Five Favorite Things: Museums

Five Favorites

Growing up, I was very spoiled by the quality of museums in the DC area. And many of them are free to visit (shoutout to the Smithsonian). I could learn about history, art, space, animals, you name it, all within a few walkable blocks. When I started traveling around and museums weren’t up to snuff and they charged me to visit, I was supremely disappointed. I’ve popped my head into many a museum over the years, in various places. In reflection, some of my favorites are free and some are not, and only one is in DC. Here’s my list of five favorite museums:

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

If you find yourself in Paris, ignore the instinct to wait in line to get a grainy picture of a thousand hands in front of the Mona Lisa. Unless you have all the time in the world, the Louvre is not nearly as interesting as we were led to believe in elementary school French classes. Paris is an architecturally beautiful city and one of its gems is the Musée d’Orsay. Housed in a former railway station, the Musée d’Orsay houses some of the most stunning Impressionist art. I could spend hours wandering through the pieces and people watching. Plus if you go upstairs, you get a pretty good view.

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Children’s Museum, Indianapolis

Got kids? Despite being a little older than the target demographic and lacking in a child of my own, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis was visited many times during my Indiana inhabitance. The fourth oldest and the world’s largest children’s museum is home to interactive and educational fun, ranging from dinosaurs to space to a carousel, all indoors. The space also hosts rotating exhibits (I even went with my grandma to see the terra-cotta soldiers there).

Courtauld Gallery, London

Another place I visited with my grandma was the Courtauld Gallery at the Courtauld Institute of Art. When my mother and I visited London many years ago, we purchased the London Pass which ended up not saving us very much on anything, but led us to a smaller gallery just a few blocks from Trafalgar Square. Located in Somerset House, the gallery has a wonderful collection of paintings that includes Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, as well as ceramics from the Renaissance and Degas sculptures. It’s usually much calmer than the National Gallery down the street so you can avoid the chaos that is tourist London.

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Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC

Another gallery to avoid the crowds is my one DC gallery on this list. Part of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery is a smaller space that allows each piece to take over individual rooms, shaping the experience with the integration of the piece into the physical space. The gallery is located literal steps from the White House and, because it is part of the Smithsonian family, entry is free.

Glyptotek, Copenhagen

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen was a surprise find on a family trip to the city. The collection was built around the personal collection of the son of the founder of certain well-known beer. Though the primary focal point of the museum is sculptures, the highlight of my visit was the beauty of the collection in a stunning building. White sculptures stood out amongst crisp colorful walls; an atrium filled with plants sat at the center of the museum; the ceilings are just as stunning as the floors. And there’s a beautiful rooftop space that gives you a lovely view of Tivoli Gardens.

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** I do feel I should defend my list slightly. It’s heavy on the art galleries and lacking slightly on the quirky museums every city seems to have. Don’t get me wrong – the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Natural History are two favorites. The Air and Space Museum in Dulles is also really good, and I will never turn down a little museum that is oddly specific. But the ones on my list make me (want to) return again and again. They’re places I’ve spent hours and hours, only to leave and wish for more hours in the day.

Five Favorite Things: Best (Free) Things About DC

Five Favorites, Hometown, Travel

There’s about a thousand and one things you could do in Washington, D.C. on any given day. So I’m picking my five seven favorite things (okay, I’m cheating a bit at this… can you blame me?!) to do in the nation’s capital.

First stop, the zoo. The Smithsonian National Zoo is located in Woodley Park, accessible by Metro, but a bit out of the tourist zone that is D.C. in the summer. The zoo is incredible, emphasizing research and the welfare and survival of the animals in its care. The work done by the national zoo is saving species from extinction with the largest group of conservation biologists in the world. And they let you visit, for free! You can wander by and see the pandas (D.C. is a bit obsessed with the pandas and each birth is a huge celebration for the survival of the species — plus they’re cute) or the elephants or just about any animal that your heart desires. Locals stop by the zoo during their lunch breaks or jog past the animals for their afternoon run.

If you’re in the area, Rock Creek Park is a cool stop. (My favorite part about Rock Creek Park is the parkway which switches to one direction at rush hour and let’s me pretend I’m British, but that’s just me.) We won’t count this as one of my official five, but if you’re sick of the city, you can almost escape into the 1,754 acre park in the middle of it all. There’s paths for hiking, walking, wandering, or horseback riding, plus events year round.

Another spot worth visiting is hidden behind the White House. The Renwick Gallery became Insta-famous a few years ago and is one of my favorite smaller museums in the city. It’s part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which means there is no fee to enter, but unlike some of the bigger Smithsonian art museums, it showcases a small, rotating collection of art pieces that are larger than life. Literally. Most of the art on display fills a room. So each time you pass through a doorway, you walk into a totally different, immersive experience. Stop by on a weekday or during non-tourist season and you’ll have rooms to yourself.

If you’re looking for some politics in the political capital of the United States, I will give in and add one spot to the list for you: The United States Capitol. (Please note that it is spelled with an o.) The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center provides tours of the legislative building with some history and some fun facts mixed in. The tours are free, but you’ll want to book a spot in advance if you’re visiting during tourist season.

Since you’re on the Mall, you’re probably thinking I’ll just go wander around and see all the monuments. And then you’ll start walking and you’ll be sweating and tired within minutes, surrounded by tour groups. To avoid this, follow my handy-dandy tip: visit at night. Though there will still be folks out and about at night, the National Mall clears out quite a bit when the sun goes down. You’ll be cooler (not that humidity will go down at all — sorry, it’s a swamp!) and you can take your time before you turn into a lobster. The monuments are all lit up at night from the World War II memorial to the Lincoln Memorial and down to the Tidal Basin to visit the Jefferson and the new(ish) Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.

Now my last few (counting them as one!) suggestions aren’t really in the city, but they’re close enough! Hop on across the river to stop number one: Teddy Roosevelt Island. Another place good for a wander. Take a path through the “natural forest”, pop your head through the trees to spot Georgetown’s Waterfront, and pretend you’re far from a major city until you hear an airplane up above.

Which brings us to our next stop: Gravelly Point. A park located just next to National Airport where you can bring a picnic and hang out while airports land over your head. It’s part of the GW Parkway, which may be my favorite place to drive in the metropolitan area, which you can follow along to down to Mount Vernon. It’s the best during fall when all the leaves have changed.

So, that’s my top five (ish) things to do in DC. All can be accomplished in a day, if you’re speedy. I’m sure now that I’m home I’ll have a hundred more recommendations and lists popping up, but these are my quick recommendations.

What’s your favorite (free) place to visit in the DC area?