A live panda cam, the flying helmet of the first man to break the sound barrier and a giant, bird-eating tarantula are all exhibits at Smithsonian Castle, reflecting the eclectic nature of this fine Institution. It is here that the entire Smithsonian collection was originally housed in 1855, including a science museum, library, art gallery, laboratories and the living quarters of Joseph Henry, its first secretary.
Today, the Smithsonian Castle and Visitor Centre, located along the National Mall in Washington D.C., provides the perfect starting point from which to explore the Smithsonian's nineteen museums holding more than 130 million items, many of which are located within walking distance of the castle.
Designed by James Renwick Jnr., the Smithsonian Castle is made of red sandstone in a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles and is a National Historic Landmark. It was built after the English scientist, Thomas Smithson (1765 – 1829) left his fortune to the United States of America after his heir died childless, with the instruction that the money was to be used to create an institution dedicated to the 'increase and diffusion of knowledge.' Although Smithson never visited the USA, his remains are interred in a stone casket at the Smithsonian Castle, having been moved from their original resting place in Italy.
The architectural highlight of the Smithsonian Castle is the West Wing with its vaulted cathedral-like ceiling, which houses examples from all of the collections, now much expanded and housed in the separate Smithsonian museums.
To help you plan your visit to the other museums, which include the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum, there is an interactive 3D model showing the location of each in relation to the Smithsonian Castle. This is housed in the central hall of the Castle, where display boards outline the history of the Smithsonian, support staff are happy to answer any question you have and there is a café serving light refreshments. You can also pick up a 'Visitor Survival Guide' booklet which is extremely useful.
Once you've decided which Smithsonian museum to explore and before heading out, the Enid A. Haupt Garden around the back of Smithsonian Castle is well worth a visit.
The Smithsonian Castle is located a few minutes' walk from the Smithsonian metro stop. If you're driving, there is cheap, all day valet parking available in the city. I googled 'cheap parking Washington D.C.' and found an underground car park for $7 a day. On Sundays parking is free on the streets of Washington but it is very difficult to find a space where you can legally park.