A rite of passage in America is a family vacation to Washington, DC where you march along the National Mall to see many of the nation’s most important monuments, memorials, and museums. It can be overwhelming to decide which museums to visit but with some advance planning, you can see historical highlights along with some fun activities for kids!
The idea for a national museum in the new United States dates back to the early 19th century, but the Smithsonian of today really got its start in 1829 when British scientist James Smithson left funding of a new Smithsonian Institution, an “Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men,” in his will. The US government accepted his gift and spent the next many years debating the true intent (and also losing the money!). Finally in 1846, President James K. Polk signed the bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a government entity.
Construction began in 1849 on the Smithsonian Castle, the original museum building (still located along the National Mall but currently undergoing extensive renovations). The museum grew and expanded over the years into new buildings, mostly along the Mall but also in other areas of DC and even New York. From the Museum of American History to the newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonians are iconic parts of any trip to Washington, DC.
The Smithsonian history museums along the National Mall include:
- National Museum of American History
- National Museum of African American History and Culture
- National Museum of the American Indian
- National Museum of Natural History
- Air and Space Museum
- Art and Industries Building (currently closed)
- Smithsonian Castle (currently closed)
- Smithsonian gardens
The National Mall art museums are:
- National Gallery of Art (not part of the Smithsonian)
- Hirshhorn Art Museum (contemporary art)
- Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art (Asian art)
- African Art Museum
While that list is long, don’t get overwhelmed. Before your trip, take a look at the museums’ websites (and my reviews!) to see what would interest your family the most. The museums are all located on the portion of the National Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, so it’s fairly easy to walk in between the different ones (all have entrances on both the Mall and street side). Keep in mind the DC Circulator bus can save you a lot of walking ($1/person – takes cash or Metro cards only)!
The museums are free and open to the public without tickets (exceptions are the Air and Space Museum and the African American History Museum, both of which require free timed entry passes). For most of the museums, you can hold your plans a little loose to see how you’re feeling that day or how crowded it is. On a recent trip, my son and I hit five museums in about six hours. It was a long day but totally doable with older kids! With younger kids (or on an awful weather day), you’ll want to be more selective. I’ve highlighted several sample itineraries below to help you plan.
Note most museums require going through security so plan for extra time in what can sometimes be long lines. Strollers and bags are allowed but try to limit the bags to cut down on your entry time. Lockers are available at some museums. Most museums are very crowded so if you have babies, carriers are recommended instead of strollers.
Before your visit, check out the Smithsonian’s list of kids’ activities/special events so your kids can have a fun experience!
I reviewed my favorite of the museums, the National Museum of American History, several years ago on the blog, but I recently updated it (my review). There is a really cool new exhibit, Entertainment Nation, about pop culture history that kids will love! Elmo, Michael Jordan, and Star Wars history all in one place! This is THE museum to see iconic items from American history, and it has many must-see items. If you can only see one museum, this is the one I recommend. A typical visit takes 2-3 hours.
The newest of the Smithsonian museums is one of its most impressive and impactful. See my review about the museum, and be sure to plan your itinerary to land you here at lunchtime. Its cafe is the best on the Mall! A typical visit takes 1-2 hours.
One of the newest museums along the Mall, this museum celebrates the contributions of Native Americans. I visited for the first time in February and loved the expansive, open interior of the museum.
Finding the exhibits can be a little confusing, but I recommend taking the elevator to the top floor and working your way down using the ramp. Use this map to plan your visit. Don’t miss the imagiNATIONS Activity Center on the 3rd level for hands-on activities for kids. We only had time for one exhibit, and we chose the Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and the American Indian Nations exhibit on the 4th level. Don’t miss the statue at the entrance.
There are a lot of interactive exhibits about the treaties between Indians and the European colonists. My son remembered much of this from his history classes, so it’s a great place for kids to enhance their studies.
Outside your kids will enjoy wandering the National Native American Veterans Memorial and looking at the various gardens and interesting architectural features of the museum.
The museum’s cafe, Mitsitam Cafe, is excellent as well with Indian-inspired food including this amazing chicken stew!
Be sure to check out its Roanoke Museum store (also online) before leaving. A typical visit takes 30 – 45 minutes.
One of the best museums for kids, the Natural History museum is chock full of dinosaur fossils and stuffed animals that all kids find fascinating! It will be one of the most crowded museums to visit but fight through the crowds to see the highlights. Use this map to plan your visit.
Start out in the rotunda on the 1st floor with its African Bush Elephant.
Head straight to the most impressive (and most crowded) exhibit, the Hall of Fossils. Kids will be amazed at all of the dinosaur fossils! With young kids, head straight through the hall but older kids might be interested in the exhibits along the walls.
Walk through the Fossil Lab and African Voices to get to Ocean Hall. This is one of my kids’ favorites with its massive megalodon jaw and humongous blue whale hanging above!
Come back out into the rotunda and head into the Hall of Mammals to see lots of stuffed scary and cute mammals!
With little kids, feel free to exit the museum now. Older kids may be interested in the upstairs exhibits, including the Hope diamond. There are lots of gems and geological exhibits along with mummies, insects, and butterflies to see.
There are two cafes and a store to see before you leave (also available online). A typical visit takes 1-2 hours.
This is my second favorite museum along the Mall! It is currently undergoing extensive renovations but reopened some of its new galleries recently. Due to the constrained space, free timed entry tickets are required. You’ll queue along Independence Avenue at your allotted time (line can be super long but it moves fast). Use this map to plan your visit.
Once inside, head left to the Wright Brothers exhibit where you’ll see the original flier from 1903! There are several interactive exhibits here as well but you can move quickly through the exhibit.
Head out into the massive atrium for the America By Air exhibit to look at old planes suspended above your head. There are also some you can walk in to see how flying used to be!
Head upstairs to some really fun exhibits. My favorite is the Destination Moon exhibit with its amazing artifacts, including Neil Armstrong’s moon suit with the moon dust still on it!
The other exhibits on this floor are interesting, especially Exploring the Planets and Nation of Speed ( a must-see for any Cars movie fans!). All have hands-on activities that are great for ages eight and up.
Before heading downstairs, don’t miss the Star Wars x-wing hanging above one of the museum gift shops!
The other exhibits are great (especially We All Fly) but are skippable if you’re short on time (or patience!).
As you leave, peek behind the construction area to see if the Spirit of St. Louis is still displayed. They’re making a whole new exhibit for it in the renovated section.
Don’t miss the amazing gift shop (your kids will love trying the “space food” – dehydrated ice cream sandwiches). The store can be found online here. There is a planetarium on the second floor that is really cool as well.
The rest of the Smithsonian museums along the National Mall are art museums. While they contain beautiful and rare paintings, they can be hard for kids to enjoy. I recommend picking one, the National Gallery of Art, to visit. Currently, there are extensive rolling closures due to renovations at this museum so be sure to check right before your trip.
The highlight of this museum (to me!) is the Impressionist wing. Luckily it’s right near the entrance from the Mall (on the right in gallery 85) so you can see it quickly. I encourage you to use this interactive map to plan the route of what you want to see.
Don’t miss the placard in front of the art museum (along the Mall) marking the spot where President Garfield was assassinated. His statue is just down the Mall in front of the Capitol.
Also along the National Mall are many important monuments and memorials (see my review here). It’s impossible to see them all in one day. I recommend concentrating one day on museums at the eastern end of the Mall and then another day focused on the monuments and memorials.
There is one memorial that is easy to fit in on your museum day. Across Independence Avenue from the Air and Space Museum is the new Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. It’s an outdoors walk-through memorial about his time as the leader of the US Armed Forces during World War II and as president.
There is a small gift store onsite and an audio tour using your phone is available.
Note there are some Smithsonians located outside of Washington, DC. If you have time, a visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum – Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport is well worth the time. It’s an amazing museum and kids will love seeing a real space shuttle!
I’ve put together several different itineraries below to help you plan a fun day at the Smithsonian museums. Choose the one that fits your family best! Remember to plan your visits around the timed entry tickets for the African American history museum and the Air and Space museum. Also don’t forget about the DC Connector bus that can help make the walking more manageable.
If you’re a history buff with teens who also love history:
Plan to spend all day in the museums! Start your adventures at the American history museum soaking in all of the history (3 hours). Head to the next-door African American history museum and eat lunch at its fabulous restaurant (2.5 hours for exhibits and lunch). Walk down the Mall and check out the Natural history museum (1 hour). Next pop into the National Gallery of Art to see your favorite paintings (30 minutes) before crossing the Mall to the Air and Space Museum (1 hour). Go next door to the American Indian museum (30 minutes). Finish the day with a walk along Independence Avenue to see the new Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial.
If you want to just hit the highlights:
Start at the Air and Space Museum and see the Wright Brothers plane, Neil Armstrong suit, and Star Wars x-wing (30 minutes). Cross the Mall to the Natural History museum and walk through the rotunda, hall of fossils, oceans, and mammals. Pop upstairs to see the Hope diamond (45 minutes). Visit the American history museum (use my 1-hour itinerary from my review) and end your visit at the African American history museum where you’ll eat lunch (2 hours).
If you have young kids:
Start your day with timed entry tickets for the Air and Space Museum (1 hour). Walk down the Mall to the carousel (near the castle) and take a ride on a horse! Head across the Mall to the Natural history museum (1 hour). Eat lunch here or at the next door American history museum cafe. Tour the American history museum (hitting just the highlights and the children’s play areas). Head back to the hotel for naps!
If you want to split your visit into two days:
If a full day of museums is too much for your family, split your visit into two days. Focus on the north side of the Mall one day and then the south side another day.
Day 1: Start your day at the American history museum (2 hours) and then head next door to the Natural history museum (1 hour). Pop into the National Gallery of Art if interested before heading back to the African American history museum for exhibits and lunch. Spend the afternoon working your way through the monuments and memorials on the western end of the Mall (see my review to plan). Or check out the National Archives and walk just a few blocks to tour Ford’s Theatre.
Day 2: Start your day at the Air and Space museum (1 hour) and pop into the American Indian museum (30 minutes). Go a few blocks south to the International Spy Museum or finish the monuments and memorials tour from yesterday.
The Smithsonian museums along the National Mall contain some of the most amazing artifacts from American history. With a little advance planning, you can see the highlights and have a fun day in Washington, DC!
- Cost: All museums are free
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: Varies by museum
- Gift shops located at each museum and online
- Transportation: The Metro is convenient to most museums (nearest stations are Federal Triangle, Smithsonian, or L’Enfant Plaza depending on the museum). The DC Circulator bus is also very convenient. There are some parking garages available, particularly near the American history museum north of Pennsylvania Avenue).
- Dining options nearby: All of the museums have cafes and restaurants that are convenient. My top pick is the excellent Sweet Home Cafe in the African American history museum. If it’s a nice day, check out the Pavilion Cafe in the gardens of the National Gallery of Art. The food court at the Reagan building is a good option for families, and there are often food trucks around the Mall as well.
- Hotel options: See my DC guide for recommendations. The J.W. Marriott and the Kimpton Monaco are close recommended options.
- Nearby attractions include: National Mall monuments and memorials, National Archives, Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center (contains pieces of the Berlin Wall and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Memorial Exhibit), National Children’s Museum, the White House, and the US Holocaust Museum
Books to read:
All images are Amazon affiliate links. To see an even wider selection, check out the Smithsonian’s online gift shop.