The world’s largest museum and research complex, the Smithsonian, is located right in Washington, DC. Comprising 19 museums and galleries as well as the National Zoo, it’s hard to leave the capital without visiting at least a few of the Smithsonian’s attractions. The Smithsonian museums are world-class, easy to get to, and best of all, free! Get to know American history and culture in capital’s best free museums.
Recognized as one of the world’s best zoos, the National Zoological Park (better known as the National Zoo) is home to 2,000 animals representing 400 species. Around 100 endangered species are on exhibit, including pandas, Asian elephants, cheetahs, Sumatran tigers, gorillas, and more. For primate lovers, the highlight of the visit is watching the orangutans travel along the O-line, an “orangutan transport system” consisting of 50-foot-high cables connecting the Great Ape House to the Think Tank. Want to see the animals even after you leave? Several of the zoo’s exhibits are equipped with webcams, allowing visitors to watch live video of the animals from home!
National Museum of Natural History
Prepare to spend an entire day wandering the halls of this massive collection! Start on the first floor with the Hall of Mammals, the largest collection of vertebrate specimens in the world; the Ocean Hall, a fascinating exhibit with a 1500-gallon aquarium, a skeleton of the prehistoric whale Basilosaurus, and two rare giant squid specimens; and a wide variety of fossils from dinosaurs, mammals, and plants in the Hall of Paleobiology. On the second floor you’ll find mummies and real human bones in the Hall of Human Origins, as well as a live insect zoo and butterfly pavilion. The second floor is also home to the Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals, a collection of nearly 700,000 gem, mineral, rock, and ore specimens that includes famous finds like the Hope Diamond and the Star of Asia Sapphire. Make sure to give yourself at least half a day at this museum or you’ll leave feeling like you’ve missed out!
National Museum of the American Indian
All American schoolchildren know that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America and the ‘Indians’ in 1492, but unfortunately few know much of the history of the Native Americans. Far from being one uniform people, the Native Americans are a proud, diverse, and underserved community in the US. This museum is dedicated to the lives, languages, histories, and arts of America’s first peoples. With a wide variety of exhibits ranging from ancestral ceramics to contemporary identity, this is the perfect place to learn about America’s pre-colonial history.
National Air and Space Museum
This fascinating museum is the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world, and showcases every step of humanity’s long road to modern flight. See some of the first aircraft ever built, including the Lilienthal Hang-Glider, built in 1894 and inspiration for the Wright brothers, as well as the world’s first military airplane. Learn about the American-Soviet space race, and see original spacecraft like the Mercury Friendship 7. See record-setting aircraft like the Spirit of St. Louis, the famous plane flown from New York to Paris by Charles Lindbergh in 1927, and the experimental rocket-powered X-15, the fastest recorded aircraft with a top speed of 4,520 miles per hour (7,274 km/h). It’s easy to spend hours exploring this immense collection–just don’t forget to look up!
American Art Museum
With more than 7,000 artists represented from the colonial period to the present, the American Art Museum is one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive art collections. The museum holds pieces from every American region and art movement, such as abstract expressionism, pop art, color field, realism, and more. The museum shares a space with the Lunder Conservation Center, and through glass walls visitors can watch skilled conservators work in five different labs and studios as they preserve art. This museum is a must-see for art lovers.