Think you’ve seen it all on the National Mall? Think again! There is more to see and do than visit the Hope Diamond for the millionth time. Whether you’re a DC native or a tourist who wants to veer off the beaten path, these insider secrets will make your museum visits memorable. Scroll on for our favorite hidden gems on the National Mall—and discover something new.

photo: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum 

National Air & Space

This museum is the most visited in the U.S., and second-most in the world. Don’t let the crowds deter you, though. Instead, head to the lesser-known Phoebe Waterman Haas Observatory, where your tiny stargazer can use a variety of telescopes to view the sun, moon, double planets and more. Plus, the Observatory has evening hours a few times a month for night sky viewing.

National Air and Space Museum
655 Jefferson Drive SW
National Mall
Online: www.airandspace.si.edu

photo: Kara M. via Yelp

National Museum of American History

Whether the main attraction for your munchkins is the gunboat Philadelphia or the flag that inspired “The Star Spangled Banner,” there’s another more modern attraction to stop at first: the lockers by the Constitution Avenue entrance. Only a few museums have lockers, but these are the closest to the soon-to-open National Children’s Museum! Whether you have armloads of souvenirs or just don’t feel like lugging the diaper bag all day, stash your stuff at this museum so you can totally immerse yourself in the exhibits.

National Museum of American History
Constitution Avenue, NW, Between 12th and 14th St.
National Mall
Online: www.americanhistory.si.edu

photo: Jennifer M. via Yelp

National Museum of the American Indian

Rainbows are beautiful, and little ones love them. But without the right weather conditions, finding one can be a tricky. Unless, that is, you head to the National Museum of the American Indian. Between about 11 a.m. and 2 p.m during the summer, when the sun reaches its highest point, its light will hit eight prisms set in a large window in the museum’s atrium and create a gorgeous rainbow on the floor. Though the light passes through the prisms year-round, they are at their most spectacular during the Summer Solstice.

National Museum of the American Indian
Fourth St. & Independence Ave. SW
National Mall
Online: www.americanindian.si.edu

 

photo: Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art

National Museum of Asian Art

If you’ve ever been in the Peacock Room, you know it’s beautiful and filled with incredible art. But what you might not know is that once a month, they open the shutters and let in the sunlight which offers a completely different view of this room. See incredible jewel tones of blue, green, and gold that resemble a strutting peacock’s tail.

National Museum of Asian Art
Jefferson Dr. at 12th St. SW
National Mall
Online: www.asia.si.edu

 

photo: Oleg Didenko

 

National Museum of Natural History

Dinosaurs and gemstones are the main draw here, but budding entomologist won’t want to miss the live tarantula feedings on the second floor (located in the Insect Zoo). Held three times daily, you’ll get a closeup view of a tarantula being fed and get a chance to ask questions about all the creepy crawlies housed in the zoo.

Future bonus: when the new Gilder Center expansion opens (slated for 2022), it will feature a 5,000 square foot insectarium!

National Museum of Natural History
10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW
National Mall
Online: www.naturalhistory.si.edu

photo: Emily Y. via Yelp

National Museum of African American History & Culture

If you’re at the museums, you’ll need a break for lunch eventually. The Sweet Home Café offers tasty dishes by culinary ambassador Carla Hall. You may recognize the name as former co-host of The Chew. Sweet Home Café offers authentic African American cuisine, made from scratch with locally sourced ingredients. Enjoy traditional foods like skillet cornbread, buttermilk fried chicken and pickled green beans. And if you’ve got picky eaters, there’s a core menu with cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and chicken tenders, too. Meals are reasonably priced between $8-18, but seating is on a first-come, first served walk in basis, so make sure you get there early.

National Museum of African American History & Culture
1400 Constitution Ave. NW
National Mall
Online: www.nmaahc.si.edu

photo: Marietta C. via Yelp

American Art Museum

If your little ones are in need of some peace and quiet, head to the renovated courtyard of the Old Patent Office Building. This courtyard is between two museums, the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. It has a glass and steel roof;  people gravitate to this hushed space for a quiet lunch or just a moment to themselves. It’s often described as a place to feel alone in a crowd. It’s the perfect sanctuary to give an overwhelmed kiddo a few minutes to chill without having to head home or back to the hotel.

American Art Museum
8th and F Streets, NW
Online: www.americanart.si.edu

photo: Smithsonian Gardens

Smithsonian Castle

Many people start their museum journey at the Smithsonian Castle’s visitor center to plan their outing and take a peek at the collections. And many know about the Enid A. Haupt Garden tucked away behind the castle, but what they don’t know is that there’s a garden within the garden. Getting to the secret Moongate Garden requires going through one of two tall, pink granite “moongates” which resemble keyholes. Pass through the keyhole and enter another world filled with peace and tranquility. It’s the perfect way to start or finish your museum day with a little zen.

Smithsonian Castle
1000 Jefferson Dr. SW
National Mall
Online: www.si.edu

photo: Austin G. via Yelp

Hirshhorn Museum

The Hirshhorn is a donut-shaped museum known for contemporary art and culture and offers a national platform for current-day art and artists. Most of its windows face the inside of the donut, but there is one outward facing window and boy, and it’s a good one! Check out the incredible view of DC with nothing to distract from the vista but ome black rectangles painted in ink on the walls (conceptual art by Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo). Leather couches offer a cozy place to rest while your mini museum-goer points out the National Museum of Natural History, the National Archives and the National Gallery of Art.

Bonus: the Hirshhorn is also the perfect place for your little dance-lover to take in their first ballet performance. The Washington Ballet frequently offers free performances.

Hirshhorn Museum
Independence Ave. at 7th St. SW
National Mall
Online: www.hirshhorn.si.edu

photo: Antoineta M. via Yelp

National Museum of African Art

If you’re planning to navigate your day at the museums by looking at the buildings, you might miss out on the National Museum of African Art. There’s only a tiny portion of this museum visible to help you find the underground museum directly across from the Sackler Gallery entrance. It’s worth hunting for this secretive museum, though, because the art is outstanding. And, if it’s a particularly hot and muggy DC day, it’s also one of the coolest spots on the Mall. Because of its underground nature, you’ll find it a few degrees cooler than other museums. On the flip side,  if your little ones often complain of being cold, you may want to bring some sweaters or jackets to layer.

—Wendy Miller

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featured photo: iStock

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