Washington, DC is so much more than offices and white marble. Looking beyond the facade, you’ll find museums, galleries, and much more showcasing world cultures and history, all within a few miles of each other in one international city.

Let’s look at just a few of the best museums in DC for an international, intercultural experience!

Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art (The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

Located along the National Mall, these galleries are a fantastic introduction to Asian art. There are more than 46,000 pieces in the museums, from the Neolithic period to today, with displays from East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the ancient Near East, and more. Exhibitions have focused on the history and culture of countries, regions, and dynasties, with a few recent exhibitions including:

While visiting, remember to stop into the Peacock Room, which displays tea sets and vases against a backdrop of gorgeous peacock-themed wallpaper and paintings.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

This museum’s collection of over 9,000 pieces covers thousands of years of African art, such as sculptures, jewelry, textiles, and paintings, ranging from ancient works to contemporary masterpieces. It’s the only national museum in the United States dedicated to the collection, exhibition, conservation, and study of the arts of Africa.

During a visit here, you’ll be able to see exhibits showcasing different regions and periods of African art—you can also attend talks, workshops, and other educational events at the museum. A few recent exhibitions include:

The National Museum of African Art is located along the south side of the National Mall, within walking distance of most of the other museums highlighted in this article. Depending on whether you’d like to start at the north or south side of the Mall, you can take the Metro to Federal Triangle, Smithsonian, or L’Enfant Plaza.

The National Museum of the American Indian

Also located along the National Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian is dedicated to the culture, history, and life of Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere, with exhibitions spanning geographically from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego.

Opened in 2004, the building in DC was inspired by natural landscapes and indigenous architecture. Inside, the collection comprises over 80,000 items, including artifacts, artwork, photos, and other media aiming to preserve and educate about the diverse traditions and lives of Native peoples, with highlights focusing on specific communities and cultures.

A few current and recent exhibitions have included:

Insider tip: The museum’s Mitsitam Cafe is probably the best cafeteria in all of Washington, DC, with Native-inspired foods that can be a bit difficult to find in other restaurants nearby.

There’s a sister museum in New York City as well if you happen to be in the area.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

This institution examines the Holocaust through exhibitions that bring those events to the forefront with terrifying clarity and detail. Resources and firsthand accounts at the museum and within its archives (including online collections) meticulously document the rise of the Nazi regime, the persecution and murder of Jews and other groups of people, and the immediate and ongoing effects of the Holocaust.

Educational programs are integral to the museum’s mission. The US Holocaust Museum offers many resources for teachers, students, and the general public to help them understand the lessons learned from this horrific point in history and the necessity of recognizing and preventing it from happening again.

In addition to the exhibits in DC, the Holocaust Memorial Museum has a vast digital collection of photos and media, as well as personal stories, memoirs, and interviews online.

A few special collections at the museum include:

The closest Metro stop here is the Smithsonian, and you’re within walking distance of the Washington Monument and the Tidal Basin from this visit.

The Textile Museum

Located at the George Washington University campus (go Revolutionaries!) near the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro stop, the Textile Museum’s collections highlight creative achievements within DC and beyond through textile arts and artifacts.

Collections include rugs and textiles from all over the world, including those from the Islamic world, Asia, Africa, Indigenous Americas, and East, South, and Southeast Asia, plus contemporary textile art. A few exhibitions have included:

Related: Read our top picks for underrated spots to visit in DC. 

The Phillips Collection

Established in 1921, the Phillips Collection is the US’s first museum of modern art. In contrast to the more prominent museums throughout DC, the Collection has a cozy setting in Duncan Phillips’ family home. The museum is home to nearly 6,000 works from around the world, including creations by Renoir, Rothko, Bonnard, O’Keeffe, and van Gogh, and many others. And as you may have guessed, the museum hosts special events, artist talks, and other programs that educate and celebrate art and artists.

North of the National Mall and the GWU campus—where the other museums in this article are based—the Phillips Collection is walkable from both locations, but you’ll probably want to take the Metro up to Dupont Circle. Be sure to explore the neighborhood around the Phillips Collection—it’s a more homey, quaint contrast to the broader, brutalist feel of Downtown DC!

Over to you! What are your favorite museums and cultural institutions in DC? Share your ideas and stories with the Frayed Passport community!

Featured image by Sara Cottle on Unsplash

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