The Mall and museums
Eleven Smithsonian museums and galleries line “America’s Front Yard” like sentinels. Two are family favorites: the National Air and Space Museum, the most popular museum in the country (closed for renovations until fall 2022), and the National Museum of Natural History, whose dinosaur bones are guaranteed kid-pleasers. You can see two dozen inaugural gowns in the First Ladies’ Collection and Julia Child's kitchen in the National Museum of American History.
All Smithsonian venues accommodate visitors with mobility, hearing and sight impairments. You can even reserve free sign-language tours with a trained docent at least two weeks in advance. Wheelchairs are available for rent on the Mall, and you can download an accessible entrance map.
While the Mall boasts several art museums — notably the landmark National Gallery of Art with its I.M. Pei–designed East Building (the East Wing is due to open in June 2022 after renovations), the modern-art-filled Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the National Museum of Asian Art. Locals have favorites beyond the Mall. In Dupont Circle, the Phillips Collection has an impressive collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art (feast on Renoir’s famous Luncheon of the Boating Party). In a Georgetown mansion, Dumbarton Oaks boasts America’s premier collection of pre-Columbian art (timed tickets are required). Lovers of folk art and crafts enjoy the Renwick Gallery, across from the White House. Those who favor decorative arts adore late heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens overlooking Rock Creek Park, with its 13 acres of impeccable landscaping and rare, gold-and-jewel-covered Fabergé eggs.
History gems are scattered all over, such as the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, (though it’s closed to the public for renovations until 2023), the Seward House Museum (known as Mr. Lincoln’s White House) and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the first president’s restored estate in a Virginia suburb. For guaranteed entrance, buy tickets online in advance. (Mount Vernon is wheelchair accessible, except for the mansion’s upper floors, and provides handheld devices for the visually and hearing impaired.)
In a city devoted to memorials, you can hardly turn a corner without running into one, even beyond the Mall. Three are located in Virginia: the soaring Air Force Memorial, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, and the iconic Marine Corps War Memorial (better known as the Iwo Jima memorial), just outside Arlington National Cemetery — the country’s largest military burial ground. Don’t miss the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, every half hour during peak tourist times. There’s also the new World War I Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the National Archives Rotunda, you can see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; just be prepared to wait in long lines to enter (wheelchairs are available).
And many visitors haven’t heard the word about Planet Word Museum, at 925 13th St. NW, a popular interactive experience where you can learn about the English language, solve word puzzles, sing karaoke and read famous speeches into a teleprompter. Reserve online and name your price for admission. A mouthwatering bonus: It’s home to a branch of the highly rated Immigrant Food restaurant, open for lunch or dinner.
Ways to save: Talk about the land of the free! All the Smithsonian museums are gratis, as are others on the Mall, including the National Gallery of Art and the National Archives, and most other public venues around town.
Visitors 62 and older save $4 on admission to the Phillips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks is free, and Hillwood has a suggested donation ($12 on weekdays for those 65 and older). Veterans and those 65-plus get discounted tours of Arlington National Cemetery, and the disabled can ride the interpretative bus at no cost (with one companion). The cemetery offers free shuttle service to visit individual gravesites.
Adults 62 and older get discounted tickets to Mount Vernon, additionally discounted if bought online.