It's easy to get lost among the District's plethora of museums. Should you be trolling the impressionist galleries? Finding some outdoor sculpture? Or would spacesuits and dinosaur bones make for a better afternoon?
Operating under the firm conviction that the key to an enjoyable museum experience is to plan a route and not force yourself to see everything, we've drawn up three one-day routes, each of which leads you through a different assortment of museums.
Here you'll find one itinerary designed for the family, one day for history buffs and one route that brings you to four of the city's smaller art museums. In each itinerary, we've mapped out routes, highlighted exhibits of interest and suggested nearby locations for snacking and dining.

-- Ruth McCann
 
 
Art
It's easy to find big, important art museums in D.C., but it's often worthwhile to step off the Mall and away from the familiar galleries. Here, we've traced out a route that visits some of the District's smaller museums, beginning at the Textile Museum and bringing you to photographs by Man Ray, books fashioned from marble and contemporary sculpture by local artists.
 

2320 S St. NW
202-667-0441
Suggested donation: $5
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m.

In this quiet, polished museum just off Embassy Row, examine rugs, turbans, cloths and a Chinese grass raincoat in the "Recent Acquisitions" exhibit, which showcases some of the museum's most exciting new additions (on view on the second level of the Wood building through Jan. 3). On the first level of the Pope building, examine 40 intricate, structurally complex garments in "Contemporary Japanese Fashion: The Mary Baskett Collection," which opens Oct. 17. And on the third floor, peek into the museum's newly renovated library (open Wednesday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday 1-5 p.m.).

In the gift shop on the first floor of the Pope building, sift through a colorful, whimsical array of items that you'd only find in, well, a textile museum gift shop. Peruse handbags, scarves, hats, jewelry and felt slippers from Kyrgyzstan.

Afterward: Enjoy some midmorning tea at Teaism, where you can find a wide-ranging menu featuring hot tea, bubble tea, pastries and Asian fare.
 

1600 21st St. NW
202-387-2151
Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors and students (additional fees apply to special exhibits)
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (till 8:30 on Thursday), Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (Closed July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day)

The Phillips Collection, which opened in 1921 as America's first museum of modern art, frequently rotates the exhibits on view. Opening Oct. 10: "Object as Subject: Photographs of the Czech Avant-Garde," which features 30 works by nine abstract photographers. Also opening Oct. 10: "Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens," which displays photographs of African art taken by Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Cecil Beaton, Walker Evans and other 20th-century photographers. These photos, several of which have not been displayed previously, appear alongside some of the African artworks featured in the photographs.

The museum's concert series begins this month with weekly programs on Sundays at 4 p.m. (ticket price included in admission fee). Every Thursday evening from 5 to 8:30, stop by for music, films and talks (see the Phillips Web site for details).

Afterward: For lunch, try Pizzeria Paradiso, or Mandu (that means "dumpling" in Korean). For a leisurely combination of noshing and book-browsing in Dupont Circle, stop by Kramerbooks & Afterwords.
 

1250 New York Ave. NW
202-783-5000
Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors and students (admission is free on the first Sunday of each month).
Hours: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. (Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day)

Plunging out onto New York Avenue like a boat's prow, the National Museum of Women in the Arts has two new exhibits opening Oct. 9. In "Lands of Enchantment," explore 26 Aboriginal paintings by Australian artists, displayed publicly for the first time. "Telling Secrets" features pieces from the museum's collection that invoke the idea of layering. Explore collage, painting and tricky symbolism in this exhibit of 39 works from 23 female artists.

And at "Hard Copy: Book as Sculpture," see a tiny dictionary encased in a cage, a shoe placed atop a marble book, and other playful sculptural riffs on papery things.

Afterward: Stop by Cafe Mozart, where you'll find a coffee bar, German restaurant and market (complete with nifty German marzipan). Or head farther down 14th Street to the Cafe du Parc, which shares quarters with the lush Willard InterContinental Hotel. On weekends, the Willard hosts afternoon tea from 2:30-5 p.m., complete with live harp music.
 

201 18th St. NW
202-458-6016
Admission: Free
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

This small museum, which inhabits a romantic villalike space complete with a grassy lawn and gazing pool, was once the residence of the secretary of the Organization of American States. Established in 1976, the museum mainly displays work from Latin American and Caribbean artists.

Make your trip here after Oct. 17, when the museum opens for the fall with a new exhibit, "Bilateral Engagement," which combines 19th- and 20th-century sculpture from the museum's permanent collection with recent work by artists from the Washington Sculptors Group.
 
Kids
Your kids will never forgive you if you make them stare at too many Rembrandts. Ensure success on a family museum-visiting day by proceeding leisurely and making frequent stops for rest and a bite to eat.

Here, we've mapped out a family-friendly itinerary for a day of museum-going, taking you from one of the city's best playrooms to espionage central to the Apollo module to a roomful of butterflies. Enjoy, and snack often.
 

401 F St. NW
202-272-2448
$5 donation suggested
Hours: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day)

Start your day in Chinatown at the National Building Museum, where you'll find some of the most hands-on activities available to museum-going kids. Visitors age 2-6 can play with blocks, read books, explore a playhouse and dress up like a construction worker in the museum's first-floor Building Zone.

The Building Zone is busier on weekends and on rainy days, so if you find the Zone crowded, you can pick up a Family Tool Kit for $5, just off the museum's stunning Great Hall. Available for a range of ages (up through age 11), the kits provide interactive, building-related activities and crafts that parents can enjoy, too.

Afterward: Make a stop for mid-morning coffee, cookies and the like at the Firehook Bakery on the museum's first floor, or peruse the gift shop for building-related curios.
 

800 F St. NW
202-393-7798
Admission: $15 for kids 5-11, $17 for seniors, $18 general admission
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.daily (last group of guests admitted at 4 or 5 p.m.; closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day)

It's nearly always crowded, but the International Spy Museum is a family-pleaser, if navigated properly. Prepare to wait in line for a few minutes before you take an elevator to the galleries, which you have to proceed through in a specific order. Most fascinating are the pieces of real-life spy equipment, which you'll see early on. (There are some heavy-duty weapons displayed along the way, so families with young kids might want to skip this part.)

Farther along, you'll find more information-heavy exhibits like "The Secret History of History" (Moses was a spy!) and the USSR-heavy "War of the Spies." The kids might be tired by this point, so feel guiltless as you speed through the last few galleries. You have to exit through the gift shop, so don't be surprised if you end up coming home with an electric-shock lie detector of your very own.

Afterward: If you're ready for lunch, there's a snazzy, grown-up eatery called Zola in the Spy Museum building. For less formal dining, try Ella's Wood-Fired Pizza, or Legal Sea Foods.
 

Independence Avenue and Sixth Street NW
202-633-1000
Admission: Free
Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily (Closed on Christmas)

Touch a moon rock and marvel at the Apollo 11 command module from the first moon mission on the museum's ground floor, where you can also see full-size rockets, Sputnik 1 and Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. Also on the first floor, in Gallery 103, you'll find flight simulators that kids over 4 feet can ride for $8.

On the second floor, check out lunar exploration equipment in the "Apollo to the Moon" exhibit, or sit down for a bit in the Imax theater (accessible on the ground floor), where you can view short space and flight-related films that run from 20 to 40 minutes.

And if you feel in the mood for some retail therapy, Air and Space has the largest Smithsonian museum store, featuring three levels of space and flight-related items, from astronaut flight suits to tiramisu-flavored space ice cream.

Afterward: Head to the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden. There, large sculptures by artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Joan Miro are scattered among foliage, paths, and benches. On Nov. 14, a skating rink opens in the middle of the garden, where you can rent lockers and equipment for an afternoon skate session. To the side of the rink, you'll find the Pavilion Café.
 

10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW
202-633-1000
Admission: Free
Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily (Closed on Christmas)

Finishing up your day at the Natural History Museum is virtually guaranteed to calm any family members who've become ruffled along the way. Spend a moment marveling at the stuffed elephant in the main foyer, and check out the Sant Ocean Hall on the first floor (just head towards the giant whale). And, of course, pay a visit to the dinosaurs and make your way through the Hall of Paleobiology, where you can find life-size models of creatures who roamed the planet eons ago.

On the second level, take a quick peek at the Hope Diamond (there's always a crowd), visit the creepy-crawlies in the Insect Zoo, and mingle with live butterflies in the Butterfly Pavilion. (The Pavilion is encased in glass, so you can easily take a look from outside, too.) Entrance to the Pavilion is $5 for children and members 2-12, $6 for adults, and $5.50 for seniors.

The Natural History Museum also features a ground-floor Discovery Room, where kids can try on costumes and use microscopes to examine fossils. The Discovery Room is open Tuesday-Thursday noon-2:30pm, Friday 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. If the Discovery Room is closed by the time you get there, never fear -- the dinosaur skeletons are pretty cool on their own.
 
History
Go back to school, at your leisure. This day-long, history-focused itinerary takes you to museums where history is the focus, and to museums where the works of art can say as much about history as any textbook.
 

950 Independence Ave. SW
202-633-4600
Admission: Free
Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily (closed on Christmas

In the Paul and Ruth Tishman collection, you'll find 525 works of 19th-century art from central and West Africa that explore a number of artistic approaches to representing the human form. Amassed by the Tishmans over two decades, these pieces were donated to the museum in 2005 by the Walt Disney Co., to whom the Tishmans had given their collection.

Also on view: the museum's permanent collection of 140 African ceramic works and the "Artful Animals" exhibit, a kid-friendly look at representations of the beasts of land and sea.

Afterward: For mid-morning coffee, try the Castle Cafe inside the Smithsonian Castle, just across from the African Art Museum. The sandstone castle is the Smithsonian's oldest building, and it houses the Smithsonian's information center. Get a peek inside while caffeinating at the cappuccino bar (open daily 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.).
 

100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW
202-488-0400
Admission: Free
Hours: Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily (closed on Yom Kippur and Christmas)

The Holocaust Museum, open since 1993, has several exhibits, including "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story" on the first floor. But you might be best served by focusing on the museum's main three-floor exhibition titled "The Holocaust," which begins in 1933 and leads visitors through a comprehensive, compelling collection of photographs, documents, artifacts and video footage documenting the Holocaust and its wide-ranging consequences. The museum estimates that first-time visitors will spend two to three hours in this exhibit.

Afterward: You can find lunch offerings and a kosher menu at the Holocaust Museum cafe (open daily 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.), or venture out to Chef Geoff's, which offers innovative, though slightly expensive, fare. Or try Italian at the less-pricey Aria Trattoria.
 

14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW
202-633-1000
Admission: Free
Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily (closed on Christmas)

Visit Julia Child's legendary kitchen and a collection of novelty American lunchboxes on the first floor, and see Judy Garland's ruby slippers, Kermit the Frog and an ornate dress worn by Celia Cruz on the third floor in the newly renovated "National Treasures of Popular Culture" exhibit. Also on the third floor, trace American soldiers from 1750 through the present in "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War." On the second floor, you can find more than 100 images of local African American life from D.C.'s Scurlock Studio, a prominent photography studio that opened on U Street in 1911.

Afterward: For the child within you: Ride simulators are available at the American History Museum, so you can pretend to drive a race car or ride a roller coaster before hitting the road. How this relates to American history remains unclear, but we'll take it.
 

Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW
202-737-4215
Admission: Free
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday (closed on Christmas and New Year's)

The National Gallery's four cafes all close between 3 and 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, so make coffee or snacks your priority on entering the museum, if you are so inclined. Enjoy views of the National Gallery's Sculpture Garden at the Pavilion Cafe (Monday through Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.), or sip coffee by an indoor waterfall at the Cascade Cafe (Monday through Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.).

The National Gallery houses works by Titian, Rodin, Degas, Goya, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Botticelli and other luminaries, so if you're in the mood to freewheel, just breeze around the second floor with wild abandon and check out "The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain" before it closes Nov. 1. But you can also take a crash course in drawings, prints and the evolving history of art on the ground floor, where three exhibits opened last week.

In "The Darker Side of Light," you'll find more than 100 European works amassed by individual collectors from 1850 through 1900. These prints, illustrated books, sculpture and drawings from personal collections "reveal the romantic sensibilities of the arts of privacy," the gallery says.

Also on the ground floor, "Renaissance to Revolution" displays the gallery's collection of drawings from French master painters, presenting examples of the history of draftsmanship from the 1500s through 1800. And if the urge strikes you, you can wrap up your visit by traveling from the West Building to its East Building via underground walkway.

More: Check out the National Gallery's fall film lineup (202-842-6799), which includes a Brit noir series in late October and November. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Films generally screen in mid- to late afternoon.
 
 
MAP: Mary Kate Cannistra - The Washington Post; WEB EDITOR: Stephanie Merry - washingtonpost.com
© 2008 The Washington Post Company