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The Best Way to Visit the Smithsonian in D.C.

The world's largest museum complex, it's also the most-visited, welcoming tens of millions of guests per year. Here are a few tips to help navigate your way through the marble halls of the Smithsonian.
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One of Washington, D.C.'s crown jewels for visitors and residents alike is the Smithsonian Institution. From Dorothy's ruby slippers to the Wright brothers' airplane to Earth's prehistoric dinosaurs, there is literally something to pique everyone's interest. And, since it's free, it can be one of the most affordable getaways you take all year. As a result, being the world's largest museum complex, it's also the most-visited, welcoming tens of millions of guests per year.

Here are a few tips to help navigate your way through the marble halls of the Smithsonian.

  • Stick to a plan: The Smithsonian is an enormous complex, made up of 18 museums, galleries and even a zoo. Although spread across the Washington, D.C., the major museums are centrally located along the National Mall, sandwiched between the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument. Before going, make a plan -- what are "musts" on your list? What can wait for a second visit? Don't try to tackle too much in one day, especially if you have kids in tow. If you want to see the museums from top to bottom, it might be safe to plan no more than two in a single day.

  • When to go: If at all possible, take a look at a school calendar and visit the museums any day a majority of kids are in school. It goes without saying that if school is out the museums are packed, particularly on weekends and holidays. Clearly if you're a family your flexibility is limited, so arrive early in the morning and knock the Air & Space Museum and the Natural History Museum off your list first, as these can be the most popular museums in the collection and can become overwhelming by mid-day. Both open at 10 a.m.
  • Getting around: Whatever you do, don't drive. There's virtually no parking along the National Mall, and you'll either spend the day trying to find a coveted space or end up at an expensive garage that still requires some walking. There are three Metro stations that can get you pretty close, depending on which museum you're visiting -- the Smithsonian (along the blue and orange lines) and the L'Enfant Plaza (along the blue, orange, yellow and green lines) stations have good access to the south side of the Mall; the Archives station (along the yellow and green lines) has good access to the north side of the Mall. A cab can also take you straight to a museum's entrance, but beware it can be difficult to find one once you're there. Either way, you're doing a ton of walking so wear comfortable shoes!
  • Off the beaten path: As noted, some of the most popular museums are along the National Mall, but two institutions off the beaten path are well worth a visit. The National Zoo (also free) is one of the world's largest and well-known for its giant pandas. It lies north of downtown D.C. and can be accessed by the Metro red line's Woodley Park/Zoo station as well as the green line of the Circulator bus. The Udvar-Hazy Center is an extension of the National Air & Space Museum and houses hundreds of aviation and space artifacts too large for the main museum along the Mall. The center is close to Dulles International Airport, so if you're flying into IAD, this can be a good "first stop" or "last stop". Otherwise, it can be more difficult to get to without a car and while free itself, parking costs $15.
  • While it's not part of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art is a worthy diversion set amid the museums. In addition to a world-class collection, the gallery has the best gelato I've had this side of the Atlantic. In the lower level, there's an espresso and gelato bar that's well worth a respite. There are almost 20 flavors to choose from, so if you're in town for a few days it might be worth repeat visits.

    Chris Vassil is a publisher at Travelzoo and based in Chicago. Travelzoo has 250 deal experts from around the world who rigorously research, evaluate and test thousands of deals to find those with true value.