Washington sightseeing guide: Museums, galleries, monuments and memorials


The Hirshhorn Museum will be illuminated with colors and moving images during Doug Aitken’s “Song 1” exhibition through May 13. (Hirshhorn)
March 8, 2012

The visitors are still here! The visitors are still here! If last week’s sightseeing guide didn’t give you enough of a game plan to keep Uncle Fred and kin off the couch, this week’s installment should do the trick: We’ve got the details on the area’s museums, monuments and memorials. Check out goingoutguide.com for other ideas, too, including the presidential and political tourist sites we featured here a week ago, as well as great spots for food and drink. And — who knows? — maybe the Going Out Gurus will steer you to a great Italian restaurant and Uncle Fred will finally pick up the check.

If we left out any of your favorites — which is certainly possible in a town as rich with history and culture as ours — let us know at goingoutguide@washingtonpost.com.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing

You might never again see so much money in one place, but don’t expect to get your hands on the real dough; you watch the whole operation from windows above the production floor.

Have a plan: During the peak visiting months (March-August) free tickets for the 40-minute tour are required, but you can’t get them in advance. They are distributed at the ticket booth on a first-come, first-served basis (four per person), and if you aren’t in line by 6:30 or 7 a.m., you will probably be out of luck. The ticket booth opens at 8 a.m., and tours run every 15 minutes starting at 9 a.m. (closing time varies according to the season). In off-peak months (September-February), no tickets are required, and the line forms at the 14th Street visitor entrance.

Insider tip: If you visit during off-peak months, you might even get a tour all to yourself, but if you don’t want to take any chances during peak months, request a tour through your senator’s or representative’s office. To find your representative, go to www.house.gov and enter your Zip code, or go to www.senate.gov and enter your state under “Find Your Senators.”

What’s in the neighborhood: Want to do a little more sightseeing and get a meal as well? Check out the Southwest Waterfront (Seventh Street and Maine Avenue SW), where you’ll find vendors hawking fresh fish and crabs. Then pop in one of the fish shacks and settle in for a tasty lunch or dinner.

Info: 14th and C streets SW. 202-874-2330. www.moneyfactory.gov.

COST: Free.

Transit: Smithsonian Metro station.

Corcoran Gallery of Art

The Corcoran is noteworthy for the diversity of its offerings — from photography, one of its core strengths, to the gilded Salon Dore, a celebration of 18th-century French excess.

Have a plan: Get out your wallet: This is one of the few museums in town that charges admission. (Also, it’s closed Mondays and Tuesdays.) You can buy tickets up to six weeks in advance (with a $2.75 convenience charge) by calling 800-745-3000 or online via Ticketmaster. Once you’re there, drop by the gallery’s atrium for tours Wednesday-Sunday at noon, Thursday at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Insider tip: Sign up for a 90-minute family workshop the third Saturday of the month. Upcoming classes include “Painting the Sun” (May 19) and “Seeing the Sea” (June 16). There are only 15 spots per class, so booking two weeks in advance is encouraged.

WHAT’S IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Sip a cocktail and take in the city’s sights from the roof terrace of the W Hotel (515 15th St. NW, reservations recommended).

Info: 500 17th St. NW. 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org. Open Wednesday-Sunday. Hours vary.

Cost: $10, $8 students and seniors, free for age 12 and younger.

Transit: Farragut North or Farragut West Metro stations.

Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture

Two museums are housed here: the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, both of which offer an eclectic look at noteworthy American art and notable Americans.

Have a plan: You may get double the pleasure, but expect double the crowds. The busiest months are March, April, July and August. Tours begin in the F Street lobby at 12:30 and 2 p.m. (Note: there are no tours on the second Tuesday of the month.) Scavenger hunts and self-guided tours are also available.

Insider tip: Every third Thursday, the American Art Museum hosts a free Take Five! event in the expansive Kogod Courtyard from 5 to 7 p.m., featuring live music and drink specials (from 5 to 8 p.m. March-August).

What’s in the neighborhood: Indulge in contemporary Mediterranean eats around the corner at Zaytinya (701 Ninth St. NW), or satisfy your sweet tooth at Fro­zenyo (1006 F St. NW).

Info: Eighth and F streets NW. 202-633-1000. www.americanart.si.edu. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closed Christmas).

Cost: Free.

Transit: Gallery Place or Metro Center Metro stations.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

This museum is for lovers of modern and contemporary art. From its distinctive doughnut shape to its commitment to video art, the Hirshhorn is a change of pace from traditional sites.

Have a plan: Stop by the lobby’s information desk between noon and 4 p.m. for a spur-of-the-moment 30-minute tour. More planning is required for the museum’s popular Hirshhorn: After Hours events, which feature tours and live music, art performances and cocktails outside on the plaza about three times a year. The $25 tickets are available a month in advance and sell out quickly. The next one is this summer, but the date hasn’t been announced.

Insider tip: One of the most intriguing exhibits at the museum this spring won’t take place within its walls — and that’s the point. Every night from March 22 through May 13, artist Doug Aitken will use 11 high-definition projectors to cast colors and moving images as a sheath of “liquid architecture” onto the building’s exterior. Observers won’t be able to fully absorb the work without walking the museum’s perimeter.

What’s in the neighborhood: Continue the of-the-moment theme by heading to Hill Country Barbecue Market for an authentic Texas experience in the heart of D.C. (410 Seventh St. NW).

Info: Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. 202-633-1000. www.hirshhorn.si.edu. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; the Sculpture Garden from 7:30 a.m. to dusk (closed Christmas).

Cost: Free.

Transit: Smithsonian or L’Enfant Plaza Metro stations.

International Spy Museum

This tantalizing destination featuring true-life tales of espionage is a worthy mission, but it does come at a price.

Have a plan: You can buy tickets in advance, but entry is timed and the entrance lines can be long, especially in March through mid-August. Think you have what it takes to nab a terrorist? Get an additional ticket ($15, only age 12 and older) for Operation Spy (www.spymuseum.org/experiences/operation-spy), an hour-long virtual scenario in which you decipher clues to catch bad guys.

Insider tip: Soak in the spy experience while downing a martini or two at the after-hours Spy at Night event ($20; www.spymuseum.org/experiences/spy-night ). Held on the second Friday of the month from 6 to 11 p.m., the themed evening (April’s is all things ninja) features one free signature drink, top-secret challenges and spy demonstrations (bring cash for additional drinks).

What’s in the neighborhood: Keep the inquisitive mind-set going by signing up for a cooking class at Zola Wine & Kitchen (505 Ninth St. NW).

Info: 800 F St. NW. 202-393-7798. www.spymuseum.org. Hours vary, particularly on holidays.

Cost: $19.95 adults, $14.95 seniors, $13.95 ages 7 to 17, free for age 6 and younger.

Transit: Gallery Place Metro station.

National Air and Space Museum

Come for the big attractions; stick around to explore the lesser-known ones.

Have a plan: If you’re visiting during peak tourist season (April-September, November-December), buy tickets online up to two weeks in advance to see shows at the museum’s Lockheed Martin Imax Theater and Einstein Planetarium (www.nasm.si.edu/visit/concessions/tickets.cfm). And if you’d like extra insight into the exhibits, 90-minute tours start daily at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the welcome desk (groups of 20 or more should make reservations).

Insider tip: It’s easy to get caught up in the big attractions such as the 1903 Wright Flyer, but museum associate director Peter Jakab is quick to point out a rare find nearby. “There are only five existing Wright brothers-built bicycles in the world, and one of them is on display right next to the airplane,” he says. And don’t overlook the item in the Milestones of Flight gallery that looks like a waffle iron — it’s the Stardust Capsule, which flew through a comet. “What makes it special is it’s the first time a spacecraft was returned to the Earth with comet material for scientists to analyze,” Jakab says.

What’s in the neighborhood: Iron Horse Tap Room (507 Seventh St. NW) boasts skee-ball, big-screen TVs and 20 beers on tap; need we say more?

Info: Independence Avenue and Sixth Street SW. 202-633-2214. www.nasm.si.edu. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Christmas).

Cost: Free.

Transit: Smithsonian or L’Enfant Plaza Metro stations.

National Gallery of Art

Count on seeing a bit of everything in this grand museum, which consists of two buildings (the East and West buildings) and a sculpture garden. The West Building features more traditional art (the Old Masters and the newly renovated 19th-century French Galleries, etc.), while the East Building focuses on more modern and contemporary art (Calder, Dubuffet, etc.).

Have a plan: Avoid being overwhelmed by the artistic options by signing up for one of the museum’s many guided tours (www.nga.gov/programs/tours). If you prefer to explore the permanent collection at your own pace, snag a free adult or children’s audio tour at the Acoustiguide desk in the rotunda on the main floor of the West Building. (Note: Audio tours for special exhibitions are available at the exhibition’s entrance for $5.)

Insider tip: The museum offers frequent free concerts, often in the West Building’s courtyard gardens (www.nga.gov/programs/music). And if you’re in town during the summer, don’t miss the museum’s Jazz in the Garden series every Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. (in the Sculpture Garden on Constitution Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets.) Bring a blanket and head there early, otherwise you might get stuck sitting under a low branched tree or waiting in a long line for your pitcher of sangria.

What’s in the neighborhood: Choose from 70-plus tapas at Jaleo (480 Seventh St. NW), or call ahead and reserve a bowling lane at the hip and happening Lucky Strike (701 Seventh St. NW).

Info: Constitution Avenue between Third and Ninth streets NW. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov/ginfo. Open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Christmas and New Year’s Day).

Cost: Free.

Transit: Smithsonian, Archives-Navy Memorial or Judiciary Square Metro stations.

National Museum of American History

This site is home to a broad mix of American treasures — from the first ladies’ gowns to Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

Have a plan: Before your visit, download one of the three self-guided tour PDFs at www.
americanhistory.si.edu/visiting
; one of them incorporates the story of American Girl doll Addy Walker. And take note, the museum’s west wing is being renovated, and some exhibitions, such as the replica of Julia Child’s kitchen, will be closed until late summer. Check the Web site for updated information.

Insider tip: Interested in all things money? Make an appointment to visit the museum’s National Numismatic Collection of more than 1 million objects, including Russian beard tokens and a Connecticut note dating to 1776 (e-mail numismatics@si.edu).

What’s in the neighborhood: It’s a bit of a walk, but if you want more Americana, take in a play at Ford’s Theatre; the Tony-winning musical “1776” is onstage through May 19 (511 10th St. NW).

Info: Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th streets NW. 202-633-1000. www.americanhistory.si.edu.

Cost: Free.

Transit: Federal Triangle or Smithsonian Metro stations.

National Museum of the American Indian

The Smithsonian’s newest museum celebrates Native American cultures from North and South America.

Have a plan: Get a taste of what the museum offers by checking out the exhibition “A Song for the Horse Nation: Horses in Native American Cultures” online at americanindian.si.edu/exhibitions/horsenation. Also, come with an appetite: The museum’s Mitsitam Cafe is a gem, featuring flavors from a variety of indigenous cultures. Buffalo chili, anyone?

Insider tip: Enjoy family time at the museum’s Imaginations Activity Center, where you can participate in such hands-on activities as how to build an igloo.

What’s in the neighborhood: Stroll across the street to the Voice of America headquarters (330 Independence Ave. SW) for a free 45-minute studio tour (Monday-Friday at noon and 3 p.m.). And if you have room after that chili, duck into Teaism (400 Eighth St. NW) for a warm brew and salted oatmeal cookies.

Info: Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202-633-1000. www.nmai.si.edu. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Christmas).

Cost: Free.

Transit: L’Enfant Plaza Metro station.

National Museum of Crime & Punishment

With such exhibits as J. Edgar Hoover’s revolver and Pancho Villa’s death mask, dare we say that missing this spot would be a real, uh, crime?

Have a plan: Purchase tickets at least a week in advance if you’re visiting in April through August, the museum’s busiest months. For insider scoops, sign up for an audio tour. Another good idea: Visit the set of the television show “America’s Most Wanted,” which has been filmed at the museum since it opened in 2008. A 45-minute guided tour is Saturdays at noon (www.crimemuseum.org/behind_the_scenes.html; $10 with admission, $12 without).

Insider tip: See if you’ve got what it takes to be a forensic investigator, and sign up in advance for the museum’s CSI Lab Workshops. The hour-long sessions, which are usually on Saturdays and Sundays, cover such topics as DNA and body decomposition (www.crime
museum.org/CSI_Lab_Workshops.html
; $5 with admission).

What’s in the neighborhood: Knock back a brew at District ChopHouse & Brewery (509 Seventh St. NW), and if you’re in the mood for more tragedy, take in a play at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre (450 Seventh St. NW).

Info: 575 Seventh St. NW. 202-393-1099. www.crimemuseum.org. Hours vary.

Cost: Adults $18.95 in advance, $19.95 at the door; seniors, military and law enforcement (ID required) $14.95 in advance, $16.95 at the door; children $15.95, free for age 4 and younger.

Transit: Gallery Place Metro station.

National Museum of Natural History

Whether you want to see the jaw-dropping Hope Diamond or the towering Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, this Smithsonian museum is sure to dazzle.

Have a plan: Expect to find lots of fellow explorers here, so have a game plan before you visit by checking out the museum’s virtual tour at www.mnh.si.edu/panoramas.

Tips from an insider: For an immersive and magical experience, head to the Butterfly Pavilion on the second floor ($6 adults, $5 children, free on Tuesdays), where more than 300 butterflies flutter by. Up to 40 guests can enter at a time in 15-minute intervals; the least crowded day is Wednesday. “They’ll land on a flower or a piece of rotting fruit to feed, and the visitor can actually get really close to it,” says pavilion manager Nate Erwin. “When the butterflies are feeding they’re preoccupied and they don’t mind visitors getting really close.”

What’s in the neighborhood: Don’t miss the lobster burger at Central Michel Richard, whether you’re picking up lunch-to-go or sitting down for a late meal (1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; dinner reservations recommended).

Info: 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-633-1000. www.mnh.si.edu. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Christmas). From March 17 to Labor Day, hours are extended to 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Transit: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle and Archives-Navy Memorial Metro stations.

Newseum

Opened in 2008, this high-tech museum offers interactive displays on the news business.

Have a plan: Tickets are good for admission on two consecutive days, and a 10 percent discount is available when you purchase them online. The Newseum’s seven floors can be a bit intimidating, so scout it out before you visit in a virtual tour at www.
newseum.org/virtual-tour
. Just walking the 11 / 2 linear miles of exhibits takes nearly two hours, and that’s without really stopping to linger over much.

Insider tip: On April 27, the Newseum will open a new permanent exhibit, “HP New Media Gallery,” about how new media — think your iPhone and Facebook — have changed how we get our news. Particularly intriguing are the touch-pad tables where you can create your own digital front page. Also, be sure to step out on the Pennsylvania Avenue Terrace for a grand view of the Capitol.

What’s in the neighborhood: Head next door to Wolfgang Puck’s the Source (575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW) for kobe beef short ribs.

Info: 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 888-639-7386. www.newseum.org. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day).

Cost: $22 adults, $18 age 65 and older, $13 ages 7 to 18, free for age 6 and younger.

Transit: Archives-Navy Memorial Metro station.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

This museum honors the victims of one of mankind’s worst atrocities. Opened in 1993, it is one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.

Have a plan: In the high season of March to August, tickets, while free, are required to view the permanent exhibition. These timed passes (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) are available the day of your visit or online in advance for a $1 fee. Your best bet is to get them online to avoid a long wait. You may enter the museum at the time on your pass or anytime after for the rest of the day. (Note: The three-story permanent exhibition is not appropriate for children younger than 11.)

Insider tip: The room of 4,000 shoes taken from Holocaust death camps is considered the most poignant part of the permanent exhibit, but take the time to see smaller artifacts. Permanent exhibit curator Steve Luckert particularly admires the milk jugs that were buried in the Warsaw ghetto between 1942 and 1943. When they were uncovered in 1946, they contained drawings and anecdotes about what had happened to those who suffered there. “It shows the resistance that went on,” Luckert says. “Even if people didn’t survive, they wanted future generations to know what they experienced and went through.”

What’s in the neighborhood: A short walk from the museum is the Tidal Basin, where you can rent paddle boats (1501 Maine Ave. SW). As far as food options go, there’s not much in the neighborhood (the museum does have a cafe), but if you’re visiting on a Friday in June to mid-November, consider walking down Independence Avenue to the farmers market at 12th Street (across from the Smithsonian Metro station) for a healthful treat.

Info: 100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW. 202-488-0400. www.ushmm.org. Hours vary.

Cost: Free.

Transit: Smithsonian Metro station.

Update March 16, 2012: A section on the National Archives was added to this story.

National Archives and Records Administration

The nation’s founding documents are on display here, along with other primary sources from our country’s history.

Have a plan:

Tourists flock to the Archives for a glimpse of the Charters of Freedom, a.k.a. the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, so don’t leave this visit to chance. To avoid being one of those frustrated-looking folks waiting in an hour-long general admission line at Ninth Street and Constitution Avenue, make a reservation for a guided tour or a timed-entry ticket by phone or online (877-444-6777, www.archives.gov/nae/visit/reserved-visits.html) up to six months in advance (a $1.50 surcharge applies to each ticket). That way you’ll be able to enter through the special events door at Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue (you must arrive 10 minutes early for security screening).

The Archives also is home to a wealth of other information, which you can even start exploring before your visit at www.digitalvaults.org.

Insider tip: Marvin Pinkert, director of the National Archives Experience, strongly recommends taking time to explore the public vaults to the left and right of the building’s rotunda, where original documents are rotated in six-month increments. One of his favorites, which is on display through August, is a July 16, 1792, from George Washington in which he complains about being tired of sitting for portraits. “Even after he writes this letter, the request came from a fellow Mason [William Joseph Williams], so he felt obliged to sit for the portrait,” Pinkert says. “Then we have an image of the portrait. If you wanted to see someone who looked like they never wanted to sit for a portrait again, you’ve got to see this image.”

What’s in the neighborhood: Plan ahead and check out the Verizon Center schedule (601 F St. NW, www.verizoncenter.com) for an athletic event or concert.

Info: Constitution Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW. 202-357-5000, www.archives.gov/nae.

HOURS: Daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (10 a.m. to 7 p.m. from mid-March through Labor Day; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas).

Cost: Free.

Transit: Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter Metro station.

Coronado is a freelance writer.

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