Posted by on Aug 17, 2017 in Travel | 2 comments

Smithsonian visitor center castle

If you’re traveling to Washington D.C. for the first time and your list of things to do includes “see the Smithsonian,” you might be in for a surprise.

The Smithsonian Institution is not a single sight you can check off in an afternoon. It’s a collection of 19 different museums of varying sizes, research centers, gardens, galleries, and a zoo. There’s just way too much stuff to see it all in one trip, let alone a day.

In fact, a couple of the museums aren’t even in D.C., they’re in New York. A few more are scattered throughout the D.C. metro area. However, most of them (13 or so) are clustered right around the National Mall.

I’m calling them the “Mall Smithsonians” for short.

National Mall

In the coming weeks, Phillip will be sharing what it was like inside the Mall Smithsonians he was able to visit during our short D.C. trip – specifically, the American History Museum, Air and Space Museum, and café of the Native American Museum.

But, first, I wanted to give you some practical information about how to tackle the Mall Smithsonians.

Depending on how much time you have, you’ll probably want to pick 1-3 museums and prioritize the parts of each you want to see most. Choosing what you’re interested in is the easy part, though. Figuring out how to get there, when you can go, and where you can eat or find wifi or store your stuff gets a bit more confusing.

So here are some tips to help you make the most of these Mall museums.


DC

6 Things to Know about the Mall Smithsonians

1. Admission is free.

Donations are, of course, accepted and appreciated.

Since you’re not tied to paying a daily entrance fee, you can be more flexible in how you experience the museums.

You don’t have to spend the whole day in one museum…

  • If you’re short on time, stop in for an hour or two. Or just long enough to see whatever you were dying to see before leaving town.
  • If you’re tied up during the day (with business, a conference, or other obligations), check the hours. You may be able to do an evening visit.
  • Go museum hopping, seeing just the exhibits you’re most interested in at each.

You don’t have to see it all in one day…

  • Take your time checking out a museum you’re particularly interested in. Come back the next day if there’s more you want to see.
  • Instead of one long day, break a visit up into two weekday afternoons or weekend mornings, when crowds are typically lighter.
  • Leave when your (or your kid/s, travel companion/s, etc.) energy begins to wane, knowing you can pick up where you left off after a nap, a change in activity, or another day.

There are a few activities that do require free or paid tickets (like the IMAX theaters), but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Smithsonian visitor center castle

2. They’re open daily.

Mall Smithsonians are typically open every day, unless it’s Christmas (December 25) or if they’re closed for renovation.

  • Most have opening hours from 10am to 5:30pm (exceptions below).
  • In addition, some have extended hours on certain days or close early for special events. Double check the Smithsonian Special Hours Calendar to see what’s up before you go.

3. Large bags are not recommended.

  • Some museums (noted below) have storage lockers available for smallish items (like maybe under-your-airplane-seat sized bags).
  • For larger luggage, ask if you can leave it where you are/were staying (most hotels and Airbnbs will allow guests to store luggage before check in or after check out).
  • Otherwise, your best bet is the Tiburon Lockers Baggage Check Counter at Union Station, Gate A ($6/hour). (From there, you can take the DC Circulator to the Mall.)

4. You’ll need to go through security as you enter.

  • Bags will be checked either by hand or X-ray machine, even if you’re planning to store them in a locker.
  • During peak times, this can cause lines, especially at the Air and Space Museum. So, even though you don’t have to pay admission, you may have to wait to get in.

DC Museum cafe

5. Many of the museums have a café or food court.

  • You can also bring your own food for a picnic on the Mall’s lawn or in the Portrait Gallery’s courtyard.
  • As long as everything is sealed up well, you can carry food and water with you in your bag or store it in a locker.
  • Map of food vendors on the National Mall – with menus. Or check the list below.

6. Parking: don’t count on it.

  • None of the Mall Smithsonians have their own designated parking.
  • The Smithsonian Parking Map (PDF) lists other local lots.
  • Consider alternative transportation, like the DC Circulator (which stops near all the Mall-area Smithsonians) or the Metrorail (which has a stop – literally called “Smithsonian” – that exits onto the Mall itself in the middle of a bunch of museums.)

With this in mind, driving (and attempting to park) in the area may be more trouble than it’s worth – unless you need a place to stash your oversized luggage (see #3).

 

Air and Space Museum

Museum by Museum Guide

Here are the Smithsonian museums located around the National Mall listed geographically, roughly west to east – from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol Building (Smithsonian National Mall Map PDF).

I’ve gathered information about each to help you with planning:

  • Nearest Metrorail stop/s and where to exit*
  • Nearest Capital Bikeshare rental station/s and station number/s*
  • Hours (if different than 10am to 5:30pm)
  • Important things to note (closed to the public, requires a timed ticket, etc.)
  • If there are cafés (or food courts, carts, kiosks, etc.), wifi, storage lockers, and/or bike racks on site.
  • Other features (garden, planetarium, etc.)

*More info in our post on transportation tips for the National Mall!
Washington DC

On the Mall –

National Museum of African American History and Culture

1400 Constitution Avenue, NW

  • Metro: Federal Triangle or Smithsonian (Mall exit)
  • Bikeshare: 15th St & Constitution Ave NW, Bike station 31321
  • Requires timed ticket.
  • Café

National Museum of American History

1300 Constitution Avenue, NW

  • Metro: Federal Triangle or Smithsonian (Mall exit)
  • Bikeshare: 10th St & Constitution Ave NW, Bike station 31219 or Smithsonian-National Mall / Jefferson Dr & 12th St SW, Bike station 31248
  • Cafés on lower level and 1st floor
  • Wifi in Welcome Center and cafés (free)
  • Lockers available
  • Bike racks outside

National Museum of Natural History

10th St. and Constitution Ave., NW

  • Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)
  • Bikeshare: 10th St & Constitution Ave NW, Bike station 31219 or Smithsonian-National Mall / Jefferson Dr & 12th St SW, Bike station 31248
  • Butterfly Pavilion – tickets $6. Free admission on Tuesdays with timed ticket.
  • IMAX Theatre – tickets required (about $9-15/adult).
  • Cafés on ground level, food carts outside
  • Lockers available
  • Bike racks outside (Constitution Avenue entrance)

Freer Gallery of Art (Asian art)

Jefferson Dr. and 12th St., SW

  • Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)
  • Bikeshare: USDA / 12th & Independence Ave SW, Bike station 31217 or Smithsonian-National Mall / Jefferson Dr & 12th St SW, Bike station 31248
  • Closed to the public until October 14, 2017.
  • Lockers available

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Asian art)

1050 Independence Ave., SW

  • Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)
  • Bikeshare: Independence Ave & L’Enfant Plaza SW/DOE, Bike station 31633
  • Closed to the public until October 14, 2017.

National Museum of African Art

950 Independence Ave., SW

  • Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)
  • Bikeshare: Independence Ave & L’Enfant Plaza SW/DOE, Bike station 31633
  • Lockers available
  • Bike racks outside (between African Art Museum and Sacker Gallery, outside Haupt Garden gates on Independence Avenue)

Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle)

1000 Jefferson Dr., SW

  • Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)
  • Bikeshare: Independence Ave & L’Enfant Plaza SW/DOE, Bike station 31633 or Smithsonian-National Mall / Jefferson Dr & 12th St SW, Bike station 31248
  • Smithsonian Visitor Center
  • Daily hours: 8:30am – 5:30pm. It opens earlier than the other museums, so you can start there and get oriented.
  • Café, food carts outside seasonally
  • Wifi (free)
  • Bike racks outside

Hirshhorn Museum (international modern and contemporary art)

Independence Ave. and 7th St., SW

  • Metro: L’Enfant Plaza (Maryland Ave. exit)
  • Bikeshare: L’Enfant Plaza / 7th & C St SW, Bike station 31218 or Independence Ave & L’Enfant Plaza SW/DOE, Bike station 31633
  • Sculpture Garden – open 7:30 a.m. to dusk
  • Café (dessert and coffee)
  • Wifi (free)
  • Lockers available
  • Bike racks outside

National Air and Space Museum

Independence Ave. and 6th St., SW

  • Metro: L’Enfant Plaza (Maryland Ave. exit)
  • Bikeshare: Maryland & Independence Ave SW, Bike station 31243
  • Open until 7:30pm on select dates.
  • Entrances on Independence Avenue and the Mall/Jefferson Avenue. If lines are long at one entrance, try the other.
  • IMAX Theatre – tickets required (about $9-15/adult).
  • Planetarium – tickets required (some shows are free, others may be about $9/adult).
  • Observatory
  • Food Court (First Floor-East Wing), food carts outside
  • Bike racks outside
  • Wifi (free)

National Museum of the American Indian

4th St. & Jefferson Dr., SW

  • Metro: L’Enfant Plaza (Maryland Ave. exit)
  • Bikeshare: Maryland & Independence Ave SW, Bike station 31243
  • Café, espresso bar
  • Wifi (free)
  • Bike racks outside

 

Walking in DC - treasury

Near the Mall –

Renwick Gallery (contemporary craft and decorative art)

1700 Pennsylvania Ave., NW

  • Metro: Farragut West or Farragut North
  • Bikeshare: 17th & G St NW, Bike station 31277
  • Barrier-free access at 17th Street entrance.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery

8th and F Sts., NW

  • Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown (9th St. exit)
  • Bikeshare: 7th & F St NW/Portrait Gallery, Bike station 31232
  • Both museums are inside the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
  • Daily hours: 11:30am – 7pm
  • Kogod Courtyard – bag lunches allowed.
  • Café
  • Wifi (free)
  • Lockers and self-check coat room (near the F Street Lobby) available

National Postal Museum

2 Massachusetts Avenue, NE

  • Metro: Union Station (Mass. Ave. exit)
  • Bikeshare: North Capitol St & F St NW, Bike station 31624
  • Lockers available
  • Bike racks outside

National Mall, Washington DC


Have anything to add? Did you use this on a trip to D.C.? Leave a comment and share your experience!