How to Do All of the Free Stuff in Washington, DC
List of Free Things in DC
1. The Smithsonian Institution and associated museums
The Smithsonian Institution is the largest complex of museums in the world.
Between the Capitol and Washington Monument are more than a dozen museums and galleries, including Smithsonians, that charge no entry fee:
- The newest Smithsonian! The National Museum of African American History and Culture*
- National Museum of American History*
- National Museum of Natural History*
- National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
- National Gallery of Art – West Building (old master paintings)*
- National Gallery of Art – East Building (modern and contemporary art)
- Freer Gallery (Asian art and James McNeill Whistler)
- Sackler Gallery (Asian art)
- Smithsonian Castle (administrative building, visitor center)
- National Museum of African Art
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (modern and contemporary art)
- Air and Space Museum*
- National Museum of the American Indian
- United States Botanic Garden
*These five are among the most visited museums in the world; these and all the other museums on this list are on this one-mile stretch of the National Mall, and all charge no entry fee!
Grand Atlas tip: Go to the Smithsonian Castle first (number nine on the list and the building pictured at the top) and go to the “Commons” at the west end of the building.
You’ll see a little bit of every Smithsonian (including the several that are outside the National Mall) and get a great sense of what you want to see!
2. The United States Capitol
The United States Capitol is the symbol of American representative government. Tours of this iconic building are free and all you need to do is reserve a ticket online.
If you find yourself without a reservation, though, it’s no problem: Walk-up tickets are usually available and it’s easy to start a tour within 10-20 minutes!
Grand Atlas tip: after your Capitol tour, walk the tunnel from the Visitor’s Center to the Library of Congress—also free, and right next to that is the Supreme Court—also free! Tours into the Supreme Court chamber are available without reservations at the bottom of every hour throughout the day.
3. The Memorials of the National Mall
A simple walk through the memorials doesn’t cost a cent and is a perfect way to enjoy some nice weather.
All of the memorials on the Mall are operated by the National Park Service and are open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at no charge.
Grand Atlas tip: Walking between some memorials can take a while. Consider a private tour and see more in less time, with less effort!
4. The National Archives
The National Archives is the official depository for government records.
On central display are the so-called Charters of Freedom, comprising the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—all original, hand-signed documents. And it won’t cost you a dime!
Grand Atlas tip: During busier times of the year, lines can be very long. Go around noon when everyone else is eating lunch!
5. Arlington Cemetery
Arlington Cemetery is the final resting place of hundreds of thousands of Americans who served their country in war and peace.
The cemetery, in Virginia, charges for parking, but there is a metro stop at the entrance and entry is free for all.
Grand Atlas tip: Bring your walking shoes! It’s big—over 600 acres in area—and there are lots to see. We recommend budgeting a half-day for the cemetery, including travel.
This tour is included in our Grand Tour, an eight hour tour of Washington that will guarantee you see all the highlights of the city!
6. The White House
There’s no fee to walk to Pennsylvania Avenue and catch a glimpse of the world’s most famous residence.
Both the North and South Fronts are viewable. Nearby Lafayette Square (aka President’s Park) is worth a stroll, as well, and features statues of foreigners who helped the American revolutionary cause.
Grand Atlas tip: Tours inside the White House are free but must be requested through a member of Congress, and it’s good to give at least 6 – 8 weeks notice.
7. Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Want to see where they make a lot of money…literally? Tours of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing are free (though the samples aren’t!) and tickets are not required in the fall and winter. Just walk right up! In the busy season, you’ll need to line up to get timed tickets in the morning.
Grand Atlas tip: Budget some time for the Bureau gift shop! Popular items for purchase are uncut sheets of bills and shredded money that are a hit for kids!
8. The Kennedy Center
The John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts is one of Washington’s greatest institutions. It is the nation’s busiest performing arts center, featuring some 2,000 performances every year.
The center is worth a visit even if not to attend a performance: The Hall of States, Hall of Nations, and Grand Foyer are magnificently impressive and its terrace views of the city are among the finest in the District.
But what’s a visit to a performing arts center without seeing a show? At 6 pm every evening of the year—and we mean every evening—there is a free performance at the Center’s popular Millennium Stage. Seats are first-come, first-served, and you can find a list of performances here.
Grand Atlas Tip: Take the Metro to Foggy Bottom Station to get there. Free Kennedy Center shuttle buses transfer to and from the Metro every ten minutes throughout the day.
Of course, there are plenty more no-charge things to do in DC than these. Learn more about DC’s top sights and things to do on our other blogs:
- The Top Five Most-Visited Sights in Washington
- The City Beautiful Movement & DC’s Architectural History
- Three Things You’ll See On Our Essential DC Tour
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