Best Places to See Art: Washington, DC

As we explore the best places to see art, another stand out location is undoubtedly Washington, DC. Known for its relevance as the epicenter of our democracy, it is unsurprising that the District of Columbia is a community drenched in history and culture, including access to some of the best art museums and attractions in the world. Not unlike its East Coast neighbor to the north, the options are limitless when seeking cultural opportunities. From DuPont Circle’s modern art galleries and street vendors, Foggy Bottom’s unmatched performing arts venue with the John F. Kennedy Center, Chinatown’s opulent archways, Georgetown’s chic galleries and U Street Corridor’s live music venues, the neighborhoods of DC are alive with creative energy.

For the purpose of keeping things (mostly) walkable, we’re focusing on the area around the National Mall as a great place to start your DC art immersion. The National Mall makes for a lovely self-guided tour, with a host of world class institutions and museums from which to choose, all of which offer free admission (though donations are strongly encouraged). Our proposed journey takes us through prominent art museums, Smithsonian institutions, and art representing African and Indigenous cultures. There are several ways to access the National Mall, which spans the greenspace from the nation’s capital to the Potomac River, using public transportation.


Within the National Mall

Although we have a few suggestions outside the Mall to consider, we start with the galleries and museums within its boundaries and provide a brief preview of what to expect

National Gallery of ArtEntrance to National Gallery of Art, photo by Ken Lund

The National Gallery of Art is home to 150,000 sculptures, paintings, photographs and other unique works of art, with a focus on American and European masterworks. Included among its collection of greats are pieces by Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Vincent van Gogh.

While the museum’s permanent collection doesn’t include the much discussed “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” the gallery does have as part of its permanent collection Johannes Vermeer’s “sister” paintings “Girl with the Red Hat” and “Girl with a Flute.” Known as “tronie” art, both carry a sense of mystique not unlike “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” Tronie art, for the unfamiliar, is similar to a portrait though doesn’t portray a specific subject. Rather it reflects a character of a certain style and impression, often with an exaggerated expression.“Girl with a Flute” by Johannes VermeerExperts have pondered whether “Girl with a Flute” was actually created by Vermeer, as some contend the painting isn’t consistent with his typical style of work. The National Gallery of Art cites its attribution as “cautious” given the uncertainty. However, both “Girl” paintings in its possession bear a number of similarities to one another, including the characteristics and features of the girl, as well as the way she looks straight ahead, almost as though making eye contact with the viewer.

West Building -- 6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW

East Building -- 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Through its collections, exhibitions, educational and research components, the Museum of the American Indian serves to share the stories of Native people in the Western Hemisphere throughout history and empower Native voices. The museum’s holdings include objects and artifacts representative of the sacred traditions and way of life of Native Americans.Photo by Angela N.In addition to the compelling works and artifacts inside the building, with its curved unique exterior lines, the design of the Museum of the American Indian tells a story of particular interest as well. Developers of the museum took particular care in consulting with Native architects to ensure even the structure of the building honored Indigenous traditions. The site was blessed by Native Elders before construction began in 1999. Consistent with the value which is placed within Native cultures on our relationship with the earth, the design is meant to recreate a wind-sculpted rock formation and our connection to the natural environment.

4th Street and Independence Avenue SW

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

True to its name, through sculpture, photographs, paintings, and other art forms, the museum highlights the history, values, and beauty of African cultures worldwide. The museum’s collection includes traditional art as well as modern and contemporary African Art.Photo by Joanne MarkowOne of the more noteworthy and rare works within the museum’s holdings is the Walt Disney-Tishman Collection of Sub-Saharan art, consisting of 525 objects the Paul Tishman family collected from west and central Africa, and later sold to the Disney Company. Many of the items from the collection such as masks and crowns were an early inspiration for 1994’s Disney Lion King movie. The collection was eventually donated by Disney to the museum.

950 Independence Avenue SW

There are many other museums and worthwhile sites to experience within the National Mall. While we couldn’t capture them all, we recommend you review the full list and allocate time on your agenda accordingly.


Outside of the National Mall

The Alley Museum

In contemplating some of Washington, DC’s great public art, we want to shine a light on “The Alley Museum.” Not far from the National Mall in an area known as the Shaw neighborhood is the Blagden Alley, where a series of murals by five local artists were commissioned through community grants in 2015.

The five murals fill the space in Blagden Alley with vibrant color and timeless messages, including “Maker of Saints” and “A System of Politics and Art.” The latter was created by DC artist Bill Warrell using India ink, spray enamel and spar glaze emblazoned upon a steel gate. It is a tribute to how politics and art coexisted and collided within the backdrop of cultural movements of the last four decades.“A System of Politics and Art” by Bill Warrell, photo by Ted EytanBlagden Alley NW

The “Culinary Arts”

Food is its own form of art and Washington DC also produces some of the best. Once again, the list of restaurants in a city with so much diversity and depth is endless, but we identified a fine dining option that stood out from the crowd, which is also located not too far from the National Mall.

Cafe Riggs

In addition to its location, we chose to highlight Cafe Riggs because of its gorgeous ambiance, locally sourced food, and unique space within the charming Riggs Hotel. Whether you are stopping in for an afternoon aperitif, or making time for a four course dinner, the cafe, offering French, American and European cuisine, is ranked well among an impressive array of area restaurants.Cafe Riggs gets high marks for its brunch as well as its sophisticated, elegant decor making it the perfect spot for an intimate dinner. The halibut is by all accounts perfectly executed and as one Trip Advisor reviewer put it, “where else can you get a caviar and potato chips appetizer?”

900 F Street NW


We hope this foray into some of DC’s best places to enjoy art has given you some useful ideas for planning your next trip. If you prefer to peruse original works from the comfort of your home, check out UGallery’s website to discover new artworks weekly.