Smithsonian Museums, White House/National Mall
Tel: 202 633 1000
Concierge.com's insider take:
The Smithsonian Institution comprises 17 museums in Washington as well as two museums in New York, which, taken together, truly span the world and the ages. The holdings of the nation's attic are estimated at 137 million objects. Visitors usually start in the institution's first building, The Castle, which holds a general information desk for all the institution's museums and the crypt of James Smithson, a British scientist and the original benefactor (1000 Jefferson Dr. S.W.). Smithson's reasons for bequeathing his fortune to the United States in 1829 to create a facility to expand knowledge have never been entirely explained—especially since he had never been to the country. Many of the Smithsonian's museums are located on the National Mall, between the Washington Monument and Capitol Hill. The museums are mobbed pretty much all the time, especially on weekends in the spring and summer; your best bet is to arrive as soon as the museums open (at 10 a.m.) on a weekday.
The newest addition to the stable (opened in 2004) is the National Museum of the American Indian, which studies and chronicles the culture and traditions of indigenous populations in the Western Hemisphere and Hawaii. Four permanent exhibits explore Native American beliefs, history, contemporary life, and people native to the Chesapeake region. A 20-foot totem poll, carved by American Indian artist Nathan Jackson, is hard to miss (4th St. and Independence Ave. S.W.; www.americanindian.si.edu). Next door, the National Air and Space Museum, along with its Virginia satellite, the Udvar-Hazy Center (14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly, VA; www.nasm.si.edu/museum/udvarhazy/), tracks the history of flight with the world's largest collection of aircraft and spacecraft, from the Kitty Hawk to the Apollo 11 command module. Hands-on exhibits, like flight simulators, allow armchair pilots to experience flying a plane (7th St. and Independence Ave. S.W.; www.nasm.si.edu).
On the north side of the Mall, closer to the Washington Monument, the Natural History Museum explores the natural world through fascinating specimens of insects, plants, and animals; fossils; rare gemstones; and cultural artifacts (10th St. and Constitution Ave. N.W.; www.mnh.si.edu). The National Museum of American History reopened in late 2008 after a two-year, $85-million renovation. The architectural overhaul better showcases the museum's more than three million artifacts, especially the Star-Spangled Banner—the tattered flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the National Anthem—which now has its own state-of-the-art gallery. Other items on display include domestic items such as the first hand-powered vacuum cleaner, and iconic items of American entertainment—Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and Julia Child's kitchen (14th St. and Constitution Ave.; www.americanhistory.si.edu).
The African Art Museum, Freer and Sackler galleries for Asian art, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of modern and contemporary art are also located on the Mall. The American Art Museum, which includes the Renwick Gallery for American crafts and Portrait Gallery, Anacostia Community Museum, Postal Museum, and the National Zoo are further afield.