Smithsonian Museum Tips for Washington, DC Visitors

Smithsonian museums are a core part of the Washington, DC visitor experience. Get the most out of these by following our eight top Smithsonian museum tips.

8 Tips for the Smithsonian and FREE museums in DC

1. Plan your Smithsonian visit in advance

There are so many Smithsonian museums and individual exhibits that it can feel overwhelming to navigate. It is really helpful to look at the websites for the Smithsonian museums in advance so that you can see what exhibits are going to be on display when you arrive. There are also smartphone apps for these museums that you can download and bookmark your favorite exhibits.

Another important Smithsonian museum tip is to check to see if you need a ticket for a particular museum or exhibit. Since it’s opening if you want to attend the National Museum of African American History and Culture you need a free timed ticket. Check out our blog post for specific details about getting one.

2. Don’t overdo it!

Since the Smithsonian museums in DC are completely free, visitors often try to cram in as many as they possibly can during their trip. This often leads to exhaustion. Think of it another way, if you went to a different city that didn’t have free museums, you wouldn’t go and buy a ticket to every single museum in town and then try to cram all of them in during your trip. You’d probably pick one, maybe two, of the museums that interest you the most and visit those. That’s the same strategy you should pursue in DC as well.

Smithsonian museums are free but they’re also huge, which means you’re going to do a lot of walking, which is physically draining. You’re also going to do a lot of reading, which is mentally draining. So, this is the reason for picking two or three museums for a one-week long trip or one to two museums for a weekend trip. And remember that while these museums are excellent educational opportunities, kids don’t have quite the same stamina or attention span as adults.

3. Go against the flow.

Because many of them are free, some Smithsonian museums can get very crowded. This is especially true for the big three museums: Air and Space, Natural History, and American History. These are some of the most visited museums in the entire world. You can use a few basic strategies to avoid the heaviest crowds. For example, if you’re visiting a museum when it first opens at 10:00 a.m. go straight to the exhibit that’s farthest away from the door. Most people naturally walk into a museum and then go straight to whatever exhibit is closest to them. You can go up in the elevator to say, the top floor, and start seeing the exhibits up there to get maybe an hour or two with fairly limited crowds.

4. Use the “back doors”

This is a Smithsonian museum tip that a lot of Washington DC locals have used for years. Most Smithsonian museums on the National Mall have two entrances. There is one facing the grassy park called the National Mall, and another facing either Independence or Constitution Avenues, depending on which side it’s on.

Tour buses only unload on the National Mall side and there is nothing worse than getting stuck behind a busload of 8th graders on a school field trip. Museum security is kind of like airport security where they will ruffle through your bag and make you walk through a metal detector. Going through the non-bus door doesn’t guarantee that you won’t have to wait in a line but it does reduce the risk that you’ll get stuck behind a huge group.

5. Leave the National Mall

Even though most Smithsonian museums in DC are located right on the National Mall, there are some other really great museums elsewhere in the city. A few blocks north of the Mall you’ll find the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, two different museums that share the same building. The Portrait Gallery is exactly what the name suggests, a museum of portraits, including the very popular Hall of Presidents.

Across the street from the White House on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue you’ll find the Renwick Gallery, which is an art museum that focuses on crafts and other decorative art, and it hosts a lot of cool rotating exhibits.

A personal favorite of ours is the National Postal Museum which is located right next to Union Station. A lot of people take for granted as a mail is kind of bland, but the Postal Museum is a really interesting look at American history through the lens of the postal service. And if you’re a stamp collector you’re going to love it here. They have some of the most amazing stamp collections in the entire world. And one of our favorite Smithsonian museum tips is you can buy stamps at the gift store here 7 days per week,so you don’t have to make a special errand to one of our post offices.

6. Seek out Good Food

The National Mall is not known for having great food. But don’t despair! One of the best Smithsonian museum tips around is to eat at the “culture” museums.

Every museum is going to have a little cafe. They’re fine, you’ll get fed, but you also probably won’t have a very memorable meal. The exception to this is at the Smithsonian American Indian Museum, which is highly recommend if you’re in the area or if you can get a ticket, the Sweet Home Cafe at the African American History and Culture Museum. Both of these “culture” museums use food as a way to immerse visitors in the experience.

And unless there’s some sort of fast food connoisseur, don’t eat at the McDonald’s at the Air and Space Museum. Nobody wants to pay museum prices for the same Big Mac you can get anywhere else in the world.

7. Take advantage of Highlight Tours

A lot of the Smithsonian museums offer free highlight tours a few times every day. These are led by trained and knowledgeable tour guides. If you think you might be interested in a museum, but aren’t quite sure about some of the exhibits, a highlight tour is a great way to get an overview. The one downside is that since these are free tours the group sizes can get fairly large. But, do not let it deter you from taking one.

8. Take advantage of extended hours

Most Smithsonian museums close at 5:30 p.m. every day, but there are a few exceptions. The Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum are open until 7 p.m. every day. In the summer select museums offer extended hours and stay open for two extra hours until 7:30 p.m on selected dates during the summer. If you’re going to take advantage of one of these Smithsonian museum tips, it is extremely important that you check the extended hours calendar on the Smithsonian website. This is to make sure that you know which dates are having extended hours for which museums.

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Trip Hacks DC was founded by Rob, a veteran tour guide in the Nation’s Capital. Trip Hacks DC provides tips, tricks and travel hacks for planning your trip; and guided tours to show you around once you get here. Our tours are family and school group friendly and our guides specialize in the major Washington, DC sites. Click here to check out the upcoming tour options and to book your tour here today! Feel free to contact us if you have any tour questions.

About Trip Hacks DC

Trip Hacks DC was founded by Rob, a veteran tour guide in the Nation's Capital.

Everyone wants to get the most out of travel experience; we know that planning a trip can be fun but sometimes stressful. The tips and travel hacks offered here will help you make the most of your trip and avoid missing out on the best things the city has to offer. Our trip planning e-book is the perfect resource for every first-time Washington, DC visitor.

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