Washington, DC is packed with free things to do – museums, monuments, music, art and walking historical neighborhoods are just a few of the free things to do in Washington, DC. We won’t be able to write about every free thing to do because it would take you days to read. Instead, we have detailed a few of our favorites including a few just outside of DC.
Getting around DC is super easy. The metro and walking are great ways to get around DC. No huge or steep hills to worry about either. We have listed our suggested Metro stops for each of the locations below. Check the Washington DC Metro website for maps and prices.
*TIP – Leave your car at home or the hotel, driving, and parking in DC is a nightmare. Take the metro and you will be much happier.
A few things to know about DC museums. All Smithsonian museums are FREE. All guests are required to have their purse/bag checked, and most have metal detectors. Limit the number & size of bags, food, and drink (except bottled water) are not usually permitted. All museums have a restaurant, cafes, and/or snack bars. Prices are spendy. If the price is a factor, eat before you enter. In the summer, lines can be very long – over an hour wait at times. Bring your patience and dress accordingly. Carry an umbrella to be used as shade while in line.
Don’t want to get stuck in line? Some museums offer timed entry tickets for a small fee. Check websites for details. Most DC museums have wi-fi check at the information desk for login details. DC has several great museums, and it is easy to get overwhelmed and “museumed” out quickly. To help avoid getting the museum blahs plan your daily itineraries to include time outside, take breaks while inside the museums, and stay fueled with food and water. I don’t recommend trying to visit two large museums (such as Natural History, Air & Space and/or National Portrait/American Art) in the same day. Don’t feel guilty or bad if you don’t connect with every museum. It is perfectly ok not to understand or jump for joy over every exhibit or even an entire museum collection.
Things to know about the monuments. A lot, but not all, of the monuments and memorials, are located in the middle to the west side of the National Mall and around the Tidal Basin located south of the western end of the mall. Along both the mall and the tidal basin there are lots of places to sit, relax, or picnic. There are shady spots all along the way, but if you tend to get overheated in the sun bring an umbrella to help keep the sun away. If you plan on visiting the memorials on the mall, the white house and the monuments around the tidal basin plan on about a looped 9-mile stroll. It is an easy flat walk.
If you plan to walk it all in one day give yourself at least 4 hours for the walk, lingering, taking photos and getting lunch or an early dinner. Food stands and trucks are scattered throughout the area. On the north side of the mall and the east side of the Capitol are quite a few restaurants. Public restrooms are located at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, WWII Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial and at any of the museums on the mall.
*TIP – Another option to avoid the heat or to just get a second experience with the monuments is to visit them at night; they are lit up and very beautiful to see.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
In our opinion, this is 1 of 2 museums on the mall perfect for every type of person. The museum is huge! If you hope to visit every nook and cranny, be sure to carve out a few hours. I would even suggest breaking it up into 2 or more days to avoid feeling overwhelmed. I have visited at least six times and look forward to going again. My favorite is the shark section. I know you expected me to say the Hope Diamond. I thought the emeralds were even better than the diamond. This is one of the more popular, if not the most visited museum.
Their website has an excellent “When to Visit” page outlining the better days and times to visit.There is a fee for the IMAX movies every day and Butterfly Pavilion every day except Tuesdays. Check their website for current updates and hours. Location: 10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC. Getting There: “Smithsonian” or “Federal Triangle Metro“
Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
This is the other perfect for everyone museum on the mall. I was surprised that I enjoyed NASM as much as I did. If you don’t think planes, spaceships and flying intrigue you, guess again. This museum makes it all so interesting. It is so fascinating to see how flying started and how much it has developed to be what it is today. I especially like all the space capsules, lunar vehicles and the beginning of flight exhibit. NASM can be done in 1 day, but if you are really into Air & Space plan on two days. The IMAX, Simulator Rides, and Planetarium are all available at additional fees. Check their website for current updates and hours. Location: Independence Ave at 6th Street, SW Washington, DC. Getting There: “Smithsonian” or “L’Enfant Plaza Metro”
As a kid, I remember learning about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and thinking “Oh that would be cool to see. I wonder if the paper would be super dried out.” Not sure why I remember those particular thoughts, but I do. To top off those intelligent thoughts, I am embarrassed to admit this…watching the movie “National Treasure” fired me up to finally see all the documents. Yes, that is what it took for me to go and of course, my American pride. Every American should stand witness to the signatures.
Which brings me to exactly why this is one of my favorite places. Seeing the documents with the original founding fathers signatures is point blank really really cool. It is one of those moments that I felt proud to be standing right there in the Rotunda and as I was reminded how lucky I am to be an American. I am not sure everyone will have that same excitement, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
This museum is free if you want to wait in the entrance line. If you do not wish to wait, they do have a reservation system. For a small fee (under $2) you can reserve a viewing time into the Rotunda where the Charters of Freedom are housed. You will still have to wait in the line to enter the Rotunda, but you skip the museum entrance line. The museum and the vault have lots to offer be sure to plan to visit those sections. Check their website for updates and hours. Location: Constitution Ave. NW between 7th & 9th St, Washington, DC. Getting There: “Archives Metro”
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
This one is pretty far from DC, a good 30 miles. If you are traveling in or out of Dulles airport, put this on your must-do list. It is connected to Dulles airport and is a great extension of the National Mall Air & Space Museum. There are free docent-led tours, a fantastic observation tower that lets you observe the current daily flights coming and going, and tons of planes and space memorabilia on display. My favorites are the real Discovery Space Shuttle, the SR71 Blackbird, the Concorde and the plane restoration area. I recommend arriving early for your flight out, check your bag (if you have any) and head over to the museum to fill your wait time. The time goes fast as you wander through the vast museum. Set your watch or phone to an alarm to remind you when to catch your flight. Location: 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy, Chantilly, VA 20151. Getting There: MetroBus
United States Capitol Building
The Capitol Visitors Center is located on 1st Street SE between Constitution Ave and Independence Ave. Visiting the capitol building is a fascinating way to spend a couple of hours. It is free to attend, but to keep a handle on the crowds and the flow of people you have to be part of a tour. The tours are easily reserved here online and are time coded. There is a lot of interesting history in the tour including the mural of the Apotheosis of Washington and the Hall of Statues, which contains a statue for each state. An interesting tidbit regarding the capitol building, it is the center of the quadrants of DC (NE, NW, SE & SW) and all roads were designed to lead to it; yet the Washington Monument lays at the center of DC.
*TIP – If you’re thinking of going to the Library of Congress, try using the tunnel located in the visitor center this will let you skip the line for security outside the Library.
Check their website for current updates and hours. Location: First St SE, Washington, DC 20004. Getting There: “Capital South Metro”
Library of Congress
The visitor entrance to the Library of Congress is located at the NE corner of Independence Ave & 1st Street SE. This is the largest library in the world containing over 500 miles of bookshelves. You are free to wonder about the visitor side of the building or take a free guided tour. I recommend you take the tour as it will let you go a few places you can’t reach on your own and give you more detailed information about the library itself. Sign up for your tour upon arrival. Tours are held M-F between 10:30 am-3:30 pm and Saturday 10:30 am – 2:30 pm.
The building is very ornate, and it is interesting to look for all the little details hidden among the decorations. My favorite exhibit is Thomas Jefferson’s personal book collection. Check their website for current updates and hours. Location: 101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540. Getting There: “Capital South Metro”
The first time I walked toward Abraham Lincoln my eyes filled with tears and my heart may have skipped a beat. To me, the Lincoln Memorial represents freedom and everything America has grown to be. Yes, we still have some growing to do; but the steps, Abraham Lincoln in his chair, the temple, and the speeches written on the walls are all so moving. Look for the inscription on the steps marking where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood while he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Stand in the same spot, look out over the reflection pool all the way to the capitol and imagine where you were or would have wanted to be on that very day. It is an amazing monument. It is my absolute favorite place (not just monument) in DC. Don’t miss it! If you get a chance, go early in the morning or late at night. Hanging out with Lincoln without the crowds is unforgettable. Location: 2 Lincoln Memorial Cir NW, Washington, DC. Getting There: “Smithsonian Metro” or “Arlington Cemetery” and enjoy a stroll across the Memorial Bridge.
Marine Corps Memorial, Iwo Jima
The Marine Memorial (aka Iwo Jima Memorial) is located in Arlington, VA just across the river from DC. It is a must see on the way to or from Arlington Cemetery. My favorite view is standing on the Arlington side of the memorial with views of DC behind it. The sidewalks on the 66/50 bridge do not go all the way across to Arlington. Once you get to the end, the sidewalks end and you are stuck having to cross two very busy roads and have to walk through a swampy field to get to the monument. Take the metro, bus or cab to get there. Location: Arlington, VA 22209. Getting There: “Rosslyn Metro”
Korean War Memorial
I had always heard about the Vietnam War Memorial but very rarely the Korean War Memorial. The Vietnam Memorial is beautiful, and the Korean War Memorial is eerily beautiful. The soldiers walking through the terrain, and the ghostly faces looking back at you from the wall create a haunting experience. Location: 900 Ohio Dr. SW, Washington, DC. Getting There: “Smithsonian Metro”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
The memorial resides on the western bank of the tidal basin and is a chronological memorial that is viewed from north to south. The memorial commemorates the 32nd President of the United States. FDR served four terms, the only president to serve more than two terms, and his memorial is divided into four galleries each one representing one of his terms. Behind Lincoln, this is my favorite presidential memorial because it encourages you to soak in the dramatic times that FDR served. I strongly encourage all to read along and soak up all the symbolism on display in this well thought out display.
When FDR was asked if he would like a memorial, his reply was yes, to put a desk size piece of stone in front of the National Archives saying “In Memory of”; you can see his original memorial at the corner of 9th St & Pennsylvania Ave. Check the website for current updates. Location: 1850 W Basin Dr. SW, Washington, DC 20242. Getting There: “Smithsonian Metro”
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage
Every day at 6 pm the Kennedy Center presents a 1 hour free Millennium Stage performance. I will preface this with saying, check their website to choose the best concert for you. There is an enormous range of concerts from classical to rap and comedy to dance shows. Go early and take the elevator to the roof to see some great views before the concert. Seating starts about 30 minutes before the show. Drinks including beer and wine can be purchased for an additional fee. Do not attempt to park at or around the Kennedy Center it is painfully expensive. Location: 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Getting There: “Foggy Bottom Metro” then take the free Kennedy Center Shuttle (located right outside the metro entrance).
Jazz in the Garden at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden (Fridays 5-8:30 pm)
This is an event loved by locals and tourist. It is an excellent way to sit and relax with friends after a busy week. With that said, it gets extremely crowded but don’t let the crowds scare you. There are a few different ways you can enjoy the garden show. What to bring – a blanket to sit on and food. A lot of visitors enjoy the show with a full-on picnic basket of goodies. Bags are checked at the entrance. Nonalcoholic drinks are permitted, but alcohol will be confiscated if found. Food and drink are available for purchase at the cafe, and alcohol at the stands located on each side of the fountain.
If you want a spot inside the garden and near the fountain – Go Early! This area gets particularly crowded. If you don’t like the crowds try the back corners near 7th Street NW. They tend not to be as crowded because the view is limited, but you can still hear the concert very well. If you want to go but want to avoid the crowds altogether find an area across the street on the National Mall, on Madison between 7th and 9th, to sit and enjoy. This is where I recommend enjoying the concert because no lines, no bag checks, you don’t have to yell at each other to carry on a conversation, more room to stretch out and relax. The view of the musicians will be limited or none, but you can still hear the concert as if you were inside the gates.
Restrooms are located on the far side of the cafe and are very few. At times, there are portable toilets located outside the fence on the corners of 7th St NW and Madison, but I don’t know if this is all the time. Check their website for schedule. Location: 6th and Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC. Getting There: “Archives”, “Smithsonian”, or “Federal Triangle Metro”
Other Outdoor Activities:
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington Cemetery is a must see while in DC. The cemetery is quite large and can be an all day event. Upon entering stop at the welcome center to obtain a free map and check to see if any daily special events are on the schedule. For a fee, you may ride the trolleys throughout the day. If you like to walk, are in average or better shape and/or do not have a time limit to explore I don’t recommend using the trolleys. If you aren’t very active, are sensitive to overheating and/or are short on time I recommend purchasing a ticket to use the trolleys throughout the day.
The absolute don’t miss event is the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is located behind the Memorial Amphitheater. During the summer, the ritual is performed every 30 minutes. Get there early to get a good viewing spot on the steps. After the ceremony stay behind a few minutes. Take advantage of the less crowded surroundings and take in the beauty of the scenery and the clicking of the soldier’s heels. It is pretty amazing.
The Kennedy burial sites and the eternal flame are also not to be missed. Don’t forget the Old Amphitheater, the Civil War Unknown Memorial, and the Arlington House should all be on your list. The view of DC and the National Mall from the Arlington House is breathtaking. There are many memorials and burial sites worth visiting, far too many for me to list. Check the list on the map or online to make note of the ones most important to you.
If you find the time, wander through the cemetery and read the engravings on some of the different headstones. There are so many beautiful tombstones and little stories to be found all around the cemetery. There is a soldier buried here from every war leading all the way back to the American Revolution. Bring plenty of water. It can get sweltering, and there are a few spots that do not have places of shade. Location: Arlington, VA 22211. Getting There: “Arlington Cemetery Metro”
C&O Canal Towpath
Need a place to get away from the busy city feel, take a long walk or jog? The C&O Canal is a beautiful 184-mile long path starting in Georgetown and ending in Cumberland, Maryland. While you’re on the path, look for turtles, birds, and fish. Getting There: “Foggy Bottom Metro”
Eastern Market Weekend Outdoor Flea, Craft, and Farmers Market
On Saturdays and Sundays this outdoor food, craft and flea market is buzzing with excitement. It is a great place to pick up high-quality gifts, souvenirs, farm fresh fruits and vegetables. Great for breakfast or lunch at the food kiosks inside and outside. Look for the crepes guy in front of the aquatic center. If you are a traveler who likes to see how the locals live and interact, I think Eastern Market is a must see. The market is loved by locals; the atmosphere is welcoming and fun. I suggest going early, getting breakfast at the market, wander around and then walk to the other side of the metro to try one of the many great restaurants on 8th St SE. Location: 225 7th St SE, Washington, DC. Getting There: “Eastern Market Metro”
Screen on the Green at the National Mall
On Monday nights around dusk in July& August head down to the mall to enjoy a movie on the big screen. Take a blanket and pack a picnic. Check their website for current movies. Location: Between 7th and 12th Streets, Washington DC. Getting There: “Archives”, “Smithsonian”, or “Federal Triangle Metro”
Cherry Blossom Festival
DC’s biggest festival by far, read our post here for more information.
4th of July on the National Mall
Who would not want to celebrate our nation’s birthday in the capital, read more about the festivities here?
*TIP – Check Eventbrite.com and the museum websites for free events, lectures, and panel discussions by authors, researchers, and heroes.