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14 Can’t-Miss Museums on the National Mall

Museums for Days - Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History - Washington, DC

The best way to do DC? For free, thanks to these no-admission museums on the National Mall

To go with its monuments and memorials, the National Mall boasts an impressive lineup of free museums. Visitors should take advantage of the wide range of experiences on hand, from immersing themselves in classic art to marveling at the wonders of aviation and our natural world. Let your wallet breathe and explore these free museums during your next trip to the nation’s capital.

1 National Gallery of Art
National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art’s collection spans two major buildings – one classical, the other modern – and encompasses a six-acre sculpture garden containing a rotating display of permanent works and traveling exhibitions. The permanent collection spans ancient to contemporary art, including the likes of da Vinci, Degas and Calder, while the museum offers public programming (think art history movies and classical concerts) and hands-on activities for kids. And if you’re visiting during the winter, be sure to hit the outdoor ice-skating rink located in the center of the sculpture garden!

2 U.S. Botanic Gardens
U.S. Botanic Gardens Bob Stovall

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison shared a dream of a national botanic garden in the late 18th century, and the three were successful in establishing one on the southwest corner of the National Mall by 1820. Today, visitors can enjoy this living, indoor-outdoor museum and its impressive collection of plant life. Fan favorites include the charming 19th century hothouse conservatory and the butterfly garden.

3 National Air & Space Museum
National Air & Space Museum Daniel Mennerich

The National Air and Space Museum boasts the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft, including Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright brothers’ original 1903 flyer, astronaut space suits and a lunar rock sample. In fact, the collection has grown so large that a dedicated annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, was opened in 2003 in Centreville, VA.

4 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

One of history’s most important events, and one of its greatest tragedies, is the focus of this expansive museum. Learn the narrative of the Holocaust through artifacts, videos and personal stories in the Permanent Exhibition, and go deeper at special exhibitions such as Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story, recommended for kids ages 8 and up. Admission to the museum is free, but entry to the Permanent Exhibition is done via timed pass March through August – you can reserve online beforehand. Special exhibitions do not require a timed pass.

5 National Museum of Natural History
National Museum of Natural History m01229 via Flickr

The most visited natural history museum in the world, the National Museum of Natural History boasts an incredible rotating collection of 127 million items including dinosaur bones, ancient Egyptian mummies and so much more.

6 National Museum of American History
National Museum of American History National Museum of American History

Over four million people make their way to the vast National Museum of American History each year. No surprise, since the museum’s collection boasts more than three million objects that tell the American story. Among these, a few crowd favorites include the flag that inspired the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the Greensboro lunch counter, Julia Child’s kitchen, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat.

7 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Kyle Tucker

The Hirshhorn Museum is known for its extensive collection of modern and contemporary art from around the world, including significant works by Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. The sculpture garden is a must-see, as it includes the famous Wish Tree by Yoko Ono.

8 National Museum of the American Indian
National Museum of the American Indian

One of the more recent permanent additions to the National Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)  expresses the diversity of culture, language, history, tradition and futures of indigenous peoples of North and South America, from the Arctic Circle to the tip of Patagonia.  NMAI hosts engaging public programming year-round, but the most exciting time to visit is during Native American History Month in November.

9 Smithsonian Institution Information Center in the Castle
Smithsonian Institution Information Center in the Castle

An iconic landmark along the DC skyline, the Smithsonian Castle is the perfect place to begin your day of exploration. You can find important information on each Smithsonian museum and marvel at the structure’s striking architecture.

10 Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Harvey Barrison

One half of the National Museum of Asian Art - the Freer Gallery is the other half - the Sackler houses decorative and devotional objects from across Asia. Together, the collections hold more than 25,000 objects spanning 6,000 years. While the Sackler will remain open, the Freer is closed for renovation until 2017.

11 Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art

However, the Freer promises to be worth the wait when it reopens. One of DC’s most beautiful buildings, the Freer was the first Smithsonian museum devoted solely to art when it was first built. Keep up to date on its extensive renovation so you can mark the calendar for a visit when the doors open again.

12 National Museum of African Art
National Museum of African Art Cliff via Flickr

The Washington Post called the National Museum of African Art the most “important research facility for African art in America.” The museum boasts a broad collection of 9,000 pieces, including sacred objects, textiles, ancient Egyptian carvings and musical instruments.

13 U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing
U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing Ron Cogswell

Money is an essential aspect of everyday life – they’ve even made songs about it! At the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, you can witness how our currency is made, through more than 10 processes that show just how much goes into making a single note. Admission is free, but tickets are required for entry during busy season. Tours are offered every 15 minutes from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m., with evening hours added March through August.

14 National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of African American History and Culture Alan Karchmer/Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

On Sept. 24, the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture will open on the National Mall. Sporting a sleek design and a wealth of new exhibits, the National Museum of African American History and Culture promises to be an inspiring and welcome new addition to the Mall.

Looking for more museums to discover? DC is filled with both free and paid knowledge centers. Read up on more here.