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Best museums to visit in Washington, D.C.

The Washington, D.C., area is home to some of the nation's top museums. In one trip to the capital city, you can view the U.S. Constitution, the Discovery space shuttle, a self-portrait by Rembrandt, and sections of the Berlin Wall. These high-caliber artifacts are just a sampling of what’s on display around town – add to that interactive exhibits, free guided tours, and after-hours events. To make the most of your stay in D.C., carve out time to visit these exceptional and engaging museums.

1. The Phillips Collection

View an impressive collection of modern-art masterpieces at this privately owned museum. Its collection includes works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, and more. Phillips After 5, a popular event that begins after the museum closes to the public, is on the first Thursday of each month. It includes gallery talks, live music, food, and a cash bar.

2. National Gallery of Art and Sculpture Garden

The National Gallery of Art has not one but two large buildings and a sculpture garden full of world-class art – and entrance to all three won’t cost you a penny. You don’t need an art degree to appreciate the range of work housed here, from the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, and Raphael. If you do want to pick up some art history knowledge while there, join one of the daily docent-led tours through the permanent collection – they’re free!

3. Newseum

The focus of this interactive museum is on the past, present, and future of news and journalism. There are seven levels, 15 theaters, and 15 galleries. One highlight is the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery that contains photographs from every winning entry from 1942 to the present day.

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4. International Spy Museum

Learn all about the world of espionage! This museum is highly interactive and an excellent choice for anyone traveling with kids. Be sure to stop by the gift shop to pick up cool spy gadgets like WiFi USB cufflinks, a pen that’s actually a camcorder, and spy camera sunglasses.

5. Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

This extension of the Smithsonian’s downtown National Air and Space Museum is near Dulles Airport in Virginia, a 45-minute drive outside of D.C. It’s worth the journey, especially to see what’s on display inside the museum’s two enormous hangars – like the Discovery space shuttle, a Concorde, and a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. Docents lead free 90-minute guided tours each day. Onsite there’s also interactive flight simulators, an Airbus IMAX® theater, and an observation tower where you can watch planes fly in and out of Dulles Airport.

6. National Archives Museum

Fascinating records from America’s history are on display at this museum. It’s also the permanent home of the U.S. Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

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7. National Museum of American History

The exhibits at this Smithsonian museum cover a wide range of topics in American history, from music and sports to politics and innovations. You can even view the tattered American flag that was the inspiration for the U.S. national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

8. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The museum’s curators have done an exceptional job of creating an engaging, immersive exhibit about a highly emotional period of history. This is a very popular museum, so from March through August, free timed entrance passes for the Permanent Exhibition are distributed to help manage the flow of visitors. You can get passes online in advance or at the museum the day of your visit.

9. Dumbarton Oaks

This Georgetown museum houses collections of European masterpieces, art from the Byzantine Empire, and pre-Columbian art from Mesoamerica, the Andes, and the Intermediate Area. Take a stroll through the large, beautiful gardens after your visit at the museum – they’re not to be missed. While the museum offers free admission year-round, the gardens is $10 for adults during its regular season (March 15-October 31) but free from November 1-March 14 (it’s closed every Monday of the year).

10. United States National Arboretum

The Arboretum is a must-see for plant lovers. It’s home to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, which has an impressive collection of artfully sculpted dwarfed trees. Around the Arboretum grounds, you can view a variety of plant collections – like azaleas, perennials, and magnolias – as well as the imposing National Capitol Columns.

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