It’s no mystery why Smithsonian museums are such popular destinations for DC visitors. They contain priceless pieces of art, science, and history and admission is completely free! There are 17 Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC. However, they are not all equally well-visited—leaving many underrated Smithsonian museums to explore on your trip.
As you may suspect, the most popular Smithsonians are the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of American History. Unfortunately the lesser-known museums can get overlooked. So if you’re looking to beat the crowds and see some fascinating stuff, here are four underrated Smithsonian museums that you should put on your itinerary.
1. National Portrait Gallery
As you’d suspect, the National Portrait Gallery is a museum full of portraits. It’s excellent because it’s the perfect mix of art and history.
The most popular exhibit is “America’s Presidents,” because it gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of all past presidents in our country’s history. There are also other permanent exhibits portraying early Americans, 20th century Americans, and many other people who shaped our country.
Another thing to love about the portrait gallery is its number of rotating exhibits. So even if you’re been here in the past, you can always visit again and you’re sure to see something new.
Honorable Mention: Smithsonian American Art Museum
In addition, an honorable mention for an underrated museum is the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The good news is the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum share the same building. In other words, you can hit two underrated Smithsonian museums with one stone (that’s the expression, right?).
The two museums are connected by the Kogod Courtyard, which is an event space and fun architectural marvel to visit in itself. With indoor seating, it’s a cool space to take a seat and relax if your feet could use a break. It’s an especially nice spot if you’re visiting DC with kids or you’re looking for a late evening hangout in the summer once all the other museums are closed.
2. National Postal Museum
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. There is nothing less interesting in life than going to the post office. While that may be true, going to the National Postal Museum is nothing like your run-of-the-mill trip to the USPS. In fact, if you want to buy stamps, you can even spare yourself a trip to the post office by picking them up at the Postal Museum.
The Postal Museum tracks America’s history through the lens of the postal service. So in a way, it’s a history museum with a unique twist. Moreover, if you’re a stamp collector, prepare yourself. The museum has one of the largest and most impressive collections of stamps in the world—not just from the U.S. Postal Service, but from around the world.
Lastly, another reason I love this underrated Smithsonian museum is that even if you visit during the busiest days of spring of summer, this museum never feels especially crowded.
Best of all, this museum is directly across from Union Station. So even though it’s not right next to the other museums, it’s easy to get to. Plus, chances are you’ll already be in that neighborhood at some point during your trip.
3. Renwick Gallery
The Renwick Gallery is an offshoot of the American Art Museum, but since it has its own building I consider it its own museum. The building is located a stone’s throw from the White House, over on 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
The Renwick is a collection of contemporary craft and decorative art and I’m always impressed with what’s in there. They are also known for putting together excellent rotating exhibits. For example, one past favorite was on The Art of Burning Man. If you’ve heard of the Burning Man festival held in the Nevada desert, you can let your imagination run a little wild about what kind of art that exhibition had. So as you can guess, The Renwick is excellent for this kind of thing.
4. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
The Freer and Sackler Galleries are located right in the middle of the National Mall. So, in many ways these great museums are hidden in plain sight. For example, the entrance is just steps from the big Smithsonian Castle.
Note: In 2019 this museum was renamed: Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art.
These are The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. You’ll find pieces from China, Japan, Korea, and other places from that part of the world. What’s more, this museum has one of the best kept secrets in DC – the Peacock Room. This is probably the best room in the entire city. Photos don’t do it justice, you have to see it with your own eyes to really appreciate it.