Repository of American Heritage
Once referred to as “the nation’s attic,” the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum and research complex in the world, with eighteen museums (sixteen of them in Washington) and over 142 million works of art and other specimens – and admission is free. The Institution’s National Air and Space Museum is one of the most visited museums in the world, a must-see for kids of all ages and the parents they drag behind. Don’t miss Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo spacecrafts, or the always great IMAX films.
The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur hich it is connected by an underground tunnel) display one of the finest collections of Asian art in the world. The National Museum of African Art boasts a vast collection of both traditional and contemporary art from the entire continent of Africa, while the National Museum of Natural History draws crowds for its looming dinosaurs and the huge 451/2-carat Hope Diamond.
The cylindrical Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, built around a gift of some 11,500 works from its namesake collector, is like a joyous crash course in 20th-century art. The list of the Smithsonian’s properties goes on and on.
Among Washington’s trove of fifty-some museums, many are gathered in front of the Capitol building, where the grassy Mall unfurls. Among them, the showpiece is the National Gallery of Art, one of the world’s greatest museums and one of the American Big Three (along with the Metropolitan in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago).
Jazzed up in 1978 by an I. M. Pei addition (his best-known American work), the sedate building houses a beautifully displayed selection of Dutch and Flemish masters, French Impressionists, and a poetic portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (1474), the only oil by Leonardo da Vinci in the Western hemisphere. For quality and quantity of masterworks, this would be a good place to spend your day.
Farther afield from the Mall, the Phillips Collection was the country’s first museum of modem art, housed in a beautiful neo-Georgian mansion that was once the home of its namesake collector. To the south, the Corcoran Gallery is home to the best collection of 19th-century art in the world.
Undoubtedly the most powerful and sobering experience in town is the Holocaust Memorial Museum, dedicated to the victims of Nazi genocide between 1933 and 1945. And where else but Washington would you find the International Spy Museum, which demystifies many espionage secrets from throughout the ages and around the globe.
For those in search of the city’s more intimate, unsung gems, there is Dumbarton Oaks, with its wonderful collections of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian works housed in a gorgeous mansion among elaborate, terraced gardens. In the northwest, overlooking Rock Creek Park, the Hillwood Museum and Gardens was once the forty-room Georgian home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the cereal heiress and socialite. Today, it brims with her immense collection of decorative objects from France and imperial Russia, including icons and Fabergé eggs.