What Museums History Lovers Should Visit in DC

When people think of the United States, they don’t always think about history. Compared to the rest of the world, our history is so short. We are not even 250 years old. But what I love about Washington DC is that it basks in our country’s history without shame. The city itself is one of the oldest in the country, built specifically to be the Nation’s capital. Every street corner has a statue or plaque, celebrating famous figures and historical events. In a city filled with museums, there are several that celebrate the rich history in different ways. I wanted to highlight a few museums you must make sure to visit if you are a Bona fide history feign like me. 

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National Museum of American History

Two kids interacting at the American History Museum, A dress from the First Lady Exhibit, the Girlhood Exhibit

Unpopular opinion: The National Museum of American History is my FAVORITE museum in Washington DC. I love that this museum has both permanent and temporary exhibits that focus on the unique history that makes up the United States. While our history is short, it’s unique in how we were created as a nation and I appreciate seeing that honored. One of my favorite permanent exhibits is the First Ladies exhibit. Here you can see a collection of famous dresses and inaugural ball gowns of the unsung heroes of our history, the first ladies of the United States. There you learn how each first lady contributed to the history of the country and the presidency. You learn about bada$$ Dolly Madison, who ran back into the White House as it was about to burn, to secure the portrait of George Washington. In other exhibits you find out about our unique history around voting and first amendment rights. We actually got to compare our beliefs on certain laws again those of our founding fathers and see how much they actually disagreed and needed to come together. We also had the fortune of visiting when there was a special exhibit on Girlhood, that looked at what different aspects of girlhood (work, education, even sexuality) looked like at different times in our life.

National Air and Space Museum

The Wright Brother's Plane, The Discovery Space Shuttle, A mom and son looking at a historic Boeing jet

The National Air and Space Museum often comes up on everyone’s list of favorite Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC, and for good reason. But let me talk about it as to why I think it’s a good museum to go to learn history. The National Air and Space Museum is so popular because it has some of the most amazing pieces of history from our history of aviation and space travel, which in reality is not that old. At the museum on the mall, you will find the Wright Brothers plane, the first plane to ever fly, all the way up to the space capsule that brought back the astronauts from the moon. There is a replica of the plane Amelia Earhart was flying when she was lost over the pacific.  Here you can visit different exhibits to learn about how we went from flying a few feet in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to being the first country to have a man walk on the moon.

While the museum on the mall is amazing, don’t sleep on the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. When we visited DC as a family, the museum on the mall was closed for renovations, so we made a point to head out to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Here is a hanger with all different plans and vehicles from air and space history. While it doesn’t have as in-depth exhibits, it does have amazing videos explaining much of what you are seeing around you, and volunteers who do both do in-depth talks and answer questions. One of the gems of the exhibit is the Discovery Space Shuttle. Well worth the drive out.   

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Exhibits at the United States Holocaust Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum isn’t fun. The topic and exhibits are heavy. And you will cry. But it’s so incredibly important for everyone to truly understand this history so it never gets repeated. When you enter, you are brought up to the top floor, and go through the museum from the top to the bottom. The first level is dedicated to the rise of Nazism in Germany. It was chilling to see some of what happened, and to see parallels in our lives and politics today. The second level is about the “Final Solution.” This was the hardest floor for my children (and myself). It discusses the ghettos and concentration camps. It talks, in detail, on what the Nazi’s did to try and eradicate other populations. My daughter had a really hard time at the gas chamber exhibit. She read a story of a mom who tried to push her children out of the chamber when the doors were about to close, and she lost it. It had never occurred to her that children were also killed and it hit her hard. The bottom level ends with hope. It discusses both how the Nazis were eventually defeated and pays tribute to those who were resistance fighters throughout the war. There is a beautiful film that plays on repeat of interviews with survivors. They talk about their experience, but also the full lives they went on to live. We all were emotional at the end of the exhibit, and the kids were mad I took them to something that made them so sad. But I still think it’s an important lesson everyone needs to learn. However, I would only recommend this for kids 10+. 

Note, this museum requires timed entry tickets, and it is a notoriously hard museum to get tickets for, so make sure to plan ahead. Tickets are sold anywhere from 30 – 90 days in advance, and they will sell out usually that day, so start checking at the 90-day mark. If you don’t get in, note that they release a limited number of tickets daily at 7:00 am. They will be gone by 7:02am. Have everyone get their phone ready and start refreshing at 6:59am. Even if one person gets in, don’t let the others stop trying. Grab tickets, whatever time you can get, and check out as fast as possible before they are gone. We managed to get tickets for our very last day in DC. 

Honorable Mention

Obviously, history is my jam (maybe that’s why I like travel so much). There are two museums that aren’t labeled as history museums, but I understand have a lot of history in them, that I unfortunately haven’t been able to go to. I wanted to highlight them here, and why I think history lovers should attempt to make it part of their itinerary (and why I hope to in the future). 

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The building that houses the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Every person who has had this experience has said nothing but good things to about the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I mean it when I say it’s an experience. Similar to the Holocaust Museum, you get timed entry tickets, and are expected to go through the museum in order to get immersed in the culture and history of the African American people here in the United States. This museum has several history exhibits that cover everything from Slavery and Freedom to the Jim Crow era, and finally to the civil rights era and the fight that continues to end racism today. The building itself is a piece of art. There are interwoven exhibits on African American culture and art, giving you an immersive experience, you learn from. 

Note:  Similar to the Holocaust Museum you can only enter with a timed entry ticket.  These tickets are reserved 30 days out on a rolling basis, and if you want to guarantee yourself a ticket, reserve at the 30-day mark of your trip. If you miss that window, they release a few same day tickets at 8:15am every day. Be ready with every phone at 8:15 am and expect them to be sold out by 8:17 am. It is that popular. 

National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian

Okay, as a Person of Indian Origin according to the Indian Embassy (I am married to one, so I get to be one through marriage according to their laws), I do hate that this name hasn’t been updated to Native American. I wanted to get that out there because it does bother me. That being said, the National Museum of the American Indian goes a long way to acknowledge the people who were here first, and to share their culture and history with us. Spending some time in this museum and learning the history of the people who lived here first goes a long way in healing and helps us learn from the mistakes of our past. It lets us get a peek into their culture and see how we have intertwined some of it with our own. At the time of writing (2023) this museum is closed for renovations with no date for opening.

I grew up in a family of history lovers.  Growing up, my dad took us to every battlefield and historic ship on the east coast. My sister ended up working for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt estate for 10+ years. I travel the world finding history wherever I go and focus all my sight seeing there. It’s no surprise that history museums in our nation’s capital would be where I want to focus. But I think everyone can learn from history. We can learn from these museums so much about how we were formed, what has changed, where we get our culture from, and how we can save ourselves from the mistakes of our ancestors. Even if you aren’t a history lover, taking some time at these museums will give you a new perspective on our life today. Isn’t that worth the trip? 

What Museums History Lovers Should Visit in DC

* Starred Photos taken by Atma Photography

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