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Many people take a trip to Washington, D.C. as children on a family vacation or as part of a school trip. But America’s capital city is a fun and educational place to visit as adults as well because there are always so many things going on and so much to see. In fact, D.C. is one of the best cities in the nation for budget travelers because so many of the museums, festivals, performances, and attractions are totally and completely free. So, if it’s been a while since you’ve made a trip to this East Coast destination, start your itinerary with these cost-free things to do!
Free Festivals and Concerts
When you’re in D.C., you feel like you’re in the middle of everything with so many options of things to see and do. There are lots of free festivals and concerts that you can attend around town, especially in the summer, but at other times of the year as well. Free concerts often take place at the Capitol Riverfront, Eastern Market, the Fort Dupont Summer Theatre, and the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. There are also free parades to attend throughout the year and holiday markets that are fun to see around Christmastime.
Tour the Capitol Building
The Capitol building is where the U.S. Senate and the House of Representative meet to discuss national law and policy. You can tour the Capitol building for free, but try to book a reservation in advance of your trip. Same-day tour passes are offered, but there may be a wait time. Even without a tour, it’s still worth walking around the exterior of the Capitol building to explore the grounds and snap some photos.
There are lots of memorials around D.C., but one of the iconic ones that shouldn’t be missed is the Lincoln Memorial. Here you can walk along the National Mall and climb the steps up to a likeness of “Honest Abe” that’s larger than life. Take some time to read some of his famous speeches on the memorial’s walls and admire the architecture of the Doric columns. It’s totally free to visit the Lincoln Memorial 24 hours a day, but plan to visit it after dark when it’s lit up and less crowded.
Free Performances at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage
You might think that it costs a pretty penny to catch a performance at the Kennedy Center, and some performances here certainly are pricey. However, free performances often take place on the Millennium Stage, which you should definitely check out while you’re in town. The free performances take place every day at 6pm on the Millennium Stage and often feature multicultural music groups, opera, and contemporary music.
National Gallery of Art
Very few art museums are free 100 percent of the time, but the National Gallery of Art is one of them. Inside this impressive art museum, you’ll find the works of Rothko, Matisse, Monet, Botticelli, and many other famous artistic names. It’s also fun to visit the museum on Friday evenings to hear free live jazz concerts in the Sculpture Garden. The museum is free and open to the public Mondays through Saturdays from 10 am to 5 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 6 pm.
Arlington National Cemetery
It’s also free to visit Arlington National Cemetery, which is where over 330,000 servicemen and servicewomen have been buried. Make sure to see the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House, and tour the grounds on your own or with a guide. The cemetery also offers free shuttle service to visit grave sites.
National Air and Space Museum
It might surprise you to learn that the general exhibits at the National Air and Space Museum in D.C. are also free to visit. Come here to learn about famous first airplanes flown by Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, as well as a flight simulator, planetarium, and more. If you want to visit the theater or planetarium, be aware that there is often a charge for shows.
National Museum of Natural History
Another great museum to visit in D.C. for free is the National Museum of Natural History, which celebrates animals, plants, and the natural environment. This is a wonderful museum for families to visit, but it really gets crowded on weekends in the summer. Inside the museum, you can learn about insects, human history, fossils, dinosaurs, and a whole lot more. But if you want to see an IMAX show or visit the Butterfly Pavilion, fees will apply. The museum if free and open to visit daily from 10am to 5:30pm except for Christmas Day.
The National Zoo in D.C. is best known for its resident panda population, but there are over 1,500 animals that call this zoo home. The Smithsonian zoo spans about 163 acres and has everything from monkeys to reptiles and over 300 total species. The zoo is located north of Downtown D.C. in the Woodley Park neighborhood, which is easy to reach on the Metro’s red line. The grounds are open from 8am to 7pm, and most of the exhibit buildings are open from 9am to 6pm.
Tour the Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Everybody loves money, but not everybody understands how it’s made. At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, you can see how real American currency is printed and checked for defects. It’s free to take a tour of this facility. Tours are about 40 minutes long and include an introductory film and tour of the production process.
Tour the White House
The White House is another iconic D.C. fixture that is totally free to visit. You can stop by here on your same trip to see the Washington Monument to see the home of U.S. presidents since John Adams in the early 1800s. Free tours will take you to the East Room, Blue Room, Green Room, and other parts of the house. But the best way to secure a guided tour is to contact your local senator or representative’s office to schedule one. Alternatively, you can take a free self-guided tour from 7:30am to 11:30am Tuesdays through Thursdays or from 7:30am to 1:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays.