On display

Washington Museums Worthy of a Road Trip

Take a drive and learn something already.

By Allison Williams April 12, 2024

The show Pulling Roots: Reinaldo Gil Zambrano at Spokane's Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

As a stop on a random road trip, museums are unparalleled for their ability to offer a taste of local culture, easy edification, clean bathrooms, and maybe even a good gift shop. Some of Washington's best (and weirdest) collections are far flung, making the ideal anchor for a day or overnight jaunt away.

Maryhill Museum of Art


So iconic it might count as one of the seven wonders of Washington state (if we had that), this Columbia Gorge mansion was turned into an art repository thanks to local highway proponent Samuel Hill—who got assists from, of all people, a pioneering modern dancer and the then Queen of Romania. Artworks range from a large Auguste Rodin sculpture collection to Northwest Indigenous pieces, plus Orthodox icons and fashion history items. Expect a little of everything.

The Whale Museum offers an inside look—literally—at our cetacean neighbors.

The Whale Museum

Friday Harbor

At more than 40 years old, this petite San Juan Islands center has all the charm of an old-fashioned museum, including a small space and a singular mission: to celebrate the Salish Sea orca (with a hat tip to other local whales). With constant whale watching taking place on the waters around the San Juans, the museum can serve as a starting or ending point for discerning the difference between a southern resident and a Bigg's. The skeleton of a young L-Pod killer whale hangs in the center of the gallery, a reminder of the trials faced by our local swimmers.

Nutcracker Museum


It's right there in the name: it's nutcrackers. Just nutcrackers. One next to the other like an army of little walnut-hungry wooden zombies. Boasting more than 9,000 figures from around the world, this is the rare corner of Leavenworth that takes Bavarian culture beyond its bratwurst and lederhosen shenanigans to focus on how the classic style has been recreated, repurposed, and reimagined in various materials. An annual Nutcracker Day in June includes a hunt for specific nutcrackers and the chance to put one to work with a hazelnut.

The US Naval Undersea Museum shows off how the work gets done in underwater military programs.

US Naval Undersea Museum


Aside from the worthy salute to the rigors of working in a naval submarine, exhibits dive into the classic pranks pulled by submariners on each other (tip: if a fellow sailor tells you to go check the mail buoy, you're the butt of the joke). Tucked into one of the outposts of Naval Base Kitsap, the bite-size museum makes a good add-on to Bremerton's USS Turner Joy shipboard experience. Though the submersibles parked outside are impressively giant, the interior explanations of the navy's dolphin and sea lion members is most illuminating.

Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture


The MAC, as its known, stands as one of Spokane's preeminent historic and cultural institutions; beyond its modern main building, it includes the 1898 Campbell House next door. Exhibits tend toward the intersection of art and local stories, like current show, Frank S. Matsura: Portraits from the Borderland, about a Japanese photographer who used his lens on Indigenous Pacific Northwesterners. This year, the museum will also celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Spokane's World's Fair, Expo '74.

Tiny forest in a big forest: the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way.

Pacific Bonsai Museum

Federal Way

Isn't a collection of plants a botanic garden, not a museum? Not at the outdoor institution on the old Weyerhaeuser campus, where bonsai trees are respected as legitimate living artworks, a kind of collaboration between plant and human. Turns out any wooded plant can be coaxed into a miniature tree form, and bonsais are listed with their "In Training Since" date—meaning how long their bonsai artist has been pruning them to their delicate, exacting form. Add on a ramble through the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden next door, which has its own museumish cataloguing qualities.

Museum of Glass


How to select one destination among Tacoma's veritable smorgasbord of institutions? The austere Washington State History Museum, snappy Tacoma Art Museum, nautical Foss Waterway Seaport, surprisingly in-depth LeMay–America's Car Museum; all worthy endpoints for a day trip. But with its salute to the state's signature fine art, the Museum of Glass delivers shimmery artworks and a working hot shop to see artisans in action.

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