Museum City Guide: My Top 5 in Washington, D.C.

August 26, 2013


We’ve come to the end of of this summer’s Museum City Guide series. You may already have guessed what the last city to be featured is. After my current home stomping ground Berlin, and the home of my heart, Edinburgh, there’s another museum city that is very special to me, and that’s Washington, D.C. The first thing that springs to most people’s minds, when they think of Washington, D.C. and museums, is ‘The Smithsonian’, and while it has many great museums to offer, there is also a lot more to discover in D.C.’s museum landscape.


After the many months I’ve visited, lived and worked there over the past 12 years, it was another impossible choice to make, to narrow it down to just five favourites. The Top 2 choices have pretty much stayed the same since my first visit, No 3 & 4 keep swapping round, depending what mood I’m in, and the fifth kept constantly changing while I was writing this post, so that I didn’t really know until the very end which museum would scrape in as final choice.

1. National Postal Museum


If you’ve been following Museum Diary for a while, you will know that I am unashamedly in love with the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Not as popular as some of it’s famous Smithsonian ‘siblings’, to me it’s the perfect blend of history, interaction, family friendliness and a little bit of quirkiness, all packaged up in a compact and digestible format. And they have to have one of the cutest museum mascots around ;) Admission is free.

Read all posts about the Smithsonian National Postal Museum

2. National Building Museum


Another museum in D.C. that captured my heart from Day 1 is the National Building Museum. Back then admission was free, but if charging a fee is what it takes to keep this wonderful museum afloat then I’ll gladly pay up, and you can actually still enjoy the grand hall without a ticket. They have several different exhibitions on at any one time, all to do with buildings and achitecture, and if you’re visiting with kids the museum also has one of the best hands-on galleries in town.

Read all posts about the National Building Museum

3. International Spy Museum


Who doesn’t love spies? It’s the stuff great novels and movies are made of. The International Spy Museum does not disappoint. We spent a good 4 hours there, and would have stayed longer had they not been closing, so although it’s a bit pricey you get your money’s worth. A good balance of factual information and fun facts, with an engaging mixture of things to look at, listen to, watch, touch and play with. We particularly enjoyed the challenge of assuming a spy identity – watch out, you will be tested!

Read all posts about the International Spy Museum

4. National Museum of American History


Okay, so despite what I said at the beginning, I had to squeeze another Smithsonian in to my Top 5. A tricky choice, but the National Museum of American History won out in the end. Whether you’ve visited DC or the US before, or it’s your first time there, the museum’s wide ranging exhibitions give an insight in to everything to do with US history, from industrial history to popular culture, and everything you ever wanted to know about the American Presidency. Admission is free.

Read all posts about the National Museum of American History

5. National Museum of the US Navy


The term ‘hidden gem’ was just made for the National Museum of the US Navy. We only discovered it on our most recent visit to D.C., but it immediately became a favourite. Of course, it helps if you’re interested in ships, but either way it’s an interesting alternative way to learn about US history, and there are quite a few opportunities to interact with the exhibits. What made it an overall winner for us, is that you can combine it with a nice day out by the harbour. You can have a picnic by the waterfront, and there’s a retired navy ship you can board most parts of the year. Admission is free.

Read all posts about the National Museum of the US Navy

Other Museums & Attractions

As I mentioned at the beginning, it was almost impossible to narrow my choice to five museums and the final order kept changing as I was writing. Another big favourite that almost made the list is the National Museum of Natural History, with its mammal hall, dinosaurs and the famous Hope Diamond. For a different way to discover American history, the Newseum lets you see major historical events through the eyes of the news and also offers great views of D.C. And if you’re travelling with kids, after the Building Museum our favourite kids’ gallery was at the National Museum of the American Indian, which is worth a visit alone to marvel at the architecture.

Anyone looking for something a little quirky or unusual should head to the National Bonsai Museum on a sunny day, which can be combined with walks around the National Arboretum. Other great open air destinations include the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, and Tudor Place Gardens. And, finally, the Library of Congress offers both something for architecture lovers, as well as a changing programme of interesting exhibitions.

All that museum visiting making you hungry?

To be honest, D.C.’s museums won’t be winning any culinary awards from me any time soon. The National Museum of the American Indian allegedly has great food, but it was a bit pricey so we gave it a miss. Others, such as the American History Museum, have canteens offering pizza, burgers etc, and the Air and Space Museum even just has a McDonald’s. And they are often greatly overcrowded. Smaller museums on the other hand, often don’t have a cafe at all.  If you’re visiting the National Postal Museum, there are places to eat across the road at Union Station. But our preferred choice for lunches was taking a picnic with us, which we mostly ate on a bench out on the National Mall, or in the case of the Navy Museum, down by the waterfront. However, the National Building has a cafe, where you can enjoy a good cup of coffee and buns the size of your head in the ambiance of the amazing great hall, complete with water fountain feature. On our last day, we treated ourselves to the wonderfully delicious bento boxes from Teaism, instead of our usual picnic sandwiches. They have several locations across town, including one a few blocks up from the west end of the National Mall. And their home made ginger limeade is out of this world!


, , , , , ,


  1. Museum City Guide: My Top 5 in Washington, D.C. | LAB - March 31, 2015

    […] Read the rest of the post at it’s original source by clicking here. […]

Leave a Reply