DC sometimes gets a bad rep for being too political, sometimes too boring and other times just too ugly. Being born and raised in DC makes me a little bit biased, but this city has so much to offer that makes it very exciting and educational, though I’ll hand it to you… it can be ugly. At times.
Washington, DC can be a pretty expensive place to live and visit (especially for fueling my margarita and taco addiction), but the great thing is there are so many free things to do in the city that you could occupy yourself for weeks and never even get to it all.
I frequently take living in DC for granted, especially when all I want is to jetset off somewhere more interesting, but the truth is there’s so much in DC that even I haven’t done. If you’re planning to visit (or maybe you even live here and are looking for new things to do) this list of 101 free things will let you see the best of DC while spending the least amount of money. However, if you are looking to spend some money, check out my list of best extended happy hours in DC.
Best Free Museums in Washington, DC
Honestly, the best thing about DC is all the free museums so it seems fitting to include them first. I also wanted to note that although not free, the Newseum is genuinely my favorite museum in the entire city and you should absolutely visit. Although entry is pricey, if you have a Bank of America credit card or debit card, you get free entry the first weekend of every month.
1. National Museum of African American History and Culture: Keep in mind that this museum is still fairly new and so tickets can be hard to get. As soon as tickets are released they go in a matter of minutes, so if you really want to visit, then be sure to plan ahead.
2. National Museum of African Art: This museum explores the art of African nations and celebrates their cultures and traditions.
3. Air and Space Museum & Udvar Hazy: The Air and Space Museum has two branches – one downtown and one in a hanger by Dulles International Airport. The hanger by Dulles will always be my favorite, but keep in mind it does charge $15 for parking, but it’s free after 4 p.m.
4. American Art Museum: This museum holds the largest collection of art from colonial times to the present – all made in the US.
5. American History Museum: This museum is dedicated to the history of the US: political, cultural, scientifically and military all rolled into one.
6. American Indian Museum: I highly recommend this one and it’s one of my favorites. It works to further your understanding of native cultures in the US. So much of the information I didn’t know and I found it very educational.
7. Anacostia Community Museum
8. Archives of American Art: This museum is the largest collection of primary resources the history of the visual arts in the United States.
9. Arts and Industries Building
10. Cooper Hewitt
11. Freer Gallery of Art
12. Hirshhorn Museum: This is an excellent museum with fantastic temporary exhibits. It also has a really cool sculpture garden that’s worth checking out.
13. National Zoo: Although technically not a museum, it is part of Smithsonian and therefore is free. I’m not a big fan of zoos, but they do some great research work here as well. In the winter, they Have ZooLights, a fantastic display of holiday cheer throughout the entire Zoo.
14. National Gallery of Art: One of the most famous museums in DC, it has an impressive collection of art and exhibits.
15. Natural History Museum
16. Portrait Gallery: There’s more to the Portrait Gallery than you may think and you may surprise yourself. Be sure to not overlook it.
17. Postal Museum: An incredibly underrated museum, you’ll learn about the history of the postal service and even get to see some old postal trucks and stamps throughout history.
18. Renwick Gallery
19. S. Dillon Ripley Center
20. Sackler Gallery
21. Smithsonian Castle: Not many places in the US can say they have a castle. We can, so you should definitely visit.
22. Smithsonian Gardens: You’ll be hard-pressed to find other gardens more stunning than the Smithsonian Gardens. They say they want to engage people with plants and to “inform on the roles both play in our cultural and natural worlds.”
23. Phillips Collection: Although not free every day of the week, all permanent collection galleries are free to visit Tuesday-Friday. However, anyone under the age of 18 is admitted for free to all exhibits.
24. Embassy of Canada Art Gallery: You may not think of an embassy as having anything worth visiting, but the Canadian Embassy, located next to the Newseum, has a free art gallery that’s open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
25. National Bonsai and Penjing Museum: On the site of the National Arboretum is this museum dedicated to bonsais and penjings. A little niche, but definitely worth visiting.
26. Anderson House: This mansion located Dupont Circle was built in 1905 and was a “Florentine villa in the midst of American independence.” Larz Anderson, an American diplomat, and his wife, Isabel, lived here and now it’s open to the public as a historic house museum.
27. Interior Museum
28. National Archives
29. Holocaust Memorial Museum: This beautifully well-done museum has just undergone some updates and it’s better than ever. Tickets are totally free, but if you purchase a ticket online between March 1 and August 31 then you will be subjected to a $1 transaction fee.
30. DAR Museum: This art and history museum is run by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
31. United States Diplomacy Center: Located in the pavilion in front of the Department of State, this free exhibit talks about the history of American diplomacy and includes interactive exhibits where you can put yourself in the place of a diplomat.
32. First Friday Dupont: Although not a museum, it falls under the same umbrella of culture and art. On the first Friday of every month, art galleries open their doors to the public and allow you to go on an art crawl, if you will, along R Street and Connecticut Avenue.
33. National Museum of Women in the Arts: The first Sunday of every month admission is free. This museum is the only one in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the achievement of women in the arts.
Free Monuments and Memorials in Washington, DC
I know what you’re going to say – all monuments are free, Hannah! I know that, but these are just creepy busts on a pedestal, but rather thoughtful, engaging pieces of art dedicated to those who made a difference. Most of these are along the Mall and can usually be done all at once.
1. WWII Memorial: You may be wondering why I mention this one first rather than WWI, but that’s because this is far more well-known and more elaborate. It’s beautiful and moving and a must-see monument.
2. WWI Memorial: Just a small gazebo-type memorial now, there’s currently some controversy over making a more substantial one.
3. Korean War Veterans Memorial: The images etched into the walls and the statues of soldiers get me every time. It’s breathtakingly sad and beautiful.
4. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: This is my personal favorite and I think it’s because of its simplicity. These 144 granite panels with names etched into them evoke a sense of emotion and are more thought-provoking than any of the other memorials, in my opinion.
5. Thomas Jefferson Memorial: One of the most well-known memorials in all of DC, this is a must-visit. But be prepared for all of the crowds!
6. Lincoln Memorial: Like the Jefferson Memorial, be prepared for this to be packed with tourists in the height of summer. However, if you’re there in the winter or fall it’s usually manageable.
7. Washington Monument: I haven’t forgotten about it, I promise! This iconic part of the DC skyline is obviously a must to go and look at. Unfortunately, if you want to go up it’s closed for one more year (until the spring of 2019).
8. Arlington National Cemetary: Although not technically a memorial or a monument, Arlington Cemetary is an often overlooked part of DC and it shouldn’t be. Apart from walking around and seeing the perfectly manicured lawns and tombstones and paying your respects, you can also go find President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
9. Titanic Memorial: This granite statue honors the men who gave their lives so women and children might be saved during the disaster.
Free Experiences in DC
1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and Island: You might be thinking what the heck is that? This is a small island in the middle of the Potomac right by the Kennedy Center. There’s the FDR Memorial and little ‘hiking trails.’ It makes for a fun partial day out.
2. Library of Congress: Many people forget that this is here and that you can actually go in free of charge. Plus, it’s more than just a library. There are frequently exhibits there as well, also free.
3. Tour the Capitol: This requires quite a bit of planning as you will need to contact your representative in order to set up a tour date and time, but it’s completely free. Despite the fact I’ve lived here all my life, I’ve only ever done it once (I know, shame on me) but it’s definitely worth doing.
4. Embassy Trick or Treating: During business hours of Halloween, numerous embassies open their doors to the public and you can get some local food or candy, and possibly some local drinks. Participating embassies are different each year, but past years have seen the British embassy, Finnish embassy, Greek embassy, Portuguese embassy and French embassy open their doors.
5. Passport DC: Held in the month of May, Passport DC is a month-long celebration of the international diplomatic community. Various embassies open their doors, there are exhibits, street festivals, performances, workshops and more.
6. Union Market: This gourmet food hall will obviously cost money if you want to buy anything, but it has some really cool items, shops and architecture that make it worth visiting even if you don’t plan to buy anything.
7. Congressional Cemetery: You might be thinking why on earth would I want to visit a cemetery? The Congressional Cemetery is the final resting place for one former Vice President, numerous senators and representatives, one supreme court justice, six cabinet members, among many other people who contributed to DC, and the US’s, unique history.
8. Yoga at Meridian Hill Park: Meridian Hill Park is a stunning location and what better way to be one with nature than do yoga. It’s only held in the summer, but if you have the opportunity, it’s definitely an experience worth having.
9. Sit in on Supreme Court Session: It is totally possible to do this, you just will need to plan your day around it since you can only do it at specific times. It’s well worth it if you get the chance and can work it into your schedule. Read more about it on the Supreme Court website.
Free Festivals and Concerts in DC
1. H Street Festival: This is one of my favorite festivals in DC. It’s basically just a giant block party with live music, great food and great vibes. It’s usually held in the month of October and this year we had gorgeous weather.
2. Cherry Blossom Festival: Probably one of the most famous festivals in DC, the Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates spring and the stunning cherry blossoms dotted around the city – primarily the Tidal Basin. The festival has many moving parts and different things going on, some free some not. Also, because the cherry blossoms bloom at different times each year, dates are subject to change.
3. DC Jazz Festival: In the month of June, you can listen to some awesome Jazz concerts in venues around the city.
4. Jazz in the Garden at National Gallery of Art: Starting in May, the National Gallery of Art holds jazz concerts throughout the summer.
5. Fall Concert Series at National Gallery of Art: The National Gallery of Arts is known for its Fall Concert Series. 2019 hasn’t been released yet, but you can check out the lineup from 2018.
6. 17th Street High Heel Race: On the Tuesday before Halloween every year is the High Heel Drag Queen Race. Showing off costumes, these drag queens race down 17th Street to cheers.
7. DC Outdoor Films: Catch a film in Georgetown on a warm summer’s evening.
8. Art All Night: This free overnight art festival is usually held in September and highlights the arts, whether it be fashion, painting, photography, sculpture, crafts, or something else entirely.
9. Capital Pride: Most major cities these days have Pride and DC is no exception.
10. Folklife Festival: Of all the festivals in DC, this one has always been one of my favorites. The Folklife Festival highlights music, dancing, food and storytelling from other cultures.
11. Adams Morgan Day: The second Sunday in September is Adams Morgan Day, a celebration and festival for the neighborhood Adams Morgan with live music and international cuisine from the local restaurants.
12. Friday Night Concert Series at the Yards: Held from the months of May to August, there are free Friday night concerts at the Yards.
13. Emancipation Day: During the month of April, DC hosts a variety of exhibits, public discussions and more surrounding this historic moment.
14. DC State Fair: DC may not technically be a state, but that doesn’t keep it from celebrating its creative and agricultural talents.
15. Shakespeare Theater Company Free For All Shows: Each summer, the Shakespeare Theater Company does free shows for the community. You can check out what’s upcoming and when.
16. Capital Laughs Comedy Nights: Attend a free comedy show multiple times a week.
17. Mr. Henry’s Free Jazz Night: Every Tuesday, this DC pub holds a free jazz night.
18. Taste of Georgetown: This festival is all about the local foods of Georgetown. The event is totally free to enter, but if you want to taste anything you will need to buy tickets.
Free Areas to Spend Time Outside in DC
1. Rock Creek Park: Rock Creek Park has something for everyone because it’s so huge. Whether you want to sit outside and read a book, go running, cycling or hiking you can certainly do it here. It’s currently run by the National Parks Service.
2. C&O Canal: The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is obviously very long, but there are some lovely paths along it near DC and into Maryland. It runs alongside the Potomac and it’s great for walking or cycling.
3. The Mall: Probably one of the most famous outdoor areas in DC, you can hang out on the grass reading, playing frisbee, soccer or simply have a picnic. Or you can just walk along the wide pathways on either side from the Washington Monument to the Capitol.
4. Meridian Hill Park: One of my favorite parks in DC, it’s quiet and beautiful.
5. Botanic Garden: If you like flora then this oasis right off the Mall is for you.
6. Walk Around the Tidal Basin: The Tidal Basin is a wonderful area to spend some time outside, especially during Cherry Blossom season – but be warned, it gets incredibly busy in the spring and summer.
7. Sculpture Garden for the National Gallery of Art: The Sculpture Garden is a DC-favorite place to spend some time outside, especially if you’re a fan of the arts.
8. National Arboretum: Located less than 3 miles from downtown DC is this hidden gem with 446 acres of gardens, wild forest and winding roadways.
9. Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens: Home to many waterlilies and lotuses, it’s also home to the only remaining tidal marsh in DC.
10. Fireworks on the Mall on Fourth of July: Every evening on the Fourth of July there are firewalks downtown and the Mall is an excellent place to experience this. It gets really busy so if you want to watch them here, you’d better get there early.
11. Battery Kemble Park: Located in northwest DC, this park was a Union Army defensive site, making it a perfect location to learn about Civil War locations and enjoy the outdoors.
12. Georgetown Waterfront: The Georgetown Waterfront is a beautiful stretch of land along the Potomac in the historic Georgetown. In the spring and summer, it’s wonderful to lay outside, play games, read and enjoy a drink at one of the nearby restaurants. In the winter there’s an ice rink. In the fall, the changing leaves make it a wonderful walk.
Free Places in DC
1. Visit the Exorcist Steps: Have you ever seen the Exorcist? Even if you haven’t (like me, because I hate scary movies), you’ll probably still recognize the infamous steps from Georgetown, which are spooky as hell. Do you dare to visit (at night)?
2. Stroll Around the Historic Streets of Georgetown: Georgetown is a charming, historic part of DC with cobblestone streets, Federal-style architecture and cute little shops and restaurants. Aesthetically speaking, it’s my personal favorite part of the city.
3. Visit the Basilica of the National Shrine: Even if you’re not religious, this building is still impressive as the largest Catholic church in the US and in North America.
4. Instagram Chinatown Gate: You know I love a good Instagram guide, and DC is full of opportunities, but don’t bypass this impressive structure in Chinatown near the Gallery Place metro station.
5. National Cathedral: Again, you may not be a religious person, but the National Cathedral is a beautiful church that’s worth visiting – plus it has pretty gardens. Unfortunately, it still has some damage from the 2011 earthquake, but that doesn’t take away from its appeal.
6. Recreation Pier at the Wharf: The Wharf is a really fun area, regardless of season, and Recreation Pier is no different. There’s even a sculptured fire pit.
7. Ford’s Theatre: Built in 1863, this beautiful theatre is more well-known for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The theatre was fully restored to its former glory in the late 60s and is a wonderful place to take in history.
8. House of Frederick Douglass: You can visit the house of Frederick Douglass, a man who fought for equality and justice.
9. Warner Theatre Signatures: DC has its own Walk of Fame, including celebrities’ signatures. Among others, stars include Prince, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Marvin Gaye.
10. The Big Chair in Anacostia: It’s literally just a big chair. Built in 1959, I don’t know why, but it’s pretty random and therefore, I like it.
11. Blagden Alley: What makes Blagden Alley special? Well, a variety of things. The LOVE mural is one of my favorites in the city, the architecture is awesome and there are some really cool restaurants in there as well. Definitely worth the visit if you’re in the Shaw area.
12. Gravelly Point: It’s no secret that I love everything to do with planes, aviation and airports, so it shouldn’t be a shock that Gravelly Point made it to my list. This little strip of land along the Potomac is right next to National Airport (DCA) and makes for a great place to plane spot, especially in the summer. There are picnic tables and dozens of people hang out here.
Free Tours in DC
1. Ghost Tour: Take a free tour with DC By Foot, but rather than exploring the beauty and history of the city, tackle the darker side of the city with a ghost tour. DC By Foot offers several versions so you can pick which one suits you best.
2. Lincoln Assassination Tour: Also offered by DC By Foot, this tour takes you back in time to a historic night. Get the full scoop on what went down that night and see all the places which played a part.
3. Tour The Kennedy Center: Even if you aren’t looking to see a show, the Kennedy Center is a beautiful building, and rather than seeing it on your own, you can take an official tour for free.
4. Take a Tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing: If you’re keen to see how money is printed, then this is the tour for you.
5. Tour the Folger Shakespeare Library: Holding the largest collection of printed Shakespeare works in the world, you can take a free tour of the library, as well as attend concerts and visit exhibits.
6. White House Garden Tour: Offered twice a year in spring and fall, you can experience the lush White House gardens for yourself.
7. Pentagon Tour: You can take a tour of the Pentagon (guided, of course), but they fill up quickly and you must book ahead so make sure to plan accordingly.
8. Heurich House Museum Tour: Also known as the Brewmasters Castle, this former residence belonged to Christian Heurich, a German national who immigrated to the US and started one of the city’s most successful brewing companies. By the time he died at the age of 102 as active manager, he was considered the world’s oldest brewer. The museum is closed until January 31, 2018, at which time it will reopen.
Do you have something in DC that you like to do for free? If so, please share in the comments below! I always love to hear what other people like to do.