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Believe it or not, it’s completely possible to visit Washington DC on a budget. There are tons of free things to do in Washington DC, whether you’d prefer to stay inside during your trip or enjoy the great outdoors and visit a lot of the city’s monuments.
Washington, D.C. has an abundance of world-class activities that are completely free. This is in large part due to the fact that, as the nation’s capital, it features many federally-funded museums and monuments, including the Smithsonian Museums.
Keep reading to learn all about the best free things to do in Washington DC!
Washington, D.C. is convenient to reach by car, train, or plane. It is located along I-95, which makes it a convenient stop along the major east coast highway.
Amtrak also has train service to Washington, D.C. with a stop at Union Station, which is also located near many of the major attractions in the city.
The nearest airport is Regan National Airport (DCA), which is located in nearby Arlington, Virginia. From the airport, you can take either a quick metro ride or rideshare into the city. The metro station is located within walking distance to the airport.
If you’re visiting DC for 2 days or less, it can be a great idea to stay downtown and rely on public transportation to get around.
Fun & Free Things to do in DC
The National Mall
The National Mall is a central landmark of Washington, D.C. and many of the main attractions of the city are located nearby. The mall is bordered by Independence Avenue and Constitution Avenue on the north and south. The U.S. Capitol building and Washington Monument mark the east and west boundaries.
Many of the major Smithsonian museums are located along the borders of the mall, including the gorgeous ornate architecture of the Smithsonian Castle, the National Air and Space Museum, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The mall itself is essentially a long grass field skirted by dirt paths where you can walk, run, ride bikes or scooters, enjoy a picnic, fly a kite, throw a frisbee, or sit on benches.
Visiting The National Mall is one of the best free things to do in Washington DC.
Many of the major free attractions in D.C. are part of the outstanding collection of Smithsonian Museums, a number of which are located within an easy walk from each other along the National Mall.
There are 18 museums (including the National Zoo) in Washington, D.C. alone, ranging from subjects as diverse as African American History, American History, Natural History, modern art, air and space, and much more. The biggest challenge will be choosing which museum to go to, and having enough time to see them all!
Below is a full list of the Smithsonian Museums located in Washington, D.C.:
- National Museum of African American History and Culture
- National Museum of African Art
- National Air and Space Museum
- Smithsonian American Art Museum
- National Museum of American History
- National Museum of the American Indian
- Anacostia Community Museum
- Arts and Industries Building
- Freer Gallery of Art
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- National Zoo
- National Museum of Natural History
- National Portrait Gallery
- National Postal Museum
- Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
- Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle)
- Smithsonian Gardens
The following are highlights of some of the major Smithsonian Museums:
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
(Please note that the Air and Space Museum is closed from Spring 2022 to Fall 2022).
The Air and Space Museum has exhibits devoted to aeronautics, airplanes, NASA missions and spacecraft, astronomy, and related topics. Some of the exhibits include Early Flight, The Moon, and Exploring the Planets. This is one of the best free things to do in Washington DC.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History features art and artifacts from American History, including First Lady dresses, Abraham Lincoln’s hat, and George Washington’s chair. It even has some unexpected items like The Batmobile!
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
One of the highlights of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is its excellent collection of dinosaur skeletons. The museum also features an extensive collection of rocks, minerals, the Hope Diamond, and Egyptian mummies.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest of the Smithsonian museums, and it is located in a striking brown geometric building that is positioned prominently at the intersection of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue.
The museum features exhibits that highlight the history of such notable figures as Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the nation’s first collection devoted to the works of American artists. It features art by Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Cassatt, and many more.
The Smithsonian Castle is worth the visit just for the gorgeous, striking design of the building itself. It was completed in 1855 and was constructed using red sandstone, which makes it hard to miss along the National Mall.
The surrounding gardens are worth a visit as well. The castle is home to the Smithsonian Visitor Center and offers tours to learn about the architecture, history, and design of the castle.
National Zoo is located a little further afield in Rock Creek Park, but it is convenient to reach by metro. Its most famous residents are the giant pandas. There are also Asian elephants, giraffes, lions, primates, Sumatran tigers, and much more.
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is not part of the Smithsonian, but admission is also free. The gallery features artwork ranging from the renaissance to modern. There are over 4,000 paintings and 3,000 sculptures in the collection, as well as prints, drawings, photographs, and more.
Washington, D.C. is home to many major monuments that you can visit free of charge. The Washington Monument is probably the most famous. You can reserve timed tickets to ride the elevator to the 500-foot observation deck. If you’re looking for the best free things to do in Washington DC, make sure to check out this monument!
From there, visitors are treated to fabulous views of many of the major surrounding landmarks, including the National Mall, U.S. Capitol Building, White House, Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and more.
From the Washington Monument, you can walk along the Tidal Basin to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The grand open rotunda features a statue of the founding father along with inscriptions of many of his famous quotes.
If you continue along the Tidal Basin, you’ll reach the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. The statue is striking and unforgettable in appearance, featuring a massive white stone carving of Dr. King, flanked by a wall emblazoned with many of his most famous quotes, including “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”
The reflecting pool is located north of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, with the imposing Lincoln Memorial perched at the far end of the pool. Though it is a long walk to reach the Lincoln Memorial, the trip is well worth it. The massive statue of Abraham Lincoln, famously sitting in his chair, is a grand sight to behold in person.
United States Botanic Garden
The United States Botanic Garden is a lovely hidden oasis in the middle of the city. The garden is located right off The National Mall near the U.S. Capitol.
The main section of the garden is an indoor glass-domed conservatory with exhibits ranging from tropical rainforest, primeval garden, Hawaiian flora, orchids, desert plants, rare and endangered species, and more.
The outdoor garden areas include a rose garden, ponds, sculptures, trellises, benches, and more.
Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park is a perfect destination for enjoying the outdoors in D.C. The park includes a 14.5-mile trail for walking, biking, or running, all set amidst urban parkland filled with trees, streams, and wildlife.
The park trails lead from the Potomac River near the Kennedy Center, up to the National Zoo, and further north all the way into Maryland. Along the trail, there are several imposing arch bridges high overhead. The park includes other points of interest, such as a nature center, planetarium, and Carter Barron Amphitheater.
You can learn about even more parks in the Washington, D.C. area, including several nearby National Parks that are definitely worth a visit.
There are numerous memorials commemorating the men and women who served and died in war. Three of the most prominent memorials are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial. They are all located near each other in the vicinity of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is marked by a simple yet poignant wall made of polished black granite. It is engraved with the names of the 58,000 men and women who died in the Vietnam War.
World War II Memorial
The World War II Memorial is located near the Washington Monument. It features a circular stone design with large stone pillars representing each state and territory and a fountain in the center.
Korean War Memorial
The Korean War Memorial is a haunting design featuring stainless steel statues of 19 soldiers frozen in the act of marching through a field during battle. It represents the four branches of the military: Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
Washington D.C. is home to many free performances. One of the best places to catch a free performance is at the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The stage is technically two stages located at the ends of the grand foyer of the Kennedy Center. The stages feature nightly free concerts at 6 pm.
The concerts range from folk to classical to jazz and hip hop and much more. You can find the most recent schedule on the Kennedy Center website.
If you’re interested in free classical music performances, the Friday Morning Music Club is a great organization to check out. The non-profit group began 135 years ago as a gathering of local musicians who wanted to meet and make music together.
It has since grown to a membership of hundreds of local D.C. area musicians who present chamber music concerts, choral concerts, and orchestra concerts around the city.
For world-class free theater, the renowned Shakespeare Theatre Company presents an annual “free-for-all” show, which runs for two weeks every Summer. Past shows have included “The Comedy of Errors”, “Othello”, and “Romeo and Juliet.”
As you can see, there is an abundance of best free things to do in Washington DC. For your next trip to the city, definitely make sure to check out some of the great events that the nation’s capital has to offer.
About the Guest Author
This post was contributed by Merry Allison of Virginia Vacation Guide! Be sure to visit Merry’s site to keep up with travels.