Visiting the Smithsonian Museum: 23 Helpful Tips

Smithsonian Castle

Tackling the largest museum complex in the world can be a tall task, so here are 23 Smithsonian Museum tips to help you make the most out of your visit to the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC.

Despite what many people think, the Smithsonian isn’t a single museum. Rather, it is a collection of world-class museums, galleries, gardens, and a zoo. With 11 sites clustered around the National Mall and six other museums and the National Zoo elsewhere in the Washington, DC, area, the Smithsonian’s collection of knowledge centers serve as a treasure chest for visitors curious to learn more about the world. And with 140 million objects, works of art, and specimens, it’s no surprise that more than 30 million people visit the Smithsonian annually!

Fun Fact: In case the Smithsonian presence in Washington, DC, isn’t impressive enough, there are two additional museums located in New York City: Cooper Hewitt (the Smithsonian Design Museum) and the National Museum of the American Indian. 

Sage Advice:  Find the best place to stay in Washington DC based on your itinerary.

So how does one navigate the largest museum complex in the world? These Smithsonian museum tips will help! 


Have You Visited the Smithsonian Museums?

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Woman looking at app on cell phone

1. Go Mobile

Download Smithsonian Mobile to help you easily access maps, tours, podcasts, tips, photos, and more.

Sage Advice:  The Smithsonian Institution has additional apps that you might find useful like the NMAAHC Mobile Stories app and the Smithsonian Channel app.

2. Or Go Old School

If you prefer paper, download a copy of the official Smithsonian Guide and Map.  In addition to English, the Smithsonian Guide and Map is also available in 10 other languages. Visitors can pick up a Braille copy at the information desk of any Smithsonian museum.

Sage Advice:  Get an overview of the Capital City with a guided tour of DC. For a unique experience, take a night tour, twilight tour, segway tour, or ghost tour!


3. Visit Virtually

Before you head to Washington, DC, consider taking a virtual tour of the Smithsonian museums. When you browse exhibitions online, you’ll learn more about what you’ll see when you visit in person. The digital exhibition experience will also help you create and prioritize your “must see” list. Some virtual tours even let you experience past exhibits that are no longer available to visit in person.

Examples of virtual tours offered by the Smithsonian include:

Related Article:  8 Things to See at the National Portrait Gallery After You’ve Visited America’s Presidents

4. Enrich Your Experience

Whether you’re traveling with children, alone, or with other adults, taking some time to learn more about the artifacts you plan to see can enrich your experience. In addition to Tip #3, here are some recommendations:

Open sign hanging in window

5. Open 364 Days a Year

Most Smithsonian Museums are open daily from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm, except Christmas Day (December 25th). But the Smithsonian Information Center opens at 8:30 am. Housed in the Smithsonian Institution Building (widely known as the Smithsonian Castle), this is a great first stop for your Smithsonian museum adventure. (See tip #9 to learn why.)

On the later side, the American Art Museum and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery are open from 11:30 am to 7:00 pm.

Sage Advice:  For more to do and see after you’ve visited the Smithsonian museums, check out these tips on how to spend three days in Washington, DC.

Pile of US dollars in a variety of values

6. Keep the Change

There is no cost to visit any of the Smithsonian museums in DC. Yes, you read that correctly, Smithsonian museum admission is absolutely free! So enjoy all of the Smithsonian museums, galleries, and gardens — including the National Zoo — at no cost. Thank you, Mr. Smithson (and American taxpayers)!

However, it is important to note that some Smithsonian Museums in DC — like the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) — are so popular that they require a free timed-entry ticket to visit. 

7. Avoid the Crowds

With approximately 30 million visitors each year, the Smithsonian museums can be busy even on slow days. For a less crowded experience, avoid visiting on the weekends, holidays, and during peak travel seasons like during the Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring.

Sage Advice: All Smithsonian museums are closed on Christmas Day, December 25th.

Related Article: Where to See Cherry Blossoms: 24 Enchanting Cities in the US

The Metro is a convenient way to travel to the Smithsonian Museums in DC.

8. Make the Most of the Metro

One of the most important tips for visiting the Smithsonian museums is not to drive. The DC Metro is a fast, easy, and affordable way to get to the Smithsonian museums located on or near the National Mall. The Smithsonian metro station stop at 12th & Jefferson, SW, is just to the west of the Smithsonian Castle, the perfect place to begin your Smithsonian adventure. (See Tip #9.) This stop is available on the blue, orange, and silver lines.

If your itinerary includes visiting the Smithsonian museums on the east half of the National Mall, then the Archives Metro Station (on the green and yellow lines) or the L’Enfant Metro Station (on the green, yellow, orange, blue, and silver lines) may be more convenient.

Sage Advice:  The Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley is another convenient way to get around Washington, DC. And, if you plan on visiting Arlington National Cemetery during your trip to Washington, DC, you can upgrade your ticket to include the cemetery and water taxi.

Related Article:  The People and Places Behind Popular DC Metro Stations

Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC

9. Start at the Smithsonian Castle

Mentioned briefly in tip #5, the red sandstone building at 1000 Jefferson Dr, SW, that looks like a 12th-century Norman castle is known as, um, the Castle. This Smithsonian Institution building houses the Smithsonian Visitors Center and is the perfect place to begin your Smithsonian Institution experience.

James Smithson Crypt at Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC

Don’t miss James Smithson’s tomb just outside the north entrance of the Smithsonian Castle. After all, if it weren’t for James Smithson, there wouldn’t be a Smithsonian Institution. This is also the place to get a fantastic overview of the collections at each of the Smithsonian museums as well as chat with in-house experts to fine tune your Smithsonian plans.

10. Then Move On to What Matters Most to You

As with any travel, it’s okay to skip the things that don’t interest you. Who cares if the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is the most popular. If airplanes and moon rocks aren’t your thing, spend your time exploring what matters to you!

A "must do" list written on a yellow legal pad

11. Have a “Must See” List

Even after you focus on the museums, exhibits, and artifacts that matter most to you, you likely still won’t have enough time to do and see it all. A little advanced planning will help ensure you don’t inadvertently overlook Julia Child’s kitchen in the Museum of American History or the America’s Presidents Gallery at the National Portrait Gallery.

Related Article:  Spend an Hour with America’s Presidents at the National Portrait Gallery

12. Start at the Top

As you visit each Smithsonian Museum, consider starting on the top floor and working your way down. While it may sound like a salmon swimming upstream, this technique is a proven way of avoiding crowds.

13. Pack Lightly

For a fast, easy trip through museum security, try to limit your possessions to a small purse or similarly-sized bag. Any large backpack will be subject to additional search by security.

Sage Advice:  Some Smithsonian Museums have lockers and check rooms available for coats, backpacks, shopping bags, and carry-on-sized luggage. As an alternative, check out Vertoe for a secure luggage storage option near the Smithsonian museum you wish to visit.

14. Leave Your Selfie Stick Behind

While non-flash photography is generally allowed, visitors may not bring tripods, monopods, or selfie sticks into the Smithsonian Museums.

15. Can I Buy You a Drink?

Like any world-class museum, food and drink are not permitted in the Smithsonian museums. Sack lunches, water bottles, and snacks that are properly secured and stowed during your visit may be carried but not consumed except in designated areas. Remember that the cafes, cafeterias, coffee shops, and other dining facilities in the Smithsonian museums are for guests who have purchased an item there and not for food and drink brought in from the outside.

16. Step Lively

You’ll be expected to walk through a metal detector (or be hand-screened with an electronic wand) before entering nearly all Smithsonian museums. You should also expect to have your bag screened.

Be sure to wear comfortable shoes when you visit the Smithsonian Museums in DC.

17. And Wear Comfortable Shoes

Of all the tips for visiting the Smithsonian museums, do not overlook the importance of wearing comfortable shoes! Simply walking counter-clockwise from the Smithsonian Castle to the other Smithsonian museums located on the National Mall is a 2.5-mile undertaking. Add all of the miles you’ll walk exploring the exhibits, sculpture gardens, and other stops along the way, and you’ll likely walk a marathon.

Related Article:  A Complete Guide to the Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall

18. Take a Load Off

Visitors of all ages and activity levels can easily tire from a day exploring the Smithsonian museums. Give your feet a rest by relaxing in the Enid A. Haupt Garden or the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden. Or, you can take in an IMAX movie at the Air and Space Museum.

If younger children will be visiting the Smithsonian museums with you, please note that strollers are allowed in all museums, and a limited number of strollers are available for rent at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Consider biking between Smithsonian Museums

19. Biking Between Museums

To move between museums without wearing yourself out, consider biking. There are several places to rent a bicycle near the National Mall, and most Smithsonian museums have designated bicycle racks for secure storage while you explore the collections inside.

Related Article:  10 Essential Biking Rules Every Cyclist Should Know (Especially If You’re Renting a Bike to Explore)

People Marching in the Street in Protest

20. A Brief Word About the First Amendment

Visitors are not allowed to carry placards, signs, or banners  while on Smithsonian grounds. You are also forbidden from handing out ads, pamphlets, or flyers. 

But there’s no ban on your favorite slogan t-shirt

21. Use Your Inside Voice (and No Potty Mouth)

As with any museum, visitors are expected to use their inside voices and refrain from using abusive or obscene language.

A man with a handful of cigarettes and an e-cigarette in his hands

22. Do You Have a Light?

Whether you answered that question “yes” or “no,” you won’t need it when visiting the Smithsonian museums because you are not able to smoke cigarettes, cigars, or pipes in any Smithsonian building. You are also forbidden from using electronic cigarettes, vape pens, and similar devices.

23. Have You Seen My _____?

This is one of the most important tips for visiting the Smithsonian museums if you fear you’ve lost an item. Each museum’s security office will hold lost and found items for 24 hours before moving them to a central lost and found office. You can reach the central lost and found office at 202.633.5630.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Smithsonian Museums

Where is the Smithsonian museum?

The Smithsonian is a collection of world-class museums, galleries, gardens, and a zoo. The majority of Smithsonian sites surround the National Mall in Washington, DC. But there are additional museums in Washington, DC, and two museums in New York City.

How many Smithsonian museums are there?

By now you know that the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum complex (and not just one museum). But how many Smithsonian museums are there? There are 23 distinct properties that make up the Smithsonian Institution including museums, gardens, and even a zoo!

How many Smithsonian museums are there in DC?

Here is a complete list of the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC:

  • Anacostia Community Museum, 1901 Fort Place, SE, Washington, DC
  • Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC
  • Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive, SW, Washington, DC (temporarily closed)
  • Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive and 12th St., SW, Washington, DC
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Ave. at 7th St., SW, Washington, DC
  • National Air and Space Museum, 655 Jefferson Drive, SW, Washington, DC (reopens October 14, 2022)
  • National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, VA
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture, 1400 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC
  • National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC
  • National Museum of American History, 1300 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC
  • National Museum of Natural History, 10th St. and Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC
  • National Museum of the American Indian, 4th Street and Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC
  • National Portrait Gallery, 8th and G Streets, NW, Washington, DC
  • National Postal Museum, 2 Massachusetts Ave., NE, Washington, DC
  • National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC
  • Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1661 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and G Streets, NW, Washington, DC
  • Smithsonian Gardens: Enid A. Haupt Garden and Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle), 1000 Jefferson Drive, SW, Washington, DC

Which Smithsonian museum is the most popular?

Based on total visits in 2021, the National Museum of Natural History is the most popular Smithsonian museum. It’s followed by the National Zoo and National Museum of American History.

How big is the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History?

According to its published fact sheet, the National Museum of Natural History is 1.32 million square feet, with 325,000 square feet of public space and 146 million artifacts and specimens. About five million people visit in a typical year, eager to gaze at the impressive Hope Diamond, walk through the Butterfly Pavilion, examine fossils, and so much more!

When does the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum open?

The Air and Space Museum has been under renovation since 2018. It reopens on October 14, 2022, and free timed-entry passes are available starting September 14, 2022.

Are the Smithsonian museums free?

Yes! There is no cost to visit any of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC. However, some museums — like the National Museum of African American History and Culture — require you to reserve a free pass to visit.

Sage Advice: If you’re interested in visiting the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, it’s currently the only Smithsonian museum that charges admission.

Do you need tickets for Smithsonian museums?

In Washington, DC, free timed-entry passes are required to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Zoo.

Are the Smithsonian museums open?

Most Smithsonian museums are open daily from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm, and all museums and the National Zoo are closed on Christmas Day, December 25th.

However, times vary by museum, and some buildings and exhibits can be temporarily closed for renovations, so be sure to confirm opening days and hours when you plan your visit.

Are Smithsonian museums open on Thanksgiving?

As a general rule, yes. The only day the Smithsonian museums are consistently closed all year is Christmas Day.

Are Smithsonian museums open on Memorial Day?

Yep! Just don’t plan to visit the Smithsonian museums on Christmas, and be sure to check the hours of the specific museum you want to visit before you go.

Share Your Smithsonian Museum Tips

What about you? Have you visited one or more of the Smithsonian Museums? What did you enjoy most about your experience? Do you have any additional tips for someone planning a trip to the Smithsonian museums to share in the comments section below?

Looking for more information to plan your Washington DC vacation? Check out my additional recommendations to help you plan your trip to Washington, DC, including what to see and do in Washington DC, the best places to stay in Washington DC, where to eat in Washington DC, and more!

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43 thoughts on “Visiting the Smithsonian Museum: 23 Helpful Tips”

  1. Love this comprehensive guide muséums. 23 Smithsonian museums. I love the tip on going virtualcfirst, have a must-see lust, not forgetting the castle, zndcstarting from the top!

  2. These are great tips for visiting one of the largest museum complexes. I will use them when visiting the Smithsonian Museum because it is on my bucket list. It’s a simple idea to download Smithsonian Mobile App to have access to maps, tours, and tips. I will also take a virtual tour before the real visit, as it seems like a perfect idea. For sure, I will prepare a “Must See” list.

  3. Don’t miss James Smithson’s tomb just outside the north entrance of the Smithsonian Castle. After all, if it weren’t for James Smithson, there wouldn’t be a Smithsonian Institution. This is also the place to get a fantastic overview of the collections at each of the Smithsonian museums as well as chat with in-house experts to fine tune your Smithsonian plans.

    1. Yes, I absolutely agree! It is pretty amazing that James Smithson’s estate was left to a new nation he’d never met. How lucky for us!

  4. I had no idea that the entrance to these museums is free and it’s certainly good to know about the free timed entry ticket for the ones in D.C. These museums are a treasure trove of exhibits – definitely chalking out a must-see list in advance is a great idea.

  5. I love downloading apps or listening to podcasts before I go to museums so that I can create a list of the things I know I really I want to see. But then leave the rest of the visit to chance and just wander around.

    1. That’s a good strategy. When I take the time to do that (which isn’t 100% of the time), I find my experiences are so much richer! There’s nothing worse than getting home and reading about X or Y that you missed!

  6. Empty Nesters Hit The Road

    I’ve only been to the Smithsonian museums once, but they sure are awesome. And your list of tips is so helpful. It can be overwhelming to visit them, so your advice to see come prepared and focus on what interest you is perfect.

  7. Great tips on visiting the Smithsonian Museums! I like the idea of taking the load off and watching an IMAX movie or taking the rental bikes. Thanks for sharing!

  8. This is a new fact for me. I didn’t know Smithsonian museum is the world’s largest. Thanks for sharing these incredibly handy tips.

  9. A thorough list on this iconic building which I am yet to visit. When I do, I will take up your suggestion on biking between the buildings. Great job with the suggestions. Enjoyed reading this.

  10. i had heard of the Smithsonian museum complex but never visited. It looks and sounds like an incredible experience. May be if I ever get back to USA I will pay a visit.

  11. This is the one place that I wish I would have taken the time to visit during my short weekend in Washington, but I did not have enough time.
    I was actually looking at an online course from the Smithsonian just yesterday 🙂

    1. They have a lot of great online content, virtual tours, and more. While it’s an amazing experience to visit in person, those digital options are a great plan b!

  12. My Dad was in the military and we were stationed in Virginia on two different occasions for a couple of years. My family are big explorers so we hit every Smithsonian and I absolutely loved them. I have only been back to a few a quick side trip added to business trips for conferences and events there, but now since I moved to North Carolina, DC is six hours away and the perfect weekend trip – my hubby and I plan on hitting up these museums as my hubby has never been to any!

    1. I’m also a military brat, and done of the absolute best perks is the chance to live and explore so many great places around the world. As you know, DC is FULL of great things to see and do, and I bet you and Monsieur Misadventures will have a blast!

  13. The Smithsonian Museum is one of those world class places I’ve been to, have read about yet have never got to experience. I love old style museums, we are thankfully spoilt for world class museums in the UK, so it’s always nice to see others which are on a par with the quality we have here. But also, I had no idea there were so many Smithsonian Museums.

    1. And us lucky Yanks… Did you know that Mr. Smithson (the namesake of the Smithsonian Institute) was actually an Englishman who directed that his estate be used to create a museum complex for a country he never visited?

  14. I feel so silly that for YEARS, I didn’t realize that “The Smithsonian” was actually several museums! I always thought it was just one massive museum. Fortunately, a visit to DC cleared that misconception right up! Thanks for the post!

    1. LOTS of people make that mistake! I think in part it’s because folks talking about The Smithsonian Institution as a singular concept. Aren’t the museums full of amazing treasures?

  15. I was not ready during our last visit to the Smithsonian. First we got there later than planned. Then it took us an hour to find parking. Then it fizzled from there. We went to 2 museums and missed the 2 that I really wanted to see. I wish I had your guide 4 months ago. Thank you for the info.

    1. Oh, no, what a horrible experience! Although, my hat is off to you that you braved DC by car. Even when I lived there (back when the years started with a “1” and “uber” only meant something to Germans) I was a big fan of the Metro. The museums are really amazing, so I hope you’ll get another go at them! <3

  16. jordinjordinsjourneyscom

    Great post on an amazing landmark! I had no idea the museum were free. I especially liked your tip on downloading the app to find your way. Also the tip of making a “must see list” of most wanted attractions.

  17. Great tips. I had no idea that the only day the museums weren’t open were on Christmas. I can think a few holidays that would be great days to visit with light visitors. Love this.

  18. So, my family is from Northern Virginia, and over the Christmas holiday I went up to visit my mom and we were talking about how I hadn’t been to any of the Smithsonian Museums since I was like 12! Hey don’t make that wow face, I am not that old yet so it wasn’t that long ago, well maybe!
    Anyways, I told Darcee, the next time we go up I really want to go back to several of the museums so I love your tips on Visiting the Smithsonian Museums. For example:
    ~ I had no idea they were free!
    ~ I LOVE the idea of starting at the top and working my way backwards! Never would have thought to try that!
    ~ Using the Metro in the DC, Virginia, Maryland areas is actually very easy compared to driving; Parking plus it saves you tons of $$
    ~ The Bike thing is genius if you are doing a couple of museums in a day! I don’t mind walking but they can be kind of spread out!

  19. Love these practical tips for making the most of a visit to the Smithsonian Museums! Starting at the visitors center is great insight.

  20. Oh my gosh – these are such helpful tips! I went to the Smithsonian Museums when I was a child but would love to go back. Thanks for sharing 😉

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