Exterior of the National History Museum

The Ultimate Guide to the Smithsonians in Washington | What to Skip and What You Can’t Miss

Last updated on August 16th, 2019

It’s hard to visit Washington DC without entering at least one Smithsonian Museum. But what if you want to do them all? Can you do it on a weekend? Or do you need a full week? There were a few museums that blew me away, while others, I quickly found a few Smithsonians that I probably could have skipped altogether. Here is your guide to the Smithsonians in Washington DC.

A Guide to the Smithsonians in Washington DC

General Tips

The Smithsonian Institute gives a long list of tips to get you through security faster and have a better experience. I put them to the test and found out that they don’t all pan out. So let’s break them down a bit.

Skip the backpack to get through security quicker

(FALSE)

That’s because there are usually a dozen or more people in front of you all with bags. In some cases having the bag may make it easier to go through security, especially if you forget to pull out a dime out of your pocket and then set off the alarm. But since they don’t have a line for people without bags, it doesn’t help.

The trick to having your bag go through quickly is to have few pockets and very little inside.

Each museum has different security protocols. Sometimes your bag will go through an x-ray and other times you’ll have someone poke through it… literally. To ensure things go quick, bring the bare minimum to the museum. Have as few pockets on your bag as possible.

Avoiding the Crowds By Skipping Peak Times

(True)

The Smithsonian Institute recommends avoiding visiting on weekends, holidays, during the National Cherry Blossom Holiday Festival and Winter Break. Arriving early on weekends and late on weekdays. For the most part, they are spot on.

During the week, the crowds are manageable. In the morning the museums will be flooded with younger kids and teenagers on field trips. That’s why they recommend going later in the day. The sweet spot really is from 4-5:30. You can get through the museum in that amount of time, as long as you don’t linger.

If you have to do on the weekend, get there early. I’m talking being one of those people lined up waiting for the place to open. From then, go straight to the top. By the time you get to the bottom, there will be crowds, but at least you’ll have the top floor to yourself.

Inside the Air and Space Museum

Pro Tip for Planning Your Visit

Most people are visiting for a set amount of time and can’t always be there just during the sweet spot for low traffic. That’s why you should prioritize the Smithsonians based on their traffic levels. This will give you a better idea of how popular they are. Try and arrange your itinerary around so you are on the most popular museums on during the week and you’ll have a better experience overall.

In 2018, here are the most popular Smithsonian Museums:
National Air and Space Museum – 6.2 Million
National Museums of Natural History – 4.8 Million
National Museums of American History – 4.1 Million
National Zoo – 1.8 Million
National Museum of the American Indian – 1.1 Million
*Data from the Smithsonian News desk.

Can I bring a Camera?

The Smithsonians love it when you bring your camera. Feel free to share and hashtag your pics. There are a few things that they do not want you to photograph, like to the Star Spangled Banner flag. It’s too fragile and can’t handle flashes. They don’t want to risk someone having it going off, so no pictures at all. If there is something that you can’t take pictures of, you’ll see plenty of signs and usually staff nearby reminding you that there is no photography.

What about Strollers?

A limited number of strollers are allowed in the building. With the crowds and trying to navigate inside, I recommend leaving them at home if possible. A few locations, like the Museum of Natural History, relies mainly on stairs, where others use escalators. They all have elevators for those that need them, but who wants to wait for them if you don’t have too.

How Long Do You Need?

Give yourself 1-3 hours per museum depending on your level of interest. It’s possible to see 3-4 in one day. It will be an exhausting day, but feasible. If it’s 4:30 and you’re trying to decide if you can get into another one, you can. At around 5:15, they’ll start warning you they will be closing before they officially kick everyone out.

Do We Need to Buy Tickets?

The Smithsonians are all free to visit. The Museum of African America History and Culture does require an advanced time entry ticket. It’s still free but harder to come to because of its popularity. They a currently releasing passes the first Wednesday of the Month, each month. You can get them here; https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/passes. There are also some same-day online passes and walk up passes available too.

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography

The List of Smithsonian Museums in DC

National Air and Space Museum

The power of what humans can do is unreal. The museum is filled with lots of fun artifacts, including spaceships, lunar landers, space suits, and original aircraft. Add ons inside include things like simulators and shows about our galaxy for a fee. But it is still one of my favorite museums to visit.

You don’t need as much time on this one because of the size of the artifacts. A lot of the things were prototypes, as the original lunar modules were left on the moon. The museum was going through some changes while I was there, getting new displays ready so a portion of the building was blocked off. My biggest complaint was that some rooms were hot while others had airconditioning. I also found limited places to sit. On a 90 degree day, while you’ve been walking non-stop, it was noticeable.

The National Air and Space Museum is a Must See Museum.

National Museums of Natural History

The National Museums of Natural History was on my list for a long time. Inside it is filled with bones from all different creatures, including Dinasores. It has precious jewels and gems like the hope diamond and Marie Antoinette’s Diamond Earrings. They had multiple Mummys on display and other random things.

The place was nuts when we visited, making it hard to get up close to anything. Beyond that, it felt like dumping ground where they put things that didn’t have a good category. I was disappointed in the number of Dinasores on display. And the other animals on display were only of their skeletons. I would have liked to see the fur and depiction of what it would have looked like. I also felt that charging $7.50 admission to a butterfly garden was a little steep.

The National Museum of Natural History is one you can skip.

National Museums of American History

The National Museums of American History holds some of America’s most iconic treasures. You’ll find things like Dorthy’s Ruby Red Slippers from the Wizard of Oz and Spiderman’s Shield from the Marvel Comic Movies.  Almost every First Lady’s Inogrial Dresses are displayed along with China from the White House Collection. This is something you don’t get to see on the White House Tour.

Not everything has a pop culture reference though. Things like a life jacket from the Titanic is on display. There is a representation from every war. Memorabilia that is at the Vietnam Memorial is picked up every night and included in the museum’s display. But the most shocking artifact was some steel beam leftover from the World Trade Center.

My personal favorites were getting to see the Star-Spangled Banner. The Flag is 30 x 42 feet. It was made by Mary Pickersgill and inspired our National Anthem. The flag is hidden behind a glass wall. Because of its condition, they won’t let guest take pictures. My other favorite piece was the microphone that FDR used for his fireside chats.

The National Museum of American History is a Must See Museum.

The National Zoo

The only place to see pandas in the US is the National Zoo. They just left the San Diego Zoo to return back to China. I thought it was a good zoo overall, but small. There was a nice mix of different animals, including Lions and Tigers and Bears. Except the Tigers were hiding when we were there.

The panda enclosures were a lot of fun to see. They had multiple enclosures and vantage points at all of them. Getting there at 9am and making them a priority, allowed us to see them when they were most active and eating.

A few criticisms of the place. 95% of the zoo was all outdoors on a hill. You start at the top and work your way back up. There were brief sections indoors for the animals. Some buildings like the Amazon didn’t open until 10 am. If you are using Uber to get there, make sure to select the front entrance. Ours took us to a back entrance. Thankfully our driver re-routed us to the front making it easier to get picked up.

Visit the National Zoo if you have time or panda’s are on your list.

National Museum of the American Indian 

One of the newest museums to hit the scene is the National Museum of American Indian. American Indian includes everything in North and South America, which threw me off a little. They had artifacts from lots of different tribes all ranging in different climates. It was interesting to see their way of life.

There was also a section completely relating to their influence on America and how they shaped the cultures. Peace Pipes, Treaties and other things are on display. They also delved into how they shaped pop culture with Sitting Bull, comics, magazine depictions, and Indian Motorcycles.

This was the best of all the Museums for me and the least crowded. Everything was on the top two floors of the building. They also had great air-conditioning.

The National Museum of the American Indian is a must see for all Americans.

Other Things to Note

Things to note about the Smithsonians is that they have so many different artifacts hiding away. They do a great job of mixing in the artifacts with informational displays. But the balance is skewed towards informational displays. I would have liked to see more stuff. Especially knowing how much they have. The Dorthy’s Ruby Red Slippers, for example, have a wing of the museum all to themselves. On busy days, they may need that much space. But I would love to have seen more collectibles in the room. I also noticed on a lot of signs they were reproductions or models of the originals. When I go to a museum, I want to see the real thing.

Smithsonian Displays

I also didn’t get a chance to visit the African American History and Culture Museum. It is in high demand and not something we planned for initially on our visit. There are a few other Museums including 9 different art galleries and the Postal Museum that we didn’t have time for either. I prioritized seeing the Van Goghs that are housed at the National Gallery of Art. If I have time, I would love to have done them all.

The last time I was in Washington DC was over 10 years ago. Walking into the Smithsonian it was completely different. They are constantly working on remodeling, fixing and changing out the exhibits. It’s a great feature that keeps people coming back. It also means that you may find yourself blocked off from portions of the museum like we were for the Air and Space Museum.

Are Visiting the Smithsonians Worth It?

Yes! Yes! and Yes! I may be a little critical of some but that’s only because most people have limited time while they are in DC. I think they do a great job of displaying our history. It’s hard not to leave without finding something completely new and exciting.

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