I spent a month in Washington DC last spring and tried to explore every inch of it. With so much to do, any discerning traveler would be wise to narrow down their list of attractions. It took me many exhausting weeks to see all that I did, and still more remains. Here is a list of the museums I enjoyed the most, and ten more will follow in a post in the coming weeks!
1) Ford’s Theatre and Peterson House
As perhaps the most told story in American history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is well documented. Start your tour in the auditorium of Ford’s Theatre, and aim to get a seat in the balcony across from the Presidential box. An historian recounts the tale from the perspective of the man who shot John Wilkes Booth, and it is riveting. Afterwards, head across the street to Peterson House, where Lincoln lived out his last hours. The attached museum displays memorabilia from his funeral and discusses the repercussions of his assassination.
2) National Archives Building
The National Archives Building houses original copies of the formative documents of the United States Government. The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution are all on view under dim lighting in the main rotunda. Downstairs, walk through exhibits discussing American democracy and see an original version of the Magna Carta.
3) National Museum of Natural History
Amazingly, this museum is the third most visited in the world, and the most visited natural history museum in the world. As a self proclaimed connoisseur of natural history museums, I was relatively unimpressed by the collection on view. The exhibits are clearly set up for children and very few specimens are actually on display considering the immense size of the museum. The building itself is very beautiful, with a central rotunda spanning floor to ceiling. The Hope Diamond was the highlight of my visit, and a nearby exhibit dedicated to jewels once owned by royalty.
4) National Museum of Health and Medicine
This Museum is not in Washington DC proper, and was one hell of a trek to get to without a car. However, it houses the bullet that killed Lincoln as well as many other macabre items from early medicine. A room dedicated to the Civil War recounts journals of the soldiers and doctors and what they suffered through. As a whole, this museum doesn’t focus on health and medicine generally, but how it relates to war.
5) National Museum of American History
Almost every museum in Washington DC focuses solely on the American aspect of whatever it is dedicated to, and this is no different. The artifacts cover the gamut, from the development of transportation to Julia Child’s kitchen. Personal favorites relate to pop culture, including Burt and Ernie puppets from Sesame Street and Dorothy’s ruby red slippers.
6) National Gallery of Art
The collection housed here is vast, with two separate buildings to cover different epochs. The main building houses innumerable works from the great masters, with dozens which are highly significant to art history. Paintings by Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Monet, and Vermeer barely scratch the surface of great artists on view. The East Building houses more modern works, and more mediums as well. Be sure to also meander through the sculpture garden during your visit.
7) National Air and Space Museum
The fifth most visited museum in the world, even those not particularly interested in space travel can make a discovery. I found the history of commercial flying particularly fascinating. The early restrictions for stewardesses, the prohibitive cost and even the traveler’s wardrobe are all aspects of flying that have changed drastically. The huge two storey atriums filled with air and space craft are certainly a sight to behold.
8) National Building Museum
The National Building Museum is another incredibly impressive building. Originally the Pension Building and the site of several inaugural balls, this cavernous space is full of small details. The museum is now home to rotating exhibits relating to architecture and design. While these require an entrance fee, the Great Hall is free to visit and certainly worth a look.
9) National Postal Museum
Despite what you may think would be contained within a postal museum, I found this to be one of my favorites in Washington DC. The history of the mail system, how it works, and the crazy things that people have tried to send through it are truly fascinating. The first floor houses a pretty run-of-the-mill stamp exhibit, with the more exciting items downstairs. The exhibit on disasters, crime and the role of the Postal Service had me completely enthralled.
This is hands down my favorite museum in Washington DC, and fittingly the most expensive. The museum contains artifacts from some of the biggest news events in history, including pieces of the Berlin Wall and an antenna from the World Trade Center. There are exhibits on the FBI, the development and progression of how people receive the news, Pulitzer Prize photographs, and the dangers of journalism in countries where free press doesn’t exist. It is a moving and engaging museum full of reminders of the importance of the First Amendment.
What are your favorite museums in Washington DC? I can’t believe just how many there are in such a small area, it is truly a city jam packed with attractions!