No trip to DC is complete without a visit to the Smithsonian. We gave ourselves an entire day here, and visited four museums (National Art Gallery, Air and Space Museum, Natural History Museum, American History Museum) plus the visitor’s center during that time. I’d say it was a pretty successful day!
The first museum we visited was the National Gallery. It’s hard to visit art museums in the US, since most of the great art is in Europe. But we were very impressed with the Natural Gallery’s collection; their impressionist collection in particular was amazing!
On the left is one of the National Gallery’s greatest paintings, the only Leonardo Da Vinci work outside of Europe: Portrait of Ginevra Benci. On the right is a painting from another renaissance painter who had a ninja turtle named after him: Raphael.
As mentioned earlier, the National Gallery’s impressionist collection was amazing. Here are four of their greatest works, by (clockwise from the upper left) Monet, Van Gogh, Toulouse Latrec, and Cezanne.
Two more of the National Gallery’s most famous works, by Degas (left) and Rembrandt (right).
From the National Gallery we went to the Air and Space Museum, definitely the greatest aviation museum in the world, and possibly the greatest of all the non-art museums in the world.
The crown jewel in this museum (in my opinion) is Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first flyer. This is not a replica, this is the actual plane. The fact that it still exists, and that it exists in such great condition (it had been restored, but still) is amazing!
More aerospace firsts (clockwise from upper left): The Spirit of St Louis, first plane to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic (piloted by Charles Lindbergh); Rutan Voyager, first plane to fly around the world non-stop without refueling; an X-15, first hypersonic (Mach 4+) plane; the Bell X-1, first plane to break the sound barrier (piloted by Chuck Yaeger); SpaceShipOne, first plane to travel to outer space twice within two weeks using 80+% reusable materials (winner of Ansari X prize, precursor to Virgin Galactic); and the MacCready Gossamer Condor, first plane to achieve human powered flight.
In addition to aviation firsts, the Air and Space Museum has a whole host of other airplanes. Here is their WWII collection, complete with (clockwise from upper left) a Spitfire (British), Zero (Japanese), Focke (German), and P-51 Mustang (American).
There were also space exhibits in the Air and Space Museum, and this collection was incredible as well! Here is the actual Apollo 11 capsule that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins used to travel to and from the moon.
More from the space collection, including (clockwise from upper left): a scale mockup of the Hubble Space Telescope (used for feasibility studies), a V-2 rocket (the first large scale rocket ever produced), Lunar Module LM-2 (ground test model of the vehicle that would later land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon), a cool looking thing whose name I can’t remember, a Russian and US spacesuit, and another cool space thing that you can walk into and whose name I can’t remember.
If all this weren’t enough, the Air and Space museum features much more, including a U-2 spyplane, a lunar rover, several unmanned drones, WWI fighters, a 747 cockpit and nosecone, a Space Shuttle engine, communication and spy satellites, and more. Additionally, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles airport contains more aerospace exhibits, those too big to fit in this building at the National Mall. These exhibits include the Space Shuttle Discovery, a Concorde, an SR-71, a B-29 Superfortress, an F-4 Phantom, the Lockheed X-35 (precursor to the F-35), and more. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make it out to these exhibits on our visit.
Next up we visited the Smithsonian Visitor Center, the oldest Smithsonian Building, built to resemble a castle.
The Visitor Center has sample exhibits from each Smithsonian Museum, the best of which was this one from the Natural History Museum. Look at the size of that spider!
And here we are at the actual Natural History Museum. This museum felt rather random and incomplete. There was so much natural history the museum didn’t cover, but what it did cover was amazing.
The crown jewel (literally) of the Natural History Museum was the Hope Diamond. Now, not to get technical, especially because this necklace was amazing, but a necklace is not “natural” history. And neither is the Hope Diamond; the original stone the diamond came from? Yes. But the carved diamond? No. Not sure this belongs in a Natural History Museum, but it definitely belongs in a museum somewhere.
More specimens from the museum’s (not natural) jewelry collection, including a red and pink diamond and a 1000 carat aquamarine.
Precious metals, including gold, silver, copper, fluorite, meteorites, and a whole bunch more. Now this is natural history, more specifically geology, but whatever.
Specimens from the skeleton collection, including: human, gorilla, monkey, bull, sheep, and alligator.
A T-Rex and Triceratops from the skeleton collection. The museum’s dinosaur exhibits were under renovation, so thankfully these were here, otherwise we wouldn’t have seen any dinosaurs at all.
A dodo and some other recently extinct bird.
The Natural History Museum had several other sections, but the only one that spoke to us was the one on marine biology. Here is a baby giant squid, the mouth of an extinct super great white shark (significantly larger than the great whites of today), and some giant and strange prehistoric fish whose name we don’t know.
The last Smithsonian Museum we visited was the American History Museum, which had this spectacular exhibit of the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner. We were not allowed to take pictures of the actual flag, however.
Women’s suffrage wagon, which will be part of the museum’s currently under construction democracy section.
At this point my camera battery died, which means no more photos from the American History Museum. Not that I missed much, this museum still seemed to be discovering what it was and a lot of it felt incomplete and even more was under construction. They did have an amazing currency section though, complete with an actual, legal $100,000 bill. I would have loved to have gotten a picture of that!
There are many more Smithsonian Museums, but the American History Museum was the last one we visited. One thing that struck me with all the museums was how spectacular the exhibits were; they didn’t just have samples, they had the best samples. The best air and space exhibits, the best jewels and rocks and skeletons, the best art in the US (I’m qualifying this last one, but still), and the Star Spangled Banner flag exhibit? I doubt there’s any American history exhibit more powerful than that. I know it isn’t too bold to say this, but the Smithsonian really is one of if not the greatest museums in the world.
By this point, we’d ended our sightseeing in Washington DC. Next up, we continued north, back into Pennsylvania, where we continued the US history tour we started in Virginia. But now it is Civil War time, because up next is Gettysburg!