If you’re searching for a destination full of cultural attractions that are not only amazing but also inexpensive, America’s capital is it!
There are numerous free things to do in Washington DC, ranging from museums like the Smithsonian to sightseeing at the National Mall. In fact, Washington DC is one of the best cities to visit if you’re looking for activities that don’t cost a thing!
1. Smithsonian Institution
Did you know the Smithsonian isn’t just one museum but a collection of 17 museums throughout the DC metro area? Many of the more well-known museums are located on the National Mall, including the Natural History Museum, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and American History Museum. Keep in mind, it’s a smart idea to start your visit at the Smithsonian Visitor Center. Here, you can chat with volunteer experts, plan which museums and exhibits to tour, find interactives to help plan your route, and more.
2. U.S. Capitol
Free things to do in Washington DC include tours of the U.S. Capitol, home to the United States House of Representatives and Senate. These tours, while free, do require tickets. Same day passes are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. However, we recommend reserving a date and time for your tickets, especially during spring and summer.
Highlights of the 45-minute tour include the Capitol Rotunda, Crypt, National Statuary Hall and connecting corridors of the U.S. Capitol.
3. National Mall
The National Mall features dozens of museums and historic sites, all of which are free. As such, it’s a first-stop on many visitor’s itineraries. In addition to the aforementioned Smithsonian Museums available at the National Mall, this attraction is also home to Lincoln Memorial as well as Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Washington Monument. While you can tour the sights on your own, the National Park Service also offers free guided walking and bike tours.
4. Arlington National Cemetery
Pay tribute to our nation’s fallen servicemen, as well as many famous Americans, at Arlington National Cemetary. In addition to paying your respects at the cemetery, be sure to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown as well as visit Arlington House. The former home of Robert E. Lee is set atop a hill, providing some of the best views of Washington DC.
5. Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center offers free performances nightly at 6 pm. Performances range from the National Symphony Orchestra to dance troupes and poets. In addition, there are free tours of the venue available.
6. Washington National Cathedral
One of the largest and most beautiful cathedrals in all of America, the Washington Cathedral features a Neo-Gothic architectural design and stunning stained glass windows. The Cathedral has been the spiritual home of many presidents as well as the location of several presidential state funerals, the last of which was George H.W. Bush’s in 2018. The National Cathedral is free to visit for worship. However, free tours are available on Sunday only.
7. The National Zoo
If you’re traveling with kids, this is one of the best free things to do in Washington DC. The National Zoo is a ran by the Smithsonian Institution and is located in the southern section of Rock Creek Park. Highlights include elephants, tigers, gorillas, orangutans, and, of course, pandas. In total, there are more than 400 different species calling the Zoo home.
8. Rock Creek Park
Trek to Rock Creek Park to explore not only the National Zoo but more than 2,000 acres of urban beauty. The park offers hiking trails, picnic grounds, bike paths, a tennis center, nature center, planetarium, an amphitheater with summer concert programs, and much more. As the oldest urban park in the National Park Service, Rock Creek Park is a natural gem in the middle of a bustling urban area.
9. White House
One of the most sought-after free things to do in Washington DC is touring the White House. However, as this is the home of the President, tours require a bit more work. In order to tour the White House, a request must be submitted through a member of Congress. These requests can be submitted up to three months in advance and no less than 21 days in advance. Tours are available 7:30am-11:30amd Tuesday through Thursday, and 7:30 am-1: 30 pm Fridays and Saturdays.
You can always visit the White House Visitor Center, though, which is open daily.
10. U.S. Botanic Garden
This massive indoor and outdoor garden sanctuary boasts a collection of more than 4,000 plants and flowers from all over the world. Each section of the living plant museum is dedicated to a specific climate or species. Must-sees include the orchid display, canopy walk above the tropics, rose garden, and garden primeval. With a location next to the U.S. Capitol, the Botanic Garden is an excellent place to plan a relaxing pit stop during your active day of sightseeing.
11. U.S. National Arboretum
A quick 10-minute drive from the U.S. Capitol, visitors will find the U.S. National Arboretum. This 446-acre oasis features a variety of exhibits, from azalea gardens in the spring to magnolia gardens in the fall. In addition, the Bonsai & Penjing Museums has an extensive collection of bonsai trees while the National Grove of State Trees boasts the official trees of al 50 states. Don’t miss the Instagram-worthy National Capitol Columns, too.
12. National Gallery of Art
A trip to the world-class National Gallery of Art is an absolute must during any trip to Washington DC. This museum boasts one of the most extensive collections of art in the world. Some of the can’t miss exhibits include those desiccated to 18th and 19th-century French paintings as well as Italian Renaissance work.
A few of the artists featured in the museums include Monet, Picasso, Degas, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Matisse. Be sure to make time to visit the Sculpture Garden as well. Entry to the museum, as well as guided tours, are always free.
13. Supreme Court
If you’re interested in viewing the judicial proceedings of these United States, watching a session of the Supreme Court is a real treat. October through April, visitors can view the proceedings of the court on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Keep in mind, seating is very limited and passes are given on a first-come, first-serve basis. Don’t worry, though. Even if you can’t see an actual session of the Supreme Court, you can explore exhibits dedicated to the court and participate in educational programs throughout the year.
14. Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Do you love money? Who doesn’t!? See it printed right before your very eyes at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. During a tour here, not only will you see money printed but how it's stacked, cut, inspected, and more. Free tours are available every 15 minutes each weekday.
15. Walking Tours
Companies like Walk of the Town and Free Tours by Foot offer free, guided tours of Washington DC. These expert-led tours are an excellent resource for first-time visitors. Not only will you be guided by someone who knows the ins-and-outs of the city, but you’ll also learn interesting facts and tidbits about America’s capital.
16. National Archives
Tour the National Archives to view the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. These historic documents are true treasures and must-sees during any Washington DC vacation.
The iconic Pentagon building is home to America’s Department of Defence and the seat of American military power. Free guided tours are available but reservations are required. (Reservations need can be made 90 days in advance and no less than 14 days prior to tour date.) During the 60-minute tour, which is given by military personnel, you’ll learn about all four branches of the military and go over significant moments in American history.
18. Frederick Douglas Home
Frederick Douglas’ home is a national historic site. As such, the only way to see the inside of this famous abolitionists home is with a free guided tour. The 30-minute tours do accept reservations, which are recommended. The park ranger-led tour explores the first and second floor of the home and details the rise of Douglas’ life from slavery to free activist.
19. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Touring the Holocaust Memorial Museum is a somber yet moving experience. The museum details the history of the Holocaust, during which more than six million European Jews were annihilated by Nazi Germany. The permanent exhibition offers free timed passes to the public.
20. Library of Congress
One of the most overlooked free things to do in Washington DC, the Library of Congress offers several exciting tour options. The main tour is the Thomas Jefferson Building Tour. These are available on first-come, first-served basis without prior reservations. During the tour, explore interactive exhibits and a recreation of Jefferson’s library. Other tour options are dedicated to baseball, the life of Thomas Jefferson, music and the performing arts, and the early Americas.
21. Mount Vernon Trail
Winding along the Potomac River, the Mount Vernon Trail runs from Theodore Roosevelt Island to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate. It is an excellent place to take a walk or go for a bike ride, with dramatic views of Washington DC’s skyline available along the way.
22. Local Markets
While we can’t guarantee you won’t be tempted to spend money at the local Washington DC markets, visiting them is completely free. The major players are the almost century-and-a-half old Eastern Market and the newer Union Market. The former features fresh produce and arts and crafts as well as an indoor food hall, while the latter features produce, meats, a seafood bar, and more.
23. C&O Canal Trail
Head to Georgetown to run, cycle or walk the C&O Trail. This 184.5-mile trail ventures into Maryland and Virginia but one of the most scenic sections—the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail—is located in Georgetown.
24. Folger Shakespeare Library’s Collection
If you’re a true Shakespeare fan, the Folger Shakespeare Library Collection is an absolute must-see while in DC. Highlights include a display of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, reading rooms, and an Elizabethan Garden. Tours are always free!
25. Shakespeare Theater Company
Each year, the Shakespeare Theater Company showcases a famous Shakespearian work during a two-week performance span at the Sidney Harmon Hall. Past productions have featured Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Midsummer Night’s Dream. Typically, the free performances take place the first two weeks of September.
26. Airplane Watching
If you or one of your kids is an airplane aficionado, this will be one of your favorite free things to do in Washington DC. Both Gravelly Point and Hains Point offer excellent viewing locations to watch planes take off and land from Reagan International Airport.
27. Free Outdoor Movies
Washington DC offers a variety of areas to watch free outdoor movies during the summer. Local favorite Screen on the Green on the National Mall was, unfortunately, discontinues in 2016. However, there are still plenty of places to watch a movie outside. Discover all of the free movie screenings in DC at DC Outdoor Films.
28. Jazz in the Garden
Another popular summer offering is the Jazz in the Garden concert series at the National Gallery of Art. This series is typically held Memorial Day through Labor Day and welcomes a variety of jazz musicians, from guitar to funk to vocalists. Best of all, entry is totally free!
29. National Cherry Blossom Festival
Washington DC is famous for its annual cherry blossoms blooms surrounding the city's Tidal Basin. As a result, the city hosts the National Cherry Blossom Festival each year to celebrate this beautiful event. Peak bloom typically happens in early April. With that in mind, the festival is held mid-March through mid-April.
Fun, Free and Only in DC
As you can see, when it comes to free things to do in Washington DC the list is endless. From museums to outdoor pursuits to free concerts, this city is one of the best for budget travelers.