Even though it started with an endowment by a British scientist, the venerable Smithsonian Institution is an American icon. And it's a must see for most visitors to Washington, DC. But before you head out to see the Smithsonian, keep these few tips in mind.
Know That It's Big
While many people think of the Smithsonian as a museum, it's actually a collection of 19 different museums and gardens. Most of these museums are located in Washington, D.C. or its region, but some are in New York City as well. It encompasses not only history and art museums, but the National Zoo, sculpture gardens, and hangars at Washington Dulles International Airport. In short, the Smithsonian museums touch on nearly every aspect of the American experience.
Enjoy That It's Free
The good news for museum buffs, families, and casual observers alike is that the museums are all free to enter — and to re-enter if you want to hop between buildings. That alone makes them well worth the effort to get there, since the museums offer plenty of entertainment for all.
Start at the Castle
When visiting the museum complex on the Mall in Washington, start at the beginning: the Castle. This beautiful red building was finished in 1855 and features gorgeous faux Gothic architecture. It houses the offices and visitor center for the Smithsonian Institution, but it was the first building constructed with Smithson's original bequest funds.
At the Castle, you can talk with staff about your visit, get help planning your day (or days), and receive brochures and information for specific sites or collections. It's also a great end-of-day meeting point for large groups with diverse interests.
Choose Your Museums
With so many museums and collections, you probably can't see all the locations thoroughly during a visit to the city. So, you'll need to decide ahead of time what appeals to you most. This is where advance research as well as help from the Castle's staff will help.
Popular choices for first-time visitors include both the Air and Space Museum facilities and the Natural History Museum. The Museum of American History — with artifacts ranging from Abraham Lincoln's top hat to Archie Bunker's chair — is always very busy. But be sure to catch fascinating exhibits at the other museums, depending on your own interests. Since you can hop between buildings, you can easily design an itinerary that works for you.
Trek to Surrounding Ones
Since most of the facilities are located on or near the National Mall, they are the easiest to get to and visit. But don't let that deter you from visiting some of the sites in other areas. Washington, D.C., visitors should make a trip to the National Zoo, home to the country's famous giant pandas. Between relaxing on the National Mall and visiting the vibrant wildlife at the zoo, families with small children get a nice break from artifacts and relics.
In addition to the zoo, two other D.C.-area facilities warrant a trip. Dulles Airport houses larger airplanes, helicopters, and spacecraft. Thrill your kids with everything from World War II bombers to the Discovery space shuttle. And the National Portrait Gallery may sound stodgy, but it holds some of the most famous paintings in American history, including the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, a daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass, and the iconic "Hope" painting of Barack Obama.
Ready to start planning your next trip to the Smithsonian Institution? Start by talking to the D.C. travel experts at Jean's Bus Service, Inc. We can help you create the perfect tour itinerary that will make the trip of a lifetime for your group.