Smithsonian Arts and Industries building, Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (Courtesy Smithsonian)

Free Things to Do in D.C.

By Anne Kim-Dannibale on 10/18/16
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With so many free museums and sites, Washington, D.C., more than any other city in the world, makes it easy for visitors to stick to a budget. And it’s not just the many Smithsonian collections (the most popular listed below) that help frugal travelers save. Historic sites, natural wonders and an entertainment heavy hitter provide hours of fun at no cost. So leave the cash at home and enjoy a few of these completely free things to do and see in D.C.

Air and Space Museum

(©f11photo/Shutterstock)

Attractions

Air and Space Museum

A perennial favorite, this Smithsonian site features the renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, now displaying such aviation gems as the Apollo lunar module, Telstar I communications satellite and even the Starship Enterprise studio model from the original “Star Trek” television series. Also, touch a real rock from the moon.

Inside National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy’s massive hangar

(©Dane Penland)

Attractions

Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center

This hangar-like sister site to the District’s Air and Space Museum is worth the drive. Treasures here include a Concorde airplane and the Space Shuttle Discovery. A glass-enclosed mezzanine offers a view of ongoing restoration projects. Know before you go: parking costs $15 before 4 pm.

Star-Spangled Banner exhibit (Courtesy National Museum of American History)

Star-Spangled Banner exhibit (Courtesy National Museum of American History)

Attractions

American History Museum

Located on the National Mall, this treasure house is not only easy to get to, but also one of the Smithsonian’s most popular sites. Don’t miss the Star-Spangled Banner that inspired the lyrics to the national anthem, first ladies’ gowns, a piece of Plymouth Rock, Julia Child’s kitchen and Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

Natural History Museum

(©Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock)

Attractions

Natural History Museum

Kids get hands-on with creepy crawlies at the O. Orkin Insect Zoo and let butterflies land on them in the Butterfly Pavilion ($6; free Tuesdays with timed entry ticket). The infamous Hope Diamond and equally entrancing Dom Pedro aquamarine add to the museum’s universal appeal.

National Zoological Park

Giant panda and celebrity sensation Bao Bao (Courtesy Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Attractions

National Zoological Park

Cuddly giant pandas may be the zoo’s most famous residents but other creatures are just as intriguing. Among its stars? The naked mole-rat, which can bite through concrete and the airapaima, an 8-foot-long fish that breathes air. The Cleveland Park Metrorail exit takes visitors downhill to the zoo; Woodley Park uphill.

National Gallery of Art/West Building

Edgar Degas' "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen" (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)

Attractions

National Gallery of Art/West Building

Here, find treasures like this hemisphere’s only da Vinci painting, “Ginevra de’ Benci,” as well as a sculpture garden with eye-popping works like Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s giant “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” and Roy Lichtenstein’s “House I.” Leo Villareal’s groovy LED tunnel connects the West and East buildings.

The Alexander Calder exhibit in the Tower galleries

(Courtesy National Gallery of Art)

Attractions

National Gallery of Art/East Building

Re-opened in 2016, this section now includes more than 12,000 square feet of new public space, including two skylit Tower galleries and a Roof Terrace with sculptures and views. The northwest Tower Gallery is devoted to Alexander Calder, while the Roof Terrace features Katharina Fritsch’s amusing 14.5-foot-tall electric blue rooster.

Jefferson Memorial (©ehpien/Flickr Creative Commons)

(©ehpien/Flickr Creative Commons)

Attractions

Jefferson Memorial

John Russell Pope’s neoclassical tribute located at the Tidal Basin makes a picturesque backdrop year-round. It’s especially lovely when the cherry trees encircling the basin are in bloom, and at night, when lights cast the domed monument in a romantic glow.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and dog, Fala

(spyder239/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Attractions

Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial

Wear comfortable shoes to this 7.5-acre landscaped park and expect to do plenty of walking among the bronze sculptures and bas reliefs of the 32nd president. The memorial is also located along the Tidal Basin, a picturesque spot especially during cherry blossom season.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in profile view

(©F Delventhal/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Attractions

Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial

The newest memorial on the National Mall depicts the civil rights leader in a striking way—emerging from a block of granite. A bookstore nearby offers souvenirs and a deeper dive into King’s story, while park ranger-led tours bring the tribute to life (see signs near the memorial).

The National Mall looking toward the Lincoln Memorial (©NCinDC/Flickr Creative Commons)

Looking toward the Lincoln Memorial from the East end of the Mall (©NCinDC/Flickr Creative Commons)

Attractions

National Mall

Memorials dot the western side of “America’s front yard,” with top sites including Vietnam Veterans, Korean War and Lincoln. Smithsonian museums line the eastern side. The nearest Metrorail stops include Smithsonian, L’Enfant Plaza, Federal Triangle and Archives-Navy Memorial.

Exterior showing Art Deco conservatory and gardens

(©NCinDC/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Attractions

U.S. Botanic Garden

North America’s oldest botanic garden with its Art Deco-era conservatory is active year-round with daily lectures and special events. Once in a blue moon, a corpse flower in the garden’s collection blooms, causing massive crowds to flock for a whiff of the plant’s notoriously putrid odor.

Capitol columns at U.S. National Arboretum

(Courtesy U.S. National Arboretum)

Attractions

U.S. National Arboretum

Accessible by car, this 446-acre green oasis in the city is home to the former U.S. Capitol columns and the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, which counts among its collection a centuries-old Yamaki pine that survived the Hiroshima atomic bombing.

Lotuses at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

(©DC Gardens/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Attractions

Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

This national park located in northeast D.C. is a natural wonderland, best known for its water lilies which flower in late June through July. Catch them in full bloom in the morning before they close up in the afternoon. Other activities include birding, hiking, painting and picnicking. Park rangers lead daily garden walks at 2 pm.

Kennedy Center

At the Kennedy Center, sunset reflected in the waters of the Potomac River (Courtesy Destination DC)

Attractions, Entertainment

Kennedy Center

While most shows here come at a cost, the Millennium Stage holds free performances daily at 6:30 pm. Plus, the views of the Potomac from the terrace are priceless. Guided tours take groups through the Hall of Nations, main stages (including Opera House, Concert Hall, Eisenhower Theater) and the Israeli Lounge.

Great Falls Park

The wild water and craggy landscape of Great Falls Park (©Jared Browarnik, Flickr)

Attractions

Great Falls Park

Nature lovers find a stunning sight of cascading water at this park plus hiking trails. From the clifftops, marvel at experienced rafters negotiating through the Class VI rapids below. Make an afternoon of it with a picnic and take a spin through the visitor center for more on the park.

Rock Creek Park

Sunrise at Rock Creek Park (©James Losey, Flickr)

Attractions

Rock Creek Park

Locals love to take to the trails of this park, which provides a calming sanctuary in the middle of the city. Kids may enjoy the nature center, which offers exhibitions and live animals, and the planetarium, where park rangers lead visitors on a tour of the night sky. Live, outdoor skygazing is also offered on clear nights.

C&O Canal

A replica passenger boat on the canal near Great Falls (Courtesy National Park Service)

Attractions

C&O Canal

A walk along the towpath can be a relaxing way to spend an afternoon in Georgetown. The local visitor center is closed indefinitely, but the one at Great Falls Tavern offers tours and rides on a replica passenger boat for a glimpse into the area’s past.

A sunlit corridor inside DAR Museum

(©Anne Kim-Dannibale)

Attractions

DAR Museum

The headquarters for the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution often organizes exhibitions about post-Revolutionary America. Don’t miss the 30 rooms decorated in period and regional styles, plus the extensive geneological library.

National Archives

(©Valerie Hinojosa/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Attractions

National Archives

Arrive early to see the Charters of Freedom (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights), Magna Carta and special exhibitions. Leaving large bags and backpacks at home can make getting through security easier and faster.

Exterior of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing across the Tidal Basin

(©Ken Lund/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Attractions

Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Visitors to this money-printing hub learn all about U.S. currency and see millions in cash being printed. Admission is free, but tickets are required during certain seasons. Check the website for details before you go.

Old Stone House from across the street

(©Ken Lund/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Attractions

Old Stone House

Located on bustling M Street NW in the heart of Georgetown’s shopping district, the oldest house in the city offers a historic respite. Tours are self-guided through all three levels. Don’t miss the lovely back garden.

Library of Congress

Reading Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building (©Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Attractions

Library of Congress

Built in 1800, the Library of Congress is the oldest cultural federal institution in the country. In 1814, British troops destroyed the original collection of 3,000 books. A year later, Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s personal archive, rebuilding the library. Visitors can still see Jefferson’s core stacks today.

Arlington National Cemetery (©U.S. Army/Flickr Creative Commons)

(©U.S. Army/Flickr Creative Commons)

Attractions

Arlington National Cemetery

This hallowed ground is beautiful any time of year and especially picturesque in the fall. Wear comfortable shoes and expect to walk up and down hills and stairs. Sites not to miss: John F. Kennedy gravesite with eternal flame, Tomb of the Unknowns and the emotional Changing of the Guards and Arlington House with spectacular views of D.C.

The White House

The south portico (By Mary A. Behre, Courtesy Destination DC)

Attractions

The White House

There are plenty of photo ops at the president’s residence, but the north side is also bordered by leafy Lafayette Square, frequented by visitors and denizens alike catching a midday break.

U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

The seat of the legislative branch of government (Courtesy Destination DC)

Travel Services

U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

In addition to standard tours of the Capitol, special excursions take visitors through different aspects of the building. The Brumidi offers a look at the artist behind the paintings in the rotunda and the first-floor Senate wing. Visitors also roam the gardens, weather permitting.

Supreme Court

The seat of the judicial branch of government (FaceMePLS, Flickr)

Attractions

Supreme Court

Ground-floor exhibitions explore different aspects of the highest tribunal in the land, while courtroom lectures offer insights into the court’s function and history, plus the building’s architecture.

Exterior with dome

(©John M/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Attractions

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Nearly a million people visit this shrine located in northeast D.C. (nearest Metrorail stop: Brookland/CUA) annually. Inside, don’t miss Pope Paul VI’s coronation tiara and Pope Benedict XVI’s “golden rose,” a gift from his 2008 visit.

Congressional Cemetery

(©Brooke Sabin)

Attractions

Congressional Cemetery

At this 35-acre graveyard and dog park, visitors find famous names and a few interesting markers. Volunteer docents lead tours on Saturdays at 11 am. Otherwise, download brochures with maps for self-guided tours from the cemetery website.

Ford's Theatre

On the left, the presidential box where Lincoln sat that fateful night. (Maxwell MacKenzie, Courtesy Ford's Theatre)

Entertainment

Ford's Theatre

Expect to spend at least two hours at this working theater and shrine to President Abraham Lincoln. A ticket takes you inside the museum with artifacts (Booth’s Deringer pistol), the theater and Peterson House across the street where Lincoln died that fateful night.

Map of Free Things to Do in D.C.