Monuments, historic sites, museums, galleries, music, walking tours—when it comes to fantastic free things and stuff to do, Washington DC gets our vote hands down.
One of the must free-things-to-do activities every visitor to Washington DC will enjoy is visiting the The National Mall, 2-mile-long stretch of land in the center of DC. It’s home to all kinds of incredible stuff, including many monuments and memorials that celebrate the rich history of the United States and those historic figures that helped shape the nation. At the west end of the Mall, the Lincoln Memorial immortalizes the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, and stands as a symbol of freedom. At 555 feet 5 1/8” and sitting right in the center of the Mall, the Washington Monument is hard to miss. It is a fitting tribute to the nation’s founding father and first president, George Washington. Directly south is the Jefferson Memorial, an attractive structure overlooking the picturesque Tidal Basin. It is particularly worth a visit in springtime when the famous cherry trees surrounding it are in bloom. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial can also be found on the banks of the Tidal Basin. It is the newest memorial on the National Mall and the only one dedicated to a citizen rather than a president or war hero.
On the topic of war heroes there are several war memorials on the National Mall, the Vietnam War Memorial perhaps being the most well-known and controversial. Its two black granite walls are etched with the names of 58,261 missing or dead; it’s a haunting and emotional tribute to those who served for their country. At the base of the Capital building sits the Grant Memorial. As an American Civil War general, Grant, who later became the 18th president of the United States, fought for the union and will forever sit facing Lincoln at the other end of the Mall, the President who saved the union.
If the scene of the crime is your thing Ford’s Theatre is open daily from 9 A.M. with free admission. While everyone knows who-dunnit, history buffs will be fascinated by the one-act play or the lecture style presentation about Lincoln’s assassination. Be sure to get your free tickets in advance at the box office beginning at 8:30 A.M. for same-day presentations. The Capitol Building dominates the east end of the National Mall. This architectural masterpiece has been the meeting place of the Senate and the House of Representatives for over two hundred years and it doesn’t cost a thing to be amongst the millions who visit annually. Free tours are offered Monday through Saturday.
The Arlington National Cemetery is the burial site for soldiers, diplomats and politicians such as John F. Kennedy. Visitors can view the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, visit Arlington House, former residence of Robert E. Lee or explore the many monuments on the grounds. Another cool free thing to do in Washington DC is to visit The National Archives. This is the home of famous documents, stuff such as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It is free to explore and open every day except Thanksgiving and December 25th.
With 17 museums in total, the Smithsonian Museums are too numerous to mention and, unless your vacation is an unusually long one, too vast to see all the stuff they contain in its entirety. Alas, they are free things to do, and certainly no visit to Washington would be complete without covering some of the highlights. A favourite with families is the National Museum of American History where you’ll find pop culture icons including Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, Archie Bunker’s chair and the Fonz’s leather jacket. The National Portrait Gallery is a who’s who of the movers and shakers who have shaped the country throughout its long history.
With plenty of hands-on activities the National Air and Space Museum is a hit with kids of all ages, because, let’s be honest, who can resist touching an actual lunar rock. The National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center is a little less central, housing the aviation and space artifacts too big for the National Mall museum, but worth the effort for those interested in seeing the actual Space Shuttle Discovery or the Concorde. The Smithsonian hasn’t completely cornered the market on free museums in Washington DC. If culture, natural history and scientific finds are your thing then spend some time exploring the National Geographic Museum and be sure to check out the exhibit of their famous photography.
After you’ve seen the sights, stop to hear the sounds. The National Theatre’s free performance series “Saturday Morning at the National” is designed for the whole family with a varied program featuring puppets, magic, music or ballet that changes weekly. If classic cinema is more your style, “Summer Cinema at the National” offers free movies on Monday nights throughout July and August. Seating is limited for both programs and tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, 30 minutes before the curtain goes up. Free is key at the The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. This is the free thing to do every evening at 6 P.M. in Washington DC if you want to enjoy performances from acts that span everything from the National Symphony Orchestra to gospel groups, jazz musicians to poetry slams. Go for the art, stay for the music at the National Gallery of Art. Free concerts are offered on Sunday evenings at 6:30 P.M. Seats are available on a first-come, first-serve basis starting at 6 P.M. The Gallery also offers the free series, Jazz in the Garden, every Friday evening throughout the summer months.
See DC by foot with…DC by Foot, is a walking tour company that gives free, kid-friendly tours (gratuity recommended) infused with games, fun facts and trivia. Some of their many offerings include the National Mall, Arlington Cemetery and Lincoln Assassination tours. Their newest addition is DC by Bus offering a Twilight Tour (no vampire fans, not that Twilight), but take note, while the tour is officially free, the bus reservation is $19, still a great deal for a three hour tour. If you’d rather save the gratuity and buy yourself a cold drink along your route, try one of Culture Tourism DC’s Neighbourhood Heritage Trails. These free self-guided walking tours are well marked with illustrated signs that lead you through some of Washington’s most historic neighborhoods.
Washington DC offers some great nature attractions that happen to be free things to do. Plant enthusiasts and gardeners will appreciate the National Arboretum. The 400+ acres of plants, trees and shrubs is a popular picnic destination. If you’re more into fauna than flora then check out the National Zoo. This 163 acre park is part of the Smithsonian and home to 400 different species. Fitness enthusiasts, and those who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, will enjoy a run or bike ride on the picturesque, 18-mile long Mount Vernon Trail. Points of interest along the trail include Theodore Roosevelt Island at one end and George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate at the other, with fantastic views of the Potomac River and various Washington landmarks enroute. The U.S. Botanic Gardens is another free thing to do. It features a world of plants and with both indoor and outdoor exhibits it can be enjoyed year-round. Those who prefer to get back to the concrete jungle will enjoy a stroll up Massachusetts Avenue where they can admire a world of architecture courtesy of the many and varied embassies.
A way to enjoy almost-free things to do in Washington DC is to check Groupon, the money-saving website that features local discounts in 150 cities. Visit the Washington DC Groupon page and you’ll find savings of anywhere from 40-90% on attractions, activities, tours, boat cruises, show tickets, dinner spots and accommodations. The Groupon Washington DC page is a smart place to check out when you’re first planning your trip and even when you’re in the middle of your Washington DC visit because new deals get added weekly and even daily many times.
Be thrifty and practical! This information was accurate when published, but can change without notice. We recommend you confirm all details with the provider in question before planning your excursion.