Fun & Weird

Visiting DC? Which Museums to See, Which to Miss, and Where to Eat

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When Delta Diva was in town a month or so ago I gave him a quick driving tour of the DC mall. It wasn’t as comprehensive or as awesome as our tour of New York City, but I think he enjoyed it. Here was my running commentary of what DC museums to see.

First of all, don’t make the usual tourist mistake — the National Mall is HUGE. And there’s only one metro stop in the middle of it, nowhere near many of the attractions you’ll want to visit. Be prepared to walk. And walk. And walk. And if you’re here in the summer bring lots and lots of sunscreen and water. You’re a sitting duck for sunburn on most of those treeless paths!

If you’re driving, don’t forget to check out Parking Panda for discounts.


On the Mall (all free)

Top pick: the National Museum of Natural History — It’s got the Hope Diamond, life size animals (like museums of old), and a dinosaur exhibit to name a few. It’s also one of the museums closest to the metro 🙂

National Gallery of Art — it was here that I first learned impressionist paintings are alive with color and not the washed out versions we see in reproductions. They have a wide range of styles and the building itself is beautiful!

Air & Space Museum — If you have time, go out to the Dulles location ($ 8 for parking) where they have full-size planes, but if you don’t this is definitely worth checking out. Original space suits, astronaut ice cream, and a great walk through the history of flight!

Big Disappointment: National Museum of the American Indian — amazing construction, but rather empty. It’s politically correct so the few exhibits are rather bland. I learned more from the gift store on my visit (I had no idea where field hockey originated!)

Off The Mall

Old Post Office Pavillion — didn’t get tickets for the Washington monument? You can still get a great view of the city for free from the Old Clock Tower.

Library of Congress (free, Capital South Metro) — breathtaking. Often has great temporary exhibits — I enjoyed the “Quotes of Winston Churchill” years ago.

National Portrait Gallery (free, Chinatown Metro)— sounds boring but quite possibly the best art museum in DC. The bottom floor features temporary exhibits which never fail to impress. The aluminum foil altar set is not to be missed either! Follow it up with drinks in the solarium lounge at Poste Moderne Brasserie across the street.

Spy Museum ($20, Chinatown Metro) — Worth a visit once. You can satisfy your love of fun spy gadgets and intrigue. Lipstick guns and shoe phones do exist!

Where to Eat

Finding affordable appetizing food near the sites can be difficult, unless you like hot dogs from the stand. Here are a few places near the mall I recommend.

Old Post Office Pavillion Food Court — only a few blocks from the mall is over a dozen eating options including Ben & Jerry’s, a salad place, and lots of ethnic options. Much more satisfying and a bit cheaper than the museum options.

Pete’s Diner, 212 2nd St SE — Located by the Library of Congress. Tiny diner with amazing breakfasts and affordable food. Banana Pancakes anyone?

Air & Space Museum McDonald’s — yes it’s a McDonald’s, but last time I was there it was only a dollar or two more than the usual prices, and if you want to eat inside and not have to walk very far, it’s a decent option.

Mitsitam Food Cafe, Museum of the American Indian — the museum may be a big disappointment, but the food court is a hidden gem. It’s not cheap, but it features great examples of regional Indian cuisines in North & South America. I’ve gone there for dinner when I was staying at L’Efant Plaza just because it was so tasty 🙂

Coming Soon: What’s Worth a Drive and Review of the Monuments


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  1. Jenna

    June 5, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Great post! I was really surprised how large the whole National Mall area is–I was expecting it to be easier to walk and figured there would be more metro stops and restaurants a lot closer. Definitely a good thing to be aware of! I really enjoyed the National Museum of American History and Air & Space Museum, and I was surprised at the Library of Congress–a lot more fun than I expected. We didn’t make it to the National History Museum because we were to exhausted from all the walking, so I’ll have to put it on my list for next time!

  2. Adam S

    June 5, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Your top pick is actually called the National Museum of Natural History — it focuses on things occurring in nature. The National Museum of American History (omitted from this post) is right next door and focuses on, you guessed it, American history.

    • Keri Anderson

      June 5, 2013 at 9:41 am

      Ack! good catch. That’s what I get for finishing a post at 6AM.

  3. Matt C

    June 5, 2013 at 9:45 am

    A couple I’m surprised that didn’t make the cut were the Holocaust Museum (free) and the Newseum (not-so-free). Both are amazing museums.

    Also worth noting is that while the American Indian Museum is pretty bland, the food court is amazing. Check out that menu!

    • christel harden

      January 10, 2015 at 8:14 pm

      I was going to make the same comment. Best food on the Mall.

  4. Keri Anderson

    June 5, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Reader @TravelCLT tweets you can also email your state senator for a free tour of the White House. YMMV.

  5. Jane

    June 5, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    My favorite – National Museum of American History. It has so much. The First Ladies Inaugural gowns, Fonzie’s jacket, Julia Child’s kitchen, the American flag that flew over Ft. Sumter when Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner. There is so much there and so much is relatable to everyone.

    In Natural History we love the Egyptian section with the sarcophagus, the IMAX movies, the insect section where you can let a walking stick walk up your arm, and the Blue whale hanging right over your head.

    I’m not a big fan of Air and Space but would rather go out to Dulles and see the “real” things at the Udvar Hazy Center.

    Bureau of Engraving and Printing where you can see paper money being made and at one time you could be an uncut sheet of one dollar bills.

    Finally, I love the tour at the FBI.

  6. Delta Diva

    June 5, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    Excellent post! And I definitely did enjoy it! Time for me to make one about Oakland or SF!

  7. Miranda

    August 27, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    Boo. Everyone goes to the Museum of Natural History, making it overcrowded, overrated, and boring. Plus, the exhibits are so super old, many of them haven’t been updated (or probably vacuumed) since the 60s. Air & Space and National Gallery are good choices, though my favorite is always the Hirshhorn. And for eating, I would go to the cafeteria at the National Gallery, which has a lovely view of the underside of the waterfall, or opt for the elegant Garden Cafe. Or, I often just get lunch from one of the food trucks that’s always lining the mall — a hot dog, egg roll, and pretzel = perfect Smithsonian lunch for this DC-native.

  8. Carolyn

    February 4, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    What are you talking about?? The National Museum of the American Indian is the best one! The Holocaust Museum is missing from this list, too. Incredibly sombering and important to our history.

  9. Rhonda Schuck

    March 21, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    When visiting the Smithsonian Museums…we always stop for lunch at the Department of Agriculture cafeteria. You have to go through security since it’s a Federal Building, but it’s worth it. Cafeteria style with oodles of tasty and healthy choices – and it’s much less expensive than the “fast food” options in the museums.

    • Keri Anderson

      March 22, 2016 at 1:49 pm

      Thanks for the tip! I’m definitely going to try this out next time I go.

  10. Tristen

    July 14, 2016 at 10:33 pm

    Going this weekend! This will be so helpful, but what hotel would be best to stay at thats close to the mall??? Any suggestions

  11. Lyn Harris

    March 12, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    National Museum of the American Indian is definitely worth a visit especially when they have special events (dancers in beautiful dresses, chocolate festival, etc.). Lots to see and explore. Missing from your list: National Building Museum, National Museum of Women in the Arts, The Phillips Collection (fantastic art), and the newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. If you love animals, go to the Smithsonian National Zoo. If you love gardening, plants and trees, go to the National Arboretum. Plenty to see and do. Comfortable shoes are a must.

  12. L W

    March 26, 2017 at 5:22 am

    I would love a six day what to see on each day , so I don’t cross my own path several times. Does it exist?

    • Melissa

      June 19, 2017 at 12:35 am

      My son and I just did this. So here you go…
      Day 1: Our flight landed mid afternoon, so after checking into our hotel, we headed to the International Spy Museum. It was interesting, but over priced. The National Portrait Gallery is right across the street, so we popped in for what I thought was going to be a quick visit (13 year old son wasn’t thrilled). 2 1/2 hours and it wasn’t enough time, but it was getting to be closing time (this is just about the only Smithsonian open past 5:00 or 5:30).
      Day 2: started with a tour of the Capital (9:30 am) that we arranged through the office of one of our state Senators. Totally worth it! The web site said it was about 90 minutes for the tour, but we got about 2 1/2 hours. It’s worth noting a lot f this time waiting for our turn to get into somewhere. There’s a lovely little museum just off the lobby of the Capital Visitor Center and our intern-guide took us places that were off limits to the general public. Plus, we got a “tour guide” while going in on your own doesn’t get you one. After the tour ended, we walked around the Capital and headed toward Air and Space Museum. It looks like it’s right down the Mall on a map, but it’s actually almost a mile. Pretty walk. Find a shady spot to rest for a moment and take in the view (and people watch). Air and Space was interesting, but VERY crowded. We had lunch in the McDonalds. $20 for 2 meals was a bit much, but everything in DC is crazy expensive. After this one, we roamed down the Mall for a bit, but we had tickets to an evening Nationals game, so we headed out there shortly (nice stadium, worth a visit if you enjoy baseball).
      Day 3: we were on the other side of the Mall. Started at Natural History. Nice museum, but I agree with the earlier post that it could use some refreshing. The mummy’s were interesting and the gen room was brilliant. The rest of it is quite similar to stuff we can find locally (dinosaur bones, fossils, stuffed animals, etc). The Smithsonian museums don’t open until 10:00. Get there early (there will be a line and security at ALL of them). We were there for about 2 hours then walked right next door to American History. This was probably our favorite for museums on the Mall. Great exhibits about First Ladies, the flag that flew over Ft McHenry, a $100,000 bill, Archie Bunke’s chair…it was all worth looking at. We ate lunch in the cafeteria on the lower level. Good food and fairly reasonable in price. After lunch we walked down the rest of the length if the Mall (2 miles from the Capital to Lincoln Memorial). Washington Monument is closed indefinitely for repairs, so you just get to look from the outside. WWII Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Lincoln Memorial. It’s a pretty walk along a shady path with plenty of benches to rest for a moment and enjoy the view. It was starting to rain, and my son was starving, so we wrapped up our day there.
      Day 4: Sunday started with brunch at Georgia Brown’s. A little pricy, but worth every penny. The live jazz was marvelous! We pretty much got rained out this day, but we tried. National Zoo was massively disappointing. So many people you got carried along in the crush and couldn’t get close enough to see if there was anything in the pens. Judging from the comments, I’m guessing there weren’t many to see. I did push our way to the rail so my son could catch a glimpse of the panda, but the rest of the zoo was quite disappointing. Good thing it’s free. Georgetown was better (at least the rain had stopped by then). Had an awesome dinner at Martin’s Tavern and spent some time wandering around the beautiful streets. This was kind of a short day because of the rain most of the afternoon.
      Day 5: we rented a car and drove to Gettysburg. This was a great day! The drive around the battlefield was well worth the time. Mind boggling when you think about what Americans did to each other there. There’s an outlet mall (which we don’t have locally) so we did a little shopping, and there was a car show in the lot that my son enjoyed.
      Day 6: we got a Hop On Hop Off bus tour (we used Old Town Trolley, but there are bunches of companies to choose from). This was mainly because the Jefferson Memorial and Arlington National Cemetary aren’t really walkable from the Mall (Jefferson probably is, but it’s a long way). It was interesting to see the other sights the trolley stopped at that we hadn’t thought to see (MLK, Union Station, etc). The Jefferson is lovely. Not much to do in the area other than enjoy the monument and the words of Jefferson etched onto the walls. Arlington National Cemetary should NOT BE MISSED). If you only see one thing that is off the Mall, it should be Arlington. The trolley dropped us off outside the gates, and you can buy tickets for the Arlington Cemetary Trolley ($10 well spent. It’s huge and all on a hillside). There are 4 or 5 stops within Arlington Cemetary (eternal flame, several monuments, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington House). The ceremony for the changing of the guard was the best thing I saw. 24/7/365 those young men walk their post. Makes you appreciate the sacrifices made by the people resting in Arlington. Arlington House was more interesting than I thought it would be. Some very knowledgable park rangers answering questions. The view from up there is spectacular!
      Day 7: we went to Mount Vernon. This is a whole day excursion. There is a LOt to see and it is a huge property. There is a museum, several gift shops, a food court (which we avoided because every school kid in Northern VA was there), an actual restaurant (really good food), and acres and acres of buildings, orchards, gardens, and the house to see along with a grist mill and distillery.

      There is so much to see in DC and the area, you really have to spend some time online deciding what interests you and your family most. You will not be bored or run out of things to do.

      • Linda

        March 10, 2018 at 2:59 pm

        Agree 100% that the trip to Dulles for the air and space museum is worth it. We’d already been to the one on the mall so I figured more of the same. But I was kept interested for the whole 2 hours we were there. When our group met up again the ‘boys’ wanted more time and the wives agreed to another hour. Might of stayed longer if we didn’t have a 9 hour drive ahead of us.

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