Picking and choosing your best museum experience in Washington, DC.
Seeing Washington, DC – and I mean really seeing it – is a feat that is simply not possible in just one trip. Believe me, I have been there four times, including an entire summer, and my travels have still not done it justice. I can say, though, that one of the “musts” when visiting our nation’s capitol is to set a day aside for the fascinating and free museums on the National Mall, most of which are within walking distance of each other. All of them are room-temperature oasis in the extreme heat or freezing cold that east coast seasons bring. Unfortunately, if one day is all you can afford for this essential part of the District, you will be lucky to hit three of them, no matter how fast you think you walk.
1400 Constitution Avenue Northwest Washington, DC 20560 @amhistorymuseum
There will be something for you at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Through various exhibits- some permanent and some temporary -you can learn everything you need to know about the Star Spangled Banner, southern plantation life (including a detailed Thomas Jefferson family tree), and the fashions and personalities of the past and present First Ladies, to name a few examples. Even the gift shop and cafeteria document pop culture of the past century. This museum can keep you occupied from an hour and a half to four hours before you realize how long you have spent. So plan accordingly. Almost all the facts, descriptions, and anecdotes are worth reading, but you may have to be somewhat choosy if you have more plans that day.
10th Street and Constutution Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC,20013 @NMNH
This segment of the Smithsonian has a wider scope than the American History segment does, so I found that you can either spend a much longer time going to an even larger collection of exhibits, or, if you are in a decisive mood, you can really focus on your areas of interest and cut down on museum time while still having a fulfilling museum experience. I always make a point of thoroughly experiencing the halls of impressively-assembled dinosaur remains and the evolution of life on earth, but I find that 5 minutes with the Hope diamond is about all I need to spend in the rocks and gems area. Conveniently, the layout of the museum makes it easy to at least walk through every exhibit. Leave at least an hour for this museum , but don’t be afraid to spend another four or five hours at this one as well.
100 15th St SW, Washington, DC 20024 @HolocaustMuseum
While the American History and Natural History Museums give you a fair amount of liberty with regard to how long you spend and what you see or do, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a more structured experience. This one sends its visitors through a relatively chronological remembrance of the Holocaust, and, needless to say, it is much more emotional than any other museum you’ll see on the National Mall. The museum uses various mediums of information to memorialize and educate about the Holocaust, including original videos, survivor interviews, and statistics. You also get a booklet with the story of an individual victim, which you can read in segments throughout the experience.
I can’t blame those who don’t want to jeopardize their vacation giddiness with a somber reminder of this tragedy; however, I have been repeatedly awed and fascinated by the museum’s exceptional presentation. If you do plan on visiting, be aware that during most of the year you must get a pass in advance, which will give you the earliest time of day that you can personally enter the exhibition. This can be purchased for just one dollar online in the days before your visit, or you can buy it the day-of in person at the museum. If you choose to get your pass in person, get it before noon to be safe, as the last entrances are allowed at four thirty and will sell out most days. Also, some people can make it through the museum in a little over an hour, but for those of us who are slow readers, interested in the history, or simply emotional will undoubtedly spend upwards of two hours.
Honorable Mention: Air and Space
600 Independence Avenue Southwest Washington, DC 20560 @airandspace
One of my childhood favorites is the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Although it doesn’t make my one-day, three-museum list, it addresses a wide range of interests, with everything from the physics of aircrafts to the history of aviation. This one can take a lot less time than some of the other museums. Beware that many of my favorite aspects of the Air and Space Museum will cost money. The IMAX Planetarium shows are amazing and the aviation simulator will be a source of serious fun for anyone not vulnerable to motion sickness.