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Washington, DC Itinerary for Art Lovers: 5 Days in DC

With so many art museums in DC, narrowing down to the ones most worth visiting can seem overwhelming. As an art lover who has lived in DC for 12 years, I know that there’s a lot to see! Fortunately for you, we’ve done the research, visited the galleries, and put together a five-day itinerary that you can follow or use as a baseline.

Each day highlights one museum and a nearby activity and includes the nearest metro stops, cost of admission, hours, and other nearby points of interest you might pair with your museum visits. 

Day 1: DC’s Premier Art Museum

The National Gallery of Art West Building exterior, viewed from across the street with people walking and cars passing by, showcasing its neoclassical design and grand entrance.
National Gallery of Art West Building from the National Mall

The National Gallery of Art is DC’s version of the Met in Manhattan or the Louvre in Paris. Enormous in size, it has two buildings: one dedicated to modern and contemporary art (the East Building), and one devoted mostly to art made prior to the 20th century (the West Building). 

It’s impossible to cover all galleries of both wings in a single day, so we suggest one of two approaches:

Approach 1: Choose 10-15 specific galleries in both wings that you want to visit. Most West Building galleries are organized by European country and century, with a few galleries dedicated to American art prior to the 20th century. The ground floor galleries hold the museum’s sculpture, decorative arts, and photography collections. The East Wing is entirely dedicated to modern and contemporary art. The full floor plans with labeled galleries are here.

Approach 2: Take a guided tour or wander as you please through one building only (a good option if you have limited time, feel overwhelmed by the size of the museum, or are interested in a particular subset of the museum’s collection).

Modern architecture of the National Gallery of Art East Building, featuring sharp geometric shapes and a fountain in front, under a clear blue sky.
National Gallery of Art East Building, looking from the West Building

Guided tours, available at various times each day, do not require reservations. Tours are often available focusing on the Italian Renaissance collection, American art, 17th century Dutch art, modern art, and the sculpture collection. Additionally, there are a few tours each week giving insight into specific artists or a particular exhibition.

You may also want to take a look at the National Gallery’s calendar of events. Oftentimes, the museum puts on musical performances and hosts screenings of rare films.

One tip if you find yourself in the National Gallery on a day when it’s especially crowded: Head to the West Building’s ground floor galleries, where sculptures and the decorative arts receive few visitors. The collections are wonderful, and you will have space and quiet to take them in!

Need to know

Museum: National Gallery of Art
Admission and special events fees: None
Hours: 10:00-5:00 every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day
Address: 600 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20565
Nearest metro stops: Judiciary Square (red line); Archives (green/yellow lines)
Nearby attractions: The National Mall, the Capitol Building, United States Navy Memorial

Lunch

Both the East and West Buildings have places to get a snack or lunch. The buffet on the bottom floor of the West Building has the largest selection and is not expensive (as far as touristy places go). The East Building’s cafe is the opposite, with a very small menu of high-priced items and limited seating.

A large blue rooster sculpture standing on a museum rooftop, creating a striking contrast against the minimalist architecture and clear sky.
Rooftop of National Gallery of Art East Building

If you brought your own snack and the weather is good, we recommend enjoying it outside on one of the benches in the National Gallery’s whimsical sculpture garden or up on the roof terrace of the East Building, where the views are spectacular.

Evening

Dinner and self-guided murals tour in the U Street area (U Street metro stop on the green/yellow lines)

Day 2: Modern Art

The Hirshhorn Museum

The Hirshhorn Museum comprises a brutalist building and a subterranean sculpture garden on the Mall. It’s not a large museum, so it’s possible to see the entire collection in a single day, but the exhibits run the gamut from hip to provocative to unsettling, and not all exhibits lend themselves to immediate enjoyment or comprehension. (On the other hand, some are so popular that they are enjoyed by large crowds and widely shared on Instagram.)

The Hirshhorn also has three floor-to-ceiling permanent works: Barbara Kruger’s Belief + Doubt, which employs giant-sized questions to disarm visitors’ ideas about authority and freedom; Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge, a nearly 400-foot long circular reimagining of an 1883 cyclorama of the final charge of the Battle of Gettysburg; Laurie Anderson’s Four Talks, a stream-of-consciousness chalkboard-like work combining jokes, stories, commentary, illustrations, and four sculptures.

One very cool thing about the Hirshhorn is that it’s easy to curate your own experience. The museum has a web app that provides access to an immense library of videos and information for each work of art, no download required. Visitors only need to scan a work (just as you would a QR code) to bring up videos of curators, historians, and even the artists themselves.

A close-up view of the Hirshhorn Museum's curved exterior, featuring a striking modern sculpture in the foreground. The sculpture, composed of angular, black shapes, contrasts sharply against the textured concrete wall of the museum and clear blue sky. A blurred figure of a person walking past a reflective glass panel adds a dynamic element to the scene, emphasizing the interplay of art and architecture at this renowned art museum.
Hirshhorn Facade, Washington National Mall. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You can check out the exhibitions ahead of time on the Hirshhorn’s website, but it’s difficult to get a sense of whether or not you’d enjoy them without going there in person. Many of the exhibits are large in scale and immersive, requiring visitors to experience them by walking through the gallery or building.

If this already sounds like it’s too “out there” for you, don’t panic; the good news is that admission to the Hirshhorn is free, so if you visit and find that you’re in over your head or just not enjoying yourself, you can easily exit and be right in the center of the Mall, where tons of other museums and monuments await.

One part of the Hirshhorn you shouldn’t skip once it reopens later this year following renovations: the sculpture garden. Located in front of the building, the sculpture garden is shady, quiet, and filled with strange, poignant, and thought provoking works. Don’t miss Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree for Washington, DC, where you can join the over 100,000 other people who have whispered or tied a wish.

Not loving the Hirshhorn? Check out the National Museum of African Art or the National Museum of Asian Art (also known as the Freer-Sakler), directly next door to the Hirshhorn. Both have free admission and the same hours as the Hirshhorn. Their collections are very small but wonderfully curated, and because they have no “big name artists,” they are never as crowded as the other Smithsonian art museums!

Need to know

Museum: Hirshhorn Museum
Admission and special events fees: None
Hours: 10:00-5:30 every day except Christmas
Address: 701 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560
Nearest metro stops: L’Enfant Plaza (green/yellow lines); Smithsonian (blue/orange/silver lines)
Nearby attractions: The National Mall, the Eisenhower Memorial

Lunch

The Hirshhorn has a very small cafe serving coffee, gelato, and pastries, but if you’re hungry for something more substantial, Sami’s Hot Dog Cart near the National Mall has the highest rated hot dogs in the city.

Or, head to the National Museum of the American Indian just a short walk toward the Capitol. In addition to an incredible collection of artifacts, stories, and handicrafts from indigenous peoples living in what’s now the United States, has a very good food hall featuring dishes inspired by traditional indigenous recipes. The food hall, called Mitsitam Cafe, is currently under renovation and will reopen in June.

Evening

Book a Monuments by Moonlight bus tour to experience the monuments lit up in all their breathtaking majesty

Day 3: Art in a Historic Building

The front facade of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. during twilight. This grand neoclassical building features a row of large pillars supporting a triangular pediment, with the name of the museum inscribed above the entrance. Vehicles are parked in front, and street lamps are beginning to light up, adding a serene and historic ambiance to the setting.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Technically separate museums but located in connected buildings, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery comprise a full city block, and as you can probably guess, make for a full day’s visit. Formerly the home of the Patent Office, the block of buildings is located just north of the National Mall, and you can enter via either museum.

American Art Museum

The American Art Museum is exceptional when it comes to its presentation of late 19th century landscapes. These large-scale works were usually commissioned to serve as a form of visual travel whereby viewers could “visit” faraway places and “experience” the sublime without having to actually leave their drawing rooms. The paintings were often showcased with dramatic lighting and revealed from behind thick curtains, as might be a theatre spectacle or rare treasure. Viewers were sometimes given opera glasses so they would miss not even the tiniest detail of the painting! The American Art Museum is one of the few places in the country today where this viewing experience is replicated for modern-day art lovers.

The American Art Museum also has one of the most significant collections of African-American art as well as growing acquisitions of art by Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and folk artists. The museum’s education staff have a reputation for giving entertaining and informative tours, so perhaps plan your visit around one of the daily tour times.

If you can’t make those tours or prefer to explore at your own pace, the museum has a neat app that creates a customized tour for you based on your interests and the amount of time you have available.

On the other side of the building is the National Portrait Gallery. Here, you’ll find visitors flocking to the portrait of former President Barack Obama. It’s a magnificent portrait, but save time for the museum’s other fascinating portraits and stories, too. You’ll find everyone from sports champions to civil rights leaders to cultural icons to Hollywood stars to ordinary people whose struggles and joys form a part of our collective history.

With so many portraits to see, a highlights tour may help you carve a path through the centuries. Tours are offered daily at 12:00 and 2:30 and do not require reservations.

Before you leave the building, be sure to go to the Great Hall on the top floor. Even if you have no interest in the art in those galleries, the splendid architectural details of this historic building make a visit well worth your time. Everything from the arched ceiling supports to the stained glass cupola to intricately tiled floor will take your breath away.

Need to know 

Museums: American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery
Admission and special events fees: None
Hours: 11:30-7:00 every day except Christmas
Address: 800 G Street NW, Washington, DC 20001
Nearest metro stops: Gallery Place – Chinatown (green/yellow/red lines); Metro Center (blue/orange/silver lines)
Nearby attractions: The United States Navy Memorial, the National Archives, Ford’s Theatre

Lunch

You could spend a full day at these two museums, so don’t skip a midday meal, or you won’t have enough stamina to continue your visit — and you would miss out on so much great art! The courtyard cafe is tiny and expensive with fairly awful food.

You’ll be much happier if you walk over to Chinatown and have a meal at one of 6th Street’s family-run Chinese restaurants. Our personal favorites are Chinatown Express (746 6th Street NW) and China Boy (815 6th Street NW), known for their homemade noodles and soul-satisfying meals. Note that China Boy is cash only.

Evening

Dinner in the Dupont Circle area (Dupont Circle metro stop) preceded or followed by an exploratory tour of the wacky O Street Mansion (open until 9:00 Wednesdays-Saturdays), a 19th century mansion where every surface is crammed with art, collectibles, knickknacks, and where visitors are challenged to find all of the mansion’s many secret doors and rooms

Day 4: Contemporary Art

The Rubell Museum

DC’s newest art museum is the Rubell Museum. It has one of the most diverse contemporary art collections in spite of being one of (if not the) smallest art museums in the city.

Each year, the Rubell invites one artist to be its artist in residence and create works that speak to pressing issues of our time. The museum’s two largest exhibition spaces display the artist’s work created while in residence. Its smaller galleries display works from its permanent collection. You will find nearly every type of media represented in the Rubell collection, and like at the Hirshhorn, not all works will appeal to all visitors. But there is something for everyone at the Rubell, and you’ll be hard pressed to walk away without having been struck by at least a few pieces that made you think differently about a particular medium or subject matter.

Bonus gallery: If you happen to visit the Rubell on a Saturday between 11:00-2:00, stop in at Culture House as well. It’s located just behind the Rubell and has two spaces with rotating exhibits of contemporary art, usually featuring a single artist. The building was previously a church and is noteworthy for its exterior murals, so even if the gallery is closed, you can still enjoy some of its art from the outside!

Need to know

Museum: Rubell Museum
Admission and special events fees: Free Wednesdays-Fridays; $15 on weekends; no admission fee for members of the military, veterans, and people with disabilities
Address: 65 I Street SW, Washington, DC 20024
Hours: 11:00-5:00 Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays; 10:00-6:00 Fridays and Saturdays
Nearest metro stops: Waterfront (green line); Navy Yard (green line); Federal Center SW (blue/orange/silver lines)
Nearby attractions: The Wharf, Nationals Park (baseball), Audi Field (soccer)

Lunch

The Rubell has no real cafe, but it does offer locally roasted coffee and a few pastries. For food, check out the restaurants along the river in Navy Yard, or go the opposite direction, and you’ll find yourself browsing restaurants along the Wharf.

It’s a bit of a walk to end up in either place, so if your feet are hurting, catch the Circulator bus three blocks south at M and Half Streets SW. Make sure the bus says “Eastern Market” if you want to go to Navy Yard or “L’Enfant Plaza” if you want to go to the Wharf.

Both areas have great restaurants. If you’re looking for a budget option, Falafel Inc. on the Wharf is truly easy on the wallet, with delicious falafel sandwiches for just $4. (Plus, you can feel good about patronizing it — it’s partnered with the World Food Programme and uses a sizable portion of its proceeds to feed refugees.) If you’d prefer a restaurant with table service, check out Due South in Navy Yard for curated southern food.

Evening

Be truly immersed in art at ARTECHOUSE (L’Enfant plaza stop on the blue/orange/silver lines), an experiential digital art space featuring rooms with projected art where you can enjoy cocktails before or after dinner.

Day 5: Hidden Gem

The entrance to The Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C., captured on a cloudy day. The building features a modern architectural style with multiple curved, vaulted archways and vertical bars, crafted from light gray stone. A large glass entrance is framed by the name of the museum prominently displayed above it. A curving driveway and a modern abstract sculpture in the foreground add to the museum's artistic setting, surrounded by autumn-colored trees.
Photo by Wikipedia user AgnosticPreachersKid

The Kreeger Museum

The Kreeger Museum is a hidden gem located in a residential neighborhood populated by many diplomats and their families. The museum’s iconic building was designed by architects Philip Johnson (of Glass House fame) and Richard Foster and served as the residence of David and Carmen Kreeger until 1990.

The Kreegers collected the majority of their paintings and sculpture in a period of just 15 years, focusing on 19th and 20th century paintings, Asian and African art, and modern sculpture. The collection has since grown to encompass other art, and the museum is unique in that it has an exhibition program exclusively for emerging artists from the Washington, DC area.

The Kreeger is off the beaten path, so you’ll need to take a taxi, Uber, or Lyft. Guided tours are only offered on Thursdays and Saturdays at 2:00, but the Kreeger’s website has a helpful information sheet with details about major works in the museum.

One important thing to note is that you’ll need to make a reservation ahead of time in order to visit the museum. If your schedule allows for flexibility in terms of which date you go, check out the Kreeger’s events calendar, and you may be able to catch a jazz concert or yoga class in the sculpture garden. Events are generally held on Saturdays.

A painting by Claude Monet titled "Boats on the Beach at Pourville, Low Tide." It depicts a serene coastal scene with two small boats resting on a sandy beach under a broad, expansive sky. The cliffs in the background add a rugged contrast to the calm turquoise waters of the sea, while Monet's signature brushstrokes capture the tranquil yet vivid atmosphere of the seaside landscape. The overall effect is peaceful and reflective, showcasing Monet's mastery of light and color.
Boats on the Beach at Pourville, Low Tide by Claude Monet is part of the Kreeger collections.

The Kreeger is small but well worth the hassle in getting there. The collection is terrific in terms of the variety and quality of the art, especially its 20th century paintings and sculptures. Because reservations are required and capacity limited, you’ll never need to fight crowds to enjoy the works of art.

Need to know

Museum: Kreeger Museum
Admission and special events fees: $15; reservations required
Hours: 10:00-4:00 Tuesdays-Saturdays
Address: 2401 Foxhall Road NW, Washington D.C. 20007
Nearest metro stops: None
Nearby attractions: None

Lunch

You’ll be right up the road from lunch spot Jetties (1609 Foxhall Road NW), known for its hearty sandwiches and seasonal salads. Treat yourself to a cone of locally made ice cream while you’re there!

Evening

Grab dinner at opulently decorated Spanish restaurant Taberna del Alabardero (Farragut West metro stop on the blue/orange/silver lines or Farragut North metro stop on the red line), which has such an authentic menu that the King of Spain dines there when in town and missing food from home!

Elizabeth Moore

Elizabeth spends most of her free time going to one of the DC area's many theaters, and she has been to nearly all of them in the 12 years she has lived in the city. She loves talking all things art, sustainable living, Spain, and volunteering.

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