As the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. is a city thriving with culture: historical, political, culinary, and more. With its significant impact on history and the nation, it makes perfect sense that it would have world-class museums, and the best part is, many museums in DC are free to the public, especially along the National Mall.
Even free museums in DC. will require you to enter through a security checkpoint, so consider minimising the number of bags. The Smithsonian Entry and Visitor Guidelines page is a wonderful resource to confirm general guidelines at most museums in D.C. all in one place. If you are driving to these locations, remember that parking may not be free. Here are the best free museums in D.C.
- Free Museums in Washington DC
- Top Tours and Tickets
- 20 Of The Best Free Museums In DC
- 1- National Gallery of Art
- 2- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- 3- National Museum of Natural History
- 4- National Museum of American History
- 5- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- 6- National Museum of the American Indian
- 7- National Museum of African American History and Culture
- 8- National Museum of Asian Art
- 9- National Museum of African Art
- 10- National Archives Museum
- 11- National Air and Space Museum
- 12- National Zoo
- 13- National Portrait Gallery
- 14- American Art Museum
- 15- National Postal Museum
- 16- United States Botanical Gardens
- 17- White House Visitor Center
- 18- Library Of Congress
- 19- U.S. National Arboretum
- 20- Anacostia Community Museum
Free Museums in Washington DC
Top Tours and Tickets
Although many museums are free to enter, some have vast and complex collections and you will get more out of your visit with a guided tour. Tour guides are professionals who will help you interpret the displays and bring those historical stories to life using their skills and knowledge. Here are some tours you will get a lot out of:
- The National Gallery of Art DC – private guided tour
- The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum – private guided tour with insider tips.
- Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History – two-hour guided tour to help you get your bearings.
- Smithsonian Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum Tour – visit two museums in a small group of no more than eight people.
- Big Bus Washington DC Open Top Hop-On Hop-Off Tour – this will get you to several museums.
20 Of The Best Free Museums In DC
1- National Gallery of Art
Spanning two major buildings connected by an illuminated tunnel and indoor waterfall in addition to an outdoor six-acre (2.4 ha) sculpture garden, this world-renowned art gallery has a rotating display of pieces from the permanent collection and travelling exhibitions.
The permanent collection spans ancient to contemporary, featuring masters including da Vinci, Degas, and Calder, providing a wonderfully comprehensive selection of the best art.
In addition to its exhibitions, the National Gallery of Art offers public programming such as art history films, classical concerts and hands-on activities for kids, making it a wonderful excursion for the whole family.
If you are visiting during the winter, check out the ice skating rink in the sculpture garden.
The National Gallery of Art is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm at 6th and Constitution Avenue North West, Washington, DC, 20565. Check out this private guided tour.
2- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Honour the lives lost and learn some of history’s hardest lessons from one of humanity’s greatest tragedies: the Holocaust from WWII.
Due to the nature of the topics discussed in this museum, exhibitions (especially the main permanent exhibit) are often recommended for visitors 11 years and older, except the children-geared Daniel’s Story exhibit.
Artifacts, videos and personal stories abound in the permanent exhibition The Holocaust providing a meaningful look at this event.
James Ingo specifically designed the building Freed to evoke architectural features of different historical Holocaust sites in an abstract, open-ended manner without literal references to any of these locations.
The museum also features four commissioned pieces of art, including Sol LeWitt’s wall drawing Consequence, Richard Serra’s monolithic sculpture Gravity, Joel Shapiro’s sculpture Loss and Regeneration, and Ellsworth Kelly’s four white wall sculptures titled Memorial.
Timed-entry tickets are required and limited to groups of six or fewer in light of COVID and there is a $1 transaction fee to process the tickets online.
The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place South West, Washington, DC, 20024.
3- National Museum of Natural History
The world’s most visited natural history museum features approximately 15 permanent exhibits at any given time, with 147 million specimens and artifacts such as dinosaur bones, the Hope Diamond, meteorites, ancient Egyptian mummies and live insects, including butterflies.
Travelling exhibits span various topics in natural history, focusing on plant and animal wildlife and human history.
They even feature DIY, free, printable exhibitions to enhance your experience even more.
The museum is so large, it’s a good idea to take a moment to relax in the Garden Lounge, which features live plants or their two cafes.
Open daily from 10 am to 5.30 pm. the National Museum of Natural History is at 1000 Madison Drive North West, Washington, DC 20560. Check out this private guided tour.
4- National Museum of American History
Join the four million people who visit this museum every year to explore the over 1.7 million objects telling the story of America over 300,000 square feet (27,870 square meters).
Some of the most famous and popular exhibits include the flag that inspired the “Star-Spangled Banner”, the Greensboro lunch counter from the Civil Rights protests, Julia Child’s Kitchen, the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Lincoln’s stovepipe hat.
The museum also features regular programming as part of certain exhibits like Spark!Lab and Wonderplace, in addition to special events like guest speakers and performances.
Open daily from 10 am to 5.30 pm, the National Museum of American History is at 1300 Constitution Avenue North West, Washington, DC, 20560.
5- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Known for its extensive collection of global modern and contemporary art, this museum is a must-see for art lovers.
Highlighted and popular artists include Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, and Yayoi Kusama.
The sculpture garden features over 30 works, including the famous Wish Tree by Yoko Ono.
Open for 50 years, the Hirshorn offers a national platform for contemporary art and culture and is one of the most popular U.S. modern art museums.
Timed passes may be required for special exhibits.
In addition to its permanent and special exhibits, the museum also features fascinating learning experiences such as storytimes, special speakers, their mobile Art Cart and film festivals.
Dolcezza, the on-site cafe, serves specialty coffee, tea, gelato and pastries in a uniquely designed setting.
Open daily from 10 am to 5.30 pm, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is at Independence Avenue South West & 7th Street South West, Washington, DC, 20560.
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6- National Museum of the American Indian
Explore the diversity of culture, language, history, tradition, and futures of indigenous peoples of the Americas in this relatively recent addition to the National Mall.
Check out the interactive, family-friendly imagiNATIONS Activity Center (Tuesday-Sunday) designed specifically for ages 10 and younger to explore various indigenous peoples’ traditional cultural and scientific knowledge through play.
In November 2020, the National Native American Veterans Memorial was unveiled at the museum as a stainless steel circle balanced on a carved stone drum featuring intricate symbolic carving to honour and remember the Native American members of the armed services.
Grab a bite of traditional food in Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe featuring indigenous cuisines of the Americas through five themed food stations.
In addition to the permanent and temporary exhibits, the museum features several special events and programs to share indigenous cultures with all ages, including performances, special guest speakers, film festivals and concerts.
Open daily from 10 am to 5.30 pm, the National Museum of the American Indian is at 4th Street South West, Washington, DC, 20560.
7- National Museum of African American History and Culture
Visit the only national museum devoted to documenting and sharing African American life, art, history and culture, which opened in Fall of 2016.
With 85,000 square feet (7,897 square kilometers) of exhibition space, it’s about a mile of walking and at least two hours to see everything.
Explore African American cooking in the Sweet Home Cafe with four themed stations and occasional special menus called “Chef’s Tables”, such as the Black History Month offerings.
Free timed entry passes are required.
Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 pm daily, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is at 1400 Constitution Avenue North West, Washington, DC, 20560. This African-American History Tour includes museum admission.
8- National Museum of Asian Art
Explore Asian art at the Freer Gallery, the first Smithsonian museum devoted solely to art when it was built, plus the decorative and devotional objects housed in the Sackler Gallery.
Together, they hold over 45,000 objects spanning a timeline of 6,000 years, including some American artworks in the Freer Gallery, such as the world’s largest collection of art by James McNeill Whistler.
The galleries recently underwent extensive renovations bringing new life and technology to the museum.
The museum also hosts several events and special programs, such as workshops, guest speakers, performances and films.
The National Museum of Asian Art is at 1050 Independence Avenue South West, Washington, DC, 20560.
9- National Museum of African Art
Opened originally in 1964 but acquired by the Smithsonian in 1979, the National Museum of African Art collects and shares traditional as well as modern and contemporary art of Africa with the world.
Exhibits span multiple media and themes, including photography, portraits, sculptures, film, and more on tradition, history, slavery in America, politics and Africa in film.
Their special programming includes performances of various kinds and special guest speakers.
The National Museum of African Art is at 950 Independence Avenue South West, Washington, DC, 20560.
10- National Archives Museum
Housing both the museum and the National Archives and Records Administration, it is home to the three most important documents in American history.
Explore the Declaration of Independence, the Consitution, and the Bill of Rights in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom and other historical documents that influenced American history in the interactive Public Vaults permanent exhibit.
The David M. Rubenstein Gallery features a 17-foot (over-5 m) touch screen on the national debates around issues such as citizenship and free speech and is one of only four surviving originals of the 1297 Magna Carta in the permanent exhibition Record of Rights.
The museum also features temporary exhibits such as a featured document display and the hands-on Boeing Learning Center, where you can borrow white gloves and a magnifying glass to explore replica documents like a real archivist.
Open daily from 10 am to 5.30 pm, the National Archives Museum is at 701 Constitution Avenue North West, Washington, DC, 20408. Skip the line and join a private guided tour.
11- National Air and Space Museum
Explore the power of flight and how it launched us off the Earth at the world-renowned National Air and Space Museum.
Like many other museums, the Air and Space Museum is in the middle of a renovation plan that will continue through 2025, but eight new galleries are currently open.
Explore the power and history of flight, focusing on its inventors in The Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age.
Explore how we made it to the moon in 1969 and why and how we are going back in Destination Moon, a new blockbuster-level exhibit.
Free timed entry passes are required or you can skip the line and join a private guided tour here.
Their secondary location, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, about a 40-minute drive from D.C., features planes and a space shuttle as you explore human spaceflight and World War II Aviation.
Open 10 am to 5.30 pm daily, the National Air and Space Museum is at 600 Independence Avenue, Washington, DC, 20560.
12- National Zoo
Lions, tigers, and bears oh, my! Explore all types of animals from around the world, including daily animal demos and habitat exhibits.
Entry passes are required, which should be reserved in advance online in addition to paid parking passes (if you choose to drive and park there).
There will be a limited number of same-day passes onsite, but it is recommended to reserve ahead of time.
If going with kids, check out the Kids’ Farm, the unique Me and the Bee playground, and the seasonal Squirt Zone to cool off.
The Speedwell Conservation Carousel is also a very cool addition for kids, but beware that it costs $4 per rider.
The recommended/ expected time to visit the Zoo is two to three hours and be sure to bring comfortable walking shoes.
They offer on-site food options, but you can bring your own food and non-alcoholic drinks (no glass bottles).
Open daily from 8 am to 4 pm, the National Zoo is at 3001 Connecticut Avenue North West, Washington, DC, 20008.
13- National Portrait Gallery
Explore portraits of America’s most influential figures, including artists, politicians, scientists, inventors, activists, and performers, through visual arts, performing arts and new media.
The museum houses the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, including ones by the famous Gilbert Stuart.
Schedule a tour for 10 or more adults five weeks in advance for a personalized visit for your group, or try your luck with the drop-in tours on Saturdays and Sundays at 12 pm and 2.30 pm.
Consider enhancing your experience with the SmARTify app, which provides self-guided tours and information about scanned items in their collection using your device’s camera.
Open daily from 11.30 am to 7 pm, the National Portrait Gallery is at 8th Street North West & G Street North West, Washington, DC, 20001. It’s worth joining a small-group tour of this and the next museum on our list.
14- American Art Museum
Explore the nation’s first collection of American art, creating a unique world-class record of the American experience that is one of the most significant and inclusive collections of American art worldwide.
The museum has been leading the charge in identifying, collecting and showcasing unique and masterful examples of American visual art culture.
There’s photography, contemporary folk and self-taught art, often untold cultural art such as African American and Latino, and even video games in addition to the traditional, expected forms of art in a museum.
The museum has two locations: the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in the downtown cultural district and the Renwick Gallery near the White House, which focuses on craft and decorative art, but they are only a 25-minute walk from each other.
Be sure to check out Janet Echelman’s 1.8 Renwick, a commissioned colourful fibre and lighting piece suspended from the ceiling about the interconnections between humans and the natural world over time, and the Experience America exhibit, which encapsulates American culture in art of various forms.
Both locations are open daily, but the SAAM location is open from 11:30 am to 7 pm and the Renwick Gallery is open from 10 am to 5.30 pm.
The SAAM is in the same building as the National Portrait Gallery at G Street North West & 8th Street North West, Washington, DC, while the Renwick Gallery is at 1661 Pennsylvania Avenue North West #1, Washington, DC. It’s worth joining a small-group tour of this and the previous museum on our list.
15- National Postal Museum
Who knew the postal system could be such fun?
Explore how the postal system moves the mail around the country, including the transportation, the logistics of how your letter goes from your mailbox to its destination, and what it’s like to work for the postal service.
Its awesome stamp gallery features interactive ways to interact with stamps like you never imagined.
Daily tours are available in addition to regular special programming such as story times, art programs, book clubs, lectures and even bilingual offerings like Hello, Museo for kids.
Open daily from 10 am to 5.30 pm, the National Postal Museum is at 2 Massachusetts Avenue North East, Washington, DC, 20002.
16- United States Botanical Gardens
Explore the nation’s living plant museum featuring natural spaces, dynamic exhibits and fascinating programs.
Find plants from all over the nation, from desert to tropical forests, to beautiful orchids at the Conservatory and special exhibits.
If you visit from spring to fall with children, explore nature through play and sensory experiences in the Children’s Garden in the Conservatory.
Explore both formal and naturalistic gardens telling the story of nature’s adaptations and their intersections with human lives in the three-acre (1.2 ha) gated outdoor gardens.
Featuring sustainable features such as rain gardens, reuse of materials, native plants, and locally-sourced furniture, the Bartholdi Fountain and Gardens is a favoured “secret” garden of locals.
The Botanical Garden is open daily, though each section has its own hours.
The Conservatory and Gated Outdoor Gardens are at 100 Maryland Avenue South West, Washington, DC, 20001, while the Bartholdi Fountain and Gardens is across the street at 245 First Street South West, Washington, DC, 20024.
17- White House Visitor Center
While getting a tour of the White House can be difficult, check out the Visitor Center to get the next best thing with much less hassle.
Explore an interactive touchscreen tour of the White House, over 90 artifacts from the White House collection.
Open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., the White House Visitor Center is at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue North West, Washington, DC, 20230.
18- Library Of Congress
Explore the home of more than 128 million items, including books, manuscripts, films, photographs, sheet music, map, and other “paper documents” that have been preserved, many of which are available via different technological reading devices.
The architecture of the building itself is also awe-inspiring and a must for architecture lovers.
Timed Entry passes are required and the public spaces will take approximately 90 minutes to view and about half a mile (.8 km) of walking.
Beware that the Main Reading Room Overlook is very popular and long wait times are to be expected.
The library also hosts a variety of special tours, workshops, film screenings, performances and special guest speakers.
Every Thursday evening, they offer happy hour drinks and snacks for purchase in addition to special programming as part of their Live! at the Library series.
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, the Library of Congress is at Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street South East, Washington, DC 20540. The Capitol Hill Guided Walking Tour offers insights and a guided tour of the US Capitol & Library of Congress.
19- U.S. National Arboretum
This national 446-acre (180.5 ha) park features plants of all kinds, including popular attractions like the Grove of State Trees, the National Herb Garden, the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, and the National Capitol Columns.
Check their calendar for lectures, workshops, and demonstrations.
Be prepared that it is a 15-minute drive from the city centre and a little tricky to reach by public transportation, but worth the trip.
Open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the U.S. Arboretum is at 3501 New York Avenue North East, Washington, DC, 20002.
20- Anacostia Community Museum
Check out this off-the-beaten-track option for a great local museum focusing on social issues in the local area for the different populations, particularly Black history from the 1800s to the present.
Free admission and free parking make this Smithsonian museum very accessible and not nearly as crowded as the bigger names.
Due to their focus on community programming, events are held at the museum and their “in the streets” local options.
Open daily, 11 am to 4 pm, the Anacostia Community Museum is at 1901 Fort Place South East, Washington, DC, 20020.
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