Visitors to Washington often have the same activity on their agendas: touring the free museums around the Mall. They usually don’t realize how big of a task that can be. This list takes the stress out of planning for tourists and locals, helping both navigate the artworks, artifacts and places at this hub of major museums. Some items may seem obvious, but others may be surprising — and even entice longtime residents to make just one more trip to the nation’s front lawn.

Freer and Sackler Galleries

12th Street and Jefferson Drive SW; 1050 Independence Ave. SW.

Thomas Simonetti/The Washington Post

Tibetan Buddhist shrine room

When museums put golden statues of the Buddha or mandalas on display, it’s usually as a beautiful, intricate work of art removed from its religious context. That’s what makes the Tibetan Buddhist shrine room at the Sackler unique. The room is filled with more than 200 objects, set among flickering candlelight and the sounds of chanting, that date as far back as the 13th century and were collected from multiple counties. The lack of labels and explanatory texts makes visitors feel as if they’d wandered into a temple thousands of miles away, encouraging them to slow down and immerse themselves in what they see and hear.

— Fritz Hahn

Freer|Sackler

Peacock Room

Can a room be a work of art? Not its decor, nor its paintings or paraphernalia, but the entirety of the space itself? Step inside the Peacock Room, and you’ll be convinced. Once the dining room of a London shipping magnate, it was redesigned by American artist James McNeill Whistler in 1876. The magnate hated it, and in 1904, he sold it to Charles Lang Freer, who reassembled it in the States, bedecking it with ceramics from Iran, Japan, China, Syria and Korea. The Peacock Room eventually moved to Freer’s namesake museum, where its blend of pieces from various countries and eras reflects his unconventional belief that “all works of art go together, whatever their period.” On the third Thursday of each month, its shutters are opened and light pours in to illuminate Whistler’s vision to create a dazzling “harmony in blue and gold.”

— Michael Gaynor

National Air and Space Museum

600 Independence Ave. SW.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

The Spirit of St. Louis

Before Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo flight between New York and Paris in 1927, airplanes were largely utilitarian machines used to wage war or deliver mail. Only one airfield in the country had a passenger terminal. Then came “Lucky Lindy,” whose feats were breathlessly reported on both sides of the Atlantic, capturing the imaginations of millions in the heady days of the Roaring ’20s. Lindbergh became a pop-culture icon and flew his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, on a goodwill tour to every state and Latin America, making it the most famous aircraft in the world. Aviation would never be the same.

— Fritz Hahn

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

The Wright Flyer

It looks flimsy at ground level: the thin wooden struts stretched between two rows of muslin-covered wings; the rinky-dink engine; the pilot lying exposed on his stomach, his nose over the tip of what could be generously considered the “body” of the aircraft. And yet this is an aircraft. Orville Wright’s first flight lasted only 12 seconds, and looking at the 1903 Wright Flyer, you wonder what’s more amazing: that it even got off the ground, or that a few decades later, we’d enter the jet age.

— Fritz Hahn

Eric Long/Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Lunar module LM-2 and the moon rock

The lunar module was designed for the most important stage of the Apollo programs: carrying astronauts from orbit to the moon’s surface and back. This display is a bit of a fantasy. Built for a test flight that never took place, it’s here so we can imagine what happened on the moon. After all, none of the lunar modules returned from space. Nearby, though, is an actual piece of the moon — brought back by the Apollo 17 astronauts to create a display that generations of curious children could touch, inspiring them to dream of someday picking up their own moon rock.

— Fritz Hahn

U.S. Botanic Garden

100 Maryland Ave. SW.

The Tropics

Where the Mall meets the Capitol Grounds, the U.S. Botanic Garden sits as an unexpected retreat. The 1930s conservatory, reopened after a major restoration in 2001, contains garden rooms under glass of various habitats. The most impressive is the central display under the 93-foot-high conservatory dome. Here, a rain forest named the Tropics unfolds in all its layers and plant diversity in a landscape of 800 species. From an elevated mezzanine, visitors can view the tops of dominant trees such as the sugar palm, the rubber tree and the elephant apple. Below, big, leafy plants occupy the forest floor. Other plants perch on branches. Who knew that discovery could be so relaxing?

— Adrian Higgins

National Museum of African American History and Culture

1400 Constitution Ave. NW.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture/Visual Art and the American Experience exhibition © Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald’s ‘Grand Dame Queenie’

Early this year, Amy Sherald’s painting of former first lady Michelle Obama was unveiled, and it has since attracted unprecedented crowds at the National Portrait Gallery. In “Grand Dame Queenie,” at the African American Museum, one finds the touchstones of Sherald’s artistry: bold colors and patterns, a powerful psychological presence contrasted with a flat background, and skin tones rendered in the grayscale of black-and-white photography, referencing the only portrait medium regularly available to African Americans through much of their history in this country. A bonus: The painting hangs in the small and lightly trafficked art gallery, a welcome refuge from the crowds that throng one of the city’s busiest museums.

— Philip Kennicott

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture/Gift of Charles L. Blockson

Harriet Tubman’s shawl

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture/Gift of Charles L. Blockson

The underground galleries at the African American Museum explore hundreds of years of history through dozens and dozens of objects and exhibits in just its first few hallways. An important focal point is the shawl of Underground Railroad conductor and freedom activist Harriet Tubman. Born a slave in Dorchester County, Md., she escaped to the North in 1849 and would go on to help more than 300 others do the same. In 1897, England’s Queen Victoria sent Tubman this silk lace shawl (along with a medal and a cash stipend) as a mark of her admiration. The garment seemingly glows from within its tall glass case, an inspiring beacon amid the somber stories surrounding it.

— Michael Gaynor

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Muhammad Ali’s robe

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

An icon not just of boxing but also of civil rights, Muhammad Ali staked out his role in the struggle for equality by opposing the Vietnam War. (It was crystallized in his subsequent draft-evasion conviction and loss of his world championship title.) His exhibition at the African American Museum features fight posters, a video installation and a gym’s worth of his equipment: gloves, headgear, a duct-taped punching bag. But it’s his fraying, worn terry-cloth robe right in front that grabs the eye first, and you can almost see it hanging off the legend during training sessions at Miami Beach’s fabled Fifth Street Gym.

— Michael Gaynor

Emmett Till’s casket

No photos are allowed of Emmett Till’s casket. But photos tell the tale. Before visitors can see Till’s casket, they must pass images reminding them of just who Till was: a child. In 1955, the 14-year-old was snatched from his bed by two men and brutally killed for whistling at a white woman in the South. His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, demanded an open casket so there was no mistaking, she said, “what had happened to Emmett Till” — a pivotal act in the civil rights movement, as tens of thousands came to gaze upon the boy’s battered body. A final photo of what they saw lies inside the casket; visitors stand on their toes to see, but they leave like those mourners — touched and enraged at the injustice.

— Lavanya Ramanathan

Hirshhorn Museum

Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW.

Ron Mueck’s ‘Untitled (Big Man)’

It’s not easy being big. Where do you fit? Ron Mueck, the Australian sculptor who makes hyperreal human figures at wildly different scales, is expert at conveying the discomfit, the deep-down oddity of occupying a body. Employed for years in special effects and modelmaking, he turned to art in the 1990s and quickly hit the big time. Huddled in a corner, disgraced, resentful, vulnerable, his “Big Man” has the power to shock and accuse every time you see him.

— Sebastian Smee

Cathy Carver/Mark Bradford and Hauser & Wirth

Mark Bradford’s ‘Pickett’s Charge’

Eight paintings, each about four feet long, wrap around the Hirshhorn’s third-level inner circle. Only, they’re not paintings: Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford layers colored paper over rope and more paper, ripping, tearing and grinding away at their surfaces. The effects — astonishingly beautiful in abstract terms — are loaded with fugitive political meanings. For this woolly mammoth of a work, on display until 2021, Bradford layered a billboard-scale print of Paul Philippoteaux’s 1883 panoramic painting, “The Battle of Gettysburg,” with reams of crushed and shredded paper. The rest, you could say, is history — obscured, veiled and glimpsed through gorgeous anarchy.

— Sebastian Smee

Thomas Simonetti/The Washington Post

Jimmie Durham’s ‘Still Life With Spirit and Xitle’

It’s pretty much impossible to visit the Hirshhorn without seeing Jimmie Durham’s “Still Life With Spirit and Xitle.” The curious word “Xitle” refers to a volcano in Mexico that contributed to the ruin of an ancient city sometime early in the first millennium. The sculpture consists of a large boulder sitting atop a well-crushed 1992 Chrysler Spirit, as if the old volcano has just heaved out another giant rock. A rather crudely painted face makes the rock look a bit like a prima donna down on her luck. But this is Washington, and any reference to apocalyptic events takes on a political edge. Is this a comment on the decline of American industry? Or is it just gloriously bad luck for whoever left this car parked at the Hirshhorn?

— Philip Kennicott

National Archives

700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Jeffrey Reed

The Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence

The country’s founding documents have seen better days. The National Archives rotunda where they sit is dim and chilly, for conservation reasons, and visitors shuffling past the displays can see why — the parchments are faded and hardly legible. Yet their fragility makes the experience even more awe-inspiring: Unlike the ink they’re written in, the words on these pages have withstood the test of time. What visitors see are not just artifacts, but also a set of principles and ideals that, like the parchment they’re written on, require our careful attention to preserve.

— Michael Gaynor

National Museum of African Art

950 Independence Ave. SW.

Franko Khoury/National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Romuald Hazoumè’s ‘Rainbow Serpent’

Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumè’s monumental sculpture of a snake eating its tail was fashioned from recycled and flattened steel jerry cans, used to smuggle crude oil from Nigeria to Benin by bicycle. More than 12 feet tall, the snake functions both as a critique of current environmental and economic issues and a nod to the ancient tradition of African maskmaking, several examples of which you will find elsewhere in this museum. Like those other masks — which can represent the spirits of ancestors, mythological beings or gods — Hazoumè’s sculpture includes cans that have been painted by their original owners in bright colors to represent orishas, or local deities.

— Michael O’Sullivan

Brad Simpson/National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Display of gourd bowls

Brad Simpson/National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

This dramatic display of gourd bowls, decorated with traditional pyroengraving by women in Nigeria and Chad using the heated blade of a knife, is a reminder of two things. One: Like many of the costumes, instruments, furniture and other functional objects on display throughout this museum — most of which are made to be worn, played, carried or sat on — these bowls were designed to be both useful and beautiful. And two: In a world where there is still a gender imbalance in most major museums, this striking wall of artwork serves notice that Africa’s female artists are just as deserving of the spotlight as the male ones.

— Michael O’Sullivan

Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund National Gallery of Art, Washington © 2018 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)’

One of the most beautiful paintings Pollock ever made, “Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)” combines the proximate frenzy of an energetic orgy with the cold indifference of a distant galaxy. But isn’t it really just wallpaper? Sure, if you insist. The arguments around Pollock will never be settled. But admire, if you will, the subtle color harmonies: tan and turquoise against black, white and gray. And marvel, too, at the sheer, unbridled impudence of Pollock’s famous “drip painting” method, still, in 1950 — only a few years after his original breakthrough — fresh and radiant in the hands of the ferocious young painter.

— Sebastian Smee

Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund/National Gallery of Art

Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Ginevra de’ Benci’

Humorless and unforgiving where the Mona Lisa is alive with mischief, porcelain pale where she is yellowing and penumbral, Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci can feel like a severe stepsister to the world’s most famous painting. But don’t worry. You quickly warm to her. Those curled bangs help. So does the spiky juniper bush (a symbol of virtue) behind her head. Ginevra de’ Benci’s father and grandfather both worked for the Medici bank. Lorenzo Medici wrote sonnets for her. And then — no biggie — Leonardo painted her. It’s the only publicly displayed painting by him in America.

— Sebastian Smee

Widener Collection/National Gallery of Art

Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Woman Holding a Balance’

“Woman Holding a Balance” is one of the two paintings confidently attributed to Vermeer at the National Gallery of Art, and also one of the most evocative of his paintings. All the things that viewers have come to love in this artist — the mastery of light, the refined depiction of textures and fabrics, the poetic sense of solitude and self-involvement of his female figures — are there in abundance. But there’s an added drama in the balance and the dramatic rendering of the Last Judgment. Together, we see both an earthly scene, perhaps the mistress of the house tending to the family fortune, and a celestial one, Christ sorting the damned from the blessed. The implied message is simple: It’s never a bad time to weigh your own conscience and make amends.

— Philip Kennicott

Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pablo Picasso’s ‘Family of Saltimbanques’

This large painting, measuring more than 49 square feet, is one of the most important canvases of Picasso’s early years, and an icon of his “rose” period. It brings together various themes and characters Picasso had been exploring in 1904 and 1905 in one terrifying study in melancholy and social isolation. The title refers to street performers, with the Harlequin figure in red-and-blue motley perhaps a stand-in for Picasso himself — his back to the viewer, neither a part of nor separate from the isolated figures seen in a desolate landscape. This painting is a haunting and perennial puzzle, with the relationships among its figures a persistent mystery.

— Philip Kennicott

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW.

Shoes

While strolling the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s harrowing halls, the most noise you might hear are whispers or the drone of a video presentation. But once you turn the corner into the display of shoes, silence takes over. Stacked on both sides of this short hallway are 4,000 discolored, broken pieces of footwear confiscated from prisoners of Majdanek, a Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland. The scale is heart-stopping, but what makes “Shoes” regarded as one of the city’s most powerful museum displays comes from a closer look: Among the piles are high heels, sandals, even baby shoes — distinctions that remind visitors that people of all ages and backgrounds were caught in one of humanity’s greatest horrors.

— Michael Gaynor

Thomas Simonetti/The Washington Post

The Hall of Remembrance

A striking sight awaits visitors at the conclusion of a tour through the Holocaust Museum’s permanent exhibition. After wading through dim, crowded hallways depicting the rise of Nazism and the unfathomable cruelty that followed, the darkness ends in a setting unlike any before it: the Hall of Remembrance, a bright, almost ethereal space scented with the gentle aroma of candles. The memorial space — featuring walls inscribed with the names of concentration camps — offers visitors a place to sit down, light a candle and reflect on what they’ve just witnessed in the hopes that they’ll never forget it.

— Michael Gaynor

National Museum of American History

1300 Constitution Ave. NW.

National Museum of American History

The Star-Spangled Banner

This flag is an example of early American swag: The commander of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, expecting an attack by the British Navy, asked “to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” A local seamstress provided one measuring 30 feet high and 42 feet long. When the city triumphed, the flag, still flying in the morning, became a potent symbol of American bravery, later inspiring our national anthem. Now displayed in a special two-story-high case after sustaining damage through the years, the flag will be seen by future generations for decades.

— Fritz Hahn

National Museum of American History

Abraham Lincoln’s top hat

National Museum of American History

No one knows when Abraham Lincoln wore his first hat, but this was his last one: It was found on the floor of Ford’s Theatre after his assassination. At 6-foot-4, Lincoln was our tallest president, and his hat added an additional seven or eight inches to his height. It was a simple silk stovepipe piece, size 7 ⅛, adorned with a three-inch-high silk mourning band, which Lincoln wore in memory of his son Willie. As a reminder of that night, and what our country could have been, it has become a powerful national symbol.

— Fritz Hahn

National Museum of American History

Julia Child’s kitchen

It’s easy to forget that, 50 years ago, state-of-the-art cooking included microwaves and TV dinners. How did we fall in love with real food again? Thank Julia Child, who demystified the art of classic French cooking on her landmark TV show, “The French Chef.” Child willed her kitchen, seen in multiple TV series, to the Smithsonian, which reassembled everything, from stovetop to copper stock pot, just as it was, so if Julia walked in tomorrow, she’d be able to whip up French onion soup from memory, with a hearty “Bon appétit!”

— Fritz Hahn

National Museum of American History

Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown

National Museum of American History

The first ladies’ inaugural gowns have long been synonymous with the National Museum of American History, even as the exhibit has been reshaped to show that the role is about more than china and pretty dresses. Still, visitors can’t help but gawk at the ivory silk chiffon gown Michelle Obama wore in 2009, designed by Jason Wu. Stylish and fresh — especially compared with its predecessors in the same case — the one-shoulder design stands as a reminder of how far the country has come: Obama, who had more influence on public policy than most of her predecessors, was the first African American first lady. How long until a first gentleman’s tuxedo makes the collection?

— Fritz Hahn

National Museum of Natural History

10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.

Henry the elephant

After this formidable 13-foot-tall elephant was killed by a big-game hunter in Angola in 1955, it was billed in a Sports Illustrated story as “The Biggest Elephant Ever Killed by Man.” The Smithsonian acquired the hide from the hunter — something it probably wouldn’t do today — and put it on display in 1959, after 16 months of painstaking taxidermy. Henry, as he was named, has seen his role change over the years: Once decorated for holidays, this symbol of the Smithsonian is now used to teach the public about conservation and endangered species. “Meet me by the elephant” remains a popular phrase around the Mall. After all, you can’t miss him.

— Fritz Hahn

Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

The Hope Diamond

Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

The famous story of the “cursed” Hope Diamond includes suicides, regicides, bankruptcies and death by wild dogs. These tales, however exaggerated, stretched the legend of the luminous blue stone, but they aren’t what has made the Hope Diamond one of the Smithsonian’s most popular attractions: It’s the gem itself. Weighing in at 45.52 carats (roughly the size of a walnut), the diamond’s glittering facets instantly catch the eye, outshining the circle of 16 white diamonds that surround it.

— Fritz Hahn

National Museum of the American Indian

Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW.

Thomas Simonetti/The Washington Post

Prism window

A tall window with eight prisms casts an ever-shifting light show onto the wall and the floor of the National Museum of the American Indian’s atrium throughout the day (the best viewing hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.). This spectacular natural display is a reminder that the building — whose curvilinear limestone form suggests a boulder carved by wind and water — is a work of art in itself. But even more than that, the prism window connects the museum’s earthbound home to the celestial sphere, underscoring the link between nature and spirit that is a central part of indigenous peoples’ beliefs.

— Michael O’Sullivan

Thomas Simonetti/The Washington Post

Standing Rock mile-marker post

This 11-foot-tall wooden mile marker is a spontaneous bit of folk art that grew out of the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline that threatened the drinking water of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas. The handmade signs show just how far some protesters traveled: One points almost 4,000 miles away, to Sapmi, the Arctic home of the indigenous Sami people. But this contemporary artifact reveals more than that. It’s also a reminder of the fraught confrontations that American Indians have had — and continue to have — with the U.S. government, and a promise that this museum will continue to tell those stories through a collection of objects that reflect the past, present and future.

— Michael O’Sullivan

Thomas Simonetti/The Washington Post

‘Americans’ exhibition hall

The message of the “Americans” exhibition hall is blunt and powerful: Indians are everywhere in pop culture. Through a blizzard of advertising logos, brand names and other references to native culture that are displayed from floor to ceiling — an Indian Chief motorcycle here, a Calumet baking powder can there — this eye-opening show, which is open through 2022, illustrates how the threads of indigenous culture must not be viewed as something separate and apart from the mainstream, but woven into the richly textured, multicultural fabric of life in these United States. The name of the show says it all: This land’s indigenous peoples are the original Americans.

— Michael O’Sullivan

A previous version of this article incorrectly described Majdanek as Poland's Majdanek concentration camp. Majdanek was a Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland.

Credits

Videos by Oliver Contreras. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti. Editing by Emily Codik. Copyediting by Julie Bone. Design by Katherine Lee.

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