Free Things to Do in Washington, D.C.

Last week I was in Washington DC to visit the city, meet a few bloggers, and go to a close friend’s wedding. I’ve been to Washington DC many times before, and I really love the city. There are people from all over the world, making the city very eclectic, diverse, and a foodie’s dream. Yet there’s one really big downside to the city: cost. Washington DC is not a cheap city. With all those free-spending politicians, lobbyists, and diplomats floating around the city driving up prices, costs here are pretty high. Meals, hotels, transportation, parking—they all add up to a lot of money. Luckily, there are many great free things to do in the city for the budget traveler:

US Supreme Court in washington
Visit the Supreme Court – The Supreme Court is free to enter and there are 40-minute lectures in the main hall for free. It’s a very detailed way to learn about how the court works.

US Capital Building
Visit the Capitol BuildingThe Capitol offers free tours throughout the day. Tickets are available at 8:30am on a first-come, first-serve basis. Get there early, as the tickets are usually gone very quickly. You can also get tickets to sit in the galley and watch Congress in session. Those tickets are also first come, first serve.

Smithsonian Washington
Visit the Smithsonian Museums – All Smithsonian museums (and there are a lot) are free, and they even offer free Wi-Fi. Two of the museums offer IMAX movies (which are not free), and if you save your stub, you can get a second movie for four dollars. The museums are all around the National Mall (the big park in the center of town).

Washington Mall
Visit the Monuments – All the monuments around the National Mall are free, and you can spend the better part of a day seeing them. You’ll find many monuments to the fallen heroes of our wars, of which the Vietnam War memorial is probably the most popular. There are also lots of monuments to our past presidents. I’m a big fan of the FDR monument—it’s relaxing, has a little garden, and is not very crowded.

Washington DC national zoo
Visit the National Zoo – As part of the Smithsonian, this is also free. It’s a good zoo with a lot of animals.

Happy Hour in DC
Take in a happy hour – After a long day of walking and sightseeing, you could probably use a nice drink and meal. Luckily, DC is awash with happy hour specials. Head over to Georgetown or DuPont Circle and enjoy good food at a great discount.

Washington DC isn’t always cheap, but many of the city’s great activities are free. These activities will keep you busy for a few days, allowing you to see a lot of DC, take in the country’s history, and not spend a lot of money.

For more information on the United States, visit my country and city guides to US travel.

  1. Another great free thing to do in DC is check out the Udvar-Hazy center. It is the secondary aerospace division of the Smithsonian and is free to the public. They have some pretty cool stuff there, including the space shuttle Enterprise. This is especially worth checking out if you have a long layover at Washington Dulles, as it is located very close to the airport and they have a free shuttle,

    • Not close free – but the Segway tours are FUN. I live in the DC area and take every chance I get to take a visitor on one with me. Worth the money and I always learn a few more historical tidbits I missed the time before while racing around!

    • I second the Udvar-Hazy Center, that place is awesome and so much more interesting than the downtown Air & Space Museum. Not totally free, though, as it is $15 to park if you’re driving (and I suppose most visitors would be doing this). A couple ways around that: If you’re just being dropped off, it is free for the driver (though they still have to pay $15 to get in, then get their money back within 30 minutes on the way out). It’s also free after 4 p.m., which would give you 1.5 hours to tour the place (not nearly enough time to take in the entire place, though).

  2. I like the FDR monument too, specifically the way water is incorporated into it as you walk through the big events in his life.

    Also, I’d recommend visiting the Mall and monuments at night too, if you have the time or inclination, as it offers a different experience free of crowds and summer heat.

  3. Yes I love the great museums in the D.C! And really surprised that these world-class museums are free admission! Can’t get enough of them! Too bad I was only there for 2 days.

    p.s: I’d love to share with you the 3 humble posts that I had done last yr on D.C. I wish I can write as well as you!

  4. Oddly enough I’ve never been to Washington – but its always been on my list – mainly because of the Smithsonian. It sounds a bit like London – costs a fortune to eat and sleep but a lot of amazing free stuff. What’s the best way to get around – is there any decent public transport?

  5. Theresa

    If you’re there on a weekend, be sure to hit up Eastern Market. I think it’s my fav place in DC, and they just reopened the main building after a fire nearly devastated it a few years back. The Arboretum is also free and a nice place to spend a few hours. And terribly overlooked but awesome are the also free Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. The lotus should be in bloom right now (but you have to go early before it gets too hot). They are amazingly beautiful and worth the trip.

    And oh yeah, there’s a lot of great hiking that’s free in the area.I hear the Moon Take a Hike Washington DC book is a good starting point :-) (Yes, that is a shameless plug. Sorry!)

  6. We love DC. It’s also a great city with kids. We just recently went there for spring break and I couldn’t believe how much my kids enjoyed the whole city.

    Love the metro system! I feel so sad hearing about the crash since we practically rode almost all the line and used the red line to the Zoo.

    Here is my list of things to do from the kid-view. :)

    My favorite free thing to do in DC is joining the DC by Foot tour. They are the best and it’s free (you gave them tip based on your preference).

  7. Gail

    OK, so if you are in DC you have to check out the Capital Segway Tours. It is not free, and a little pricey, but it is worth EVERY penny! My husband and I chose to do this tour the second morning of our six day vacation, and I could not have been happier. It was SO MUCH FUN! It is a 2 hours tour of all the major monuments. I don’t think that we could have seen that many things in the 6 days if we had tried. We loved ever minute…and you get a guided tour! It is well worth the money! This is something everyone should do! We couldn’t stop talking about it!

  8. If you are looking for a whole site dedicated to Free Things to Do in DC then you are going to love Free in DC! It is a super resource for all kinds of free, donation based and super affordable things to do. What is great about the site is that it shows DC after dark, highlighting event especially events at night and on the weekends, that highlights life beyond the museums!

    The site is written by a fabulous local who is really familiar with the art scene and all kinds of cool things going on. It’s actually my site and I hope you’ll check it out! There are tons of great free events listed for pretty much every day of the week and you’ll get to see DC from the eyes of a local, as a creative and vibrant city filled with wonderful things to do! Some museum events are listed but there are lots of poetry events, concerts, author events, art openings and more… all up to date and current info about what is going on in DC. You can also find Free in DC on twitter @FreeinDCBlog

    I also agree with the comment above that anyone coming to DC should be sure to search the online calendar at (try the advanced search if you want to search by date range and keyword) to view events from over 300 participating arts organizations in the DC metro area and also links to, where you can find half price tickets to shows online and in advance.

    There is also a TICKETPLACE storefront on 7th St near D St, NW near Archives Navy Memorial and Gallery Place metro, where you can drop by in person to find half-price tickets to events at local theaters and arts venues.

  9. Valerie

    Whether or not you are Catholic, I highly recommend the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the same grounds as The Catholic University of America (on the Red Line heading north). The numerous mosaics are amazing – both in the Upper Church and the Crypt Church. You can spend an entire day wandering around and still not see it all. Take your time. Relax. Get away from the stress of life. You can also grab lunch in their cafeteria and browse through their wonderful bookstore and gift shop.

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