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8 Under-the-Radar Museums in Washington DC

There’s more to DC than the Smithsonian.

Man takes a photo of a lighted museum installation.
Hi, I'm Laura!

Laura Ratliff is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor with more than a decade of experience in the travel and lifestyle space, who regularly spends more than 200,000 miles on a plane each year. As a freelancer, her work has appeared in Architectural Digest, Condé Nast Traveler, GQ, Jetsetter, Bon Appétit, and more. She has also held staff positions at Architectural Digest, Bloomberg News, and Condé Nast Traveler, and was most recently the senior editorial director at TripSavvy.

Discovering Washington DC’s vibrant history and cultural tapestry can go far beyond its iconic landmarks. While everyone makes a beeline for the city’s stalwart Smithsonian Institutions, the United States’ capital is home to a handful of quirky and captivating museums that often go unnoticed. Home to unique exhibits, offbeat collections, and compelling stories, here are eight under-the-radar DC museums that will add a touch of adventure and surprise to your next trip.

1. The International Spy Museum

International Spy Museum signage
The International Spy Museum is near other points of interest.Foto: The Bold Bureau / Shutterstock

Enter the thrilling world of spies and secrets.

This museum provides an enthralling look at the covert world that influences global affairs, from Cold War intrigues to modern-day cyber espionage. Save time by buying your ticket in advance to see engaging and interactive displays that allow you to test your own spy skills by cracking codes and navigating laser mazes. The museum also showcases gripping stories of real-life spies, uncovering daring missions and unraveling the mysteries behind some of history's most high-stakes operations. To make visiting even easier, the International Spy Museum is located near many other points of interest and is a stop on some hop-on hop-off bus tours.

Don't miss: The large collection of spy gadgets, from concealed cameras to encryption devices.

2. National Museum of Women in the Arts

National Museum of Women in the Arts building
The National Museum of Women in the Arts is accessible on foot.Foto: Hiram Rios / Shutterstock

Honoring the creative brilliance of women artists.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts stands as a beacon of empowerment, celebrating the contributions and achievements of women artists worldwide. Located in a striking downtown building, the museum is a testament to the creativity and resilience of women throughout history. Its impressive collection includes painting, sculpture, photography, and decorative arts, ranging from work by renowned pioneers of the past to contemporary visionaries.

Don’t miss: Exhibitions and programs highlighting the importance of women's voices in the art world.

3. The Phillips Collection

Entrance to The Phillips Collection museum
The Phillips Collection is housed in a Georgian Revival mansion.Foto: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

Modern masterpieces shine in an intimate space.

Located in a beautiful Georgian Revival mansion, America’s first museum of modern art boasts an impressive array of works by renowned artists from the 19th and 20th centuries, including masterpieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne. Its focus on impressionist and modernist art allows visitors to witness the evolution of art during this transformative period. For art lovers seeking an alternative to the bustling crowds of larger museums, the Phillips Collection is a serene and contemplative oasis that shouldn’t be missed and it's easily reachable via a hop-on hop-off bus tour.

Don’t miss: Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, an iconic painting celebrated for its vibrant colors, exquisite brushwork, and depiction of human interaction.

4. The National Building Museum

Arches and columns inside the National Building Museum
Corinthian columns inside the museum reach 75 feet (23 meters) tall.Foto: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

Discover the art and science behind iconic structures.

This remarkable institution showcases the art and science of building, featuring exhibits on sustainable design, urban planning, and innovative construction techniques. Temporary exhibits often focus on cutting-edge concepts like the adaptive reuse of structures or the future of urban living. Whether you're an architect or simply intrigued by the process of building, this museum will leave you with a newfound appreciation for the structures that shape our world.

Don’t miss: The museum’s iconic Great Hall, bolstered by mesmerizing 75-foot-tall (23-meter-tall) Corinthian columns.

5. Dumbarton Oaks

Exterior of The Orangery at Dumbarton Oaks
The Orangery at Dumbarton Oaks houses tropical and sub-tropical plants.Foto: Karsten Jung / Shutterstock

Lose yourself in an enchanting urban sanctuary.

Set in picturesque Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks comprises a stunning mansion and 16 acres (6.5 hectares) of meticulously landscaped gardens. While the grounds offer an exquisite example of landscape architecture, the museum also is home to an impressive collection of art and artifacts from pre-Columbian, Byzantine, and European cultures. You’ll find rare and valuable pieces scattered throughout, including intricate textiles, ancient sculptures, and stunning manuscripts.

Don’t miss: The Orangery, a greenhouse-like structure that’s home to a remarkable collection of tropical and subtropical plants, offering a serene and immersive experience in the heart of the estate's gardens.

6. The Renwick Gallery

Exterior of the Renwick Gallery
The Renwick Gallery is located near the White House in Washington DC.Foto: Oomka / Shutterstock

Pushing the boundaries of contemporary art.

Located just a stone's throw from the White House, the Renwick Gallery is a sanctuary for contemporary craft and decorative art and one of the most underrated branches of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The gallery, which is free to enter, uniquely focuses on American craft and decorative arts, setting it apart from traditional art museums. The Instagram-friendly exhibitions often feature installations incorporating unexpected materials, unconventional techniques, and larger-than-life structures, so have your camera ready.

Don’t miss: Be sure to check the museum's schedule for the latest temporary exhibits, as they’re often interactive.

7. National Museum of Health and Medicine

Exterior of the National Museum of Health and Medicine
The museum houses a huge collection of artifacts.Foto: National Museum of Health and Medicine / Tripadvisor

Unveiling the captivating world of medical history.

For those intrigued by the intricacies of the human body and medical history, this museum in Silver Spring, Maryland, offers an unparalleled experience. Founded by William A. Hammond, former US Army Surgeon General, this museum allows visitors to delve into the world of medical research and anatomical specimens, including preserved brains, military medicine, and cutting-edge medical advancements. Exhibitions focus on topics ranging from traumatic brain injuries to historical figures in healthcare, like Major Walter Reed.

Don’t miss: Several artifacts relating to President Lincoln, including the Deringer bullet that killed the president and that was found during the autopsy.

8. The National Postal Museum

Exhibits inside the National Postal Museum
Exhibits inside the National Postal Museum include the history of mail.Foto: Kit Leong / Shutterstock

It’s more than just stamps.

Yes, you’ll see plenty of rare stamps at this museum, but there’s also so much more, including vintage mail coaches and interactive exhibits that will transport you back to the days of handwritten letters and postcards. From the Pony Express to modern-day postal innovations, the National Postal Museum sheds light on the dynamic evolution of communication and the enduring importance of connecting people across vast distances. The museum is often a stop on hop-on hop-off bus tours.

Don’t miss: An exhibit about the "Inverted Jenny," a misprinted US postage stamp from the 1900s that features an inverted image of a blue airplane. It’s become one of the most valuable stamps in the world.

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