Though Washington D.C. isn’t always the most affordable in terms of lodging or dining, it makes up for that with plenty to do, entirely free of charge.
Additionally, whereas some destinations are loaded with free things to do only for the outdoorsy (parks and natural attractions), that’s not the case in D.C. Instead, every traveler should be able to find something free to catch their fancy, whether they’re a history buff, art lover, family, adventurer, or anyone in between.
So, pack your bags and prepare for the unexpected, because here are the 16 best free things to do in America’s capital, Washington, D.C.
1. Explore the Expansive U.S. National Arboretum
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The U.S. National Arboretum is a somewhat overlooked national site in Washington, D.C., primarily because it’s a little bit out of the way, so you can’t walk to it. However, if you make the very short drive out, you’ll find a beautiful and expansive park with loads of plant collections and gardens, and relatively few people compared to what you might see on the National Mall.
If you’re visiting during cherry blossom season, this is an especially good spot to go. From a conifer collection to a magnolia garden, a grove of state trees to a bonsai museum, there’s so much to explore here.
2. Take in the Views from the Tidal Basin
If you want to escape the crowds on the Mall, but don’t want to go too far away, just take a short walk over to the Tidal Basin. The 107-acre basin is extremely popular during the cherry blossom season in the spring, but it’s stunning year-round.
You’ll enjoy a breath of fresh air and peaceful scenery along the two-mile Tidal Basin Loop Trail, which offers views of the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument, among many other landmarks.
3. Tour the U.S. Capitol
If you’re a fan of a good educational tour, don’t miss the tours available at the U.S. Capitol. You will need to reserve your spot on the tour in advance, but you won’t pay any fees, as all tours, programs, and activities at the Capitol Visitor Center are totally free. Professional tour guides will take you through the rotunda, National Statuary Hall, and even the Capitol’s crypt.
Naturally, after the events of January 6, 2021, this tour has taken on a whole new meaning and depth, taking visitors through not only the US government, but also one of the darkest moments in American history.
4. Learn About Black history at one of Washington, D.C.’s Newest Museums
Many of the museums in Washington, D.C. are free to visit, but if you’ve done the Smithsonian classics in the past, you can find something new with the National Museum of African American History. Opened in 2016, the museum is the only one of its kind in the country and focuses on Black life, history, and culture.
The building’s structure is also gorgeous and moving, being designed by David Adjaye, who built the building with a lattice motif inspired by the Yoruba people, a culture dispersed between present-day Togo, Nigeria, and Benin. Even before entering, the museum has a wonderful story to tell.
5. Discover the Gardens at Meridian Hill Park
A visit to Meridian Hill Park provides a beautiful blend of nature, history, and architecture. The park is an Italian-style garden that’s been part of history numerous times. Originally, the park was the setting for an early 19th-century mansion that was, at one point, home to President John Quincy Adams, and during the Civil War, Union troops camped on the grounds.
Today, you can enjoy strolling the park, taking in the statues and artistic features. Make sure to visit the cascading fountain, considered one of the longest on the continent.
6. Take a Sobering Trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Another worthwhile museum in Washington, D.C., apart from the handful of free Smithsonian museums, is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. While this museum is definitely not one where you can expect to find joy, its important message will remain with you long after you leave the city.
It’s a heartbreaking story to learn more deeply, but one that is absolutely vital to know, and the museum delivers it impeccably. While admission is free, timed tickets are required.
7. See What’s On at the National Gallery of Art
Yet another free museum in Washington, D.C., the National Gallery of Art is a must-visit for the art aficionados in your group or family. Highlights among the gallery’s collection include works by famed artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Francisco Goya, and Claude Monet.
You can also find a range of special exhibits and touring exhibits on display at the gallery, with focuses ranging from American furniture to vintage photography.
Related Read: 12 Weekend Road Trips From Washington, D.C.
8. Take a Trip to the National Zoo
Did you know that, among the Smithsonian’s various free attractions, there’s also a zoo? If your family doesn’t quite like wandering through stuffy museum halls and would prefer to be outdoors looking at some cool wild animals, then make tracks for the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.
Passes are required, but entry is, of course, free. From elephants to primates, panda bears to big cats, you can expect to see all your favorite furry friends here.
9. Take a Free Walking Tour
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Not sure exactly what you want to see while in Washington, D.C., but definitely know you want a guided tour experience? Check out the offerings from DC by Foot. This tour provider offers both free and name-your-own-price tours around the area that focuses on major sites but also go beyond D.C. to show travelers the sights in nearby Alexandria as well.
From historic Georgetown to the Arlington Cemetary, and more, DC by Foot has tons to offer (If you do want to splurge a little, you can also book private tours).
10. Take a Boat Tour
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Prefer to see your sites while sitting down? Hop on a canal boat and take a free canal tour through Georgetown. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal is technically under the National Park Service’s domain, and its waters and lands expand nearly 200 miles through multiple states and, of course, through Washington, D.C.
The canal played an important role throughout history, for both transportation and industry. Today, you can learn a little bit about that history with one of the seasonal canal boat tours.
11. Find Even More Art at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
The National Gallery of Art isn’t the only place to see impressive pieces for free. You can also go to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, where the portraits not only include those of presidents and other politicians, but also those of national figures, scientists, celebrities, and more.
Like the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery also features rotating and traveling exhibitions, with some of the recent themes including portraits of environmentalists and portraits of students at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
12. Take a Self-Guided Tour of the Library of Congress
The world’s largest library is open to visitors for exploring. You can take a self-guided audio tour through the Library of Congress, but also be sure to check out the library’s events calendar.
Every Thursday evening is Live! at the Library, which puts on public events with a range of focuses, from workshops to performances, film screenings, lectures, and more – often free of charge.
13. See American History Through Decorative Arts at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum
This museum belonging to the nonprofit women’s service organization, Daughters of the American Revolution, offers a unique look at history. The museum is split into 30 different period rooms, each carefully designed to reflect a certain time and place in American history using authentic furnishings, textiles, and other items either made or used in the United States before the early 1900s.
The museum also houses a massive collection of quilts from the 1800s to the early 1900s and tells the story of how quilting used to bring a sense of community to women around America.
14. See a Show at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is likely one of the most well-known performance spaces in the world, thanks to Kennedy Center Honors. But you don’t have to pay high ticket prices to catch a show here.
You can find free events provided regularly, including over the weekends. You can also tour the center for free. If you do want to attend one of these free shows, just be sure to get your tickets in advance – they go fast!
15. Visit a Lesser-Known Museum
While the Smithsonian museums are, by and large, the most popular you’ll come across in Washington, D.C., the other free museums we’ve recommended above still get their fair share of crowds. So, if you want to really get off the beaten (museum) path, then you’ll want to head to one of the lesser-known ones.
Check out the National Postal Museum (which is still a Smithsonian museum, but not as frequented) or the National Building Museum. The former covers all things postal, from postage stamps to postal law, while the latter is dedicated to American architecture and design.
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