Washington, D.C., is full of memorials and museums to visit, many of which are free to explore. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find even more activities and sites that don't cost a thing. Here are some ideas to get you started.
The National Building Museum, acclaimed for its architectural splendor, celebrates the history and methods of architecture, design, and engineering through exhibitions and hands-on activities. There is a fee to see the exhibitions ($8 for adults; $5 for those under the age of 17, seniors, and students), but access to the Great Hall is free, as are tours of the historic building, offered every day at 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 1:30 p.m., based on docent availability. Opening hours are Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Prearranged guided tours of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the Department of State are conducted Monday to Friday at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and 2:45 p.m. While touring the rooms used for official functions hosted by the secretary of state and other government officials, visitors learn about the 18th-century American furniture, paintings, and other decorative arts housed in the rooms. Reservations must be made at least 90 days in advance.
The U.S. Supreme Court offers public lectures every hour beginning on the half hour, Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on days when the Court is not sitting. On certain Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays from October to April, visitors may listen to an oral argument heard by the Supreme Court. Seating is available on a first-come, first-seated basis. Refer to the calendars posted online for a schedule of arguments and court sessions.
The National Mall and Memorial Parks are some of the most famous free attractions in D.C. Try visiting the monuments—such as the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the FDR Memorial—at night to enjoy dramatic lighting and smaller crowds. The monuments are open 24 hours a day; rangers are on duty from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. to answer questions.
The U.S. Botanic Garden is a great place to visit, rain or shine. Find permanent exhibits such as the primeval landscape of ferns inside the Conservatory, walk through the home landscape demonstration garden of Bartholdi Park, or experience the National Garden, which focuses on mid-Atlantic plants. Check the website for a list of free events, including tours and lectures. Some preregistration is required. The Conservatory and National Garden are open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Bartholdi Park opens at 10 a.m. and closes at dusk.
The National Geographic Society headquarters is home to the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall. View changing photography exhibitions on a variety of scientific, geographic, and cultural themes daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The full gallery spaces are ticketed and charge admission for entry.
Visitors are welcome to tour the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., which includes a library and mosque. The center offers free Arabic classes and courses on Islam. Contact the center through its website for details and schedules.
The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum offers free tours and lectures about the role of African-American troops in the Civil War. Reservations are suggested for groups of 20 or more. Open Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
Admission is free at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, which exhibits collections of American historical objects and more than 30 period rooms displaying antique furniture from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. The museum gallery is open Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Docent-led tours are every hour and half hour Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The period rooms are accessible for self-guided tours Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
At the Kennedy Center, take a free guided tour of the Hall of States and Hall of Nations, the main theaters, and view the artwork and sculptures donated to the center by foreign countries. Tours depart approximately every ten minutes from the tour desk on the A level and are available Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
On the first Sunday of every month, the National Museum of Women in the Arts offers Free Community Days. View the museum's diverse permanent collection of art by women from the 16th century to the present and see rotating special exhibitions, such as a recent show that explored womanhood through Renaissance and baroque-era works depicting the Virgin Mary. Admission is always free to anyone age 18 and under. Open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
Eastern Market, located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, welcomes visitors to browse a flea market, farmers market, and arts-and-crafts market. The farmers market is open Tuesday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The flea market is open Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
At the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, see free performances of all types, from the National Symphony Orchestra to Afghan music and dance, daily at 6 p.m. A free shuttle bus transports guests from the Foggy Bottom Metro station to the Kennedy Center. After the show, take the elevator up to the roof for a free 360-degree view of the city lit up at night.
The Smithsonian Institution provides free admission to most of its 19 museums and the National Zoo. Many of the following also offer films, workshops, craft demonstrations, special tours, gallery talks, lectures, seminars, and/or performances (check each museum's website for details and schedules): the Anacostia Community Museum, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Postal Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery, and the Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as the Castle.
Take a guided tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library building, including a glimpse of Shakespeare's First Folio. The Folger is open to the public Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Docents lead tours Monday to Friday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. The reading room is open to the public every Saturday from noon to 1 p.m. At 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. every first and third Saturday of the month from April to October, docents lead tours of the Elizabethan Garden, the design of which was inspired by the Bard's plays.
The Library of Congress offers guided tours of the Thomas Jefferson Building Monday to Friday starting on every half hour from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; and Saturday at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. Visitors should arrive at least 15 minutes early for a security check.
Walk along the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue between Dupont Circle and the National Cathedral known as Embassy Row, and pass by many of the foreign embassies located in the District. Kids can go trick-or-treating at most of the embassies on Halloween.
The Carnegie Institute of Washington hosts free monthly lectures on timely scientific topics. These Capital Science Evenings were launched in 1990 to make science more accessible to the general public (and are now also available via webcast). Check the website for details and schedules; registration is recommended.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Happenings Happy Hour at the Harman Center for the Arts presents free monthly performances featuring local musicians, dancers, actors, and puppeteers, including the Washington Balalaika Society and Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. No reservations required; check the website for details.
Admittance to the National Gallery of Art Sunday Evening Concerts is on a first-come, first-served basis. Seating begins at 6 p.m.; concerts begin at 6:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Sunday of every month from May to October.
Explore Mexican culture and art at the Mexican Cultural Institute, a mansion turned art gallery. Open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. (only during exhibitions).
During the week, admission to the permanent collection at the Phillips Collection is by donation only (Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). The cost of admission to a ticketed exhibition is $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. (The museum has extended hours every Thursday from 5 to 8:30 p.m.)
A dozen or so art galleries in Dupont Circle hold open houses on the first Friday of the month from 6 to 8 p.m.
Experience the song, dance, performance, crafts, and food of diverse cultural traditions at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, held on the National Mall for two weeks every summer (overlapping the Fourth of July holiday).
The Folger Shakespeare Library celebrates Shakespeare's birthday on a Sunday in April from noon to 4 p.m. A variety of entertainment is offered, including performances, lectures, poetry readings, sword-fighting lessons for kids and, of course, birthday cake. Check the website for the date and full schedule of events.
The ethnically diverse Adams Morgan neighborhood hosts the Adams Morgan Day Festival on the second Sunday in September, offering food, crafts, and entertainment to celebrate the multicultural area.
Enjoy complimentary wine tasting every Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Bistrot Lepic's wine bar on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown.
Check out Bar DC for a comprehensive listing of drink and food specials throughout the city.
The National Theatre hosts free performances for children Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Past shows include an interactive presentation of the story of baseball great Jackie Robinson by Bright Star Touring Theatre. Seats are limited; tickets are distributed 30 minutes before each show.
Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Zoo charges no admission. Giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian and their cub Bao Bao are the big attractions. The grounds are open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and exhibits are open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The National Building Museum hosts free annual family festivals featuring hands-on activities and performances. Check the website for the dates of the Discover Engineering Family Day, the National Cherry Blossom Festival Family Day, and the Big Build.
D.C.'s beloved Politics & Prose Bookstore holds occasional readings for children, as well as author talks for adults and other events that are free and open to the public.
The Smithsonian Institution offers many programs for children and families, including storytelling, special tours, family days, arts and crafts, and other hands-on activities. At the Imaginasia Family Program at the Freer and Sackler Gallery, children and adults view an exhibition and then make a craft related to the exhibit.
See an active beehive, a "water-wise garden," and other environmental exhibits at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, open Wednesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The center's planetarium presents shows exploring the solar system and galaxy on Wednesdays at 4 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Free tickets are available at the nature center's information desk a half hour before the show. Monthly evening stargazing sessions are hosted from April to November.
Walk, bike, or cycle the Mount Vernon Trail, an 18-mile stretch that runs from Mount Vernon to Theodore Roosevelt Island and borders the Potomac River on the Virginia side, offering a great view of the D.C. skyline.
Dedicated to the 26th president—an avowed naturalist who loved to hike in the region's "wild" areas—Theodore Roosevelt Island offers roughly two and a half miles of peaceful pathways on boardwalk and gravel. Check the website for free ranger-led programs.
Explore 446 acres of gardens at the National Arboretum, including the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum (open Friday to Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), the National Herb Garden, and the National Grove of State Trees. The arboretum grounds are open Friday to Monday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
At Arlington National Cemetery, watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The guard changes every half hour from April 1 to September 30 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. and every hour for the rest of the year between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Explore the many offerings of Rock Creek Park, including the historic Peirce Mill and Barn, open Wednesday to Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. See a demonstration of corn grinding on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The park also offers free ranger-led programs through different trails and sites.
Dumbarton Oaks, a research institute run by Harvard University, includes ten acres of formal gardens. Although admission is charged from March 15 to October 31, you can visit for free from November 1 to March 14 between 2 and 5 p.m. The museum is open from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and is always free. Closed Mondays.
Experience the famous National Cherry Blossom Festival in late March and early April. Highlights of the festival include a parade (grandstand tickets are $20, but viewing along the route between 9th and 15th Streets NW is free) and the Blossom Kite Festival, which showcases kites from around the country. Didn't bring one? Kids can make their own kites at an activity station. Some events are ticketed; check the website for details.
During the summer, bring your blanket and picnic supper to the National Mall and view classic films at the outdoor Screen on the Green. These free film screenings are shown at sunset every Monday from July to August.
Further Reading :
Lonely Planet Washington, DC
The Rough Guide to Washington, DC