Local Highlights

The best (secret) Washington DC museums tourists don’t know about


If you’re living in the Washington, DC metro area, you have unbeatable access to over 200 museums filled with art and national history. But once you’ve explored the National Mall and hit all twelve of the Smithsonian branches, you might be tired of fighting tourists. That’s why we’ve assembled a list of some lesser-known museums to hit up in your free time. Come alone – or bond with your roommates and make your new house into a home! Here are the best museums you can catch on the DL:

International Spy Museum

If you like intrigue, you’ll love this place. Featuring the world’s largest collection of cloak-and-dagger memorabilia, this museum manages to put a kid-friendly spin on the world of intelligence and top-secret assassinations. Beyond learning about the history of espionage, you can discover how spies get intelligence and gain insight into how analysts use it. Interactive visits give you the opportunity to learn and use skills every spy must master. Kids can get some first-hand experience in spycraft with secret missions that turn them loose in the city with GPS devices.

The National Museum of the United States Navy

While it may be intimidating to go through security at an active duty military base, this museum is free for any visitors without felonies on their record. Located inside the Washington Navy Yard, the museum houses an impressive collection of artifacts, some of which date back to the revolutionary war. While the armed guards tend to deter casual museum visitors, braving the entry means you will have more opportunities to ask questions and get insights on the history of the artillery and warcraft you see on display. Unlike most museums, you’re free to touch and interact with everything on display. That means if you’re walking through their Cold War exhibit, you can feel whatever you see as you learn about covert nuclear submarine operations, from the Korean War through the collapse of the USSR.

US National Arboretum

Your trip to the museum doesn’t have to keep you stuck indoors all day. Located on over 400 acres with nearly 10 miles of paths to follow, the national garden is a beautiful way to enjoy spring blossoms and fall foliage for free. Learn how scientists explore conservation methods and research plant diseases and have developed and released 678 plants through their studies. This living museum allows you to see flora from all over the world, growing in one place.In addition to live plants, the arboretum has 650,000 preserved specimens for reference, as well as a large library devoted to plant-related tomes and periodicals, all available for the public to browse. It’s a lot to take in, but the changes in season reward frequent visits, so there is no need to rush through. The gardens offer plenty of variety and space, so find a special little spot for yourself and return to it when you can.

The O Street Museum 

This museum is dedicated to the creative process. If you’re an artist or creator, you might find exploring the mansion to be a bit like unfolding inspiration into art. Once the home to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, hidden doors and secret passages make exploring the eclectic collection of art and artifacts an adventure. Artists-in-residence lead workshops on just about every art form you can think of, so once you’ve finished your tour, you can come back to learn craft advice from professionals. Many of the events serve food, so come hungry and have a good time.

The National Geographic Museum

The magazine that takes you around the world is headquartered right here in DC. Explore their collection of award-winning photographs and enjoy close-up views of artifacts from across the globe. Interactive exhibits teach you about the work of scientists and conservationists who work for the National Geographic Society. Enjoy the permanent collection and check out one of the rotating exhibits all in one afternoon. Make time for their virtual reality explorations, and you can see the far reaches of the Earth live as never before. The VR experience may take you to the depths of the oceans, the edge of the arctic, or the heart of the jungle. Along the way, a tour guide will add context to what you see—a truly immersive educational experience.

Glenstone Museum

If you’ve got a car, this museum is about a 40-minute drive from downtown. The trek is worth it! Landscape, architecture, and visual art combine across 230 acres to give you a unique experience that’s a pleasant break from the city. As you walk the grounds and explore the indoor exhibits they connect to, you’ll see guides from the museums instead of the standard placards. Ask questions and tell them what you think of the art – they’re there to listen. While you aren’t allowed to photograph the paintings inside, you’re free to take pictures on the grounds. But instead, we recommend ditching your phone and enjoying the experience as it’s intended—a thought-provoking experience that lets you meditate peacefully while you move.

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