By Jason Heidemann for the Orbitz Travel Blog
Framed by the Washington Monument on one side and the U.S. Capitol on the other, the National Mall in Washington DC is a breathtaking, must-do attraction--even if you can't stand politics. That's because lining the streets in between are the Smithsonian museums, a collection of 18 celebrated cultural institutions that are open to the public year around and are completely free. While several of them are scattered throughout the D.C. metro area, nearly a dozen stand cheek by jowl along Madison and Jefferson Drives, which means that even if you've only got one day to kill in the district, you can view all the best art and artifacts--if you follow our handy highlights tour. Grab a sturdy pair of sneakers because you're gonna need them. On your mark. Get set. Go!
1. National Museum of American History
Begin your morning at the corner of 14th Street and Madison Drive. We suggest you do some stretches because you've got a lot of iconic sites to see at the National Museum of American History--our first stop for the day. Show your stars and stripes by admiring the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem and was constructed to celebrate an important victory over British forces during the war of 1812. Offer a hat tip to our 16th president by admiring his actual top hat at Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life. Pay sobering respect to the four African-American students who dared to sit at the Greensboro Lunch Counter, which served "whites only" until their actions sparked a movement that led to the desegregation of all Woolworth's lunch counters. Click your heels three times and visit "American Stories," an ongoing exhibition that famously includes Dorothy's Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz (and also a fragment of Plymouth Rock). Admire the historic gowns worn by the presidents' wives at the First Ladies exhibit and lastly, step inside Julia's Child's home kitchen as part of "FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000."
2. National Museum of Natural History
Keep up the good sightseeing, you're doing great! Our next stop is the
which revels in the awe-inspiring and is the most visited museum of natural history in the world. Check out the
, a 45 carat, walnut-sized blue diamond whose history of royalty, theft, curse and intrigue is as every bit as captivating as the jewelry itself. Next, hit up the balcony at the rotunda for a face-to-face look into the eyes of the
, a 14-foot tall, 8 ton behemoth who stands proudly among the recreated Angolan bush. Circle back to the first floor and dive into Sant Ocean Hall where maritime treasures like a 1,500-gallon aquarium featuring a recreated live
awaits. Finally, meet homo neanderthalensis, a.k.a. early man, and also the closest early relative to humans who have been reconstructed at the museum via DNA recovered from fossil records.
3. National Archives Museum
Although that dusty name makes it sound a bit like a library, the
, while not part of the Smithsonian, are a stone's throw from the Mall and most definitely worth a detour. Swing by the
which is home to the big three national documents--the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.
4. National Air and Space Museum
Cross 4th Street and inhale breathtaking views of the Mall and the Washington Monument and get ready for some thrills at the wildly popular
. You may have to fend off the masses for a glimpse of the 1903 Wright Flyer, which brothers Orville and TK flew over Kitty Hawk. Next, boldly go where no man has ever gone before as you marvel at a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise from
. Be sure and take a gander at the Spirit of St. Louis, the single engine, single-seat monoplane that aviator Charles Lindbergh flew on the first ever solo nonstop flight from Paris to New York in 1927 and be wowed by the Apollo 11 Command Module which landed astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins safely on the moon on July 20, 1969.
5. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
If you're dogs aren't aching just yet--and we almost guarantee they will be--end your loop around the National Mall at the beautiful and heartbreaking
which is not a Smithsonian museum, but should be considered unmissable if time permits. Less a "highlights" museum and more a place for sobering reflection and contemplation, it nevertheless houses original writings from Anne Frank and includes the compelling exhibition "Silent Witness" which showcases the dress worn every day for seven months by Lola Rein who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a hole in the ground.