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Visiting Smithsonian Castle in DC: Everything You Need to Know

The Smithsonian Castle is a beautiful neo-Gothic building towering over the National Mall in Washington DC. “The Castle” is actually the Smithsonian Visitor Center, and you should check it out before going to the other Smithsonian museums around the city. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting the Smithsonian Castle.

As soon as I learned there was a “castle” in Washington DC, I was all over it! And it’s free to visit, which makes it even better!

A visit to the Smithsonian Castle is a must before visiting the other Smithsonian museums in DC. In this guide, I’ll tell you everything you need to now about visiting this unique museum, including how to get a tour, what to see while you’re there, and where to stay nearby.

Smithsonian Castle, Washington DC

Smithsonian Castle Overview

The Smithsonian Castle, sometimes called just The Castle, is officially called the Smithsonian Institution Building. It’s the Smithsonian’s first and oldest building as it was built to be the institution’s administrative building.

Today, the Castle serves as the Smithsonian’s visitor center for all of their museums. It’s a great starting point before you visit the other Smithsonian museums as the Castle has information about what’s going on at each museum for that day, in-house experts who can help guide you on your visit, and a collection of treasures from each museum.

History of the Smithsonian Castle

Smithsonian Castle, Washington DC

James Renwick, Jr. designed the Castle as part of a design competition in 1846. The Castle was built in 1855 as the institution’s administrative building and visitor center in Washington DC

Just 10 years after it was built, the Castle caught fire and lost many important artifacts: the correspondence of James Smithson, the namesake of the Smithsonian; 200 oil paintings of Native Americans by painter John Mix Stanley; and so many more priceless treasures were lost to the fire. The building was then further fireproofed and expanded over the years.

The Gothic Revival and Romanesque building strikes a commanding pose on the south side of the National Mall. It has nine towers in all, though only four have occupiable space; others are simple decoration or house stairs.

Touring the Smithsonian Castle: What to See

You don’t have to visit the Castle before going to the Smithsonian museums, but it’s a great starting point if you need any help planning your visit to DC as it is technically the visitor center for all the Smithsonian museums.

You can see what’s going on at the museums for that day and get help from an in-house expert on what to see and do on your visit.

In their America’s Treasure Chest display, you can find items from each of the Smithsonian museums on display, so you can get a taste for what’s on at each of the museums. This is also nice if you have to miss a museum, you can still see a little of its artifacts.

And a crypt inside the north entrance holds the tomb of James Smithson, the namesake of the Smithsonian.

You can also learn more about the Castle and DC through interactive exhibits and maps on display throughout the museum.

There is a free docent-led tour of the castle where you can learn more about the building’s architecture and history. This tour is offered twice a day and is a great way to see the castle and to learn even more about it.

Visiting the Smithsonian Castle

Admission: The Smithsonian Castle is free to visit.

Hours: Note: The Castle is currently closed for renovations. The Castle is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The castle’s free docent-led tours of the building take place at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Address: 1000 Jefferson Dr SW, Washington, DC 20560

Hotels Near the Smithsonian Castle

Find a place to stay near the Smithsonian Castle. Here are the closest hotels to this impressive museum:

Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall, Washington DC

Smithsonian Castle FAQ

Can you go inside the Smithsonian Castle?

You can go inside the Smithsonian Castle. They offer an exhibit with pieces from each Smithsonian museum, tours of the building, and interactive exhibits.

Note: The Castle is currently closed for renovations.

What is the story behind the Smithsonian Castle?

The Smithsonian Institution Building was built in 1855 to house the administrative offices of the Smithsonian Institution. The Castle’s design came from prominent New York architect James Renwick, Jr.

Did anyone live in Smithsonian Castle?

Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, and his family lived in the East Wing of the Smithsonian Castle.

What is inside Smithsonian Castle?

The Smithsonian Castle houses the administrative offices of the Smithsonian Institution and the Smithsonian Information Center (essentially the visitor’s center for the museums). It also has the crypt of James Smithson, the benefactor of the Smithsonian. There are also interactive exhibits and a collection comprised of pieces from each Smithsonian museum on display.

Castle Count: 30

So why does this castle count? These American castles would never count if I weren’t playing it fast and loose with my “castle” designation. I like the idea of this castle being in the capital — the nation’s most important city should definitely have a castle in it! Plus, I’ve always been a sucker for Gothic castles.

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Where to Stay in Washington DC

Find the perfect place to rest your head on your visit to Washington DC, from the top rated accommodations to unique stays you can’t get anywhere else.

Hampton Inn Washington-Downtown-Convention Center

We enjoyed our stay at the Hampton Inn Washington-Downtown-Convention Center when attending an event at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

This hotel has a great location. It’s just on the edge of Chinatown and is within easy walking distance to the National Mall and all the tourist hot spots. There are plenty of restaurant options and nightlife nearby.

Canopy by Hilton Washington DC The Wharf

We love the location of the Canopy by Hilton Washington DC The Wharf, though the hotel’s customer service could use some work.

The Wharf is a great spot to be for beautiful waterfront views and lots of dining and nightlife. It’s also only a 10-15 minute walk from two different Metro stations, and it’s really easy to get to and from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

More Washington DC Resources

Ready to visit the Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC? Plan your trip with these tips.



Visiting the Smithsonian Castle in Washington D.C.

Have you visited the Smithsonian Institution Building, aka the Smithsonian Castle? Let me know in the comments!

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  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Smithsonian Castle and I’m not even sure how that can be since I live in VA! It’s a tragedy that those artifacts were lost in a fire. I hate to think of all the artifacts our country has lost to fires and other disasters over time.

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