Washington, D.C., can be pricy—there's no shortage of fancy hotels and expensive meals in the nations' capital. But you're in luck: many of the best things to do in D.C. are free. Whether you are looking for some family fun, historical sights, an excursion out on the town, or a quiet day to yourself, Washington is loaded with a wide variety of cultural and recreational activities that don't cost a dime.
The Smithsonian Institution runs a collection of museums throughout the D.C. area, all of which are free to enter, but the Museum of Natural History is a favorite for all ages. Allow yourself at least two to three hours to explore the varied halls, which contain everything from a full Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton to a live coral reef. In the Hall of Human Origins, you can see fossils showing the evolution of human beings over millions of years.
Washington, D.C., is a city with history at every corner, but no neighborhood has a history as long or rich as Georgetown. This historic neighborhood is older than D.C. itself and filled with mansions that date back 200 years (John F. Kennedy and Jackie lived in the neighborhood while he was running for president, to give an idea of Georgetown's residents). The best way to explore is to just wander around and goggle at the buildings, but a free self-guided walking tour is a nice way to fill in the stroll with some historical context.
Take in the Sights Around the Tidal Basin
A small inlet coming off of the Potomac River, the Tidal Basin along the National Mall is one of the most scenic places to take a stroll, have a picnic, or just sit out and people-watch in all of Washington. The Washington Monument, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial are all situated around the Basin's edge. Each season offers its own charm, whether it's the snowy backdrops of winter or the paddleboats available to rent in the summer, but most locals would agree that spring is the most magical time to visit, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom and showering petals across the reservoir.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest addition to the Smithsonian family, inaugurated in 2016 by President Barack Obama, and has already become one of the most-visited Smithsonian museums. It's so popular that it's one of the only Smithsonian museums that recommends visitors reserve a timed pass online before arriving, which is free.
The architecture alone makes this attraction worth a spot on your itinerary, and the exhibitions push it over the top, with 10 floors showing over 3,500 different items. When you need to replenish your energy, the Sweet Home Café features dishes that all have roots in the African American community, from Creole po'boy sandwiches to hearty Southern cuisine.
The National Zoo is set within the beautiful Rock Creek Park and, since it is also a part of the Smithsonian Institution, admission is free. The attraction, one of the most kid-friendly places to visit in the nation’s capital, has more than 400 different species of animals, including the famed giant pandas.
Washington's premier concert hall offers a free performance every evening at 6 p.m. Programs include performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, jazz musicians, poets, and dance troupes, among others. The Kennedy Center also hosts a variety of seasonal festivals and provides free guided tours of the venue.
Guided tours of the U.S. Capitol building are free, but they require tickets, which are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. While waiting for a tour, you can browse galleries at the Capitol Visitor Center that display historic artifacts, touch a 10-foot model of the Capitol Dome, and watch live video feeds from the House and Senate.
This world-class art museum displays one of the most extensive collections of masterpieces in the world. It includes paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, and decorative arts. Explore the East and West buildings and take a walk outside and visit the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden to take in the art and some fresh air.
More than 330,000 American servicemen, as well as many famous Americans, are buried at the 624-acre national cemetery. Visitors can walk the grounds for free or take a guided bus tour. Be sure to see the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns and visit Arlington House, the former home of Robert E. Lee, which is atop a hill. It provides one of the best views of Washington.
Rock Creek Park offers an opportunity to explore the beauty of nature in a bustling urban area. Visitors can picnic, hike, bike, rollerblade, play tennis, fish, horseback ride, listen to a concert, or attend programs with a park ranger. Children can participate in a wide range of special programs at Rock Creek Park, including planetarium shows, animal talks, exploratory hikes, crafts, and junior ranger programs.
The Supreme Court is in session October through April, and visitors can view sessions on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Seating is limited and given on a first-come, first-serve basis. On weekdays throughout the year, visitors can explore exhibits, watch a 25-minute film on the Supreme Court, and participate in a variety of educational programs.
Everyone loves to watch real money being printed. See how U.S. paper currency is printed, stacked, cut, and examined for defects. This family-friendly tour explains all of the various nuances behind U.S. currency, including paper types an color choices. Tours are free and are held every 15 minutes on weekdays.
Several walking tour companies give free tours of Washington with a fast-paced and engaging presentation. Hear unique and legendary stories about George Washington's love for dogs, the indestructibility of the president's car, and why French women loved Thomas Jefferson, among many other unknown tidbits. Gratuity is recommended.
This state-of-the-art indoor garden is next to the U.S. Capitol and displays about 4,000 seasonal, tropical, and subtropical plants. The garden also puts on special events and educational programs throughout the year.
You must request a visit through a member of Congress to arrange a free tour of the White House. Group tours are held Tuesday through Saturday and are scheduled one month in advance. Without planning, you can visit the White House Visitor Center, which is open daily.
See the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights at the National Archives. There is also a state-of-the-art theater and a unique exhibit gallery devoted to document-based exhibits on newsworthy and timely topics.
Unknown to many, the Library of Congress is one of Washington's most beautiful buildings. There are interactive exhibits and a re-creation of Thomas Jefferson's original library. Free lectures, concerts, presentations, and poetry readings are held regularly. The Library of Congress is located near the U.S. Capitol Building and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Learn about the history of Washington's neighborhoods by following one of Cultural Tourism D.C.'s walking trails. The illustrated signs combine stories, historical photos, and maps. Explore a variety of communities, including Adams Morgan, U Street, and Barracks Row and themed trails like the Civil War to Civil Rights Downtown Heritage Trail.
The Mount Vernon Trail runs parallel to the George Washington Memorial Parkway and follows the west bank of the Potomac River from Theodore Roosevelt Island to George Washington's Mount Vernon estate. The trail offers beautiful views of the Potomac River and Washington's famous landmarks.
The National Arboretum displays 446 acres of trees, shrubs, and plants and is one of the largest arboretums in the country. Visitors enjoy a variety of free exhibits, from formal landscaped gardens to the Gotelli Dwarf and slow-growing Conifer Collection.
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site honors the life and accomplishments of the abolitionist who freed himself from slavery and helped to release millions of others.
The headquarters for the Department of Defense is an iconic building and the seat of American military power. Guided tours are given by military personnel and are available by reservation only. Learn about the mission of the four branches of the military—the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps. Be sure to visit the Pentagon Memorial as well.
The permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum presents a narrative history of the Holocaust, the annihilation of 6 million European Jews by Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. Free timed passes are required for the permanent exhibit. Bring tissues.