7 underrated Smithsonian museums, galleries, and gardens you should visit in DC

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In Washington, DC, the Smithsonian Institution runs a large network of world-class museums. The network owes its existence to James Smithson, a British scientist who died in 1829 and left his fortune to the capital of the young American republic.

What started as one man’s investment has turned into one of the most renowned museums and research institutions in the world. Smithson never visited Washington or the United States (at least not until after his death — his remains lie on Smithsonian grounds today). Still, his impact on the country has been felt by countless people.

Many of the Smithsonian’s museums are justifiably famous, while others are unfairly obscure to the average tourist. Out of the Smithsonian’s 19 total museums and galleries (as well as a zoo), these seven Smithsonian sites warrant more attention on your next visit to the nation’s capital.

Note from the editor: For the Smithsonian’s indoor spaces, free timed-entry passes are required and must be reserved no more than 30 days in advance.

1. Smithsonian Gardens

Summertime in Washington brings the capital’s green spaces to full bloom, and nowhere is this more true than in the Smithsonian Gardens. The Smithsonian Gardens is a 13-site group of outdoor zones for domestic and exotic plant life. Standout locations include the Ripley Garden, with its serpentine brick walkways and wide variety of plants; the Haupt Garden, which has large magnolia trees that are particularly beautiful in the early spring; and the Landscape of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where the plants were chosen to symbolize optimism, resiliency, and strength.

All of the Smithsonian Gardens are free to visit and remain open from dawn to dusk every day of the year except December 25. Visit in the morning to escape DC’s infamous summer heat and the tourist crowds. Most of the gardens lie along the National Mall, the city’s largest park. No timed-entry passes are required for the gardens and other outdoor spaces.

Where: The is Ripley Garden is at 850 Jefferson Drive Southwest, Washington, DC; the Haupt Garden is at Independence Avenue SW and L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC; and the landscape of the National Museum of the African American is at 1400 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560.

2. Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden

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Photo: BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock

Of all the Smithsonian garden spaces in the capital, the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden deserves special mention. Set in a rectangular space 14 feet below ground level, the space redefines the sunken garden concept for contemporary enjoyment. Here, you’ll find priceless works by Auguste Rodin and Alberto Giacometti, as well as Yoko Ono’s wish tree.

The garden is open daily from 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM.

Where: Jefferson Drive and 7th Street SW, Washington, DC 20591

3. Anacostia Community Museum

The Anacostia Community Museum is located in the historically Black neighborhood by the same name. On its website, the museum states that its mission is to “preserve communities’ memories, struggles, and successes,” by offering events and other opportunities where “diverse voices and cultures can be heard.”

The Anacostia Community Museum’s exhibits center around themes like food justice, changing neighborhoods, and the work of prominent Black artists during the civil rights movement.

The museum will offer free admission and free parking starting on August 6, 2021, and welcomes visitors Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM. No timed-entry passes will be required.

Where: 1901 Fort Place, SE, Washington, DC

4. National Museum of the American Indian

Offering one of the most exhaustive collections of Indigenous art, media, objects, and photographs — not just in the US, but in the world — the National Museum of the American Indian is a must-visit to appreciate the past and present of Indigenous peoples. The site displays artifacts from the full breadth of inhabited lands in the Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America.

Seek out the exhibit “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations” which runs until January 2025. It covers a history of political treaties that many Americans never learn. For those who can’t make the trip in-person, the museum has online educational content like its Virtual Field Trips series and American Indian magazine.

The National Museum of the American Indian is open from Wednesday through Sunday, from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Timed-entry passes are available here.

Where: Fourth Street & Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, DC 20560

5. Renwick Gallery

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Photo: V_E/Shutterstock

This exhibit space, a part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is devoted to modern decorative and craft arts. Easily accessible by public transportation, and a stone’s throw from the White House, the Renwick Gallery promises an engaging visit and a feel for what’s happening in contemporary art right now.

Current exhibits include art forms of various kinds, namely fiber, mosaic, glass, and assorted metals — all designed to provoke and stimulate notions of art today.

Other Renwick programs run a wide gamut, from lectures and music, to events for kids and a “Yoga at the Museum” class.

The museum is currently open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM. Guided tours are suspended due to public health concerns. Timed-entry passes are available here.

Where: Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW, Washington, DC 20006

6. National Portrait Gallery

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Photo: National Portrait Gallery/Facebook

Located in Washington’s historic Chinatown neighborhood, the National Portrait Gallery exists so that visitors can “experience portraiture beyond the frame.” The space has the only complete set of presidential portraits in the US outside of the White House (a mere eight blocks away). It’s just one facet of a larger collection of more than 15,000 works. The space has evolved from its former paintings-only policy to show portraits in photography, sculpture, and video.

The National Portrait Gallery is open, and a pass (available here) includes access to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which operates in the same building. The Gallery’s visiting hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11:30 AM to 7:00 PM.

Where: 8th and G Streets NW, Washington, DC 20001

7. Smithsonian Institution Building

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Photo: Tupungato/Shutterstock

It’s easy to understand why the Smithsonian Institution Building is affectionately called The Castle by Washingtonians. With its red stone façade and soaring turrets, the landmark on the National Mall has long delighted children and adults alike. Completed in 1855, the building houses the Smithsonian Visitor Center, the nerve center for the Smithsonian network. The site offers guidance on how to see and enjoy Washington, whether inside or outside the Smithsonian system of public spaces.

If you need a break from on-your-feet sightseeing — or need to cool off from the DC summer — the Castle Café has refreshments. For a different kind of chill, seek out the final resting place of James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian organization, near the building’s north entrance.

The building reopens on July 30, 2021, and will be open daily between 8:30 AM and 5:30 PM. Admission will be free. Timed-entry passes will be available for reservation about one week before reopening.

Where: 1000 Jefferson Drive, SW, Washington, DC