Best Smithsonian Museums Must See Exhibits

Best Smithsonian Museums & Exhibits

As a DC tour guide, I get asked all the time: “What are the must-see attractions at the Smithsonian?” This question can be difficult to answer because there are so many amazing exhibits to explore! That’s why I have developed the ultimate Smithsonian experience – a list of 101 of the most interesting and incredible displays in museums located both on and off the National Mall.

From artwork to natural history to aviation, this list has something for everyone. And for those who don’t have a lot of time, I’ve made sure to include only the highlights – my favorite exhibitions that you won’t want to miss. Of course, it’s also important to take a break and nourish your body along the way. That’s why I’ve included some delicious cafes with tempting treats like the best macaroni and cheese from the Museum of African American History and Culture and the hearty salmon served at the American Indian Museum.

My goal is to provide an engaging yet informative tour that will bring you closer to understanding each display and exhibit without having to go through every single detail. And while I’ve shored up the numbers according to the visitor percentages each museum receives annually, you should be sure to check out the other venues as well.

So get ready for the experience of a lifetime – one full of exploration, education, and FUN!

Before You Go

All Smithsonian museums require visitors to pass through security scans. It’s just life after 9/11.

Most of the year, screening may only take a few minutes. In the springtime with many students in town, however, it can create a lengthy delay. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Don’t bring a backpack if possible. It slows things down. Without a bag, you might enter a quicker, speedier line.
  • Visit busier museums like Air and Space and Natural History in the late afternoon.
  • Enter museums from Constitutional or Independence Ave. rather than the National Mall sides. Large groups often enter on the Mall sides because of bus drop-offs.

Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture

G St NW, Washington, DC 20001; (202) 633-7970

The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (Smithsonian American Art Museum and The National Portrait Gallery) is an incredible undertaking in the field of fine art and portraiture. Housed within the grand walls of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, this immersive experience invites visitors to explore a wealth of stunning artwork created by some of America’s most gifted artists.

Presidential history
Presidential history, Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture by afagen
  • Adams Memorial
  • Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards
  • Bob Hope
  • The Recital Portrait of Denyce Graves
  • Electronic Superhighway
  • John Wayne sculpture
  • Abe Lincoln portrait
  • Liberty sculpture
  • The Dying Tecumseh
  • Douglas MacArthur
  • John Brown

The collection encompasses a diverse array of portraits, landscapes, modernist works, photographs, sculptures, and more, providing a comprehensive view of the ways in which art has captured and reflected American culture for centuries.

National Air and Space Museum

600 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560; (202) 633-2214

As you explore the National Air and Space Museum, you’ll be able to take in numerous incredible exhibits that offer a glimpse into some of the most impressive achievements in aviation and space exploration.

National Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum by xhowardlee
  • Apollo 11 Columbia command module
  • Skylab orbital workshop
  • Hubble Space Telescope
  • Spirit of St. Louis
  • Moon rock
  • Hughes H1 racer
  • Red Baron display
  • Amelia Earhart display
  • Black Wings
  • Wright Brothers display
  • How Things Fly interactive
  • Exterior planetarium
  • Starship

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy, Chantilly, VA 20151

The magnificent National Air and Space Museum annex facility houses a wide variety of artifacts, from a full-scale replica of the Space Shuttle Discovery to a real B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb during World War II. You will also find a state-of-the-art Stealth bomber, plus an original Air France Concorde supersonic airliner.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: Space Shuttle Enterprise (port full view)
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: Space Shuttle Enterprise (port full view) by Chris Devers
  • Space Shuttle Discovery
  • B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay
  • Stealth bomber
  • Air France Concorde

Here, you can take an amazing journey through aviation and space exploration history and marvel at these one-of-a-kind pieces of engineering, each with its own unique story to tell. So come on in and explore the wonders of flight – they’re truly breathtaking!

Museum of American History

1300 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560; (202) 633-1000

As a tour guide of the nation’s capital, I am always eager to share the vast array of fascinating artifacts and exhibits that can be found in one of Washington D.C.’s greatest attractions – the Museum of American History. During your visit to D.C., make sure to check out some of the museum’s most notable offerings.

Washington DC - National Museum of American History: Bon Appétit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian
Washington DC – National Museum of American History: Bon Appétit! Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian by wallyg
  • Star Spangled Banner
  • Winchester horse
  • Ike’s golf clubs
  • First Lady’s dress collection
  • Union draft wheel
  • Spotsylvania tree trunk
  • Rosie the Riveter
  • World Trade girders
  • Julia Child’s kitchen
  • Movie camera for Wizard of Oz
  • President assassination and mourning
  • Bill Clinton’s sax
  • John Quincy Adams’ chess set
  • George Washington statue
  • Indiana Jones fedora and whip

These remarkable items and more are only a few of the many wonders you can experience at the Museum of American History – Get ready to be amazed!

National Museum of the American Indian

4th St SW, Washington, DC 20560; (202) 633-1000

Home to over 800,000 artifacts from over 500 Native American tribes and cultures, the museum’s exhibitions explore the complexities and histories of America’s Indigenous people. One of the most interesting exhibits is “Americans,” which takes a look at the life and culture of both historically Native Americans and present-day tribal communities. Through interactive displays, visitors can learn about Native American history, language, art, and customs. The exhibit also features traditional games and activities that bring to life how Native Americans lived in the past.

National Museum of the American Indian
National Museum of the American Indian by YoTuT
  • Lobby canoes
  • Allies in War
  • Walking Stick paintings
  • ImagiNations Activity Center
  • Cafeteria (salmon and bison)
  • Buffalo Dancer 2 and exterior

Don’t miss out on “Native Voices,” an immersive multi-media theater experience. This state-of-the-art presentation combines K-drama, biographical documentaries, and live performances to tell stories of Native Americans throughout history. Through powerful visuals and powerful music, the exhibit provides an emotional journey into the heart and soul of America’s Indigenous people.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Independence Ave SW &, 7th St SW, Washington, DC 20560; (202) 633-1000

Home to some of the most iconic modern art pieces in the world, Hirshhorn is a fantastic place to explore and learn about contemporary art. At this renowned museum, tourists can experience such works as Yoko Ono’s “Sky Piece for Jesus Christ” installation or Richard Serra’s monumental steel sculpture, “Wake”. These dramatic, larger-than-life works effectively capture the beauty and power of modern art, drawing visitors back again and again.

Rodin Burgers of Calais
Rodin: Burgers of Calais, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by Art Poskanzer
  • Burgers of Calais
  • Whispering tree

The Hirshhorn Museum is also home to several international exhibitions that showcase the most influential artists from around the globe. In addition, visitors can stroll through the peaceful Sculpture Garden, which features beautiful outdoor sculptures from a variety of international talents.

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

Constitution Ave NW &, 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20408; (202) 289-3360

This 14-acre outdoor site is home to some of DC’s most striking sculptures. From monumental installations to whimsical creations, the garden offers something for everyone.

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
Pyramid at the National Gallery of Art – Sculpture Garden” by nicmcc
  • Silver tree
  • Pyramid
  • House

Don’t miss the iconic Calder’s Circus, a mesmerizing kinetic sculpture composed of 44 individual wire figures and objects. As it slowly rotates, each character comes alive to create a magical performance that has captivated visitors for decades.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560; (202) 633-1000

At the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, you can explore one of the most comprehensive collections of natural history in the world. The museum houses an extensive array of artifacts from all corners of our planet – from ancient fossils to vast animal specimens to life-sized replicas of iconic creatures.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History by SnoShuu</a
  • T-Rex
  • Elephant
  • Placoderms
  • Easter Island heads
  • Butterfly pavilion
  • Giant Great White Shark teeth
  • Triceratops
  • Mummies
  • Giraffe
  • Hippopotamus
  • Human evolution skulls
  • Human family tree
  • Savanna waterhole
  • Leatherback turtle
  • Iceland exhibit

From uncovering secrets of bygone eras to learning about modern-day issues, everyone will take away something special from this incredible collection.

Smithsonian Castle

1000 Jefferson Dr SW, Washington, DC 20560; (202) 633-1000

If you’re in Washington DC for a few days and want to get a comprehensive look at the history of the city, then The Smithsonian Institution Building, or “The Castle” as it’s fondly referred to, is a must-see.

Smithsonian Castle
Smithsonian Castle by ehpien
  • James Smithson’s remains
  • Gardens

No visit would be complete without viewing the iconic Star-Spangled Banner flag – which still hangs proudly in its original spot – or exploring the Grand Hall where you can find artifacts representing our nation’s growth over time.

National Galleries of Art East-West

This iconic museum comprises two separate sections – the East Building and the West Building – each exhibiting world-class works of art from some of history’s most renowned and beloved artists. Let’s take a look at some of the must-see exhibits so you can plan your visit:

National Gallery of Art
Dutch Gallery, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. by Ken Lund
  • Ginevra de Benci
  • Colonial furniture
  • Saint Jerome and the Angel
  • Tunnel lights between buildings
  • Napoleon
  • Rotunda
  • Louis XIV bust
  • The Concert
  • Daniel in the Lions Den
  • Ill Matched Lovers
  • The Rebuke of Adam and Eve
  • St. Francis in Prayer
  • Saint Celia and an angel
  • Portrait of a man in a tall hat
  • Warhol’s A Boy for Meg

Museum of African American History and Culture

1400 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20560; (844) 750-3012

With exhibits touching on every aspect of African American history, from the origins of slavery to the civil rights movement to modern contributions, the museum provides visitors with an eye-opening perspective of America’s past and present.

The 'Black Power' Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games -- The National Museum of African American History and Culture (DC) 2017
The ‘Black Power’ Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games — The National Museum of African American History and Culture (DC) by Ron Cogswell
  • Design in Harmony
  • Slave shackles
  • Harriet Tubman shaw and hymnal
  • Point of Pines cabin
  • U.S. colored troops
  • Jones Hall Aims House
  • Greensboro lunch counter
  • Southern Railway Company coach 1200
  • MLK display
  • Mexico City protest and sports
  • Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac

Smithsonian National Zoological Park

3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008; (202) 633-4888

The main attraction here at the National Zoo is definitely the Giant Pandas. These beautiful creatures are native to China, and the National Zoo is home to three adult pandas and several cubs. They’re our pride and joy here, so be sure to take some time to get a glimpse of these little ones!

Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Giant Panda Turns Four!
Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Giant Panda Turns Four! by Smithsonian’s National Zoo
  • Pandas
  • Tigers
  • Gorillas
  • Elephants

Final Word

The Smithsonian Institution comprises an impressive nineteen museums and attractions, primarily concentrated in the vicinity of the National Mall, with the Washington Monument at its northernmost point and the United States Capitol located at its southernmost. With such a vast array of cultural and historical attractions to explore, it is easy to become overwhelmed – one could easily spend an entire week surveying the sights there.

However, as Washington D.C. offers so much more than just the Smithsonian, those who are short on time must make difficult decisions about which sites they can visit. Fortunately, however, with careful planning and a knowledge of the available options, it is possible to take advantage of everything that this remarkable area has to offer.

Share on: