Art and culture Andrea González

Museums you don't know in Washington, D.C.

Many of the United States’ most memorable narratives were written in this majestic city, which reveals many surprising facets of US culture through its highly original museums. On your next trip to Washington, D.C., go beyond the big institutions such as the Smithsonian to discover stately houses with eccentric collections, poignant historical sites and museums where you can be a spy for the day.

  1. 1 International Spy Museum

    Opened in 2002 and renovated in 2019, the International Spy Museum is an unmissable stop for visitors to Wasington, D.C. With a collection of more than 7,000 artefacts – including the ice pick that killed Trotsky and an Enigma machine, this interactive museum offers a tour of the history of espionage from classical antiquity to the Cold War. The most entertaining part of the tour is its immersive experience, which let visitors take on a covert identity to assess their abilities as secret agents. It’s perfect to visit with children – we recommend buying tickets in advance.

    Exterior of the International Spy Museum
    Exterior of the International Spy Museum / Image by Nic Lehoux, courtesy of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP)
  2. 2 Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House

    Probably the most iconic setting of all on this list, Ford’s Theatre is where Abraham Lincoln was shot on the night of 14 April 1865. Just metres away is the Petersen House, where the wunded Lincoln was taken, and where he would die a few hours later. The two spaces can be visited together, since they make up Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. As well as its museum of temporary exhibitions, the theatre offers plays and musicals almost every day of the week. Opening times can vary, so we recommend checking the calendar.

    View from the stage of the President’s Box at Ford’s Theatre
    View from the stage of the President’s Box at Ford’s Theatre / Image by Maxwell MacKenzie
  3. 3 Kreeger Museum

    The Kreeger Museum is the perfect destination for art lovers, especially those appreciating 20th-century architecture and painting. The private collection – created by philanthropist couple David Kreeger and Carmen Matanzo – is located in their mansion designed in 1963 by the famous architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster. Inside are works by Monet, Renoir, Munch, Kandinsky and Miró, along with paintings by national artists such as Alexander Calder, Frank Stella, Gene Davis and Sam Gilliam. The tour extends to the garden, with sculptures by, among others, Jean Arp, Henry Moore and John L Dreyfuss. They are also the site of monthly jazz concerts. Open from Tuesday to Saturday.

  4. 4 Hillwood Estate

    Marjorie Merriweather Post was one of the best-known US businesswomen and philanthropists of the 20th century. The original owner of the iconic Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, and a lover of Russian Imperial art, the museum boasts a collection of 17,000 items, mostly decorative arts, many of which are exhibited at Hillwood Estate. Inside the mansion, visitors will find items ranging from a portrait of Catherine the Great to two Fabergé eggs, along with Cartier jewellery and the wedding crown of the Empress Alexandra. However, one of the biggest attractions at Hillwood Estate is outdoors: its European-inspired gardens change with the seasons and displays various styles, including a French parterre and a reproduction of a Russian dacha. During the stroll, you’ll find a small coffee shop where you can rest and recharge.

     French Drawing Room at Hillwood Estate
    French Drawing Room / Image by Erik Kvalsvik
  5. 5 DEA Museum

    The Enforcement Administration Museum is located on the outskirts of the city in Arlington County near the Pentagon. Managed by the US Government, it gives insight into many of the missions that different DEA special agents have carried out since the 1970s, while reviewing the relationship of US citizens with drugs over the past 150 years. Entry is free and it is open from Tuesday to Saturday.