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.
I first posted about the Navy Museum nearly a decade ago after Owen and I visited for the first time, calling it a “True Hidden DC Gem — which says a lot, as it’s rare that I use the term “hidden gem” to describe a place. (As I explained in this old post several years ago, when I was a writer/editor for a travel company a bunch of years back, it was forbidden — considered too cliché — to use the term. And it’s a rule that, for the most part, has stuck with me.)
The museum’s location is part of what garners the “hidden gem” designation. Situated on the guarded base, it’s not overtly visible, plus most people just don’t even know it’s there. I used to recommend it somewhat regularly, but haven’t since pre-Covid, as I wasn’t certain it had reopened. But now that I know it has, let this be a big endorsement to go.
Our family has been to the museum several times since that first visit, but it had been awhile. I was thinking about it recently, though, as I was reading the novel Great Circle about a 20th-century female aviator. The Navy and World War II factor into the book, and the museum has a whole WWII exhibit, including old airplanes on display. Anyway, it was on my mind as I was making plans with a friend in town, trying to decide what to do a Tuesday when most Smithsonians on the Mall are currently closed. So I confirmed that the Navy Museum was open, and we decided to go. It’s a nice, easy walk from our house, plus we could get lunch after at The Yards, a short stroll away along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, where there are lots of good dining options.
The museum has barely changed since I first wrote about it back in 2012. It’s all contained in one long hangar-like building, where guns and gun parts were manufactured in the late 19th century. It had some other uses during WWII and over the years, then became a museum in 1961. And it’s a fantastic and fascinating one for all ages, kids and adults.
‘The collections within are as striking to view as they are interesting to learn about. Artifacts on display range 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 ships 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 (you can see the new Fredrick Douglass Memorial Bridge from one!) and control boards with buttons to push and levers to pull add some extra engagement, especially for kids.
I love how major parts of ships are showcased and integrated into the space. A nearly floor-to-ceiling replica of the USS Constitution fighting top is one of the first sights upon entrance. A hull with cannons extending out of portholes is the wall of a recreated gun deck. Ship quarterdeck name boards are hung on high beams all around. Huge guns, life rafts, and other installations are centerpieces of the exhibits. You used to be able to climb onto some of them and sit in gun seats, but that kind of access is now off limits due to Covid.
A few very important things to know about visiting the National Museum of the U.S. Navy:
* Non-military visitors must enter at 11th & O Streets SE, just before the 11th Street Bridge. Let the guards on duty know why you’re visiting, and they will direct you to the Visitor Center.
* You need a pass to be on base and visit the museum. You can obtain one at the Visitor Center, the small building on your right as you enter the base. Be sure to bring ID, as you will need to show it to get a pass, along with providing fingerprints (it’s a military base). More about that here.
* Note that the Visitor Center is closed on Saturdays, so if you want to visit on the weekend, you must obtain a pass prior to that (again, more here).
* If you drive, look for street parking off of M Street SE in the Navy Yard neighborhood, then walk a few blocks to the entrance.
* Allow for some extra time to get your pass, about 15 minutes.
* The rest of the Navy base is very interesting to tour. Plan for some time to walk around before or after your museum visit.
* DO NOT take any photos of the base outside of the museum! It is not permitted. I learned this the hard way.
A new, bigger, campus-style National Museum of the U.S. Navy is in the works, expected to open in late 2025. There’s an exhibit showing plans and the progress of it. Sounds like it won’t be quite as hidden as it is now, but it certainly will still be a gem.
National Museum of the U.S. Navy
Where: Entrance is at 11th & O Streets SE | Navy Yard, DC
When: Monday – Friday, 9am – 4pm & Saturday, 10am – 4pm