Free Museums in DC to Visit with Kids
In Washington, DC, museums are not in short supply—and thankfully, neither is free admission! There are plenty of free museums in DC and nearby that are perfect for kids and families. These include not only Smithsonian museums, but several other great ones relating to language, the U.S. Army, the Holocaust, and more.
If you're looking to explore the wonderful museums that DC offers without breaking the bank, then you've come to the right place. We've compiled a list of 16 free museums in DC to visit with kids for a perfect indoor activity any time of year.
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Most of the free museums in DC are operating at reduced hours, days, and capacity due to COVID, and days and hours are constantly changing. Be sure to check with the museums for their current hours, as well as their COVID guidelines and requirements, before heading out.
Free Smithsonian Museums in DC
From the iconic African elephant display to fossils, Ancient Egyptian mummies, and more, the National Museum of Natural History is one of the most visited of the Smithsonian museums. The museum houses a collection of more than 145 million specimens and is truly a bucket-list item that every family should try to check off. Two interactive learning spaces, Q?rius and Q?rius Jr., are currently closed due to COVID, but are a must-visit for kids in non-pandemic times.
Expose kids to fine art at the National Gallery of Art. Photo courtesy of the gallery
Whether it be a painting, a sculpture, or a drawing, some of the most iconic pieces of art are housed in the National Gallery of Art, a must for any family looking to explore great art with the kids. Don't forget to explore the outdoor Sculpture Garden on a nice day, and in the wintertime, for a fee, try taking a lap around the outdoor ice skating rink.
With over 11,000 pieces in the collection, visitors are invited to celebrate the beauty and diversity of Africa's art at the National Museum of African Art. The museum offers several activities for home on its website that allow kids and their families to continue their exploration at home.
See iconic aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Pedro Szekely/CC BY 2.0
With thousands of air and space objects and aircraft on display, science enthusiasts will love the National Air and Space Museum. Families can also visit the museum's companion facility, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, to see the Space Shuttle Discovery up close. Both museums are free, but parking costs $15 at the Udvar-Hazy Center. In-person family programs are on hold due to COVID, but the museums offer a variety of free online family activities, including storytimes, expert chats, and more.
This museum on the National Mall is comprised of two art galleries, the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, that exhibit more than 45,000 pieces of Asian art. The works date from the Neolithic period to today and originate from all throughout Asia. The museum offers a variety of free art workshops and events for kids and families, all currently virtual due to COVID. Pre-register for these events online.
See a section of the actual Greensboro Lunch Counter at the National Museum of American History. Photo courtesy of the museum
The National Museum of American History is one of the most kid-friendly spots on our list. Families can see gowns worn by First Ladies, the actual American flag that inspired the national anthem, a Muppets exhibit, and so much more. Spark!Lab, where young visitors' innovative spirits are encouraged; and Wegmans Wonderplace, which offers hands-on exploration of small-town American life for the 0-6 crowd; are currently closed due to COVID.
Children can witness and learn about the rich and fascinating history, community, and culture of African Americans at the NMAAHC. More than 3,000 objects are on display, including Michael Jackson's fedora, a lace shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, and Chuck Berry's red Cadillac convertible. Free programs for kids are currently being offered virtually and include educational talks, downloadable activity booklets, and more.
Mitsitam, the cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian, is one of our favorite places to eat on the National Mall.
This museum's imagiNATIONS Activity Center—filled with interactive exhibits and hands-on activities like basket-weaving, building a giant igloo, and playing inside a life-sized tipi—brings history to life for kids and families. It is temporarily closed due to COVID, but there are still plenty of exhibits kids will love. One is Americans, which displays images and objects from American brands that were influenced by American Indian culture. Don't forget to stop in at the museum cafe, Mitsitam; it's one of our favorite spots to eat on the National Mall.
A visually rich experience, the Hirshhorn and its outdoor sculpture garden will captivate kids and give them a great first experience with contemporary art. Though the museum's popular weekly storytimes are on pause due to COVID, families can pick up a free Art Cart every Wednesday between 10am and 12pm. Each Art Cart has a fresh theme featuring an artwork on view, an art project to do at the museum, and suggested activities to do at home. ARTLAB, the Hirshhorn's digital art studio for teens, is also currently closed but offers free virtual events.
See the Bell Nexus Air Taxi, part of the Futures Exhibit at the newly reopened Arts and Industries Building. Photo courtesy of the museum
The Smithsonian's second-oldest building reopened in November after being closed for nearly two decades. Its 32,000-square-foot FUTURES exhibit includes a huge variety of art installations, experiments, inventions, and objects that give visitors a peek into the future. Some of the items, including an AI-driven rover that can transform agriculture, are on display to the public for the very first time. Visitors can also participate in interactive experiences like smelling a molecule, meditating with an AI robot, and becoming an emoji. Families have until July 6, 2022, to visit the exhibit.
This museum near Union Station, dedicated to the history of the postal system, is surprisingly kid-friendly. Kids can climb aboard a historic railway mail train and a modern mail truck, design their own stamps, recreate the path of mail, and participate in many other hands-on activities. Families can also access games, quizzes, and other fun activities online.
The National Portrait Gallery houses the country's only full collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. There are also more than 20,000 other works in the museum's collection, including paintings, photographs, drawings, and more. Free workshops for kids ages 3-6 are currently virtual due to COVID and require advance registration.
Other Free Museums in DC
For older children, a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will help teach about a painful era in human history as well as celebrate the strength and survival of the human spirit. Remember the Children: Daniel's Story is geared towards young people and their families. The exhibit, which tells the story of one family's experiences during the Holocaust from a boy's perspective, brings visitors into realistic environments where they can touch and engage with items and places from the boy's world.
See the U.S. founding documents at the National Archives Museum. Photo courtesy of the museum
Head into the famed Rotunda of the National Archives Museum and come face to face with the original and founding documents of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. Visitors will also want to go beyond the Rotunda and spend some time in the public vaults, where they can listen to audio recordings from the Oval Office, telegrams that Abraham Lincoln sent, and interactive exhibits to bring these archives to life.
15. National Museum of the United States Army — Fort Belvoir, VA
This museum celebrates the history of the U.S. Army through a variety of immersive exhibits. Army vehicles, uniforms, and many other objects from various wars and time periods are on display. Virtual-reality and motion-theater experiences are available for purchase. Kids ages 4 to 8 can do crafts and other activities on weekend mornings from 9am to 12pm in the on-site Experiential Learning Center.
Explore the world of language at Planet Word. Photo courtesy of planetword.org
16. Planet Word
Planet Word, the world's first voice-activated museum, includes interactive galleries and exhibits that bring words and language to life in fun ways. Kids can marvel at a 22-foot talking word wall, deliver a famous speech using a teleprompter, enter a magical library, sing karaoke, and much more. Effective January 6, 2022, all visitors age 12 and up must show proof of full COVID vaccination to enter the museum.
A version of this article was originally published in 2019.