I love visiting portrait galleries where you can view paintings and photographs of people from history. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is a must-see while visiting Washington, DC.
The National Portrait Gallery was founded by Congress in 1962 with the mission to “acquire and display portraits of individuals who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States.” The museum is housed along with the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the historic Old Patent Office Building, which served as a hospital and morgue during the Civil War where Walt Whitman tended to the wounded.
The National Portrait Gallery has over 23,000 types of media and has the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. It has some of the most famous portraits of great American historical figures and is a history lover’s dream.
The National Portrait Gallery is located off the National Mall near Washington, DC’s Chinatown and Capital One Arena. It’s a massive building which can be quite overwhelming, but it’s easy to navigate for a quick visit. Even though I have teens, we had a limited amount of time to spend here so I hit the highlights before anyone got too tired! Use this map and my recommendations below to plan your visit. Also take a look at the family events calendar to see what special activities for kids might be happening during your visit.
Enter from the G Street side and turn left to enter the Out of Many: Portraits from 1600-1900 gallery.
Your kids will recognize many of these famous Americans from Pocahontas to Alexander Hamilton.
My favorite room is the Civil War-era portrait room.
We also saw a neat exhibit on daguerreotypes including one of Dolley Madison (amazing to think there is a picture of someone born in 1768!).
I was captivated by the Powerful Partnerships: Civil War-Era Couples exhibit.
Don’t miss the beautiful paintings in the staircases!
Located at the end of the exhibit is Explore!, a play space specifically for children ages 18 months to 8 years old.
Head past the play area to the Experience America exhibit where you have to see the painting of the first four female Supreme Court justices! They look like they could leap off the canvas!
After this, head back to the F Street lobby and go upstairs to enter my favorite exhibit, America’s Presidents.
This fantastic collection of presidential portraits is worth visiting the museum by itself! Your kids will enjoy seeing favorite presidents like George Washington to more obscure presidents like John Tyler.
Some of the portraits are unusual like Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy’s portraits.
I loved seeing the few First Lady portraits intermingled with the presidents. The museum did a whole exhibit on First Ladies portraits a few years ago, and the book about it is available (see below).
The most unique portraits are those at the end of Barack Obama. It is so vivid and bright, a sharp contrast to the more staid and dark portraits from the other presidents. (Michelle’s portrait is upstairs).
We visited right after the famous life-size Abraham Lincoln portrait was installed. It’s at the museum through 2027 so definitely see it!
Your children will also find some hands-on activities in the presidential section such as Abraham Lincoln’s life masks and hand models.
The next gallery, The Struggle for Justice, has portraits of Civil Rights pioneers and leaders. This is where you’ll see Eleanor Roosevelt’s portrait.
Then head up to the third floor mezzanine to see the Champions and Bravo exhibits that have things like Katherine Hepburn’s Oscars.
On the third floor, you’ll find a gallery on 20th Century Americans, and this is where you’ll find Michelle Obama’s famous portrait.
If your daughter is a Girl Scout, they’ll want to see the beautiful portrait of founder Juliette Gordan Low.
If your kids are up for it, head to the other side of the building on floors 2 and 3 to view the artwork at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. My son had run out of steam so we didn’t make it there this trip!
Before you leave, check out the beautiful courtyard that has a cafe. It’s a peaceful place to rest after lots of steps!
The National Portrait Gallery combines art and history into a masterpiece of American culture. Be sure to visit while in Washington, DC!
- Cost: Free
- Recommended: Ages 10 and up
- Tour time: 1-2 hours
- Gift shop located onsite and online
- Transportation: Located at the Chinatown Metro stop, the museum is easy to find. It’s also walkable from the National Mall. Several parking garages are located nearby (we’ve used one just east of the museum with the Shakespeare Theatre).
- Dining options: The museum has a cafe in its lovely courtyard. We’ve enjoyed some nearby restaurants including The Smith and Clyde’s (both upscale). There’s also a Chick-fil-a and a casual pizzeria across the street.
- Nearby hotels: We’ve stayed at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco across the street. We also enjoy the large Marriott Marquis which is close by. Check out my Washington guide for more recommendations.
- Nearby attractions include: Ford’s Theatre, National Building Museum (which has a really great Lgo exhibit), National Law Enforcement Museum, and the National Archives
- Check out the National Portrait Gallery’s podcast PORTRAITS for behind-the-scenes info.
Books to Read: