Everyone knows about the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC’s crown jewel of museums and research centers established in 1846 “for the increased and diffusion of knowledge.” They’re among the world’s most visited museums and a major reason why millions of tourists traipse around the nation’s capital every year.
But the best museums in DC extend above and beyond the Smithsonian, including entire entities devoted to the news (the Newseum), spies (International Spy Museum), and solely women artists (National Museum of Women in the Arts). Large and small, eclectic and unique, they span a world of natural and cultural curiosities. Here are the best museums in DC, Smithsonian and not.
National Gallery of Art
One of the world’s finest collections of Western art, the National Gallery of Art on the National Mall is where you come to see rooms full of Old Masters and Impressionists (in the neoclassical West Building) and their more modern contemporaries (in the I.M. Pei-designed East Building).
A gift of Pittsburgh banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon in 1937 to the American people, the collection continues to expand—from the original 126 paintings and 26 sculptures, there are now more than 124,000 artworks and ever growing (with 900 or so on display at one time). Highlights include Auguste Renoir’s “A Girl with a Watering Can,” Wayne Thiebaud’s “Cakes,” and North America’s only da Vinci, Ginevra de’ Benci (be sure to peek at the emblematic portrait on its back side). The Sculpture Garden across the street showcases larger-than-life sculptures.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The epic National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall opened in 2016 to great fanfare, making it one of the top Washington D.C. attractions . You start at the lowest level, in the depths of the earth, symbolizing the devastating journey formerly enslaved people took from Africa into a life of servitude.
The exhibits, spanning the Civil War, Restoration, Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and more, don’t shy aware from the horrific realities, forcing visitors to examine some brutal truths of America’s very foundation.
On the upper levels, African-American arts and culture are celebrated with original artifacts, including Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Marian Anderson’s red-orange silk dress, which she wore while singing at her famous Easter Sunday concert in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial (after being rebuked from Constitution Hall).
The Phillips Collection
Visitors flock to the Phillips Collection for one famous painting in particular: Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” acquired by museum founder and art collector Duncan Phillips in 1923. But you’ll find plenty of other masterpieces in this intimate house museum in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, established in 1921 and reigning as the country’s first contemporary art museum.
What truly sets the collection apart is the fact that Phillips was more interested in paintings that spoke to him more than their market value—though his instinct for singular works was spot-on. The chapel-like Rothko Room was designed to the artist’s precise specifications.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
The elegant Renaissance Revival-style building in downtown DC is the perfect setting for the National Museum of Women in the Arts , the world’s only major museum devoted to women’s contributions to the arts. You’ll find the big hitters here, including Camille Claudel, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo, as well as lesser-knowns, including Lavinia Fontana, Rosa Bonheur, and Justine Kurland. In total, more than 4,500 paintings span the 16th century to modern-day.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Be prepared to be wowed as you enter the Boeing Milestones of Flight, a great hall in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum filled with historic celebrity air- and spacecraft—Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis among them. From there, twenty-two galleries take you through the story of our fascination with flight, showcasing digital displays, artifacts, and interactive exhibits.
Touch a veritable moon rock, climb into a giant Boeing 747 cockpit, and test your skills at air-to-air combat in an F-4 Phantom II jet fighter. No wonder it’s one of the top Washington D.C. attractions.