To find the sort of souvenirs you take home for the family, you can combine your sightseeing with your shopping. Some of Washington’s greatest finds are in its museum gift shops. A museum’s orientation is a good guide to its shop’s merchandise: prints, art-design ties, and art books fill the National Gallery of Art shop; model airplanes and other toys of flight are on sale at the Air and Space Museum; and so on. The largest Smithsonian shops are at the Museum of American History, which sells toys, clothing, musical instruments, and recordings from countries highlighted in the exhibits, although all the museums have some items reflecting the collection. Some of the hippest gifts are currently on view—sort of—at the International Spy Museum, which stocks video and CD copies of old spy TV shows and themes, pens disguised as lipsticks, disguises for people, and miniature cameras. The Crime Museum has similar but somewhat cheesier stuff, plus handcuffs. (There aren’t many souvenirs at Madame Tussauds, except the photos you take of yourself with the “celebrities.”)
Where to find the best Museum Shops in Washington, D.C.
Some good museum shops are often overlooked by tourists. Among the best are the National Building Museum shop, which sells design-related books, jewelry, architecturally inspired greeting cards, and gadgets; the Arts and Industries shop, a pretty Victorian setting stocked with Smithsonian reproductions; the National Museum of the American Indian, with its turquoise and silver jewelry, Zuni pottery, hand carvings, and rugs; the National Museum of Women in the Arts, with Frida Kahlo dolls and Rosie the Riveter bookends; the National Museum of African Art shop, a bazaar filled with colorful cloth, Ethiopian crosses, and wooden ceremonial instruments, such as hand drums and tambourines; the Hirshhorn Museum, with its selection of gifts for the photography enthusiast; the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery shop, with cases full of brass Buddhas, Chinese lacquerware, jade and jasper jewelry, feng shui kits, and porcelain; the Renwick Gallery, which stocks unusual art jewelry and handblown glass; the Shakespeare lovers’ treasure trove at Folger Shakespeare Library (everyone needs a Shakespeare magnetic poetry kit); and the shop at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, stocked with videos, opera glasses, and other gifts for Jackie and John lovers (such as costume jewelry inspired by the late former First Lady).
The Hillwood Museum has jewelry and ornaments inspired by Marjorie Merriweather Post’s famous collection of Fabergé eggs and Russian porcelains. The expanded shop at Mount Vernon offers reproductions of Martha’s cookbook, George’s key to the Bastille, and period china and silver patterns.
The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum shop, sells distinctive gifts, jewelry, and books, many custom-made and inspired by American decorative art and found only here. The shop at the National Geographic Museum offers clothing, jewelry, toys, and accessories from all around the globe. The Cathedral Store on the grounds of the National Cathedral features stone gargoyles, prayer books, rose-window silk scarves, statues of religious icons, and rosaries.
A visit in mid-September may mean you’ll catch the Museum Sidewalk Sale at the Kennedy Center. This all-day event features those same treasures—books, textiles, jewelry, and prints—at significantly lower prices. Another excellent shopping opportunity comes during late November: the annual Museum Shop Around, held at the Mansion at Strathmore, where (for a fee of $8) shoppers will find merchandise from all the Smithsonian museums and others under one convenient roof.
For more information on shopping when visiting Washington, D.C., check out The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C. by Eve Zibart, Renee Sklarew, and Len Testa.