Completed in 1855, the Castle is our signature building and home to the Smithsonian Visitor Center. As such, it makes a great starting point for your journey—here you can get a grasp of the scope and scale of the Smithsonian, see collections highlights from each of our museums, tour the Castle’s 19th-century architecture, see what’s going on today at all the museums, and consult with our in-house experts about what to see and do.
The Smithsonian Institution Building, located near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. behind the National Museum of African Art and the Sackler Gallery, houses the Smithsonian Institution’s administrative offices and information center. While the Victorian arches and dark woodwork of the Castle suggest a bygone era, it now holds a thoroughly modern visitors center with interactive 3-D maps pinpointing and detailing the 17 DC-area Smithsonian Institution properties, including museums, galleries and the National Zoological Park.
Since most are on the adjacent National Mall, the maps can be particularly helpful for plotting a day of museum-hopping. Docents also man a help desk and distribute printed guides. There’s also a coffee and snack shop and a large seating area with free Wi-Fi, an ideal place to take a break and plan your next move, be it bug-viewing at the National Museum of Natural History or a dip into contemporary art the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Also housed in the grand, church-like structure is the exhibit A Castle of Curiosities, delving into the history of the castle and the little that is known of Smithson’s life. In the high-ceilinged rooms beyond, another exhibit, Welcome to the Smithsonian, holds art and artifacts representing all of the institution’s members in old-timey gleaming wooden display cases. Look out for the National Zoo’s “panda cam” showing its popular bears and ancient buddhas from the Sackler Gallery.
Perhaps most touching, the Castle also holds James Smithson’s crypt. Though he died in Genoa, Italy and was buried there, in 1905, he was reinterred in a marble crypt in a small, chapel-like room here. Pay tribute to him here, or by visiting the many museums his vision launched.