered, documented, labeled collection of more than 65,000 living plants. The collections include economic plants, medicinal plants, orchids, carnivorous plants, succulents, historic specimens, and more, all of which are used for exhibits, study, and exchange.
Inside the Conservatory you’ll find a plethora of sensory experiences. From tropical rain forests to desert plants, the museum means to highlight the diversity of plants around the world. Outdoors, the National Garden features plants native to the mid-Atlantic region as well as a rose garden, butterfly garden, and water garden.
4. National Museum of African Art
950 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20560
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday, 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM
Located in the former townhome of Frederick Douglass and with a mission of teaching visitors how to look at African art in a way that promotes cross-cultural communication, the Museum of African Art began as a private education institution in 1964. In 1981 it transitioned to a public institution, was renamed the National Museum of African Art, and became another free museum in Washington D.C.
Between the collections, research facilities, conservation lab, exhibits, education, and public outreach programs, the Museum has expanded it’s reach and provides a rich assortment of artistic traditions. Exhibitions range from historic recapturing’s like Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, to modern collections such as I Am…Contemporary Women Artists of Africa. Each brings a unique perspective to conversations about the beauty, power, and diversity of African culture.
5. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024
Hours: Thursday – Tuesday, 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM
Note: Due to current restrictions you need to reserve your free ticket in advance for a specific time via Ticketmaster. https://www.ushmm.org/information/visit-the-museum/admission-tickets
Through this living commemoration to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is among the most popular free museums in D.C. It aims to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity through its educational programs and experiences.
The permanent exhibit, for which the museum is most well-known, spans three stories and provides a narrative history of the Holocaust via artifacts, photographs, personal objects, eyewitness testimony, and video footage. Additional exhibitions explore the American response to the Holocaust as well as the experience of Americans who witnessed Nazi atrocities first-hand.
6. National Museum of Natural History
1000 Madison Drive NW, Washington, D.C. 20560
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday, 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM
The artifacts contained within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History tell the story of our planet and the ways in which humans have interacted with it throughout history. With a collection that includes over 145 million objects, the Natural History Museum provides a one-of kind-adventure which is sure to deepen anyone’s appreciation for the natural world.
Since the museum opened its doors in 1910, the list of artifacts has done nothing but grow from the original 10 million objects on display. Today you can gaze at the Hope Diamond, view a coral reef, take a photo from inside the jaws of a megalodon, and touch a live tarantula – all in just a few hours.
7. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue and 7th Street, Washington, D.C. 20560
Museum Hours: Wednesday – Sunday, 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM
Sculpture Garden Hours: Daily, 10:00 AM – 4:30 PM
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is full of contemporary art and seeks to create meaningful experiences that allow art, artists, audiences, and ideas to converge in a single space. Inside you’ll find a significant collection of postwar American and European art in the form of paintings, sculpture, works on paper, digital media, and performance.
Outdoor sculpture gardens are more like open air art galleries. Sunken 14 feet below the surface of the National Mall, they offer a peaceful location from which to enjoy a rotating array of modern, outdoor art. Unique among the free museums in Washington, D.C., you’ll definitely want to make time for the Hirshhorn.
8. National Museum of the American Indian
4th Street & Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20560
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM
What started as a passion project for George Gustav Heye in 1897 has turned into one of the largest collections of Native artifacts in the Western Hemisphere. With catalog records representing over 12,000 years of history and 1,200 indigenous American cultures, you’ll find works of religious, historical, and aesthetic importance in addition to items which were created for everyday use.
While a good portion of the artifacts at the National Museum of the American Indian are archeological in nature, the museum’s holdings also include approximately 324,000 photographs dating from 1860 to present day. These collections have the potential to increase awareness of American Indian history and the relationship of native Americans to non-native societies.
9. National Postal Museum
2 Massachusetts Avenue, NE, Washington, D.C. 20002
Hours: Friday – Tuesday, 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM
You read that right! There is an entire museum dedicated to the preservation, study, and presentation of postal history. Located in the historic City Post Office Building, this Free museum covers 100,000 square feet and uses exhibits, public programs, and their own research to tell the story of America’s postal history from Colonial times to present day.
Visitors to the National Postal Museum can stroll along a Colonial post road, ride a mail stagecoach, meander through a 1920’s small town post office, and so much more. This collection was established in 1886 and began with a sheet of 10-cent confederate postage stamps. Gifts from individuals and governments have increased the collection to today’s whopping total of close to 6 million items.
10. National Portrait Gallery
8th and G Streets, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday 11:30 AM – 7:00 PM
The National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1962 to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shaped and continue to shape our nation’s history, development, and culture. Researchers work to ensure all historical perspectives are accurately represented, adding to this ever-evolving narrative on a regular basis.
Initially restricted to paintings, prints, and drawings, collections have grown to encompass over 23,000 items of all mediums. Within the museum walls you’ll find portraits of nearly every influential person in American history from George Washington, to Pocahontas, to Ida B. Wells, and so many more.
Outside of the white house, the National Portrait Gallery’s America’s Presidents exhibit is the only place you’ll find a complete collection of presidential portraits. This collection receives new additions with each succeeding president.
11. National Archives Museum
701 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20408
Hours: Daily 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM
With so much American history contained under one roof, you won’t want to miss this one. Milestone documents including the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights can all be found in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives Museum.
In addition to the founding documents listed above, this free museum in Washington, D.C. houses the articles deemed most important by the Federal Government, all preserved and available for public viewing. The public vaults house fascinating original records such as President Lincoln’s telegrams from the Civil War, audio recordings from the oval office, important treaties, and compelling stories of individual citizens. There is so much to see and do at the National Archives Museum that we recommend getting an early start on this one.
12. National Museum of Asian Art
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art comprise the National Museum of Asian Art and are dedicated to maintaining, exhibiting, and illuminating exemplary works of Asian art. The Freer Museum was DC’s first art museum on the Smithsonian campus, a gift from railroad entrepreneur Charles Lang Freer. The Sackler Gallery was added in 1987 thanks to funds and 1,000 objects from physician and medical publisher, Dr. Arthur M. Sackler. Combined, they exist not only for the sake of displaying art, but to address broad questions of culture and identity in the contemporary world.
With more than 45,000 objects originating from ancient east-Asian countries, this free museum in D.C. is the nation’s foremost center for the care and scientific study of Asian art. Researchers work to increase the understanding of the artwork by bringing together a broad portfolio of exhibitions which include sculpture, paintings, textiles, photographs, and other media.
Reserve Your Stay Near Washington, D.C. at The Hotel at UMD
Conveniently located near several major airports and interstates, and just four miles from the D.C. border, the Hotel at University of Maryland is the perfect home base for your visit. Easily hit each of these free museums in D.C. by catching the Metro at the College Park Station, located less than a mile from our front door.