50 Free Things to Do in Washington, D.C.

With its deep historic roots, it's no surprise that Washington, D.C., draws in hordes of tourists each year. But luckily for them—and unlike most tourist hotspots—our nation's capital is a city many of the best attractions are free. Save money in the District by exploring the countless free museums, parks, memorials, and historic sites. Here’s a guide to dozens of Washington, D.C., attractions with no admission fees.

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    Photo © Rachel Cooper, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Located in the historic U Street Corridor, this attraction honors the African American struggle for freedom in the United States. A Wall of Honor lists the names of 209,145 United States Colored Troops (USCT) who served in the Civil War and the museum showcases artifacts from this time period.

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    Photo © Education Images/UIG Premium Ac

    This memorial honors the millions of men and women who have served in the United States Air Force. Located in Northern Virginia, just across the river from D.C., the memorial's unique design features soaring spires that can be seen from a great distance across the region. 

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    Anacostia Museum
    Anacostia Museum. © Smithsonian

    The museum of African American history and culture offers exhibitions, educational programs, workshops, lectures, film screenings and other special events that interpret black history from the 1800s to the present. Founded as the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum and opened in 1967, the museum was envisioned by S. Dillon Ripley, then-secretary of the Smithsonian, as an outreach effort by the Smithsonian to the local African American community.

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    © Rachel Cooper, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Located across the Potomac River at the west end of the Memorial Bridge, this popular attraction serves as a cemetery and a memorial to America's war heroes. More than four million people visit Arlington National Cemetery each year, attending graveside services and special ceremonies to pay tribute to veterans and historical figures. You can take your own free walking tour or pay a small fee for a shuttle bus tour. 

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  • 05 of 50
    US Botanic Garden
    US Botanic Garden. © VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm

    The living plant museum located on the National Mall showcases an impressive state-of-the-art indoor garden with approximately 4,000 seasonal, tropical and subtropical plants. The U.S. Botanic Garden is administered by the Architect of the Capitol and offers special exhibits and educational programs throughout the year.

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    Money
    Bureau of Engraving and Printing. © Getty Images

    Visitors can visit the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for a 30-minute tour to learn how U. S. paper currency is printed, stacked, cut and examined for defects. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing also prints White House invitations, Treasury securities, identification cards, naturalization certificates, and other special security documents.

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    C & O Canal
    C & O Canal. © Rachel Cooper

    The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, a national historic park that dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries, stretches 184 miles from Georgetown in D.C. along the Potomac River to Cumberland, Md. The tow path is a popular place to walk, bicycle and picnic. National Park Service Rangers offer guided tours and educational programs.

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    Photo © MATTES Renà / hemis.fr

    The U. S. Capitol Building is open to the public for guided tours only. Visitors learn about the work of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the building's impressive architecture. The Capitol Visitor Center serves as a museum with educational exhibits that highlight the history of the iconic building as well as the legislative branch of government.

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    DAR Museum. Photo © DAR Museum

    This minuscule museum is often missed by visitors, but the collection at the museum of the Daughters of the American Revolution features more than 30,000 examples of decorative and fine arts, including objects made or used in America prior to the Industrial Revolution. Next door, the museum's Constitution Hall is a venue for concerts and public events.

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    Photo © Rachel Cooper, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    The 300-acre park features many of Washington's famous cherry trees and has terrific views of the city. Given that it's within walking distance from the Tidal Basin and the National Mall, it makes a great picnic spot but it also a favorite place for biking, running, fishing and picnicking. There is also a golf course, tennis center and swimming pool. 

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    Ford's Theatre
    Ford's Theatre. © Paul Whitfield/Getty Images

    The historic theater where President Lincoln was assassinated is a national landmark that still functions as a live theater. Now, visitors can enjoy a short talk by a National Park guide and learn the fascinating story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. On the lower level, the Ford's Theatre Museum displays exhibits about Lincoln’s life and explains the circumstances of his tragic death. The Education Center, housed in a building directly across the street from the theater, features two floors of permanent exhibits addressing the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s death and the evolution of Lincoln’s legacy, lecture and reception space, and two levels of education studios. 

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    Fort Dupont
    Fort Dupont. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

    This 376-acre park is located east of the Anacostia River in southeast D.C. Visitors enjoy picnics, nature walks, Civil War programs, gardening, environmental education, music, skating, sports, theater and concerts. The park is especially popular during the summer months for its free outdoor concert series. 

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    FDR and Fala
    FDR and Fala. © Rachel Cooper, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    The memorial dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt features four outdoor gallery rooms depicting the 12 years of Roosevelt's presidency, in addition to 10 bronze sculptures of President Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, and World War II. Located on the southwest end of the Tidal Basin, the attraction also offers great views of the cityscape.

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    © National Park Service

    Located in the Anacostia neighborhood of southeast D.C., this National Historic Site honors Frederick Douglass' life and accomplishments. Douglass freed himself from slavery and helped to free millions of others. As a bonus, this site also has one of the best views of Washington, D.C.

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    Sackler Gallery
    Sackler Gallery. © Smithsonian

    The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall, feature world-renowned collections of Asian art including paintings, ceramics, manuscripts, and sculptures. The Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium provides free performances of Asian music and dance, films, lectures, chamber music, and dramatic presentations. As both institutions are part of the Smithsonian, admission is free. 

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    Hirshhorn Museum
    Hirshhorn Museum. © Smithsonian Institution

    The Smithsonian's museum of modern and contemporary art is comprised of approximately 11,500 artworks, including paintings, sculptures, works on paper, photographs, collages, and decorative art objects. In addition to rotating exhibitions, the Hirshhorn also hosts various performances, including film screenings and dance exhibitions. 

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    Iwo Jima Memorial
    Iwo Jima Memorial. © Rachel Cooper

    This memorial, also known as the United States Marine Corps War Memorial, is located in Arlington National Cemetery and is dedicated to the marines who gave their lives during one of the most historic battles of World War II, the battle of Iwo Jima. Located across the Potomac River from downtown, the attraction has panoramic views of the nation's capital.

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    Jefferson Memorial
    Jefferson Memorial. © National Cherry Blossom Festival

    One of Washington's most popular attractions, this dome-shaped rotunda honors the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson. The 19-foot bronze statue is located on the Tidal Basin, surrounded by a grove of trees making it especially beautiful during cherry blossom season in the spring. The lower level of the memorial has a bookstore and a few exhibits about Jefferson's life and legacy.

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    Photo © Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

    The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is the home to the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington Opera, Washington Ballet and American Film Institute. Performances include theatre, musicals, dance, orchestral, chamber, jazz, popular, & folk music, but the venue also hosts youth and family programs and multi-media shows. Free daily performances are held on the Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer.

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    © Rachel Cooper, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Our nation honors those who were killed, captured, wounded or remain missing in action during the Korean War at the namesake memorail. Nineteen different figures represent every ethnic background, while the statues are supported by a granite wall with 2,400 faces of land, sea and air support troops. The memorial is within easy walking distance to the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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    Lafayette Park
    Lafayette Park. © Rachel Cooper, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    This seven-acre park provides a prominent arena for public protests, ranger programs and special events, but it's also basically the front-lawn for the White House, making it a great spot to shoot photos. Buildings surrounding the park include the White House, the Old Executive Office Building, the Department of the Treasury, Decatur House, Renwick Gallery, The White House Historical Association, Hay-Adams Hotel and The Department of Veterans Affairs.

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    Library of Congress
    Library of Congress. Library of Congress

    The Library of Congress contains more than 128 million items including books, manuscripts, films, photographs, sheet music, and maps. Visitors can explore the library and navigate books through page-turning technology and learn how America’s greatest thinkers were inspired. The Library of Congress is one of the city's most beautiful buildings and a "must-see" for architecture lovers.

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    Lincoln Memorial
    Lincoln Memorial. © Tetra Images/Getty Images

    This memorial is one of Washington, D.C.'s top attractions and occupies a prominent space on the National Mall. It is a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln, who fought to preserve our nation during the Civil War, from 1861-1865. The Lincoln Memorial has been the site of many famous speeches and events since its dedication in 1922. The historic site also has one of the best views of the city. 

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    Milestones of Flight. Photo © Eric Long/NASM

    The National Air & Space Museum displays the most extensive collection of air and spacecraft in the world. Visit here and learn about the history, science, and technology of aviation and space flight. There are IMAX films, and planetarium shows several times a day. Not surprisingly, the NASM is one of the most popular in D.C. and appeals to all ages. 

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    National Archives
    National Archives. © lillisphotography

    The National Archives and Records Administration stores and provides public access to the original documents that set up the American government as a democracy in 1774. See historical documents like the United States Government's Charters of Freedom, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.

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    MLK Memorial
    MLK Memorial. © Rachel Cooper

    This memorial honors Dr. King’s contributions and vision for all to enjoy a life of freedom, opportunity, and justice. There is a bookstore and ranger-led activities. With its location on the west end of the Tidal Basin, the site is a great place to enjoy the outdoors and pay tribute to those who have worked to defend civil rights for all Americans.

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    National Building Museum. © Maxwell MacKenzie

    One of D.C.'s less-visited museums, the National Building Museum examines America's architecture, design, engineering, construction, and urban planning. Exhibits include photographs and models of buildings in Washington, D.C. The museum also offers insight into the history and future of our built environment, as well as a variety of educational programs and special events, including informative lectures, exciting demonstrations, and great family programs.

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    Photo © Medioimages/Photodisc

    The National Cathedral is an impressive English Gothic structure, with exquisite architectural sculpture, wood carving, gargoyles, mosaics, and more than 200 stained glass windows. The top of the Gloria in Excelsis Tower is the highest point in Washington, D.C., with dramatic views of the city. The grounds include beautiful gardens and a gift shop.

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    National Gallery of Art East Building
    National Gallery of Art East Building. © National Gallery of Art

    Washington, D.C.'s most famous attraction for art lovers is a world-class museum that displays one of the largest collections of masterpieces in the world including an international collection of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 13th century to the present. A six-acre sculpture garden includes 17 significant sculptures by internationally renowned artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Mark di Suvero, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, and Tony Smith. Free jazz concerts are held in the garden on Friday evenings during the summer months.

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    National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial
    National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. © Rachel Cooper

    This memorial honors federal, state and local law enforcers for their dedication and sacrifice. Bronze sculptures depict a series of adult lions protecting its cubs, symbolizing the protective role of law enforcement officers. Blue-gray marble walls are inscribed with the names of more than 17,500 officers who have been killed in the line of duty, dating all the way back to 1792.

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    NMAA
    NMAA. © Smithsonian Institution

    This Smithsonian museum, located on the National Mall near the Smithsonian Castle, features a collection of ancient and contemporary artworks from Africa. There are special events, storytelling, demonstrations and children’s programs.

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    NMAH
    NMAH. © Smithsonian Institution

    The museum displays more than three million distinctly American artifacts, from the War of Independence to the present day. The Smithsonian's world-class museum offers a wide range of exhibits that demonstrate the diversity of America’s history and culture. Special tours and programs are scheduled daily.

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    NMAI.jpg
    National Museum of the American Indian. Photo © John Steiner/Smithsonian Institution

    The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American showcases Native American objects from ancient pre-Columbian civilizations through the 21st century. Multimedia presentations, live performances, and hands-on demonstrations let guests see what life was like for Native Americans and their ancestors today. The museum also features films, performances of music and dance, tours, lectures, craft demonstrations and special programs.

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    NMAAH
    NMAAH. Alan Karchmer/Smithsonian

    The National Museum of African American History and Culture documents the history of African American life, art, history, and culture. The exhibits and educational programs focus on topics such as slavery, post-Civil War reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights movement. Artifacts range from items such as Harriet Tubman's hymn book (1876) to Muhammad Ali's headgear (1960) to Gabby Douglas's Olympic outfits (2012). 

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    NMNH
    NMNH. © Smithsonian Institution

    This Smithsonian museum is one of Washington, D.C.'s most popular attractions. It houses a collection of more than 125 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts. The museum is a favorite with kids but has plenty to intrigue all ages. Favorite displays include dinosaur skeletons, an enormous collection of natural gems and minerals, artifacts of early man, an insect zoo, a live coral reef and much more.

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    © Rachel Cooper, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    The restored historic building in the Penn Quarter neighborhood houses two museums in one building. The National Portrait Gallery presents six permanent exhibitions of nearly 20,000 works ranges from paintings and sculpture to photographs and drawings. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the home of the largest collection of American art in the world including more than 41,000 artworks, spanning more than three centuries.

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    National Postal Museum
    National Postal Museum. © Smithsonian Museum

    This museum displays the largest stamp collection in the world and examines the development of the postal system using interactive displays. It's located under Washington's old Main Post Office near Union Station.

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    national-zoo.jpg
    Photo © Smithsonian National Zoo

    One of the most kid-friendly places to visit in Washington, D.C., is the National Zoo where you can see more than 400 different species of animals. The zoo is famous for its pandas, but regular zoo favorites, including lions, giraffes, tigers, monkeys, and sea lions, are all there too. The exhibit of native American animals is especially unique. 

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    Navy Memorial
    Navy Memorial. © Richard T. Nowitz

    The Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center honors the many sailors who have served our country. The memorial is an outdoor public plaza, and the Heritage Center serves as a place to learn about the history and heritage of the men and women of the sea services. The museum is small but has a few interesting displays, including a scale model of the USS Constitution and an old scuba suit.

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    Washington Navy Yard
    Washington Navy Yard. © Getty Images

    The former shipyard for the United States Navy houses the Navy Museum and the Navy Art Gallery with exhibits and artwork from the Revolutionary War to the present day. This is a great attraction for kids because of its interactive exhibits including naval artifacts, model ships, undersea vehicles, sub periscopes, a space capsule, a decommissioned destroyer and much more.

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    Renwick
    Renwick Gallery. Photo © Smithsonian Institution

    The Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery is the institution's museum dedicated American art, the first of its kind in the U.S. The Renwick highlights American crafts and contemporary arts from the 1800s onward, covering everything from photography, modern folk and self-taught art, African American art, Latino art, and even video games. 

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    Rock Creek Park
    Rock Creek Park. © Rachel Cooper

    Washington, D.C.'s urban park extends from the Potomac River to the border of Maryland. 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.

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    Supreme Court Exterior. Photo © Rachel Cooper, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    The Supreme Court is in session October through April and visitors may view sessions on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. The Supreme Court Building is open throughout the year from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Visitors can also participate in a variety of educational programs, explore exhibits and see a 25-minute film on the Supreme Court.

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    Theodore Roosevelt Memorial
    Theodore Roosevelt Memorial.

    Theodore Roosevelt Island, a 91-acre wilderness preserve dedicated to the nation's 26th president, honors his contributions to the conservation of public lands for forests, national parks, wildlife and bird refuges, and monuments. The island has 2.5 miles of foot trails where you can observe a variety of flora and fauna. A 17-foot bronze statue of Roosevelt stands in the center of the island.

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    Holocaust Memorial Museum
    Holocaust Memorial Museum

    The museum is a memorial to the millions who died during the Nazi regime in Germany during World War II. The permanent exhibition presents a narrative history of the Holocaust, the annihilation of six million European Jews by Nazi Germany from 1933 through 1945. The exhibit uses more than 900 artifacts, 70 video monitors, and four theaters showing film footage and eyewitness testimonies of Nazi concentration camp survivors.

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    Udvar-Hazy
    Udvar-Hazy. © Smithsonian Institution

    The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's lesser-known companion facility, located adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport, has incredible exhibits such as the massive space shuttle Enterprise, the Lockheed SR-71 and numerous aircraft, spacecraft and other artifacts.

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    © Rachel Cooper, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    One of the most visited Washington, D.C., attractions, the Vietnam Memorial, features a V-shaped granite wall that is inscribed with the names of the 58,209 Americans missing or killed in the Vietnam War. Across the lawn is a life-size bronze sculpture of three young members of the armed forces.

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    Washington Monument
    Washington Monument. © Joe Daniel Price

    The memorial to George Washington, our nation's first president, is the most prominent landmark in Washington, DC and stands as the centerpiece of the National Mall. It is the tallest structure in Washington, D.C., and measures 555 feet high. Ride the elevator to the top and see a bird's eye view of the city.

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    white-house-2.jpg
    Photo © Max Bernhardt/Getty Images

    The White House is the oldest public building in D.C. and has been the home of every president except George Washington. Public tours of the White House are limited to groups of 10 or more and must be requested through one's member of Congress. Meanwhile, the White House Visitor Center is open to all and features a 30-minute video and exhibits about White House architecture, furnishings, first families, social events, and relations with the press and world leaders.

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    © Rachel Cooper, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    This beautiful structure serves as a peaceful place to remember those who served our country during World War II. The World War II Memorial is an oval shape with two 43-foot arches, representing the war's Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Fifty-six pillars represent the states, territories and the District of Columbia at the time of the war. Two sculpted bronze wreaths adorn each post. Small fountains sit at the bases of the two arches.