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8 Must-See Washington, D.C., Museums

Check out these museums the next time you visit the nation's capital.

U.S. News & World Report

8 Must-See Washington, D.C., Museums

The opening day of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. in Washington, DC on September 24, 2016.

You won't want to miss these attractions on your next trip to the nation's capital. (Getty Images)

Whether it's modern art, American history, space travel or spies, the District of Columbia has a museum that will appeal to your passions. The city is home to a number of exceptional cultural and educational institutions, including multiple Smithsonian museums that are free to visit.

To help you decide which museums deserve a spot on your to-do list, U.S. News asked several local experts for recommendations. Below are the eight museums you won't want to miss on your next trip to the nation's capital.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

National Museum of African American History and Culture.(Courtesy of Alan Karchmer-NMAAHC)

The newest addition to the Smithsonian family is "one of the things we're very proud of. I encourage individuals to make a stop here," says Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of the city's tourism site, Destination DC. The museum provides an in-depth look at African-American history, community and culture. Its collection of nearly 37,000 objects includes artifacts from slave ships; a slave cabin from a plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina; a dress sewn by Rosa Parks; and Harriet Tubman's shawl.

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. You have to go online to book a time slot ahead of your visit, though the museum distributes a limited number of same-day passes. Admission is free.

National Museum of American History

The National Museum of American History has the best of the U.S. under its roof, says Kitt Vidnovic, senior concierge at The Fairmont Washington, D.C., Georgetown. This branch of the Smithsonian protects and preserves items that played a key role in American history and culture.

"Imagine having all the first ladies' inaugural gowns, a pair of the ruby slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz' and the flag that flew over Fort McHenry, all in one place," Vidnovic says.

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free.

International Spy Museum

International Spy Museum.(Courtesy of the International Spy Museum)

The spy museum is a good choice for families, says Greg Leinweber, general manager at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Washington DC. Adults and kids alike will love the James Bond-style "spy versus spy" displays and interactive spy experiences, he says. Visit the museum's School for Spies gallery to learn all about spy craft's gadgets and technologies, and test your "spy skills" at various stations.

Hours vary by day, so check the museum website for updates. Admission is $21.95 for adults, $14.95 for youths age 7 to 11 and free for younger children.

National Air and Space Museum

National Air and Space Museum.(Courtesy of Mark Avino and Smithsonian Institution)

With its displays of the lunar landscape and massive collection of aircraft, the National Air and Space Museum is another top choice for kids, Leinweber says. Learn about America's history of aviation, and take a tour of the Earth's solar system as seen through the eyes of robotic explorers. You can visit its original spot on the National Mall, or drive out to the Chantilly, Virginia, site of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which features an observation tower, exhibits on aerobatic flight and the space shuttle Discovery.

The museums are free and open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Though parking at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center costs $15 before 4 p.m.) Both locations have an Imax theater, which sells tickets for various shows.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Smithsonian American Art Museum.(Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)

This branch of the Smithsonian houses the nation's first collection of American art. Located in Chinatown, the Smithsonian American Art Museum displays paintings, sculptures and more from such renowned artists as Mary Cassatt, Georgia O'Keeffe and William H. Johnson. In the National Portrait Gallery, which is located in the same building, the portraits of the American presidents are always popular, Leinweber says. He adds, "The great thing about this museum is [that] it's open later in the evening, until 7 p.m."

The museum is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free.

National Gallery of Art

Located on the National Mall, the National Gallery of Art showcases some of the world's finest works. With pieces from the Renaissance to the impressionist era to today, this expansive collection takes visitors on a trip through art history.

Sherri Dalphonse, executive editor of Washingtonian magazine, urges visitors to see the newly renovated East Building, which features modern and contemporary art. "It is just stupendous. I'm recommending that to everyone now. They've made that into a must-see museum for modern art. It really highlights the art in a great way," she says.

The National Gallery of Art is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free.


Newseum.(Courtesy of Maria Bryk-Newseum)

The Newseum offers visitors an inside look at the media industry and the role journalism has played throughout history – from the death of President Abraham Lincoln to the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11. A local favorite, this extensive museum caters to all ages. "There are green rooms where kids can act as if they're on television," Leinweber says.

The Newseum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $22.95 for adults, $18.95 for seniors, $13.95 for youths age 7 to 18 and free for younger children. Admission is good for two days.

National Museum of the American Indian

This Smithsonian museum houses artifacts from North and South American Indians. What makes this facility particularly special is that Native American voices had input in the design of the museum's unique exhibits, architecture and landscaping. It also has a great cafe, according to Vidnovic. The Mitsitam Cafe ("Mitsitam" means "let's eat" in the native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples) provides visitors the opportunity to enjoy a variety of Native American food.

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and the cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

To experience more of what the District of Columbia has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.

Corrected on Feb. 24, 2017: An earlier version of this article misstated the National Portrait Gallery’s relationship to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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