[Note: This was originally published on KidFriendly DC, but has been updated and repurposed for District Mix.]
We all know about the many incredible museums located along the stretch of National Mall between the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument. In fact, just the collection of Smithsonians and National Gallery of Art could easily provide an ongoing museum fix. But if you don’t get off that well trodden path every now and then, you could miss out on some other amazing exhibits and experiences that aren’t as well known. And while some of them require an entrance fee unlike those go-to places, they shouldn’t be counted out because of it (and you can keep them in mind for special occasions). Here is a round-up of some museums in DC that may not be in your regular museum rotation — but should be. Happy Museum-ing!
Where: 925 13th Street NW | Downtown DC
When: Wednesday – Sunday, 10am – 5pm (Saturday until 6pm)
Admission: Free with passes
The museum all about language has three levels of exhibits, most of them interactive, all of them engaging, interesting, and fun. There are elements that will delight all ages — you can play word games, explore languages across the globe, experience the most magical library ever, paint with words, recite a speech, joke around, sing karaoke, and so much more. While admission is free, you generally need to reserve tickets in advance. Read more about Planet Word in this KidFriendly DC post.
Mix Tip: A limited number of day-of, walk-up passes are available on the half-hour.
National Museum of the U.S. Navy
Where: Entrance at 11th & O Streets SE | Navy Yard, DC
When: Currently only Saturday, 10am – 4pm
One of the coolest museums in DC is one that many people don’t even know exists. Located on the Navy base in Southeast DC, the National Museum of the U.S. Navy is a trove of fascinating artifacts, stories, and art that illustrate the history and impact of the Navy over hundreds of years. See everything from large and small parts of ships to actual weapons used in war to whole submarines to photographs to war memorabilia. Models of all kinds of naval vessels are so intricate, you keep finding new details to examine. There’s a great exhibit about baseball and its relationship with the Navy. A few interactive elements like periscopes to peer into for river views outside and control boards with buttons to push and levers to pull add some extra engagement, especially for kids. Access to the base and museum requires visitor passes, which can be obtained at the Visitor Center. Be sure to read this KidFriendly DC post with more information about visiting, plus scenes from inside. [Note: The museum is currently operating on reduced hour, only open Saturdays 10am -4pm, as it begins a multiyear consolidation of its physical space and collections to prepare for the opening of a planned new museum.]
Mix Tip: Plan on a meal at The Yards, where there are many dining options a short walk away.
National Postal Museum
Where: 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE | Union Station Area, DC
When: Daily, 10am – 5:30pm
The National Postal Museum is like a locals’ secret since it’s often overlooked by tourists and overshadowed by its counterparts on the Mall. But it’s just as interesting and engaging as the rest, and dedicated to something that’s part of our everyday lives. I’ve also always recommended the museum as a particularly great one to visit with young children. It isn’t huge, so it’s not overwhelming for little ones. And there are numerous interactives and big installations — all of it showcasing the history of the mail and U.S. Postal System — that appeal to both adults and children. See more about the National Postal Museum in this KidFriendly DC post and this one.
Mix Tip: The museum is conveniently located next to Union Station, so you can also grab lunch and get there easily via Metro (Red Line).
International Spy Museum
Where: International Spy Museum | Penn Quarter, DC
When: Daily, 10am – 6pm
Admission: $26.95/age 13+, $16.95/7-12, free/6 & under
A visit to the International Spy Museum takes you on an “undercover mission” to explore the intriguing world of espionage. Start by assuming a secret identity and get a briefing on being a secret agent before touring the exhibits and testing your spy skills. This is a museum that appeals to all ages with state-of-the-art multimedia installations and many interactives. Discover tricks of the trade, view gadgets used to keep secrets and disguises to hide identities, and learn about some of the most famous spies and their missions. The museum is recommended for ages 9 and up, but younger kids could enjoy it, too, with the help of parents. Read more about the International Spy Museum in this KidFriendly DC post.
Mix Tip: Don’t miss the gift shop! With all kinds of spy games, gadgets, and other related products, it’s like a bonus area to explore at the museum.
Where: Ford’s Theatre | Penn Quarter, DC
When: Daily, 9am – 4:30pm
Admission: Free – $3
Ford’s Theater isn’t just a place to see live entertainment. The site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination highlights its historic significance through a museum featuring exhibits about the 16th president, the circumstances surrounding his assassination, and that fateful night at the theatre. Along with the museum, a visit to the National Historic Site includes a theatre walk-through and presentation, plus a self-guided tour of Petersen House across the street. It’s best for about ages 8 and up. (Younger children certainly could go, but older kids probably would understand and get more out of the experience.) Reserve tickets online in advance for $3 or get them at the Box Office for free. Read more about Ford’s Theatre in this KidFriendly DC post.
Mix Tip: Plan on meal before after your visit — there are many nearby eateries. Some recommendations: The Hamilton, Zaytinya, Jaleo, and Central.
Where: 1238 Maryland Ave. SW | Southwest DC
When: Thurs-Mon 10am – 10pm | Tues-Weds 4-10pm
Admission: $24/adult, $17/age 4-15, free/under 4
ARTECHOUSE has made its mark on the DC art scene with exhibitions that fuse art and technology, and encourage visitors to not just view it, but experience it. The digital works always include striking floor-to-ceiling projections on walls (and sometimes the floors, too) in the spacious main gallery with more installations in side rooms. The exhibitions are beautiful and immersive, often inviting visitors to interact with and manipulate the art through movement detected by sensors. Many of the exhibits celebrate the seasons with themes that reflect the time of year in some way or are inspired by current times, which adds some extra interest. Get a glimpse of some past exhibits here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Mix Tip: Look for a discount on admission here.
National Geographic Museum
Where: 1145 17th St. NW | Downtown DC
When: Temporarily closed for renovations
Admission: $15/adult, $10/ages 5-12, $12/military & senior, free/under 5
Located within the organization’s headquarters downtown, the National Geographic Museum is a reflection of their work that explores and examines aspects of the world that are both fascinating and significant, sharing discoveries and telling stories in a variety of compelling ways. Stunning photography, a signature of Nat Geo, is always on display. And special exhibitions often are full-on experiences that utilize multimedia and interactive installations to educate, enrich, amuse, and wow guests. THe museum is currently closed as its being transformed into a new visitors’ Base Camp. But you can get a glimpse of some exhibits we visited in past years, from the incredible Titanic exhibition to Real Pirates to Spinosaurus to Birds of Paradise and the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization to Monster Fish to Photo Arc and CROCS to Earth Explorers.
Mix Tip: Nat Geo also hosts live, in-person events, like talks with experts and film screenings — see what’s coming up here.
Where: 1600 21st Street NW | Dupont Circle, DC
When: Tuesday-Sunday, 11am – 6pm
Admission: $16/adult, $12/seniors, free for kids
Its smaller size and beyond-the-Mall location make the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle a great place for a more intimate art experience, the space being easy-to-navigate with generally less crowds.The museum showcases contemporary and modern pieces always with many works from the masters on display along with interesting temporary exhibitions. If you’re with kids, there’s a Family Gallery, where specially-selected artworks are displayed at children’s eye-level with kid-tested conversation prompts right on the walls. You can also pick up packets at the front desk that offer tips for exploring the museum with kids. Read more about the Phillips in this KFDC post and this one.
Mix Tip: Tickets are pay-what-you-wish for the first entry time of each hour, available first come, first serve via online reservation.
National Building Museum
Where: 401 F Street NW | Judiciary Square, DC
When: Thursday–Monday, 10 am–4 pm
Admission: Free for Great Hall | $10/adult, $7/child for exhibits
At a museum dedicated to building and architecture, it should come as no surprise that the space itself is just as compelling and reason to visit as the exhibits featured there. The National Building Museum’s vast Great Hall is an impressive sights, showcasing 75-foot tall marble Corinthian columns, a fountain at its center , and four levels of galleries, classrooms, and offices surrounding it all, with striking archways lining the walkways of the first two. Even better, you can go just to hang out in it. Soft pieces to build arches and giant Legos are often available for use in the space. And there are always several exhibits to explore, a couple of them permanent — including the interactive PLAY WORK BUILD for kids — and others temporary. Every summer the museum presents its Summer Block Party, a massive installation in the Great Hall along with special programming for all ages.
Mix Tip: A Firehook Bakery is right on premises for lunch or a snack while you’re there, and the Great Hall is, well, a great place to enjoy it!
American Art Museum & National Portrait Gallery
Where: 8th & F Streets NW | Penn Quarter, DC
When: Daily, 11:30am – 7pm
The off-the-Mall location of the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery keep them a little more under the radar than Smithsonian’s other DC venues. But they definitely are worth the detour from the more popular attractions, filled with compelling art that all ages will find appealing. In American Art, works range from the 19th century to modern times, the contemporary works on the top floor especially fantastic (imo). In the Portrait Gallery, the American Presidents collection is quite popular, and the Champions exhibit, portraits of exceptional athletes, is often overlooked on the Mezzanine level, but shouldn’t be. Both museums also offer a lot of great programs that tie in to the exhibits, many where you can do some of your own creating. For children, the Explore! space in American Art also has art-related activities for ages 18 months to 8 years old. The museums are connected by the lovely Kogod Courtyard, a must-stop on any visit, where you can enjoy lunch or a snack from the cafe on premises (or bring food from another eatery nearby) and relax in the stunning space. See more about the museums in this KidFriendly DC post.
KFDC Tip: On most Saturdays and Sundays, all ages are welcome to drop in at the National Portrait Gallery for Weekend Workshops to create art inspired by artists and changemakers featured in the museum.
National Children’s Museum
Where: 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW | Downtown DC
When: Daily except Tuesday, 9:30am – 4:30pm
Admission: $15.95/age 1+
For a museum outing with kids… The National Children’s Museum, located within the Ronald Reagan Building, features an array of STEAM-inspired exhibits that offer kids all kinds of cool ways to engage, learn, and exercise creativity. Just about all of the exhibits are interactive with lessons in science, math, and even social justice at their cores presented in fun, kid-relatable ways. And there is often at least one big traveling exhibit, like the current XOXO: An Exhibit About Love & Forgiveness there through May 14. The museum is geared toward children up to age 12, and there are areas especially for littles. Read more about the National Children’s Museum in this KidFriendly DC post.
Where: Foxhall/Palisades, DC
When: Tuesday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm
Admission: Suggested donation $10/adult
The small art museum in DC’s Foxhall-Palisades neighborhood is perfect for an art fix that’s gratifying without being overwhelming. Inside, you can view works from the 19th and 20th centuries from celebrated artists that include Monet, Picasso, Miro, and Calder. The outdoor area is like a whole new experience with all kinds of large-scale installations that are beautiful, interesting, even quirky and fun. There is a fountain/pool with seating and sculptures around it, a small patch of woods with art and a trail that loops around, and a grassy expanse studded with interesting works. There’s even a piece “climbing” on the side of building, another snaking around a tree, and one that plays solar powered music. Timed-entry tickets need to be reserved in advance. Read more about the Kreeger Museum in this KidFriendly DC post.
Mix Tip: Plan on lunch or an ice cream treat at Jetties before or after — it’s located right down Foxhall Road and they have delicious sandwiches, salads, and scoops!
Folger Shakespeare Library
Where: 201 East Capitol Street SE | Capitol Hill, DC
When: Temporarily closed for renovations
You don’t have to be a huge Shakespeare enthusiast to enjoy the Folger Shakespeare Library, but if you are a fan of The Bard, you will love it. Along with a theater that presents Shakespearean plays and other productions, the attraction on Capitol Hill contains the world’s largest collection of materials relating to the poet and playwright. While a lot of it probably appeals mostly to adults, there are displays and activities especially for kids, like a book rack for young readers, a Prop Drop for dress up, fun photo ops and art prompts, and occasionally special exhibits. Pre-Covid there were regular workshops for families, so fingers crossed they will be back when the Folger reopens (it’s currently closed for renovations, but I’m including here for when visitors are welcome again). Read more about the Folger Shakespeare Library in this KidFriendly DC post.
Mix Tip: Make it a bigger outing and pair with a visit to the Library of Congress just a block up or a visit to Eastern Market a few minutes’ walk away on 7th Street SE.
The George Washington University & Textile Museum
Where: 701 21st Street NW | Foggy Bottom, DC
When: Tuesday-Saturday, 10am – 5pm
Admission: Free, but donations appreciated
Located within the GW campus, you get a two-in-one experience here. The museums span four floors in one building, with exhibits in a few small galleries on three of them (the ground floor is the entrance and museum shop). The collections showcase both local art and history and global art and culture, the Textile exhibits often featuring handmade woven or fiber creations from around the world that offer unique insight into different places and cultures. And the Textile 101 Gallery is a neat interactive area that explores how textiles are made. This isn’t a museum I’d recommend for young children — the exhibits probably wouldn’t hold their attention — unless there are special family programs taking place. But older kids, especially those with an interest in weaving or handmade textiles, would appreciate it.
Mix Tip: The current Anne Lindberg: What color is divine light? exhibition is absolutely mesmerizing and will be on view through July 1, 2023.
Mansion on O Street
Where: 2020 O St. NW | Dupont Circle, DC
When: Daily, 10am – 4pm
Admission: Tours start at $26.50
The Dupont Circle destination isn’t your typical museum. In fact, I’m not sure it even really is a museum, but they call themselves one, so I’m including it here. The Mansion on O Street easily is one of the neatest places in DC — a “museum,” inn, event space, and secondhand shop all in one. Four stories high and five row houses wide, it contains 100 rooms, many of them open for visitors to explore. You can locate secret doors, see outrageously fabulous themed rooms, and browse a trove of secondhand treasures. The mansion is filled literally floor to ceiling with the most eclectic collection of, well, just about everything collectible. There are books, autographed instruments, kitchen items, paintings, all kinds of knick knacks, and so much more. The kicker: Nearly all of it is for sale! It’s one of DC’s most stunning spaces (imo) and a place that delights both kids and adults. Read more about the Mansion on O Street in this KidFriendly DC post and this one.
Museum of Illusions
Where: 927 H Street NW | CityCenter DC
When: Sun–Thurs, 10am – 8pm | Fri & Sat, 10am – 9pm
Admission: $23.50/13+, $18.95/age 5-12, free/4 & under
This recently opened museum calls itself an “edutainment destination,” and fittingly so. The many installations and exhibits throughout the multi-room space trick and test the mind in ways that are fun and illuminating. Not only are the illusions cool to see and interact with, they play with perspective, sometimes require problem solving, and spark curiosity about how they work. And you can learn all about them from signs with explanations and staff who are on hand to answer any questions. Everything in the museum is interactive in some way, whether you’re staring at pictures to watch them “move,” standing within an exhibit to feel its effects, solving some kind of puzzle, or placing yourself just so to create an illusional scene. There are purely visual exhibits, elements that require hands-on activity, whole immersive rooms, and fun optical illusion photo ops.
Mix Tip: Plan on for a meal or treat before or after your visit at the nearby Tatte Bakery & Cafe.
What’s your favorite off-the-beaten-path museum in DC? Let us know in the comments!