Top 12 Free Things to Do in Washington DC

Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Emily Johnson

As the capital of the United States, Washington DC attracts millions of visitors every year who come to explore its iconic monuments, world-class museums and galleries, and immerse themselves in American history and culture.

ActivityDescription
Smithsonian MuseumsExplore diverse museums with free admission, covering history, culture, and science.
National MonumentsVisit iconic landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument without a fee.
National ArboretumEnjoy gardens and rare plants in a sprawling outdoor space.
Free Concerts at the Kennedy CenterAttend daily free music performances across various genres.
Meridian Hill ParkRelax or join a drum circle in this urban green space.
Library of CongressExplore the world’s largest library and its treasures on a free tour.
U.S. Capitol Visitor CenterTake a free tour of the Capitol Building, learning about its history and architecture.
Public Art DowntownDiscover murals, sculptures, and installations throughout the city.
Historic City Walking TourSelf-guide through the city’s rich history and landmarks.
National ZooVisit this free zoo to see a variety of animals and exhibits.
Explore the Monuments at NightExperience the monuments illuminated against the night sky.
Hike Along the C&O CanalEnjoy nature along this historical park’s trails.

While some of the most popular attractions do charge admission fees, there are also dozens of excellent free things to see and do all around the district. From iconic landmarks to lesser-known local gems, here are 12 of the best free attractions and activities in Washington DC.

Visit the Smithsonian Museums

Name and Location: The Smithsonian Institution encompasses 19 world-class museums primarily located on the National Mall between the U.S. Capitol and Potomac River in Washington D.C.

History and Significance: Established in 1846 with funds donated by British scientist James Smithson, today the Smithsonian Institution stewards over 155 million artifacts, specimens and artworks across diverse disciplines showcasing American heritage from early pioneers through present times within architecturally beautiful public museum buildings that attract 30+ million annual visitors to enrich their lives through inspiring exhibitions.

What to Expect: Immersive, family-friendly exhibitions exploring air and space, American and African American history, diverse cultures, artworks new and old, botanical wonders, sporting achievements and inventions that changed the modern world across the series of popular Smithsonian museums clustered centrally around the grassy National Mall pedestrian park.

Visitor Information: All Smithsonian museums offer free general admission year-round. Hours vary by location but most are open daily with extended summer and holiday hours. Some special exhibits require free timed-entry passes.

The Smithsonian Institution oversees 17 incredible museums in DC, the majority of which offer free general admission year-round. Must-see free museums include the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Museum of American History, and the National Museum of Natural History. Wander through exhibitions covering everything from the Wright Brothers’ first airplane to Archie Bunker’s chair from “All in the Family.”

There are also smaller Smithsonian museums nearby like the National Postal Museum, National Museum of the American Indian and the Freer Gallery of Art. With free entry and so many remarkable exhibits to explore, you could easily spend several days museum-hopping around the National Mall.

Explore the National Monuments

Name and Location: Washington D.C. contains dozens of famous memorials and monuments scattered across the National Mall, Tidal Basin and Potomac Riverfront areas in the heart of the capital district.

History and Significance: Epic American monuments immortalize former presidents and courageous leaders alongside influential events and sacrifices central to the progression of liberty and justice. Soaring obelisks, solemn statues and stirring architectural iconography create an unmatched urban landscape of free landmarks venerating the nation’s core democratic ideals and quests to continually form “a more perfect union” as engraved in stone and bronze.

What to Expect: Inspiring self-guided walking tours take in the towering marble and granite grandeur of unforgettable sights like the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorials plus Washington Monument, Library of Congress and National Archives Museum where the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence live on as foundational documents.

Visitor Information: All outdoor memorials and monuments offer 24/7 grounds access free-of-charge to pedestrians year-round. Interpretive park ranger talks occur at various sites during the daytime.

Several of DC’s most iconic landmarks charge no admission fee, making them very popular attractions for visitors on a budget. The towering marble obelisk of the Washington Monument provides panoramic views of the city and National Mall from the observation deck 500 feet high. Remember to reserve free timed entry passes in advance online before visiting.

The moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the stately Lincoln Memorial commemorating the 16th US president are both open 24 hours a day. One of DC’s most photographed landmarks, the Capitol Reflecting Pool makes for great pictures when the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is mirrored on the water’s calm surface.

Stroll Through the National Arboretum

Name and Location: The U.S. National Arboretum occupies 446 acres at 3501 New York Ave. NE in the northeast quadrant of Washington D.C.

History and Significance: Federally established in 1927 at the height of the Art Deco movement, today 16 curated collections nurture over 15,000 plant varieties across open meadows, captivating gardens and peaceful wetlands framed by historic columns seeking to foster sustainability, plant research and education within park-like public grounds open daily for wandering.

What to Expect: Meandering pathways reveal delightful discovery around every turn from whimsical sculptural trellises covered in climbing vines inside the Schulte Mediterranean Garden to tranquil scenes of the Aquatic Garden’s flowering aquatic plants floating serenely past Chinese pagodas perched at the water’s edge. Interpretive signs enrich understanding of nature’s beauty on display across varied ecosystems.

Visitor Information: Free public access to outdoor gardens daily from 8am to 5pm. Free parking available at New York Ave or North Capitol Street entrances. Visitor center open 10am to 4pm with gift shop.

Managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture spread across 446 acres in Northeast DC, the National Arboretum features public gardens and research facilities dedicated to trees, shrubbery, floral displays and more. Embark on a free self-guided walking tour to take in the captivating natural beauty including state trees, rare exotic plants and whimsical topiaries.

Don’t miss seeing the 22-ton Bethesda Fountain carved from pink granite, or the National Bonsai Collection – one of North America’s most renowned with tiny trees representing Japan, China, North America and beyond. Especially during springtime when blooms explode with color, the National Arboretum promises a memorable (and free!) day appreciating nature at its finest.

Attend Free Concerts at the Kennedy Center

Name and Location: The John F. Kennedy Memorial Center providing performing arts alongside the Potomac River at 2700 F Street NW in Washington D.C.

History and Significance: Opened in 1971 to honor President Kennedy’s enduring legacy nurturing American culture, today the shining marble building holds seven theaters, orchestral halls, open-air kiosks and the Reach expansion campus. Known globally, the Kennedy Center fosters performing excellence as the busiest arts facility nationwide, welcoming all to over 2,000 shows annually spanning genres from hip hop dance to opera.

What to Expect: Daily free performances grace the Grand Foyer through multi-genre offerings like jazz ensembles, dance movements, cappella groups or piano renditions entertaining passersby inside the bustling halls. The Millennium Stage hosts concerts nightly 365 days per year within the state-of-the-art, accessible theater space that’s free and unticketed.

Visitor Information: Showtimes and concert details available on the programming calendar online. Garage parking underneath center available for a fee based on show duration with validated paid entry near the Pavilion entrance.

While event tickets at the revered John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts can run quite steep, the venue also offers several ways for visitors to attend free performances. Every day at 6pm there is a free concert on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage showcasing a wide variety of music genres including pop, folk, jazz, orchestral pieces and more by artists from across the country and around the world.

Additionally on weekends, free musical performances grace the Kennedy Center’s lobbies and hallways during roaming acts from 2-5 pm. Talented students from the National Symphony Orchestra brass quintet, pop a cappella groups and other youthful prodigy acts provide weekend entertainment with no ticket required.

During summer months, the massive opera house also puts on a free open house arts festival on outdoor stages allowing attendees to picnic on the riverfront while enjoying orchestral renditions of classic showtunes and movie scores.

Relax at Meridian Hill Park

Name and Location: Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, stretches across 12 acres in the Columbia Heights neighborhood at 16th and W Streets NW in Washington D.C.

History and Significance: Originally envisioned as an extension of the White House grounds by First Lady Edith Wilson, today the lush urban oasis pays tribute to inventor Samuel Morse with a beautiful 1912 Italian-style terraced garden landscape filled with cascading fountains, desire paths worn into grassy hills and a weekly open-air drum circle that energizes locals around the central Joan of Arc memorial.

What to Expect: Historic architecture makes an elegant backdrop for picnicking, people watching and summer dancing in concentric grass rings to the vibrant rhythms of samba and go-go beats echoing off the regal Neoclassical stone staircase flanked by flower beds, pillars and water features flowing gently down the sloping park.

Visitor Information: The park remains openly accessible daily with some facilities available seasonally. Group sports or gatherings may require permits. Street parking spans the neighborhood without restrictions.

Known unofficially as Malcolm X Park but most commonly called Meridian Hill Park by locals, this sprawling green space rests in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Northwest DC. The park dazzles visitors with an array of picturesque terraces, sculptures, etched stone walls, charming footbridges crossing over a central fountain and cascading waterfall staircase.

On Sunday afternoons during summer months, throngs spread across the lush lawns for a unique DC tradition – the lively drum circle jams where dozens of percussionists create impromptu beats for hours. Pack a picnic lunch, grab a bench or grassy knoll, and spend a laid-back afternoon soaking up sunshine and good vibes for free at Meridian Hill Park.

Visit the Library of Congress

Name and Location: The Library of Congress is located at 101 Independence Ave SE in the heart of Washington D.C. across from the U.S. Capitol Building with additional campus buildings added nearby over time.

History and Significance: Formally established in 1800 to aid legislators with specialized resources, today the Library of Congress contains over 170 million items spanning books, films, maps, photos, documents and manuscripts accessed by visiting scholars or remotely in the world’s largest library collection open to the public for online learning exponentially expanding human knowledge.

What to Expect: Request access to research historical papers or discover the fascinating contents of the library’s vast vaults within the magnificent 1897 Jefferson Building featuring Grand Hall mosaics and statues honoring achievements within art, philosophy, commerce and history through temporary public exhibitions drawing from incomparable holdings.

Visitor Information: Access to Main Reading Room reference collections requires researcher credential review. Rotating exhibitions open to public with free admission. Visitor entry at First St SE open 8:30am to 4:30pm weekdays year-round.

The largest library in the world, the magnificent Library of Congress sits proudly near the U.S. Capitol open and free for visitors to explore. Featuring more than 168 million items chronicling knowledge and creativity through the ages, it’s almost overwhelming imagining the breadth of written works housed inside.

Bookworms and researchers can request materials from the dizzying collections, many of which also live digitally in online databases. Free hourly tours provide fascinating insight about Library history and book preservation efforts, while rotating exhibits showcase various rare texts, photographs, film reels and more. Don’t miss admiring the jaw-dropping Grand Reading Room with its vaulted stained glass ceiling covering the expansive main hall open to the public.

Tour the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

Name and Location: The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is located underground on the eastern front side of the historic U.S. Capitol grounds at First Street and East Capitol Street in Washington D.C.

History and Significance: Constructed and opened in phases starting 2008 beneath the East Capitol Plaza, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center provides deeper public understanding about Congress and the intricate legislation process undertaken across over 540,000 square feet of exhibit space, gathering areas and expanded educational programming relating stories of representative democracy.

What to Expect: Interactive exhibits, Walls of Aspirations and historic legislative theaters convey stories of Congress’ achievements. Guided walking tours of the storied U.S Capitol interiors visit both the House and Senate Galleries pending governmental activity and security restrictions.

Visitor Information: Free general admission to main visitor halls open to ticketholders 8:30am to 4:30pm Mon-Sat year-round. Guide-led tours should be booked well in advance online when available.

Get a glimpse behind the scenes into the ins and outs of Congress at the fantastic Capitol Visitor Center. Join a free guided walking tour of the Capitol Building led by knowledgeable guides that share historical facts, insights into Congress operations, and architectural details spanning over two centuries of additions and modifications.

Tours allow you to view the celebrated Capitol Rotunda and National Statuary Hall while learning about the functions of the Senate and House of Representatives. Outside, get camera-ready for classic photos beside the iconic dome and alongside the steps where U.S. Presidents are inaugurated every four years! Just be sure to book your free tour passes early in advance online before visiting.

Look Up Public Art Downtown

Name and Location: Downtown Washington DC neighborhoods exhibit over 300 pieces of public art installations spanning murals, sculptures, mosaics and mixed media masterpieces across city blocks and parks.

History and Significance: As museums flourished downtown, public artworks added visual interest to District buildings, alleyways and plazas through temporary pop-up structures and embedded urban design while honoring local culture from Go-go music celebrations to influential African American heritage. Rotating projects continue activating communities.

What to Expect: Photography hot spots paint bold murals across sides of buildings often with timely messages that encourage introspection on walks around Mount Vernon Triangle’s 5th Street, across the Convention Center “Museum Without Walls” sculpture park or down punchy perspectives of 7th Street lining Chinatown’s Friendship Archway.

Visitor Information: Accessible 24 hours. Locations viewable via online neighborhood guides. Street parking varies around sites though metro stops and public garages provide ample access downtown.

Downtown Washington DC comes alive with eye-catching murals, intriguing sculptures and creative art installations if you know where to look. One very unique display is the Human Thread installation across 11th and G Streets NW, showcasing larger-than-life blue resin sculptures interpreting silhouettes of people congregating.

The smARTpower Public Art Bike Racks scatter whimsical bike racks across downtown sidewalks, many created by local student artists. Download a free bike rack walking tour map online to scout out all 25 creative racks while getting steps on your Fitbit! If visiting in spring, make sure to check when the cherry blossom trees around the Tidal Basin bloom for iconic Instagram backdrops.

Go on a Historic City Walking Tour

Name and Location: Expert-led explorations through impactful eras interwoven throughout downtown Washington D.C. spanning iconic landmarks northeast and southwest of the National Mall around Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House and National Archives.

History and Significance: Professional guides relay nearly three centuries of politics, scandals, arts and cultural contributions that shaped the vibrant capital along the way in areas where founding fathers debated independence, Civil Rights leaders rallied reform from churches still standing through to the Watergate Hotel where international history continues being written nearby the World Bank halls today.

What to Expect: Roughly two-hour tours on foot incorporate hidden historical gems like Zero Milestone markers, centuries-old taverns or market halls that once provisioned presidents punctuated by insightful narratives revealing the complex storylines of the extraordinary place to better understand America’s ongoing quest towards advancing equality and opportunity for all.

Visitor Information: Small group tours available daily year-round for booking online direct from various tour providers. Rates, times and private group options are listed on respective agency websites.

Several outstanding self-guided walking tours around DC help uncover vestiges of the city’s rich history for the cost of just your shoes. A popular route is the Historic Georgetown Walk highlighting colonial landmarks like “The Exorcist” stairs where the famous horror movie was filmed. The Historic U Street Walk snakes through the vibrant Shaw neighborhood past sites central to Duke Ellington and other notable Black musicians that once gave DC renown as a jazz mecca.

Along the Southwest Waterfront, informational signs trace the history from the earliest days as a shipping port to today’s buzzing entertainment district. Wherever your feet take you exploring Washington DC, evidence of America’s complex past hides around many street corners waiting to be discovered.

See the National Zoo

Name and Location: Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the 163-acre National Zoological Park sits at 3001 Connecticut Ave NW spanning Woodley Park down through Cleveland Park in northwest Washington D.C.

History and Significance: Chartered by Congress in 1889, today the free-access National Zoo receives over 2 million annual visitors across naturalistic habitats hosting mammals, amphibians, reptiles and hundreds of endangered species including the famed giant pandas, Asian elephants, lions, tigers, and orangutans.

What to Expect: Miles of leafy walking paths to spot creatures indoors and out across zones mimicking terrain from Amazonia rainforests to African savannas. Feed giraffe heads peeking up 15-feet high or catch cheetah sprints during daily demonstrations revealing amazing adaptations.

Visitor Information: Zoo grounds are open daily free-of-charge from 8am to typically 4pm depending on season. Entry passes required for indoor habitats like Reptile Discovery Center, which carry additional fees. Parking fills early so metro recommended.

Spanning 163 acres in the heart of Northwest DC, the National Zoo stands out as one of America’s oldest zoos dating back to 1890. Unlike most other zoos nationwide there is no admission fee, making it a very popular budget-friendly attraction. Wander winding paths past animal habitats like the Great Cats exhibit to see lions, tigers and more up close, or watch the playful pandas tumble across their enclosures.

Don’t miss visiting the Elephant Outpost or the American Trail display featuring native wildlife including bald eagles, black bears, beavers, sea lions and additional endangered species. Interactive educational displays engage visiting kids while parents appreciate all the outdoor walking seeing wildlife from around the world.

Explore the Monuments at Night

Name and Location: Many memorials spanning the National Mall, West Potomac Park and Tidal Basin areas illuminate after dark creating unique photo scenes when walking among the iconic structures in central Washington DC.

History and Significance: While powerful seen by day, Washington’s legendary obelisks, columns and sculpted tributes breathe added magnificence when vibrantly lit against inky skies and reflecting off dark waters during spectacular nighttime views that should cap off monumental days spent marveling at America’s commemorative ingenuity forged in stone and metal across the ages.

What to Expect: Wandering after hours along tree-framed paths linking the glowing Lincoln Memorial with luminous pool reflections towards the brilliant Washington Monument obelisk floating over Constitution Gardens lake creates pinch-me scenes! Snap unforgettable photos while collecting new admiration for the inspired ideals immortalized into epic architecture elevating freedom across this storied landscape.

Visitor Information: Grounds openly accessible 24 hours for self-guided walks under monument illumination. Park Police patrol with increased presence overnight. Lighting schedules may vary.

While freely accessible 24 hours a day, Washington DC’s iconic monuments become exceptionally captivating at night. When the sun goes down and darkness settles, brilliant spotlights illuminate towering structures with a cinematic radiance. The luminous marble and granite seem to glow against the night sky for stunning photo opportunities.

Nearly empty of crowds, locals love jogging or biking past the glowing landmarks after dark. There may be no better view than witnessing the solemn shimmering reflection of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stretching 600 feet at night. Just be sure to exercise common-sense precautions if visiting monuments solo after hours.

Hike Along the C&O Canal

Name and Location: The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park traces 184.5 miles lining the Potomac River from Georgetown, Washington D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland, following the former canal constructed in the early 1800s parallel to the Capital Crescent biking/hiking trail along MacArthur Blvd NW.

History and Significance: For nearly 100 years before railroads arrived, boating commerce floated domestic goods along the pioneering C&O water route linking mid-Atlantic ports to Ohio River supply chains. Today the lush towpath trail gives locals an escape into Potomac riverside nature while exploring locks, villages and aqueducts recalling the milestone engineering achievement.

What to Expect: Walk, cycle or skate along the nearly flat gravel canal route past over 200 relics and ruins dotted amid Civil War sites and Potomac vistas. Seasonal canal boat rides, mule handler tours and costumed exhibits share canal legacy from Great Falls to Georgetown.

Visitor Information: The linear park stretching through two states offers free access always except during federal holidays. Some facilities like Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center observe seasonal hours typically 8:30am-4:30pm.

Just a quick drive from the city center, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park parallels the Potomac River across nearly 185 miles of bucolic scenery west to Cumberland, Maryland. Within the portion skirting DC, the park contains excellent hiking and biking trails along the old waterway.

The canal towpath stretches over 180 miles just in the DC area, with lots of access to hop on and off for walks or bike rides within your ability and schedule. Interpretive signs explain the canal’s purpose moving goods and supplies in barges pulled by mules long ago. Keep your eyes peeled for blue herons, beavers, turtles and even bald eagles frequenting the shimmering Potomac waters beside the trails.

With these 12 attractions, free guided tours and local parks, visitors can fill their itinerary seeing top sights without draining their vacation budgets. Iconic monuments, world-class museums and so much more make a trip to Washington DC memorable, with plenty of no-cost and low-cost activities to discover.

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