The Smithsonian Institution bills itself as “the world’s largest museum complex,” and it’s hard to imagine any other contenders. You could spend a good part of a month visiting all of its 18 Washington, D.C.-area attractions, and since they’re all free, you wouldn’t spend a cent (except for transportation, lunch, and of course, printing photos of your trip).
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History alone can keep the kids busy for at least a full day; if you want to cross the street and explore the National Gallery of Art, better tack on two days more. Or hike all the way across the National Mall (a whopping eighth of a mile) to see modern and contemporary art at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Asian art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, or African art at the Museum of African Art. Down the Mall, in the direction of the Capitol, you can check in on the eye-popping collection of planes, jets, and space capsules at the National Air and Space Museum, or learn about the languages, history, and arts of America’s native peoples from the ever-rotating exhibits of the National Museum of the American Indian.
A little farther afield, but still within walking distance, are the Postal Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the American Art Museum, and the Renwick Gallery (devoted to contemporary craft and decorative arts). Much farther afield—out by Dulles Airport, to be exact—you can see the aircraft and space artifacts that can’t fit on the Mall at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
And, of course, no visit to Washington, D.C. would be complete without a trip to the National Zoo, where you can see orangutans swing overhead, birds catch food mid-flight, and seals do tricks for fish.
Hours: Most museums are open daily, 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., every day except Christmas.
Parking: Varies by location.
Metrorail: Most of the Smithsonian museums are located near Metro stops.