There’s a museum for everyone on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—the Smithsonian Institution has made sure of that. But one of the most popular and enduring museums in the Smithsonian’s collection is the National Museum of American History. These nostalgia-filled exhibit halls explain the political, cultural, and technological developments that have shaped (and continue to shape) America, from the transportation innovations that opened up the American West to the effects of war on American society right up through present-day fighting in Iraq. If you’re still raring to go after your visit, there’s a clutch of equally awesome museums a few minutes’ walk away. Until then, here’s how to best enjoy this bastion of American memorabilia.
Every line on the Metro train system will get you within reasonable walking distance to the museum. The closest Metro stations, though, are Federal Triangle from the north and Smithsonian from the south; the blue, orange, and silver lines stop at both stations. Exit at Archives if you’re taking the green or yellow lines, or Metro Center for the red line. Otherwise, it’s about a 5-10 minute walk from most points downtown.
Since you’re going to spend most of the day inside the museum, start off with some fresh air and a stroll around the United States Botanic Garden grounds, a short walk away on the National Mall. In addition to the indoor conservatory gardens (which feature landscapes from the desert to the jungle), the Botanic Garden has two outdoor gardens. The National Garden showcases roses, butterflies, and plants native to the Mid-Atlantic region, while the shady benches of the Bartholdi Park provide a perfect—and lovely—place for reading or reflecting.
Though the National Park Service has recently revamped and expanded its concessions offerings, for years there has notoriously been just one museum cafe on the Mall worth checking out: the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian (on your way from the Botanic Garden to the American History museum). Divided into buffet stations by region, the Mitsitam Cafe offers dishes traditional to indigenous American tribes, such as Andean corn tamale with wild deer, slow braised buffalo short rib, and a seafood boil.
At the Museum
The American History museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, though it often stays open until 7:30 p.m. during the summer and cherry blossom season (check the calendar to make sure). Each floor of the museum is dedicated to a different topic: transportation and technology; innovation, creativity, and enterprise; American ideals; and American wars and politics. Among the most popular exhibits are American Presidency and First Ladies, as well as the American flag that hung over Fort McHenry during the war of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the national anthem.
Explore at Will
Make time to wander the American Stories exhibit, which specializes in cultural artifacts. There are iconic pop cultural items such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and a Kermit the Frog puppet, as well as historical items such as a piece of Plymouth Rock or Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick. There are plenty of other memorabilia to be found, too, in rotating artifact walls on the first and second floor of the central part of the museum.
Get a Preview
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture Gallery is slated to open in 2016, but in the meantime there’s a special collection at the American History museum titled Through the African American Lens. Get an introduction to the forthcoming museum that will explore American history and race relations, as well as the African American experience.
One of the newer exhibits at the National Museum of American History is FOOD, which explores the relationship between American history and the American table since World War II. This is where you’ll find a replica of the legendary Julia Child’s home kitchen. But there’s a new emphasis on food elsewhere in the museum, too, thanks to a brand new demonstration kitchen in its innovation wing. Here, they’re bringing in chefs for Food Fridays events, where you learn about things like the history of grilling while also learning how to prepare recipes on a week’s particular theme.
If your time at the museum inspires a hankering for classic American food, you’re in the right neighborhood. Less than a mile away is the nearest Shake Shack, the beloved burger chain with a cult following. Head there when you’re done on the Mall for a Shackburger (made with their signature Shacksauce), flat-top hot dog, crinkle-cut fries, and frozen custard.
The museum often hosts special events—including talks about the innovation of the artificial human heart or the four-day history film forum that will take place in November—so be sure to check the events calendar before your visit.