What You Need to Know about Visiting DC during a Government Shutdown

2023 Government shutdown update

Washington DC tends to feel like it has come to a standstill during a federal government shutdown. However, this is far from the truth. While several Washington DC museums shutdown, many are still open.

You may not be able to visit the National Zoo or the Smithsonian Museums (depending on the budgets), but you do have options.

Washington DC Monuments and Memorials- Lincoln Memorial

Museums that are closed during a government shutdown

While some of the Smithsonian museums do try to stay open if they have extra funding from the previous year, you can assume that all will be closed if there is a government shutdown. Most of museum funding comes from the federal government, so without an operating budget, museums send all non-essential employees home.

Closed DC Museums

  • African American History and Culture Museum
  • African Art Museum
  • Air and Space Museum
  • Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center
  • American Art Museum
  • American History Museum
  • American Indian Museum
  • Anacostia Community Museum
  • Archives of American Art
  • Arts and Industries Building
  • Cooper Hewitt
  • Freer Gallery
  • Hirshhorn
  • National Gallery of Art
  • National Law Enforcement Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • Portrait Gallery
  • Postal Museum
  • Renwick Gallery
  • S.Dillon Ripley Center
  • Sackler Gallery
  • Smithsonian Castle (under renovation)
  • Smithsonian Gardens
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Belmont-Paul House
  • Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
  • Ford’s Theater
  • Old Stone House in Georgetown
  • Museum of the Marine Corps
US Capitol in Washington DC

Government Buildings Closed during Shutdown

While not all government buildings have been closed in the past, it all depends on funding. If a building is already fully funded for the year, it can stay open, if not, it needs to close.

The following buildings are effected during a government shutdown

  • Library of Congress
  • The National Archives
  • US Capital Visitor Center
  • Bureau of Engraving and Printing
  • Folger’s Shakespeare Theatre
  • US Botanic Garden
  • White House Visitor Center & White House Public Tours

Don’t forget that Baltimore is just a quick drive north of DC as well. There are plenty of Baltimore museums and attractions to keep you busy when the ones you came to visit in DC are shut down.

Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC National Mall

Does the National Mall close during a shutdown?

The National Mall should stay open to some degree. While the paths will be open, any memorial and monument interiors will be closed to the public, as well as visitor centers, gift shops and restrooms.

Trash pick up will also be a problem, as this is federal land. Washington, D.C. will try to help out, but there is only so much that can be done when employees are furloughed.

Hillwood Gardens and Estate Washington DC

Free museum entry for Federal Employees

We love our free DC museums, but the city has several fee-based museums that are always worth a visit. Now is not the time to stay home and do nothing.

The government shutdown affects so many people. We love seeing how organizations are showing love and respect to those struggling right now by giving back, even through free museum admission.

Federal workers with an employee ID can get free entry to many of the city’s museums while on furlough. You just have to know where to ask.

Keep an eye out for discounts, free admissions and specials. Many are being announced on local news stations and on the individual museum sites.

Enid A. Haupt Garden - Washington DC gardens

Things to do in DC During a Government Shutdown

Washington DC Museums that are open

Four of our favorite Washington DC museums to pay for will stay open. Now is your chance to dive into a little espionage, the history of buildings, great photos taken across the globe, and innovations in art.

And don’t forget- many of our favorite museum in Baltimore will still be open.


National Building Museum

The National Building Museum is quite possibly our favorite fee-based museum in Washington, DC in the summer months. This is because it brings in an incredible exhibit every year that has lines out the door. Yes, these exhibits are that good.

Thankfully, the museum got wise and now offers timed tickets so you don’t have to wait in a three-hour line just to see the exhibit.

Our favorite exhibit to date—The Beach, a giant ball pit, installed back in 2015 that was designed by Snarkitecture. This creative firm showed up again with Fun House in 2018, and a mini beach in the form of “The Pool.”

National Building Museum

Other times of the year, this museum still offers up loads of fun for kids and adults of all ages. Play Work Build can keep kids from 0 to 10 busy for hours while their parents play Wordle on their phone.

Building Zone, specifically designed for ages 2 through 6, introduces young architects to the elements that go into building and design. Parents are welcome to help, but don’t be surprised when the kids kick you out.

Adults will enjoy revolving exhibits like Secret Cities, a display that dives into life within the Manhattan Project. Other great exhibits have included Evicted and Flickering Treasures; one that told the immersive tale of low-income renter evictions, while another celebrates the long cinematic history of Baltimore.

Read more reviews HERE

Artechouse in Washington DC


In no way associated with the government, ARTECHOUSE is protected from the effects of the government shutdown and ready for visitors to explore.

This art house brings together artists and technology in news ways to challenge the way we think and look at art. Come in, pull up a bean bag and let your mind wander through experiential imagery.

ARTECHOUSE is also home to the the first U.S. Augmented Reality bar serving drinks activated with its free AR mobile app. Cheers everyone!

Read more reviews HERE


National Geographic Museum

The National Geographic Museum may be closed for installation of a new exhibit. Check the website before you head out.

The National Geographic Museum has a revolving door of exhibits going on throughout the year. There is no permanent collection to check out every day.

This museum generally features two traveling exhibits at once, so catch each while it is on display. Past exhibits include the The Greeks, Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology, Spinosaurus, and Mars Up Close.

Read more reviews HERE

International Spy Museum

International Spy Museum

While young children may not be as into the Washington, DC International Spy Museum, older siblings and parents will love it. Several hands-on exhibits, video programs, and computer interactives bring the exhibits to life in ways nowhere else found across the country.

The collection spans the globe of espionage, looking at the early tech, and men and women who went undercover for their government agencies.

International Spy Museum

Interactive displays include disguise, cipher, and surveillance activities. There are plenty of videos to watch, and you can even try your hand at crawling through duct work in the ceiling.

Best of all, there is an entire exhibit dedicated to the world of “007: James Bond.” That’s a lot of movie memorabilia and intrigue to keep you occupied. Plus, just think of all the questions your kids will have about some of those titles.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Read more reviews HERE

National Museum of Health and Medicine Maryland

More Museums in Washington DC that should stay open

There are a number of DC museums that should stay open. Should is the keyword here.

While many of these museums are privately funded (or funded enough that they can remain open) some do take federal funds. Any federally funded programming may be cancelled.

  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • The Phillips Collection
  • Glenstone
  • National Museum of Women in the Arts (as of 2023, the museum was still closed for renovations)
  • Kreeger Museum
  • Art Museum of the Americas
  • Koshland Science Museum
  • O Museum in the Mansion
  • B&O Railroad Museum (Baltimore)
  • Planet Word
  • Rubell Museum
  • The Museum of the Bible
  • National Children’s Museum
  • National Inventor’s Hall of Fame Museum (Alexandria)
  • Navy Memorial with Visitor Center
  • National Museum of Health and Medicine

Pop-Up Museums in DC

Pop-up museums seem to be all the rage, meaning an exhibit takes over a space for a set amount of time. The 2023 Museum of Failure is just one example, as is the Pinball Museum and the National Hip-Hop Museum.

Check local listings for these limited-time museums in Washington DC, as you will want to check them out before they move onto the next city.

Blagden Alley in Washington DC

Washington DC Art Galleries

We love our free museums in Washington DC, but there are a number of DC art galleries just waiting to show you the latest works of art from their artists.

Art Walks in Washington DC

Like the art galleries, many neighborhoods in DC (as well as towns in Virginia and Maryland) offer an art walk that is free to the public, with galleries opening their doors so you can wander, and even a few embassies open their doors to show off their art collections.

The National Gallery even has a self-guided art walk around the city, which is still accessible even if the museum is closed.

While we wish these walks were every day, some are only once a month, and others are once a year. Check websites and event listings for times and dates that each art walk is happening.

  • First Friday: ArtWalk Dupont
  • Brookland Arts Walk
  • DC Arts Walk & Edgewood Arts Center
  • ADMO Art Walk — The DC Arts Center
  • Capitol Hill Art Walk 
  • Georgetown Spring Art Walk
Blagden Alley in Washington DC

DC Alley Museum

Here’s one of our favorite free museums in Washington DC that is open. DC Alley Museum is a wonderland of murals by local artists with a connection to the Shaw neighborhood in DC.

Since 2015, Blagden Alley has been known as a haven for some of DC’s top muralists, including  Lisa Marie Thalhammer, Bill Warrel, Rozeal, Cita Sadeli Chelove, and Aniekan Udofia.

It is free to wander down Blagden Alley, and you can even pick up a coffee from La Colombe’s Blageden Alley location while you are it.

Hint: if you put La Colombe Blagden Alley in your GPS you will easily find this alleyway of murals.

Find more public art in DC

Dupont Underground in Washington DC

Dupont Underground

If you haven’t been to the Dupont Underground then you are missing out! This 15,000 square foot space under Dupont Circle was an old trolley station, but was transformed into a gallery and performing art space in 2016.

The art space hosts everything from comedy shows to ballet, artist exhibitions to lectures. There is a fee to attend most events, but it is worth it!

Culture House DC

Culture house boasts an indoor gallery that features a variety of artistic mediums, and hosts a ton of community-based programming. The Avant Garden, located outside, is a space where the public can see large-scale murals on the walls and sculptures that were made for the outdoors.

Culture House DC is free to visit and open on Saturdays, 11 AM to 2 PM.

The Torpedo Center Art Gallery

Just across the river in Alexandria, VA, the Torpedo Center Art Gallery hosts artist exhibitions throughout the year for the public to enjoy. You can also look into classes, art-focused special events, and more fun with the DC-area artist community.

The Art League

Since you are already in Alexandria, you can pair a visit here with a stop at The Art League, which also hosts exhibitions of emerging artists and special events.

Our favorite? Art on the Rocks, which “challenges area mixologists and chefs to create the most artistic cocktail & appetizer pairing inspired by the art of a local Art League artist.”

Washington DC National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral

The National Cathedral in Washington DC is a place for anyone who loves grand architecture, likes learning about earthquake repairs, and who loves an incredible garden.

There is a fee to visit the Cathedral, unless you are there to attend a service.

Bishop’s Garden is a favorite spot on the grounds of the cathedral, but you can also explore the the Olmsted Woods and a prayer path. There is even a playground at the school behind the cathedral that you are allowed to access (last we checked) as long as school is not in session.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception  in Washington DC

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Even if you aren’t religious, you can still appreciate the art and craftsmanship that went into building this Washington DC Basilica on the grounds of Catholic University.

It’s free to wander the grounds and interior of the basilica, as well as the garden across the street. Services are still held throughout the week, so be mindful of when you tour the building.

George Washington's Mount Vernon in Virginia

Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon is privately owned, so will stay open throughout the government shutdown. Located in Fairfax County, VA along the Potomac, you can still see where the first President George Washington and his wife Martha called home.

You can tour the grounds and gardens, the estate, and take part in a variety of events throughout the year. The Fourth of July at Mount Vernon is pretty epic, but let’s hope this shutdown doesn’t last that long.

Read our full guide to Mount Vernon

President Lincolns Cottage
credit Carol M. Highsmith Photography

President Lincoln’s Cottage

The President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument, also known as President Lincoln’s Cottage, should remain open throughout a shutdown. While it is a national monument, it is also a public charity (run as a private institution) and doesn’t solely survive on federal funding.

Lincoln spent a quarter of his presidency at the cottage. He developed the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as made decisions about freedom, the Union, and the presidency. Innovative thinking is encouraged at this monument/museum, so bring your thinking caps and get ready to change the world.

Read our full guide to President Lincoln’s Cottage

Oak Hill Cemetery

It’s not weird to tour a cemetery. Oak Hill Cemetery is where many historic figures go to rest, but their stories never die.

While it’s not the same as visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, you can still take a self-guided tour to see United States literary figures, Civil War heroes, influential women, Civil War-area civilian of note, Revolutionary War figures, and even early DC residents who now call Oak Hill home.

Artists, Writers and Inventors

  • Herman Hollerith
  • Paul Pelzl
  • Joseph Henry
  • Jacob Fussell
  • Adolph Cluss
  • John Joyce
  • Henry Ulke
  • John Howard Payne
  • William Tyler Page
  • Horace Capron

Non-Military Civil War Era

  • Edwin Stanton
  • Henry Addison
  • William Thomas Carroll
  • Richard T. Merrick
  • John Nicolay
  • Richard Wallach
  • Andrew Wylie
  • Willie (William Wallace) Lincoln
  • David Yulee
  • Jefferson Davis

Women of Note

  • Marcia Burnes Van Ness
  • Peggy O’Neal Eaton
  • Mary Cogswell Kinney
  • Myrtilla Miner
  • E.D.E.N. Southworth
  • Lillie Mackall
  • Antonia Ford Willard
  • Bettie Duval (Webb)
Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

Of course, you are always welcome to wander the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, even during a government shutdown. Burials will still take place as well, allowing families to lay loved ones to rest.

According to the cemetery website, “Arlington National Cemetery will be open if the federal government shuts down. Arlington National Cemetery remains operational for interment operations and will be open to the general public in the event of a lapse in appropriations for much of the federal government.”

Find more things to do in Arlington VA

US Botanic Garden

Washington DC Gardens that are OPEN

United States Botanic Garden

Sadly, it looks like the US Botanic Garden will close if there is a government shutdown, despite it staying open during the last one. If the botanic garden does open (let’s hope it does by Christmas in DC when the Christmas trains arrive!) you will want to sprint over to get your fill of flowers from across the U.S. and around the world.

While you may not think of it as a museum, the US Botanic Garden still makes us happy throughout the year, especially during the winter months. And actually, it is considered a living museum filled with flora and fauna. Best of all—it’s FREE all year long!

The conservatory is one of the warmest spots to visit in the city in the winter, filled with blooms that will remind you that spring will come again. Visit several times a year to see the garden at its different stages. No two weeks will ever look the same.

Just remember to look, not touch. Don’t remove the labels; don’t pick the flowers. These are for everyone to enjoy.

Hillwood Gardens and Estate Washington DC

Hillwood Estate, Museums & Gardens

Quite possibly my favorite place in the city is Hillwood Estate, Museums and Gardens. There is something so peaceful about the gardens, especially the Asian gardens in the autumn as the Japanese maples start to change colors.

When the uncertainty of the government shutdown has got you down, go to Hillwood. The house is incredible, and was originally built for Post Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, but if you just need somewhere to quietly sit, you will find it here.

Dumbarton Oaks Washington DC

Dumbarton Oaks

Dumbarton Oaks is another estate and garden where you can wander for hours, and does not rely on government funding.

See what is in bloom, check out the buildings, greenhouses and even the swimming pool. Since Dumbarton Oaks was a private estate owned by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, a former U.S. Foreign Service diplomat, it was built to their specifications. Let’s just say we should all wish we could live at Dumbarton Oaks, even today.

Tudor Place

Tudor Place takes up one entire block in Georgetown Heights, a section of Washington DC. You can explore this Federal-style mansion that was originally the home of Thomas Peter and Martha Parke Custis Peter, a granddaughter of Martha Washington.

While it remained a private estate for centuries, after the the last owner, Armistead Peter 3rd, passed away in 1983, the mansion opened to the public in 1988 and is now managed by Tudor Place Foundation, Inc.


Washington DC Monuments and Memorials

The National Mall is still open. It’s a massive park, but trash may be piling up, despite the DC mayor arranging for DC sanitation to pick up trash from the bins. The monuments and memorials are also still open, but park rangers will not be giving tours, and any indoor spaces and facilities will be closed.

A lot of tour operators are offering tours however. You can still see the monuments at night and stroll by good-ole Abe Lincoln.

Want to hope on a tour? Here are a few of our favorites:

DC Museums

The National Zoo is closed, but…

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is open and waiting to invite you to see their animals. Drive an hour north to Baltimore to take a peek under the sea and get your critter fix while in the mid-Atlantic region.

Want to go? Learn more HERE.

Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC

But why is the National Zoo Closed?

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute will close during a government shutdown, because like all Smithsonian museums, the zoo receives receives federal funding. 

Animals will still be cared for in the same way they always are looked after, with no neglect or decline in what is provided to the animals.

Sometimes the Zoo will remain open for a while during a federal government shutdown, using any remaining funds from the previous year, but this money can dry up fast, so don’t count on the Zoo being open.

The roads leading into the National Zoo are also closed whenever the zoo is shutdown, so you can not just wander in and explore if you like.

Looking for a Washington DC Hotel

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