It’s easy to ride the Metro or hop on a bike and explore all that the United States’ capital has to offer. Walk the halls of free Smithsonian museums, paddle on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers or sit back on a double-decker tour bus and soak up some history. Local shops, funky marketplaces and people-watching hot spots beckon by midday, as nighttime gives way to multi-course dinners and drinks from local breweries. However you spend your time in DC, make it count.
No city provides as many world-class activities for free as Washington, DC. Welcome to the ‘Capital of Free!’
Washington, DC offers attractions and activities for every visitor, whether traveling on a budget or looking for added value. With unmatched access to incredible free museums, monuments, memorials and one-of-a-kind events, DC is in a class by itself.
The list of free things to do in DC is quite long, headlined by Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art, the monuments and memorials and annual events and festivals. We’ve detailed some of the most popular activities here, so on your next family trip to DC, make sure you cross all of these off of your bucket list! And if you’re looking for even more budget-friendly fun, you can save big on popular paid attractions with Washington, DC’s best city and attraction passes. Discover discounted sightseeing tours, museum passes and so much more.
01 Explore the National Mall
Touring the National Mall should top your list of must-do’s when you visit the District. Free monuments, memorials and museums are all around, including the famous Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and the popular National Museum of African American History and Culture. Walk next to the Reflecting Pool and you can hear American history in your footsteps, from the sacrifices made by soldiers to the powerful words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
02 Visit the White House
Touring the public rooms of the U.S. President’s home is another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can only be savoured in DC. The experience is free of charge, but you will need to contact your congressional representative well in advance of your trip in order to schedule a visit. For more information, check out our guide.
03 Take in the Smithsonian museums
These are America’s museums, so there is no charge to visit them! All Smithsonian museums have interactive components and unparalleled collections of artifacts. The hard part is choosing which ones to visit. Visitors often flock to the National Air and Space Museum for its journeys into space and the National Museum of American History for its in-depth look at our nation’s past. Also, be sure to check out the recently renovated Freer | Sackler Galleries, which are dedicated to Asian art.
04 Tour DC’s premier cultural arts center
Take a free tour of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Guided tours depart every ten minutes, and docents discuss its artwork, 50-foot Austrian chandelier, interactive exhibit on the life of President Kennedy and the panoramic view of the city from its marvellous Rooftop Terrace. Tours are available in 17 languages. There’s also a free shuttle to the Kennedy Center from the Foggy Bottom Metro stop, which leaves every 15 minutes from 9:45 a.m. – midnight Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – midnight on Saturdays and 12 p.m. – midnight on Sundays.
05 Enjoy a guided walking tour with DC by Foot
Go for a stroll with DC by Foot‘s knowledgeable tour guides. The company offers an array of experiences, including tours of the National Mall, Capitol Hill, Georgetown, Arlington Cemetery, as well as night-time themed tours like Secrets & Scandals and a White House Ghost Tour. Although the tours are free, tipping your guide is highly recommended.
06 Check out the largest library in the world
You will be dazzled as soon as you step into the magnificent Library of Congress. The Thomas Jefferson Building provides the best visitor experience, with gorgeous Gilded Age architecture accompanied by special exhibits and the Library’s incredible collection of books, papers, recordings, maps and much, much more.
07 Walk through the U.S. Capitol Building
You’ll begin your exploration of the U.S. Capitol inside the Capitol Visitor Center, which features an exhibition hall that tells the story of the Capitol and Congress. To continue your journey into the historical portions of the building beyond the Visitor Center, you’ll need to book a free guided tour. The excursion begins with an orientation film, then takes you to the famous Rotunda, the Crypt and much more.
08 Marvel at the National Capitol Columns
The National Arboretum is a 446-acre agricultural wonder in the heart of the District that does not charge admission. The oasis also features the historic National Capitol Columns that supported the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol from 1828-1958. The columns make for a jaw-dropping Instagram photo.
09 Observe the nation’s historic documents inside the National Archives
The National Archives Building is home to more than three billion records in total, including the three most important documents in American history: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These can be viewed in the building’s Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. Make sure to also check out the Public Vaults, which usually has more than 1,000 fascinating documents on display.
10 Discover amazing works at the National Gallery of Art
Three acres of skylights illuminate the masterworks at the National Gallery of Art. On par with the world’s most important art museums, the National Gallery was established with a gift from Andrew Mellon in 1937. In this marble temple are invaluable works of art from every era, including the only Leonardo Da Vinci painting in the Americas, Ginerva de’ Benci. Make sure to visit the East Building, the museum’s modern art wing designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei.
11 Stroll through historic Georgetown
Originally a key transit point for farmers selling tobacco in the 1700s, the city of Georgetown actually predates Washington, DC by nearly 100 years. Georgetown’s mostly Federal and Georgian-style homes have been artfully preserved, and there are more than four hundred shopping, dining and nightlife options there, making for a day full of exploration.
12 Peep the latest decorations on Palmer Alley
Palmer Alley is the highlight of CityCenterDC, a majestic walk decorated with different seasonal features throughout the year. The fixtures, which range from pink balloons during cherry blossom season to bright lights around the holidays, are picturesque and beg for Instagram love. CityCenterDC also frequently offers free events.
13 See how money is made
Would you like to see what millions of dollars looks like in person? Take a 40-minute tour at the Bureau of Engraving & Printing. During the peak season (March-August), first-come, first-served same-day tickets are required – the ticket office opens at 8 a.m. During other times of the year, walk-up tours are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and tickets are not required. Keep in mind that the visitor centre is closed on weekends and federal holidays.
14 Transport back in time at the National Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Fossils
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History‘s 31,000-square-foot Deep Time exhibit, borrowed from a scientific phrase that illustrates how Earth’s history has played out over billions of years, is a can’t-miss free experience in DC. Prepare to be amazed, overwhelmed, engaged, dazzled – you name it. Deep Time is one of the biggest exhibitions to come to DC in years and should be at the top of your to-do list.