What to do and see in Downtown / Chinatown, District of Columbia (DC): The Best Museums

July 22, 2021 Madelene Haan

Washington DC is a hub for American politics and history. Attracting as many school field trips as it does travelers the district offers a peek into the country’s democratic origin. There are plenty of free museums to take advantage of but the real draw here is the memorials and monuments dedicated to great American leaders. Spend some contemplative time at the Reflecting Pool within the National Mall, among the most patriotic places in the country.
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1. National Museum of Women in the Arts

1250 New York Ave NW, Washington DC, DC 20005-3970 +1 202-783-5000 http://nmwa.org/
Excellent
63%
Good
25%
Satisfactory
8%
Poor
3%
Terrible
1%
Overall Ratings

4.5 based on 369 reviews

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Founded in 1981 and opened in 1987, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is the only museum solely dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing and literary arts. The museum's collection features 4,500 works from the 16th century to the present created by more than 1,000 artists, including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Chakaia Booker and Nan Goldin, along with special collections of 18th-century silver tableware and botanical prints. NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., In a landmark building near the White House.

Reviewed By jaseaton - Silver Spring, United States

We love this museum. They have a small but sensational gift shop which celebrates a mix of beautiful art objects and tstotchkes with liberal feminist attitude and humor (two things that don’t always go together). They had a special exhibit of Judy Chicago’s work on meditations about her own (and the planet’s) death. Not my favorite show of hers, but always worth seeing. The staff are friendly and helpful. The displays are easy to take in in an afternoon. And they have special events such as Sunday brunches once a month and weddings many weekends.

2. Ford's Theatre

511 10th St NW, Washington DC, DC 20004-1499 +1 202-347-4833 [email protected] http://www.fords.org
Excellent
67%
Good
25%
Satisfactory
6%
Poor
1%
Terrible
1%
Overall Ratings

4.5 based on 4,278 reviews

Ford's Theatre

The site of the April 14, 1865, assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Ford's Theatre is a working theatre, historical monument, world-class museum and learning center. The theatre produces musicals and plays reflecting the unique, diverse character of American life. With its inspiring theatrical productions, live historic interpretation, and rich collection of artifacts, Ford’s is the premier destination in the nation’s capital to explore and celebrate the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. A daytime visit can include the museum, theatre, Petersen House (the house where Lincoln died) and Aftermath Exhibits at the Center for Education and Leadership. Advance tickets are required (convenience fee). From September to May, Ford’s presents evening and matinee productions of renowned plays, vibrant musicals, and newly commissioned works that captivate and entertain while examining political and social issues related to Lincoln’s life and legacy.

Reviewed By V3583ELjennifers

I have been to DC many times but not taken the opportunity to visit Ford's Theater before now. The museum and park sevice tours are open to the public, tickets based on donations (at the visitors choice), and provide a combination of self guided museum tour and a ranger talk about the last day of Lincoln's life. The tour includes a visit to the house where Lincoln died, and a center for education exhibit on Lincoln's legacy. Take the time to see this site.

3. United States Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center

701 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington DC, DC 20004-2608 +1 202-737-2300 http://www.navymemorial.org/
Excellent
43%
Good
41%
Satisfactory
14%
Poor
1%
Terrible
1%
Overall Ratings

4.5 based on 194 reviews

United States Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center

A statue of The Lone Sailor peers over this memorial, which consists of a plaza bearing a granite world map flanked by waterfalls and fountains. The heritage center contains exhibits on naval history.

Reviewed By daff0dil74 - Saint Louis, United States

This Navy Memorial honors everyone who served in a US naval capacity. I entered my submariner husband in the Navy Log there so that his grandchildren, great grandchildren and those who come after will be able to connect with him and who he was, in years ahead. Registration was easy to do: just need a photo, with time and location noted, and basic information ( name, rank, serial number, etc). . Once entered in this archive the information can be brought up on computer’s there, and on your computer devices at home, anytime, anywhere. If you’ve been a Navy family the two statues there will be an emotional tug. The Lone Sailor and his Seabag stands outside on the Seven Seas plaza; and the “ Homecomig” statue of sailor, wife and child is inside in the archives area. Have a tissue in your pocket if they are a poingnant reminder of ‘ been there, done that’.

F Street NW Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, DC 20560 +1 202-357-2700 [email protected] http://www.npg.si.edu/
Excellent
75%
Good
22%
Satisfactory
3%
Poor
0%
Terrible
0%
Overall Ratings

4.5 based on 3,498 reviews

National Portrait Gallery

Visitors can view the portraits of all the U.S. presidents.

Reviewed By rossf976 - Fargo, United States

You intended to visit the much-hyped International Spy Museum, only to discover the entrance mobbed with tourists and the $22.95/adult a bit above budget. So you glance across the street to a hulking Greek Revival style building apparently ignored by the mobs. Better take a closer look. You’ve stumbled onto the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, unencumbered by the multitudes and…free. These two art galleries in the sprawling ex-U.S. patent office tend to be missed perhaps because the building is several blocks off Smithsonian central on the National Mall. Some people who have visited Washington over the years also may remember its location in a once-dubious neighborhood surrounded by pimps and addicts. Well, that was then. Now the area between F and G streets has been cleaned up and this museum ought to move to everyone’s A list. It’s become one of the city’s top art museums. The portrait gallery features American history as told through the presidents, George Washington to Barack Obama. That newest portrait is so popular staff had to set up ropes to control the line. The American art gallery side houses a vast collection of just about any kind of work you want to see, from Renaissance art (European but with a connection to the New World) to contemporary abstracts. Pottery, sculpture, folk art, glass-walled conservation demo room, charming covered courtyard—well, it’s clearly too much for the limited space. In fact, some of the art has been squeezed together top to bottom hanging from back-to-back boards on the nearly-ignored third level. Don’t miss that. The building itself features grand staircases, marble floors and dramatic skylights, architecture alone is worth a look. That it barely survived a tear-down plan during the philistine ‘50s makes it all the more amazing. To see everything requires several hours. But what the heck—come back again later. After all, it’s free. And mob-less. One possible concern: it doesn’t open until almost lunch time, 11:30 a.m. But it stays open until 7 p.m.

5. National Guard Memorial Museum

1 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC, DC 20001-1401 +1 202-789-0031 http://www.ngef.org
Excellent
67%
Good
33%
Satisfactory
0%
Poor
0%
Terrible
0%
Overall Ratings

4.5 based on 24 reviews

National Guard Memorial Museum

Reviewed By BrandonK850 - Flagstaff, United States

I have stayed nearby this museum multiple trips without ever knowing this museum was here. I am sorry I missed it until now. The upstairs is a working office for National Guard and veteran support efforts, but the downstairs is the museum. The front doors are buzz in only, so ask at the intercom to be let in. The lobby of the downstairs museum has miniatures in glass cases showing national guard representations from each of the represented states. The Medal of Honor area was excellent with dioramas to help show the scenes in various stories about soldiers and what they did to receive the honor. The library is a nice area with many historical works. The main museum display is more like many other museums with displays and descriptions of the different approach to National Guard service through the ages. Quiet place with very few people wandering through at the same time.

6. Smithsonian American Art Museum

8th and F Streets, NW, Washington DC, DC 20013 +1 202-633-1000 [email protected] http://americanart.si.edu/
Excellent
70%
Good
23%
Satisfactory
5%
Poor
1%
Terrible
1%
Overall Ratings

4.5 based on 1,543 reviews

Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum shares its collections, programs, and exhibitions in two locations in Washington, DC. SAAM’s main building is located at the heart of a vibrant downtown cultural district.

Reviewed By oliviayoung99 - Columbus, United States

I absolutely LOVED this museum, and could have stayed here for an entire day! The art they have on display is absolutely amazing and truly unique! The best piece in my opinion is the Electronic Superhighway: Continental USA-- completely amazing and different, I could have stayed and stared at it for hours! The portrait museum that's attached is equally outstanding-- between the two one could easily spend a solid day or two looking at everything. This is probably my favorite Smithsonian, and I guarantee that there is something here for everybody to enjoy!

7. Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture

8th and F Street Northwest, Washington DC, DC +1 202-633-1000 http://americanart.si.edu/reynolds_center/visit.cfm
Excellent
69%
Good
26%
Satisfactory
6%
Poor
0%
Terrible
0%
Overall Ratings

4.5 based on 35 reviews

Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture

This former U.S. Patent Office houses the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Reviewed By H5152PVrobertd

This historic building is a treasure trove of American art and portraiture. I love their annual exhibit, "One Life", which devotes a room to one famous person. This year it is Marian Anderson. They have an excellent exhibit on the suffragists who fought for "Votes for Women" as we prepare to celebrate the centenary of the 19th Amendment. As this museum is located off the National Mall in Penn Quarter, it is open later than the other Smithsonian museums. Enjoy the museum and then have dinner in Penn Quarter.

8. National Building Museum

401 F St NW, Washington DC, DC 20001-2637 +1 202-272-2448 [email protected] http://www.nbm.org
Excellent
38%
Good
35%
Satisfactory
17%
Poor
7%
Terrible
3%
Overall Ratings

4.0 based on 653 reviews

National Building Museum

The National Building Museum tells the stories of the world we design and build. We’re one of the most family-friendly, awe-inspiring spots in Washington, D.C. The Museum offers something for everyone, from children to design buffs to building professionals. Learn about the Museum’s historic home during a free docent-led tour, offered daily. Docents also lead tours of exhibitions. Our 75-foot Corinthian columns are the country’s tallest.

Reviewed By css1983 - Silver Spring, United States

Great place to visit on any day, in any weather. The beautiful atrium is a sight to behold, and fun for an indoor picnic, and place for kids to run around and play. The exhibitions range from hands-on play areas (fun for everyone), to the history of Washington D.C. architecture, to rotating exhibits that are sure the fascinate the artist, historian and architect inside you.

9. International Spy Museum

700 L'Enfant Plaza SW, Washington DC, DC 20024 +1 202-393-7798 [email protected] http://www.spymuseum.org
Excellent
41%
Good
33%
Satisfactory
17%
Poor
6%
Terrible
3%
Overall Ratings

4.0 based on 5,391 reviews

International Spy Museum

The new International Spy Museum at L'Enfant Plaza is now open! With interactive exhibitions and installations, the foremost collection of spy artifacts in the world, and first-person accounts from top intelligence officers and experts, the reimagined Spy Museum offers interactive experiences for adults and children alike to step into the shoes of a spy and test their skills!

Reviewed By dennishD1728BC

Took our kids and grandkids to Washington, DC for two weeks. We got advance tickets on line for this attraction, and did the Mission as well as the Museum. The staff make the Mission a lot of fun, and the museum is really well done with displays and story boards. At the end, there is a special room where clips of James Bond movies are shown. Very entertaining.

10. Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington

701 3rd St NW, Washington DC, DC 20001-2624 +1 202-789-0900 [email protected] http://www.jhsgw.org/
Excellent
33%
Good
33%
Satisfactory
33%
Poor
0%
Terrible
1%
Overall Ratings

4.0 based on 3 reviews

Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington

Built in 1876 and restored and rededicated in 1970, the historic synagogue is now stewarded by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. It is open for educational tours, programs, and life-cycle events. Our exhibitions are displayed in venues throughout the region to preserve the authentic feel of the historic space. Contact us to book a tour or rent the sanctuary! The historic synagogue, the oldest in the Washington area, is home to the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum. Built by Adas Israel Congregation, President Ulysses S. Grant attended the synagogue's dedication in 1876. The congregation outgrew the building in a few decades and sold the building.It stood at Sixth & G Streets, NW, for more than 90 years before being slated for demolition. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington helped save the building from the wrecking ball, and in 1969, it was moved three blocks to its present site. Community contributions and a gift from Lillian and Albert Small helped restore the synagogue.

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