Washington, DC offers a wide variety of free or low-cost attractions open daily for visitors. 11 museums and sites throughout the city are open to the public for free as part of the Smithsonian Institution, including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Zoo. All three branches of the United States government offer public tours of their respective historic buildings, with limited free-admission courtroom seating available to watch history in the making as Supreme Court cases are decided.
1.The Smithsonian Institution
© Courtesy of spiritofamerica - Fotolia.com
The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest museum and educational complex, located along Washington, D.C.'s National Mall. The museum system was established in 1846, named in honor of British scientist James Smithson, and showcases more than 154 million artifacts held across artistic, science and technology, history, and design collections. More than 30 million annual visitors attend the Institution's 11 museums and art galleries, which are all open to the public for free daily, with the exception of Christmas Day. Museums include the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, the American Art Museum, and the Postal Museum. The Smithsonian Institution also offers six museum and public park facilities throughout the greater D.C. Metro area, including the free-admission National Zoo, located in D.C.'s Woodley Park neighborhood.
600 Maryland Ave SW, Washington, DC 20002, Phone: 202-633-1000
2.Arlington National Cemetery
© Courtesy of dinhhang - Fotolia.com
Arlington National Cemetery is a 624-acre military cemetery in Arlington County, located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.'s National Mall. The cemetery inters military personnel from American conflicts dating back to the Civil War, along with relocated burials from earlier conflicts. More than 3,800 enslaved Africans are also buried at the cemetery, along with national political and civic figures, including President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Visitors can explore the cemetery as part of self-guided tours 365 days a year, with seasonal summer and winter hours offered. Nearby, the Arlington House, the Arlington Memorial Bridge, and the Hemicycle are listed alongside the cemetery as part of the Arlington National Cemetery Historic District, which may also be explored by visitors.
Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA 22211, Phone: 877-907-8585
3.The United States National Arboretum
© Courtesy of avmedved - Fotolia.com
The United States National Arboretum is a beautiful public arboretum located in Northeast Washington, approximately 10 minutes north of the United States Capitol Building and Union Station. The arboretum was opened to the public in 1927 and is operated as part of the Department of Agriculture as a facility of the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Visitors can explore the 446-acre facility's grounds daily for free between 8:00am and 5:00pm, with the exception of Christmas Day, and see a variety of gorgeous landscape and ornamental plants, including significant collections of azalea blossoms. The arboretum is also home to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which showcases collections of miniature Chinese and Japanese bonsai trees, and the 22 Corinthian-style columns of the National Capitol Columns display.
3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002, Phone: 202-245-2726
4.White House Tours
© Courtesy of pabrady63 - Fotolia.com
White House Tours let Washington, D.C. visitors explore the official residence and offices of the United States President and executive branch staff, designed by architect James Hoban and constructed in 1800. Tours showcase the historic residence's architecture, art, and notable rooms within its East Wing, including its State Dining Room, China Room, and Rose Garden. Visitors wishing to take White House tours must submit tour requests in advance through local district members of Congress and provide valid government-issued identification or international passports. Self-guided tour times are offered Tuesdays through Thursdays during the morning hours and Fridays and Saturdays during the morning and afternoon hours, scheduled around White House availability. Following tours, visitors can explore the White House Visitor Center, which features interactive museum exhibits and artifact displays.
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500, Phone: 202-456-7041
5.The United States Botanic Garden
© Courtesy of Ian - Fotolia.com
The United States Botanic Garden is one of North America's oldest botanic gardens, located on the National Mall near the United States Capitol Building. The free-admission botanic garden, which was established in 1820, is home to beautiful secluded Bartholdi Park, named in honor of Statue of Liberty designer Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, along with a conservatory building showcasing tropical, subtropical, and arid plants, including collections of orchids and endangered plant species. Thematic exhibitions are showcased within the conservatory throughout the summer months. Visitors can also explore the newly-cultivated National Garden, which is home to a rose garden, a mid-Atlantic showcase garden, a butterfly garden, and the First Ladies' Water Garden. All gardens are open daily and are free to explore during daylight hours.
100 Maryland Ave SW, Washington, DC 2000, Phone: 202-225-8333
6.Meridian Hill Park
© Courtesy of Zack Frank - Fotolia.com
Meridian Hill Park is one of Washington, D.C.'s most beautiful public parks, located between the vibrant city neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan. The park preserves the site of John Porter's 1819 Meridian Hill mansion, which is best known as the 1829 home of President John Quincy Adams and is a designated National Historic Landmark. The estate was converted into a Neoclassical-style public park between 1912 and 1940, home to North America's longest cascading fountain, extending 13 basins. Other beautiful features include a spectacular Joan of Arc statue and lower-level landscaped formal gardens, traversed by patterned concrete walkways and visitor benches. The free-admission park is open to the public daily during daylight hours and is the site of popular Sunday afternoon drum circles, held each week since the 1950s.
16th St NW &, W St NW, Washington, DC 20009, Phone: 202-895-6000
7.Rock Creek Park
© Courtesy of luismolinero - Fotolia.com
Rock Creek Park is a 1,754-acre urban park in Washington, D.C.'s Northwest quadrant, originally established by the United States Congress as the country's third national park in 1890. Today, the park is overseen by the National Park Service and is home to facilities such as the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, which offers an outdoor summer concert series, and the 18-hole public Rock Creek Park Golf Course. The sprawling urban refuge is lined with majestic trees and offers more than 30 miles of visitor hiking trails, accessible from trailheads at the park's nature center. Bicycling and horseback riding routes are also offered, along with a year-round tennis center, a boating center, and a number of children's playgrounds and day-use picnic areas. Ranger-led programming is offered year-round, including nature hikes, planetarium programs, and curriculum-incorporated school tours.
5200 Glover Rd, NW, Washington, DC 20015, Phone: 202-895-6000
8.The National Zoo
© Courtesy of Tim - Fotolia.com
The National Zoo is one of the oldest zoological parks in the United States, located within Washington, D.C.'s Woodley Park neighborhood. The 163-acre zoo, which was founded in 1889, is operated by the Smithsonian Institution and is open to the public every day except Christmas Day. Visitors can observe more than 2,700 animals across nearly 400 species, including Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers, giant pandas, Aldabra tortoises, and Panamanian golden frogs. Animal meet-and-greets are offered daily, along with sloth bear feedings and elephant training sessions. A free shuttle operates throughout the zoo daily to parking areas, and several cafes and restaurants serve cuisines to suit all diets and age groups. Annual free special events include the ZooLights holiday celebration, which illuminates the park in beautiful lighting displays throughout evenings in November and December.
3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008, Phone: 202-633-4888
9.The National Archives Museum
© Courtesy of A.Ruiz - Fotolia.com
The National Archives Museum is a free-admission museum in Washington, D.C. that is open to the public daily between 10:00am and 5:30pm with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas Days. The museum showcases the original headquarters of the National National Archives and Records Administration, located along the city's National Mall, and displays significant historical American government documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the American Constitution. Other documents on display include the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the Articles of Confederation, and the Emancipation Proclamation, along with the 1297 Magna Carta by British king Edward I. Visitors should note that photography is not permitted and that last museum visitors are admitted one half-hour before closing time.
700 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20408, Phone: 866-272-6272
10.The National Gallery of Art
© Courtesy of kmiragaya - Fotolia.com
The National Gallery of Art is one of the United States' largest public museums, located on the National Mall near Constitution Avenue. The museum was established as a private art museum in 1937 with substantial collection donations by Andrew W. Mellon and showcases major works of art by Western artists from the Middle Ages through the present day. Works on display include Ginevra de' Benci, the only Leonardo da Vinci painting located in the United States, along with significant holdings by internationally-renowned artists such as El Greco, Rembrandt, Auguste Rodin, and Edgar Degas. Visitors can explore the museum for free daily, which is also home to an impressive 6.1-acre outdoor sculpture garden.
Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20565, Phone: 202-737-4215
11.The Supreme Court of the United States
© Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
The Supreme Court of the United States is the nation's highest federal judiciary court, located near the United States Capitol Building and the National Mall within the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood. The court was established in 1789 and is open to the public Mondays through Fridays during business hours for self-guided walking tours of its first and ground floors. Visitor films are shown daily, and 30-minute courtroom lectures are presented on a first-come, first-served basis, led by trained docents. Exhibit galleries on the court's ground floor detail the court's history, past and present justices, and seminal court cases throughout the years. Visitors can also watch as some Supreme Court cases are decided, with limited courtroom seating available. All visitors should note that court business may affect tourist operations and are recommended to check the court's website for schedules prior to visiting.
1 First St NE, Washington, DC 20543, Phone: 202-479-3000
12.The Shakespeare Theatre Company
© Courtesy of Anna Jurkovska - Fotolia.com
The Shakespeare Theatre Company is one of Washington, D.C.'s premiere theatrical performance companies, presenting a full annual lineup of works from the Shakespeare canon, along with seminal plays by classic Western playwrights such as Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward. In addition to the company's regular annual productions, which are held at the Harman Center for the Arts, visitors can enjoy free annual performances at the city's Sidney Harman Hall as part of the Free For All series. More than 700,000 annual residents have attended free productions, which are offered during the summer months. Visitors wishing to obtain free tickets can either enter an online lottery or line up four hours prior to curtain time. At least 200 free tickets are available at each performance.
610 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20004, Phone: 202-547-1122
13.The United States Capitol Building
© Courtesy of W.Scott McGill - Fotolia.com
The United States Capitol Building is the seat of America's federal legislative branch, located along the eastern edge of Washington, D.C.'s National Mall. The building was constructed between 1793 and 1813, blending Greek and Roman architectural elements, and has housed both the United States Senate and House of Representatives since 1859. Visitors can explore the historic site as part of free guided tours, available daily for individuals and small groups with advance registration. The United States Capitol Visitor Center, added to the facility in 2008, also offers informative exhibits, displays, and documentary film theaters detailing the building's history and significance to American federal government operations.
First St SE, Washington, DC 20004, Phone: 202-226-8000
14.The Bureau of Engraving and Printing
© The Bureau of Engraving and Printing
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, or BEP, is a United States Department of the Treasury agency that is responsible for designing paper money notes and security documents for the nation's Federal Reserve central bank. The Bureau's Washington, D.C. facility is one of several BEP locations throughout the nation, located along the city's 14th and 15th Streets and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Free half-hour guided tours are offered Mondays through Fridays at the facility, with the exception of federal holidays and the week between the Christmas and New Year's holidays. Visitors can also explore the BEP's visitor center, which offers exhibits related to the Bureau's operations, and watch an introductory documentary film about the Bureau.
301 14th St SW, Washington, DC 20228, Phone: 202-874-2330
15.The Folger Shakespeare Library
© The Folger Shakespeare Library
The Folger Shakespeare Library is an independent research library in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill district, best known as the site of the largest international collection of printed works by famed playwright William Shakespeare. The library was established in 1932 by Henry Clay and Emily Jordan Folger and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, operated by the Trustees of Amherst College. A wide variety of free public programming is offered throughout the year by the library, including daily tours of the library's collections and Elizabethan Theatre. Some tours also include tours of the Paster Reading Room and the outdoor Elizabethan Garden. Folger Fridays events present free lectures and theatrical performances, while an annual Shakespeare's Birthday Open House brings sword fighting demonstrations, live music performances, and a sonnet contest to the library.
201 E Capitol St SE, Washington, DC 20003, Phone: 202-544-4600
16.The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail
© Courtesy of Country Gate Prod. - Fotolia.com
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail, commonly known as the C&O Canal, is a preserved historic canal that operated between Washington, D.C. and Cumberland, Maryland from 1831 to 1924, primarily serving as a coal route for the nearby Allegheny Mountains. Today, the preserved canal is operated as Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, spanning 20,000 acres along a strip of the Potomac River. Seven National Park Service-operated visitor centers are open daily, offering interpretive exhibits about the canal's history and operations. The park is also a popular spot for hiking, biking, fishing, boating, camping, and wildlife and bird watching, attracting more than five million annual visitors.
1850 Dual Highway, Suite 100, Hagerstown, MD 21740, Phone: 301-739-4200
17.The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
© The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, commonly referred to as the Kennedy Center, is the official national cultural center of the United States, located along the Potomac River near the Watergate complex. The center was opened to the public in 1971 as a memorial to President John F. Kennedy and presents more than 3,500 annual performances across a variety of performing arts genres, including theatrical, dance, and orchestral performances. A wide variety of free programming is presented each day at the center through the Performing Arts for Everyone initiative, hosted at the center's Millennium Stage. Visitors can watch classical and popular music concerts, dance performances, comedy routings, and storytelling and theatrical performances, with webcasts of all free performances maintained on the center's website.
2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566, Phone: 202-467-4600
18.The Library of Congress
© Courtesy of nickjene - Fotolia.com
The Library of Congress is the official research library of the United States Congress and serves as the nation's national library, housed within three buildings in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Believed to be the largest library in the world, the library showcases collections across all subjects in over 450 languages, written throughout all parts of the world. Visitors can explore the library as part of free guided tours, including one-hour walking tours of its Jefferson Building, which are offered daily and showcase the building's collections, art, and architecture. 40-minute children's tours are also offered periodically, along with foreign-language tours in Spanish and French and touch tours for visually-impaired participants. The library is open to the public Mondays through Saturdays, with the exception of major national holidays. Free visitor gallery exhibitions, concerts, film screenings, and lectures are also offered periodically.
101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540, Phone: 202-707-5000
19.National Park Service Guided Tours
© Courtesy of pigprox - Fotolia.com
National Park Service Guided Tours let visitors explore the monuments, museums, and attractions of Washington, D.C.'s National Mall as part of free guided tours offered throughout the year by rangers of the National Park Service. Park rangers are staffed daily at many of the Mall's most popular monuments, including its Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and memorials to veterans of the Vietnam and Korean Wars and World War II. Guided tours are offered several times a day for each monument, with group guided tours also exploring many historic sites and monuments within the Mall several times each day. Visitors can also explore monuments as part of nighttime guided tours each evening at 8:00pm or guided biking tours on weekends, which last approximately three hours.
900 Ohio Drive SW, Washington, DC 20024, Phone: 202-426-6841
20.DC Farmers Markets
© Courtesy of alexandros33 - Fotolia.com
DC Farmers Markets strive to provide D.C.-area citizens and residents with healthy, affordable fresh produce and specialty food options, hosted daily or weekly within some of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods. The year-round Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market hosts more than 50 regional farmers and artisans, while the National Register of Historic Places-listed Eastern Market hall is stocked with vendors Tuesdays through Sundays and hosts a weekend artisan market. Between May and November, visitors can enjoy the downtown Capital Harvest on the Plaza, held each Friday between 11:00am and 3:00pm. Weekly markets are also hosted within the city's lively U Street, Columbia Heights, and Bloomingdale neighborhoods, showcasing local producers, florists, specialty food makers and vendors, and artisans.
© SPAGnVOLA Chocolatier
SPAGnVOLA Chocolatier is one of the world's highest-quality producers of fine single-estate chocolates, anchoring its truffle-making operations in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which is located approximately half an hour from Washington, D.C. The chocolatier derives its name from a famed 16th-century map of Haiti and the Dominican Republic and produces all of its chocolates from personally-grown beans at the Hato Mayor Del Rey estate in the Dominican Republic. Visitors can explore the chocolatier's Gaithersburg factory as part of free guided tours each weekend, lasting approximately 45 minutes. All tours highlight the company's cacao bean roasting and refining process and artisan chocolate creation, with information provided about growing regions and farming practices used by the company. Visitors should note that factory-level tours do not accommodate wheelchairs, though the factory's chocolate boutique is ADA-compliant.
360 Main Street Suite 101, Gaithersburg, MD 20878, Phone: 240-654-6972
22.The National Cherry Blossom Festival
© Courtesy of Camille Lamoureux - Fotolia.com
The National Cherry Blossom Festival is one of Washington, D.C.'s most iconic annual events, held over three weeks throughout March and April. The festival was originally organized in 1934 to commemorate Japanese cherry tree plantings that were gifted to the United States by Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo City in 1912. Today, the festival attracts more than 700,000 annual visitors, kicking off with an official opening ceremony at D.C.'s Warner Theatre. Throughout the weeks, the festival presents the free National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, the annual Blossom Kite Festival, and a wide array of cultural events, including art exhibits, daily bike tours, kimono fashion shows, sake and sushi tastings, and martial arts demonstrations. Live music performances are showcased along the city's Southwest Waterfront as part of a three-day music festival, and underground art and music performances are presented as part of the Cherry Blast celebration.
1275 K Street, NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005, Phone: 877-442-5666
22 Best Free Things to Do in Washington, DC
- The Smithsonian Institution, Photo: Courtesy of spiritofamerica - Fotolia.com
- Arlington National Cemetery, Photo: Courtesy of dinhhang - Fotolia.com
- The United States National Arboretum, Photo: Courtesy of avmedved - Fotolia.com
- White House Tours, Photo: Courtesy of pabrady63 - Fotolia.com
- The United States Botanic Garden, Photo: Courtesy of Ian - Fotolia.com
- Meridian Hill Park, Photo: Courtesy of Zack Frank - Fotolia.com
- Rock Creek Park, Photo: Courtesy of luismolinero - Fotolia.com
- The National Zoo, Photo: Courtesy of Tim - Fotolia.com
- The National Archives Museum, Photo: Courtesy of A.Ruiz - Fotolia.com
- The National Gallery of Art, Photo: Courtesy of kmiragaya - Fotolia.com
- The Supreme Court of the United States, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Photo: Courtesy of Anna Jurkovska - Fotolia.com
- The United States Capitol Building, Photo: Courtesy of W.Scott McGill - Fotolia.com
- The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Photo: The Bureau of Engraving and Printing
- The Folger Shakespeare Library, Photo: The Folger Shakespeare Library
- The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail, Photo: Courtesy of Country Gate Prod. - Fotolia.com
- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Photo: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
- The Library of Congress, Photo: Courtesy of nickjene - Fotolia.com
- National Park Service Guided Tours, Photo: Courtesy of pigprox - Fotolia.com
- DC Farmers Markets, Photo: Courtesy of alexandros33 - Fotolia.com
- SPAGnVOLA Chocolatier, Photo: SPAGnVOLA Chocolatier
- The National Cherry Blossom Festival, Photo: Courtesy of Camille Lamoureux - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Orhan Çam - Fotolia.com