We all know about the many incredible museums located along the stretch of National Mall between the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument. In fact, just the collection of Smithsonians and National Gallery of Art could easily provide an ongoing museum fix. But if you don’t get off that well trodden path every now and then, you could miss out on some other amazing exhibits and experiences that aren’t as well known. And while some of them require an entrance fee unlike those go-to places, they shouldn’t be counted out because of it (and you can keep them in mind for special occasions). Here is a round-up of some museums in DC that may not be in your regular museum rotation — but should be. Happy Museum-ing!
National Museum of the U.S. Navy
Where: Entrance at 11th & O Streets SE | Navy Yard, DC
When: Currently only Saturday, 10am – 4pm
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. See everything 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 naval vessels 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 and control boards with buttons to push and levers to pull add some extra engagement, especially for kids. Access to the base and museum requires visitor passes, which can be obtained at the Visitor Center. Be sure to read this post with more information about visiting. [Note: The museum is currently operating on reduced hour, only open Saturdays 10am -4pm, as it begins a multiyear consolidation of its physical space and collections to prepare for the opening of a planned new museum
KFDC Tip: Plan on a meal at The Yards, where there are many dining options a short walk away.
Where: 925 13th Street NW | Downtown DC
When: Wednesday – Sunday, 10am – 5pm (Sat until 6pm)
Admission: Free with passes
The museum all about language has three levels of exhibits, most of them interactive, all of them engaging, interesting, and fun. There are elements that will delight all ages, though tweens and older will get the most out of it, having more grammar lessons under their belts and generally better comprehension. Play word games, explore languages across the globe, experience the most magical library ever, paint with words, recite a speech, joke around, sing karaoke, and so much more. While admission is free, you generally need to reserve tickets in advance.
KFDC Tip: A limited number of day-of, walk-up passes are available on the half-hour.
National Postal Museum
Where: 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE |Union Station Area, DC
When: Daily, 10am – 5:30pm
As I said years ago, I like to think of the National Postal Museum as a locals’ secret, overlooked by tourists and overshadowed by its counterparts on the Mall. I’ve also always recommended the museum as a particularly great one to visit with young children. It isn’t huge, so it’s not overwhelming for little ones. Plus, there are numerous interactives and big installations — all of it showcasing the history of the mail and U.S. Postal System — that appeal to both children and adults.
KFDC Tip: The museum is conveniently located next to Union Station, so you can also grab lunch and get there easily via Metro (Red Line).
National Building Museum
Where:401 F Street NW | Judiciary Square, DC
When: Thursday–Monday, 10 am–4 pm
Admission: Free for Great Hall | $10/adult, $7/child for exhibits
At a museum dedicated to building and architecture, it should come as no surprise that the space itself is just as compelling and reason to visit as the exhibits featured there. The National Building Museum’s vast Great Hall is an impressive sight, showcasing 75-foot tall marble Corinthian columns, a fountain at its center , and four levels of galleries, classrooms, and offices surrounding it all, with striking archways lining the walkways of the first two. Even better, you can go just to hang out in it. Soft pieces to build arches and giant Legos are often available for use in the space. And there are always several exhibits to explore, a couple of them permanent — including the interactive PLAY WORK BUILD for kids — and others temporary. Every summer the museum presents its Summer Block Party, a massive installation in the Great Hall along with special programming for all ages. A Firehook Bakery is right on premises for lunch or a snack while you’re there, and the Great Hall is, well, a great place to enjoy it.
KFDC Tip: Brick City, a display of iconic sights around the world constructed from LEGO pieces, is on view until 2025. Even more, there’s an interactive area where visitors can create their own LEGO masterpieces!
American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery
Where: 8th & F Streets NW | Penn Quarter, DC
When: Daily, 11:30am – 7pm
The off-the-Mall location of the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery keep them a little more under the radar than Smithsonian’s other DC venues. But they definitely are worth the detour from the more popular attractions. Not only are they filled with compelling art, including works that even little ones will find appealing, they offer a lot of great programs for family’s and kids. And the Explore! space also has hands-on activities for ages 18 months to 8 years old. Even more, the museums are connected by the lovely Kogod Courtyard, a must-stop on any visit, where you can enjoy lunch or a snack from the cafe on premises or bring food from another eatery nearby, and kids can stomp in the one-inch deep water scrims.
KFDC Tip: On most Saturdays and Sundays, all ages are welcome to drop in at the National Portrait Gallery for Weekend Workshops to create art inspired by artists and changemakers featured in the museum.
National Children’s Museum
Where: National Children’s Museum | Downtown DC
When: Daily except Tuesday, 9:30am – 4:30pm
Admission: $15.95/age 1+
The National Children’s Museum, located within the Ronald Reagan Building, features an array of STEAM-inspired exhibits that offer kids all kinds of cool ways to engage, learn, and exercise creativity. Just about all of the exhibits are interactive with lessons in science, math, and even social justice at their cores presented in fun, kid-relatable ways. And there is often at least one big traveling exhibit, like the current XOXO: An Exhibit About Love & Forgiveness there through May 14. The museum is geared toward children up to age 12, and there are areas especially for littles.
International Spy Museum
Where: International Spy Museum | Penn Quarter, DC
When: Daily, 10am – 6pm
Admission: $26.95/age 13+, $16.95/7-12, free/6 & under
A visit to the International Spy Museum takes you on an “undercover mission” to explore the intriguing world of espionage. Start by assuming a secret identity and get a briefing on being a secret agent before touring the exhibits and testing your spy skills. This is a museum that appeals to both kids and adults with state-of-the-art multimedia installations and many interactives. Discover tricks of the trade, view gadgets used to keep secrets and disguises to hide identities, and learn about some of the most famous spies and their missions. The museum is recommended for ages 9 and up, but younger kids could probably enjoy it, too, with the help of parents.
KFDC Tip: Don’t miss the gift shop! With all kinds of spy games, gadgets, and other related products, it’s like a bonus area to explore at the museum.
National Geographic Museum
Where: 1145 17th St. NW | Downtown DC
When: Daily, 10am – 5pm
Admission: $15/adult, $10/ages 5-12, $12/military & senior, free/under 5
Recently reopened after closing for nearly two years due to Covid, the National Geographic Museum is one to keep on your radar. Located within the organization’s headquarters downtown, the museum is a reflection of Nat Geo’s work that explores and examines aspects of the world that are both fascinating and significant, sharing discoveries and telling stories in a variety of compelling ways. Stunning photography, a signature of Nat Geo, is always on display. And special exhibitions often are full-on experiences that utilize multimedia and interactive installations to educate, enrich, amuse, and wow guests. Currently on display is Beyond King Tut, an immersive cinematic exhibition. Get a glimpse of some we have visited in past years (but are no longer there), from the incredible Titanic exhibition to Real Pirates to Spinosaurus to Birds of Paradise and the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization to Monster Fish to Photo Arc and CROCS to Earth Explorers — yes, we’ve been to a lot of them!
Where: Ford’s Theatre | Penn Quarter, DC
When: Daily, 9am – 4:30pm
Admission: Free – $3
Ford’s Theater isn’t just a place to see live entertainment. The site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination highlights its historic significance through a museum featuring exhibits about the 16th president, the circumstances surrounding his assassination, and that fateful night at the theatre. Along with the museum, a visit to the National Historic Site includes a theatre walk-through and presentation, plus a self-guided tour of Petersen House across the street. It’s best for about ages 8 and up. (Younger children certainly could go, but older kids probably would understand and get more out of the experience.) Reserve tickets online in advance for $3 or get them at the Box Office for free.
Where: 1238 Maryland Ave. SW | Southwest DC
Admission: $24/adult, $17/age 4-15, free/under 4
ARTECHOUSE has made its mark on the DC art scene with exhibitions that fuse art and technology, and encourage visitors to not just view it, but experience it. The digital works always include striking floor-to-ceiling projections on walls (and sometimes the floors, too) in the spacious main gallery with more installations in side rooms. The exhibitions are beautiful and immersive, often inviting visitors to interact with and manipulate the art through movement detected by sensors. Many of the exhibits celebrate the seasons with themes that reflect the time of year in some way or are inspired by current times, which adds some extra interest. Get a glimpse of some past exhibits here, here, here, here, here, and here.
KFDC Tip: Look for a discount on admission here.
Where: 1600 21st Street NW | Dupont Circle, DC
When: Tuesday-Sunday, 11am – 6pm
Admission: $16/adult, $12/seniors, free for kids
Its smaller size and beyond-the-Mall location make the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle a great place for an art experience with kids, the space being easy-to-navigate with generally less crowds. Plus, the permanent collection contains contemporary and modern pieces that appeal to young museum-goers as well as some famous works to help introduce kids to the masters. There’s a Family Gallery, where specially-selected artworks are displayed at children’s eye-level with kid-tested conversation prompts right on the walls. You can also pick up packets at the front desk that offer tips for exploring the museum with kids. Read more about the Phillips in this KFDC post and this one.
KFDC Tip: Tickets are pay-what-you-wish for the first entry time of each hour, available first come, first serve via online reservation.
Where: Independence Ave. & 7th St. SW | National Mall, DC
When: Daily, 10am – 5:30pm
Okay, so this one isn’t off the beaten path in a literal sense given that it’s right on the National Mall. But, figuratively, it is a diversion from most parents’ go-to Smithsonians. There was a time that I even thought the collections and exhibits at the Hirshhorn were over my kids’ heads, but that changed many years ago with Suprasensorial. In fact, many of their favorite, most memorable exhibit experiences have been at the Hirshhorn. There was Pulse inspired by heartbeats, Ragnar Kjartansson‘s wonderfully evocative works, and of course Yayoi Kusama’s oh-so-popular Infinity Mirrors. The museum also keeps little art-goers in mind, featuring Art Carts that provide materials for kiddos to get creative as well as and Story Times with fun activities on select dates.
KFDC Tip: Don’t miss the sculpture garden outside!
Where: Foxhall/Palisades, DC
When: Tuesday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm
Admission: Suggested donation $10/adult
The small art museum in DC’s Foxhall-Palisades neighborhood is perfect for an art fix with kids that’s gratifying without being overwhelming. Inside, you can view works from the 19th and 20th centuries from celebrated artists that include Monet, Picasso, Miro, and Calder. But the five-acre outdoor area is what will really excite kids with all kinds of large-scale installations that are beautiful, interesting, even quirky and fun. There is a fountain/pool with seating and sculptures around it, a small patch of woods with art and a trail that loops around, and a grassy expanse with works that you’ll all enjoy. There’s even a piece “climbing” on the side of building, another snaking up a tree, and one that plays solar powered music. Walk-ups are welcome, but it’s not a bad idea to reserve tickets in advance.
KFDC Tip: Plan on lunch or an ice cream treat at Jetties before or after — it’s located right down Foxhall Road and they have delicious sandwiches, salads, and scoops!
Folger Shakespeare Library
Where: 201 East Capitol Street SE | Capitol Hill, DC
When: Temporarily closed for renovations
You don’t have to be a huge Shakespeare enthusiast to enjoy the Folger Shakespeare Library, but if you are a fan of The Bard, you will love it. Along with a theater that presents Shakespearean plays and other productions, the attraction on Capitol Hill contains the world’s largest collection of materials relating to the poet and playwright. While a lot of it probably appeals mostly to adults, there are displays and activities especially for kids, like a book rack for young readers, a Prop Drop for dress up, fun photo ops and art prompts, and occasionally special exhibits. Pre-Covid there were regular workshops for families, so fingers crossed they will be back when the Folger reopens (it’s currently closed for renovations, but I’m including here for when visitors are welcome again).
KFDC Tip: Make it a bigger outing and pair with a visit to the Library of Congress right on the next block or a visit to Eastern Market just a few blocks away on 7th Street SE.
Mansion on O Street
Where: 2020 O St. NW | Dupont Circle, DC
When: Daily, 10am – 4pm
Admission: Tours start at $26.50
The Dupont Circle destination isn’t your typical museum. In fact, I’m not sure it even really is a museum, but they call themselves one, so I’m including it here. The Mansion on O Street easily is one of the neatest places in DC — a “museum,” inn, event space, and secondhand shop all in one. Four stories high and five row houses wide, it contains 100 rooms, many of them open for visitors to explore. You can locate secret doors, see outrageously fabulous themed rooms, and browse a trove of secondhand treasures. The mansion is filled literally floor to ceiling with the most eclectic collection of, well, just about everything collectible. There are books, autographed instruments, kitchen items, paintings, all kinds of knick knacks, and so much more. The kicker: Nearly all of it is for sale! It’s one of DC’s most stunning spaces (imo) and a place that delights both kids and adults.
Museum of Illusions
Where: 927 H Street NW | CityCenter DC
When: Sun–Thurs, 10am – 8pm | Fri & Sat, 10am – 9pm
Admission: $23.50/13+, $18.95/age 5-12, free/4 & under
This recently opened museum calls itself an “edutainment destination,” and fittingly so. The many installations and exhibits throughout the multi-room space trick and test the mind in ways that are fun and illuminating. Not only are the illusions cool to see and interact with, they play with perspective, sometimes require problem solving, and spark curiosity about how they work. And you can learn all about them from signs with explanations and staff who are on hand to answer any questions. Everything in the museum is interactive in some way, whether you’re staring at pictures to watch them “move,” standing within an exhibit to feel its effects, solving some kind of puzzle, or placing yourself just so to create an illusional scene. There are purely visual exhibits, elements that require hands-on activity, whole immersive rooms, and fun optical illusion photo ops.
KFDC Tip: Plan on for a meal or treat before or after your visit at the nearby Tatte Bakery & Cafe.
What’s your favorite off-the-beaten-path museum in DC? Let us know in the comments!