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    The 6 must-see free museums in Washington DC

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    Martí Micolau

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    The beauty of Washington DC, especially for history and art lovers, is the variety of museums available within walking distance of each other. Once you reach the National Mall, a large park 3 kilometers long, you just have to choose the museums you prefer without traveling by public transport. In addition to the convenience, it will also be a relief for the wallet: most museums are in fact free! Here are the 6 you shouldn't miss.


    • How to get to the National Mall and start the itinerary
    • The 6 must-see museums in Washington DC
      • National Archives
      • National Museum of African American History and Culture
      • National Museum of Natural History
      • National Gallery of Art
      • National Air and Space Museum
      • National Museum of American History
    • Where to sleep in the area?

    How to get to the National Mall and start the itinerary

    You can choose to start from the Lincoln Memorial or the Capitol. In the first case, the closest stops are Foggy Bottom (23rd St. and I St. NW) and Smithsonian (12th St. and Independence Ave. SW); in the second, get off at Union Station (First Street NW and Massachusetts Avenue), Capitol South (First Street between C and D Streets SE) or Federal Center (Third and D Streets SW).

    Buses serve the whole area well, being one of the most visited and central in the city.

    The 6 must-see museums in Washington DC

    National Archives

    Completed in 1937 and also known as Archives I, the National Archives contains three documents of extreme historical importance: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are well preserved along with the Magna Carta of 1297 and are all visible in the main room of the building, the Rotunda for the Charter of Freedom. Among other documents, the Articles of Confederation (the first administration document of the United States), the Purchase of Louisiana concerning precisely the acquisition of the state by the French, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Also interesting is the Public Vaults exhibition, thanks to which you will be able to discover telegrams written by Lincoln, letters from Washington, treatises, drawings and original audio.

    It is possible to see the documents freely (there are no precise lines), so I advise you to go there at times close to closing or opening in order to find less crowds and to look at the display cases calmly. A curiosity? Here, precisely on the third floor, on December 5, 1963, there was a meeting regarding the investigations after the assassination of President Kennedy.

    The museum is open every day from 10 to 17:30 and admission is free.

    National Museum of African American History and Culture

    In this brand new museum, opened only in 2016, there are more than 30000 pieces belonging to the most diverse fields of African-American culture: family, school, politics, music, slavery and civil rights. The time span goes from 1800 to the present day, ranging from objects such as the Muhammad Ali boxing gloves to the pins of the Obama presidential campaign of 2008.

    The way of visiting is a bit particular since the turnout has increased considerably in recent years. It works like this: to visit the museum, if you already know which day you will go, you have to request a (free) timed pass online on the first Wednesday of the month; if, on the other hand, you decide on the day of the visit, you can always try to request it online starting at 6:30 in the morning. Another option, but only on weekdays, is to take the pass in person starting at 13pm by queuing up on Madison Drive. The pass has a unique code and entrances are timed at intervals of 15 minutes. Here all the info on the passes.

    The museum is open every day from 10am to 17pm.

    National Museum of Natural History

    It is one of the most visited museums in the world with over 7 million annual visitors and no wonder: in its 140000 square meters it houses more than 125 million specimens of plants, animals, fossils, human remains and rocks, all visible for free. 7 days a week.
    Among the most fascinating exhibits it is impossible not to mention that of Dinosaurs with 46 species on display, including a complete skeleton of the Brontosaurus and a reconstruction of the Triceratops; the largest vertebrate collection in the world; the area dedicated to origins of human beings which also includes a Neanderthal fossil; the wing of the geology, gems and minerals with hundreds of thousands of pieces (including meteorites); and could not miss a part on oceans which will make you look up because of the huge whale hanging from the ceiling.

    The museum is open daily from 10:00 to 17:30. Are you headed to Washington? You discover...
    • The best areas to sleep
    • What to see in 1 day
    • How to get around the city
    • I National Mall
    • How to outline an itinerary based on the days available
    • The Best Time to Visit Washington
    • Where to eat in Washington

    National Gallery of Art

    West Building - exterior

    The National Gallery of Art is a museum divided into two buildings, West Building ed East Building, connected by an underpass. The first includes some works by American artists of more recent years and numerous works by European artists from the period from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Among these we find Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and also Leonardo da Vinci's only work in America, the Portrait of Ginevra de 'Benci.

    Portrait of Ginevra de 'Benci
    West Building – interno

    The second instead focuses on modern and contemporary art through the works of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Another important area is reserved for the Sculpture Garden, a sort of open-air art gallery with particular and interesting sculptures surrounded by plants and flowers. Here there is also a large body of water with a fountain that turns into an ice skating rink in winter.

    East Building - exterior
    East Building – interno
    The museum is open every day of the week at the following times:
    • Monday to Saturday: 10am - 17pm
    • Sunday: 11-18

    National Air and Space Museum

    This has been one of my favorite museums in Washington and apparently so are many others, as it was visited by 2016 million people in 7,5 alone. It is the second most visited museum in the world and the first in the United States thanks to its incredible original relics of spaceships and airplanes. The museum has a collection consisting of more than 30000 aviation and 9000 space-related pieces.

    Among these I point out: the Friendship 7 capsule the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission of 1962; the Apollo 11 Command Module (the famous mission that brought man to the moon); the space suit by David Scott worn for Apollo 15; the gigantic "tip" of a Boeing 747 of the Northwest; a model of the Hindenburg airship used in the film of the same name, which tells the story of the incident. Also not to be missed is the Albert Einstein Planetarium, all centered around the stars and space. At 10:30 all films are shown for free (here you will find those available).

    Admission, like all other museums, is free. Opens at 10am and closes at 17pm.

    National Museum of American History


    Built on three floors, the National Museum of American History tells the history of the United States through different themes such as culture, politics and science. The basement is of relative interest as it houses only a café and flight simulators. The first floor focuses on transport and technology with the John Bull locomotive and the Vassar Telescope, but also on the gastronomic / food aspect, emphasizing the transformations that American cuisine has had over the centuries (you can explore the kitchen of one of the first American chefs, Julia Child). The queen of the second floor is undoubtedly the great one American flag ("Star-Spangled Banner") which inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem when he saw her during the 1812 Anglo-American War in Baltimore. That poem later became the anthem of the United States.

    George Washington sculpture

    Another important piece in the museum is the 1840 George Washington statue, created for the president's centennial. The wings of the third floor are dedicated to the war, the presidents and the First Ladies. Not only that, the 3 West wing explores another important theme in US culture: entertainment, sports and music. Outside you will find a sculpture about 7 meters high called Infinity, built in 1967 and made of granite and steel, and the Gwenfritz, a sculpture installed in a fountain that is striking for its color (completely black) and square lines.

    The museum is open from 10 to 17:30 and, as with other complexes, entry is free. Are you headed to Washington? You discover...
    • The best areas to sleep
    • What to see in 1 day
    • How to get around the city
    • I National Mall
    • How to outline an itinerary based on the days available
    • The Best Time to Visit Washington
    • Where to eat in Washington DC

    Where to sleep in the area?

    To visit the museum area you can choose 2 neighborhoods near the National Mall such as Capitol Hill and L'Enfant Plaza, however, thanks to the efficient subway system, you can also fall back on slightly more remote areas. For an overview of the recommended districts to sleep in the city, I recommend my article on where to sleep in Washington.

    Advice on where to sleep in Washington

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