One of the great things about visiting the nation’s capital is that there are so many free things in DC. This makes Washington an excellent travel destination for budget travelers and for families where buying tickets for everyone would really add up. These are ten of our favorite free things in DC.
10. U.S. Capitol
The Capitol is a beautiful building at the east end of the National Mall. The Capitol is where our legislative branch of government meets and it’s one of the most iconic buildings in the city and in the country. You can tour the inside of the Capitol by making a reservation on the Capitol Visitor Center website.
If you are an American and if you prefer you can also contact your member of Congress to request a tour. These tours are typically led by one of their interns and there is a long-running debate about whether the Visitor Center tours or the congressional office tours are better. However, just seeing the inside of the dome and all the other cool stuff that’s inside is a memorable experience.
9. National Archives
Everybody knows the National Archives is where Nicholas Cage broke in and stole the Declaration of Independence. The Archives showcases the original version of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. They also have a cool museum that has a lot of lesser-known records and documents from throughout history. Make sure you plan a little extra time to check it out.
A bonus trip hack for the Archives is that it is open year-round and you can go anytime; but during peak tour season in the spring and summer you should go on Recreation.gov and reserve tickets to skip the line. You do have to pay a small processing fee. But, it’s worth it! It is only a couple of bucks and your time is valuable!
8. Smithsonian museums
Smithsonian is not a single place. Rather it is the government agency that runs many of the museums on the National Mall and elsewhere in DC. The most popular Smithsonian museums are Air and Space, Natural History and American history. Smithsonian museums are one of the most popular free things in DC. However, our recommendation for Smithsonian museums is to go to the ones that sound the most interesting, rather than the ones that are most popular.
7. National Zoo
Despite the name, this is not the biggest nor the grandest zoo in America. In many ways, the National Zoo is more like a neighborhood zoo than a major tourist attraction. However, unlike other big zoos, the National Zoo is completely free.
You might be interested to know that only four zoos in the United States currently have giant pandas on display. The National Zoo in DC is the only one where you don’t have to pay to see them. If you have a big family and kids, the zoo is a great option because you can spend as much or as little time as you want and not feel bad about it.
6. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Obviously not everything here is free. If you are coming here to see Hamilton or another popular play, you might spend a small fortune. But, there are daily free performances on the Millennium Stage. You can also take a free tour of the Kennedy Center, if you want an inside look at the building and some of the inner workings of the place.
5. National Gallery of Art
Believe it or not, the U.S. government runs two distinct museum institutions: the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art. Smithsonian was founded by an Englishman named James Smithson and the National Gallery of Art was founded by former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. The National Gallery focuses strictly on art and is one of the best institutions of its kind in the country. Although, if you are a world traveler you could certainly debate about whether it stands up to some of the big European art museums.
4. Old Post Office Tower
If you like views, then you have to check out the Old Post Office Tower. The Washington Monument gets all the attention when it comes to views. However, we think the Old Post Office is a superior view. It is less crowded and easier to access. Plus you get awesome views down Pennsylvania Avenue and of the Washington Monument itself. The door is kind of hidden and hard to find. Check out our video for step-by-step instructions.
3. U.S. Botanic Garden
The U.S. Botanic Garden is on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. You can think of it as a museum of plants. It is one of the more relaxing free things in DC. There are greenhouses that recreate climates from all around the globe. So, you can find some really cool plant life that is not native to the DC area.
During the holiday season, they go all out with their Christmas decorations and in the summer a bonus trip hack is to cross Independence Avenue and go check out Bartholdi Park. It’s usually quiet peaceful and beautiful. So, it can be a great place to sit and relax.
2. Library of Congress
A lot of people think the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is the most beautiful building in the entire city. We recommend the free guided tour of the inside of the building. That will give you a chance to learn about the art and architecture that is all around you. Make sure to budget some extra time to see the rotating exhibits which are always excellent.
A bonus trip hack for the Library of Congress is to plan to go here after you do your Capitol tour. It’s connected to the Capitol via an underground tunnel so once you’ve cleared security at the Capitol you won’t have to through another metal detector.
1. Monuments and Memorials
You cannot come to Washington DC without going to the Lincoln Memorial, standing on the top step getting a view of the city and the reflecting pool. The war memorials are very moving and powerful remembrances of those who served. The other memorials are to people who shaped what our country is today. Of course, the monuments are one of the many free things in dc and open 24/7/365 to visit.
Trip Hacks DC runs tours of the monuments and memorials. These are not free. However, a tour is not required to see them. We really do think a tour makes your experience of the monuments so much better.
Another option that free are the Ranger talks. Our Park Rangers are extremely knowledgeable and great at showing you around. However, the disadvantage is that Ranger talks typically only cover one monument or a small group of monuments. So, you would need to cobble several of them together to make it into a full tour.
Coming to DC and want us to show you around?
Trip Hacks DC was founded by Rob, a veteran tour guide in the Nation’s Capital. Trip Hacks DC provides tips, tricks and travel hacks for planning your trip; and guided tours to show you around once you get here. Our tours are family and school group friendly and our guides specialize in the major Washington, DC sites. Click here to check out the upcoming tour options and to book your tour here today! Feel free to contact us if you have any tour questions.