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What are the Free Museums in DC?

Museum Hours, How to get Tickets & Free Entrance into Paid Museums

Updated: March 20, 2024

With a little bit of planning, you can take advantage of first-class attractions that offer free days or name your own price admission on certain days of the month.

As local DC tour guides, we spend a lot of time in the city's many free museums! If we aren't taking tour guests through the museums, we visit on our own or with our family and friends.

There is a lot of confusion about which museums are free, and frankly, many people mix up museums.

So, I was inspired to create this post to help you navigate the numerous options of free museums in DC.

You may also be interested in a list of all the free museums organized by type (art, cultural, government)

The Smithsonian Museums are the most famous free museums in DC, but if you're wondering about the non-Smithsonian museums, we also include those.

There are many museums in DC that have a ticketed cost that we think is worth it, so be sure to read more about all the museums in DC.

As a homeschooling mom and tour guide, I take advantage of the free museums in DC on a weekly basis (I post about them on Instagram @topthingstododc). Our current favorite is the National Postal Museum. The museum I enjoy taking student groups to the most is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
DC by Foot Tour Guide & Homeschool Educator

And in this video below let me show you what else there is to do for free in this great city.

Top Free Museums in DC

Smithsonian Museums

Open Daily except Christmas Day | 10 am-5 pm (except Portrait Gallery 1130am - 7 pm)

The Smithsonian Institute consists of almost 20 museums and the National Zoo... and all Smithsonian museums are free to visit.

The museums are mostly federally funded, which allows them to operate without an admission cost. This allows everyone to visit regardless of budget.

And in the video below, I show you the highlights of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, one of the city's most popular.

The most popular museums are on the National Mall:

Many people wonder if the Smithsonian Museums are free to enter, and for the most part, they are and no tickets are required (however, Air and Space, NMAAHC, and the National Zoo do require free tickets)

If you have time and means to get out of the city, the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Annex is a highlight for aviation lovers. (It's about a 35-minute drive from downtown DC)

The National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum are the only Smithsonian museums open late year-round (both close at 7 p.m.) and are located in Chinatown.

There are a number of other museums that are part of the Smithsonian, read more in our Guide to the Smithsonian where you can also find a list of all the Smithsonians.

The Wright Flyer at the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. This is a Free Smithsonian Museum, but timed tickets are required.

National Gallery of Art

Open Daily except Christmas Day and New Year's Day | 10 am-5 pm

This incredible art museum isn't actually part of the Smithsonian Institution, but it is often grouped in because it is free and located on the National Mall.

There are two wings - one for more traditional art and a modern art wing.

Connected with an illuminated tunnel and indoor waterfall, you can avoid going outside to get between the two buildings.

An Instagram favorite is to get onto the roof of the East Wing (contemporary art) for a great view of the Capitol and a photo with the giant blue rooster.

National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art features the only Leonardo da Vinci painting on permanent display in the Americas!

Find out more about the museum in our National Gallery of Art guide.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Open Daily except Christmas Day and Yom Kippur | 10 am-530pm

This museum is technically free, but advanced reservations if you want to visit the permanent exhibit.

There are still a number of smaller exhibits and events you can explore if you do not get tickets.

How to Get Tickets to the Holocaust Museum DC

The USHMM explores in chronological order the events leading up to, during, and the aftermath of the Holocaust.

It is an intensely moving experience and if you have younger kids, you may want to skip the permanent exhibit and explore the children geared Daniel's Story exhibit instead (no tickets required)

We explain how to get tickets and what exhibits you can visit in our Guide to the USHMM.

Planet Word Museum

Open Daily except Tuesday| 10 am-5 pm (6 pm on Sundays)

A museum full of interactive exhibits about words and language.

This is a suggested donation museum and it's well worth whatever you can spare for admission.

Planet Word is not just for lovers of language. This museum is sure to be a hit with anyone who loves immersive experiences, history, and dazzling creativity

Find out more about this museum.

African American Civil War Museum

Currently Closed

Located just off the historic U Street Corridor, once known as Black Broadway, the African American Civil War Museum honors the 209, 125 members of the United States Colored Troops who fought during the American Civil War.

The museum is always free for individuals and groups and we recommend spending at least an hour.

Be sure to go across the street to visit the African American Civil War Memorial.

Find out more about this museum on their website.

National Archives Museum

Daily Except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day | 10 am - 530pm

The Charters of Freedom - the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights are on display at the National Archives.

You can enter without advanced tickets, but there may be a line.

It often moves quickly but if you're in a time crunch - the small fee for the timed tickets is worth it.

You can learn more at our post on the National Archives, or watch Tour Guide Canden's short video above on how to plan you visit.

Memorial Museums

Daily (the museums generally close around 10 p.m.)

Many of the memorials on the National Mall and Tidal Basin have small museums.

washington monument
The small museum at the top of the Washington Monument

Ford's Theatre

Ford's Theatre is an active theatre - opening hours for the museum vary based on the show schedule.

Ford's Theatre Museum and Education Center do require tickets.

While they are free on a same-day basis, they are limited and go quickly each day starting at 8:30 a.m. An advanced reservation is only $3 per person and is well worth supporting the museum.

It's not free, but if you attend a show at Ford's Theatre, you will be able to enter the museum but Peterson's Boarding House and the Aftermath Exhibits will be closed.

A visit to Ford's Theatre is enhanced by attending our popular Lincoln Assassination Walking Tour.

The museum houses the gun used by John Wilkes Booth, the coat and top hat President Lincoln was wearing, and more. You may also have the chance to walk through or attend a Ranger Talk in the actual theatre.

Across the street is the House Where Lincoln Died and a multi-story exhibit about the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination.

Read more about getting tickets and visiting Ford's Theatre.

White House Visitor Center

Daily except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day | 7:30 am - 4 pm

While you can tour the White House on a Public Tour, it requires a lot of prep work and luck to get in.

If you weren't able to do so or you just don't have the time, you can explore the White House Visitor Center which is always open to the public for free without tickets.

White House Visitor Center

The White House Visitor Center has recently been updated so you'll find hands-on exhibits, an orientation film, and artifacts from the White House.

Visit our post on the White House Visitor Center to see what else they have on display.

US Capitol Visitor Center

Daily except Sundays | 8 am - 430pm

Similar to the White House, you need tickets to enter the actual Capitol Building - but these are relatively easy to come by and are included on our Capitol Hill Walking Tour.

US Capitol

But you do not need tickets to enter the free Visitor Center which houses an interactive and video-filled education center.

If you want to view the House or Senate Gallery, passes are required.

These are still free but require contacting your congressperson or the International Visitors Desk to get them.

Find out more about how to get tickets to the US Capitol, and/or watch Tour Guide Canden's video above. 

Washington DC has enough always-free museums to keep you occupied for weeks.

But, but if you're interested in some of the small specialty museums, you may want to find out how to save on admission costs to these.

Phillips Collection Art DC

Each summer you can visit 5 of the smaller private museums in the Dupont Circle neighborhood during the Dupont Kalorama Museum Walk.

Anderson House, Dumbarton House, National Museum of American Jewish Military History, The Phillips Collection, and the President Woodrow Wilson House are all free of charge during this two-day event.

Bank of America Free Museums on Us

Cardholders can access museums during the first full weekend of every month for free - no tickets are required, just present your card.

Participating Museums in DC:

  • Phillips Collection
  • Rubell Art Museum

Museums for All

Visitors who receive SNAP benefits can receive free or reduced admission to select museums by showing their card and ID:

  • National Building Museum
  • National Children's Museum
  • International Spy Museum
  • Museum of the Bible

Blue Star Museums

Military families can access museums for free between Memorial Day and Labor Day:

  • Hillwood
  • Kreeger Art Museum
  • National Building Museum
  • Woodrow Wilson House
  • Washington National Cathedral

Free with a Tourist Pass

Some of our favorite museums have an admission fee.

If you end up finding that many of the things you want to explore have tickets, you may want to look into a tourist discount pass.

There are a few different options on the type of pass you can get and how you can bundle attractions to save, we go over all of them here.

Museums included on a Tourist Discount Pass

Library of Congress Tours


This list could continue depending on what you consider a museum.

As the Nation's capital, Washington DC has numerous free options to tour government buildings, like the Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and the National Archives.

There are also historic homes that are now National Parks and National Historic Sites, like Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, and the Sewall-Belmont House.

Our guided walking tours take advantage of the number of free sites in DC - the memorials on the National Mall and Tidal Basin, Arlington National Cemetery, Embassy Row, and other historic neighborhoods, like Georgetown.





  • National Museum of Women in the Arts: Admission is free on Community Day, the first Sunday of every month
  • Phillips Collection: Tuesday–Friday the Museum Collection is by donation. Tickets are pay what you wish for the first entry time of each hour, based on a first come, first serve basis
  • Rubell Museum: Free for DC residents








  • You can visit the Heurich House (Brewmasters Castle) to attend one of the many events for free. You won't get a full tour of the house but you can get a sneak peek. (Though the public tours only have a suggested donation of $5, they are worth it!)


The government and public buildings below are open to the public, though some require advance reservations or tickets at certain times of the year.

Click on the link for a comprehensive guide on how to visit each site. And remember, many of our walking tours include these buildings!

Learn more about the history of Ford's Theatre on our Lincoln Assassination tour. Our Capitol Hill & Library of Congress tour visits inside the Library and includes tickets for touring the Capitol Building.




Tips From Locals and Travelers

For anyone wondering about which Washington DC museums require tickets, this is a popular topic on our Facebook Group, Washington DC Travel Tips.

Most Smithsonian museums do not need tickets and they are free to enter. But some do require timed tickets.

Another Smithsonian Museum that requires tickets is the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The National Zoo also requires tickets for the day you are visiting but they are not timed and are valid for the entire day.

Another free museum that can get confusing regarding tickets is the National Archives. They do have the option to pay a small reservation fee for timed entry, but you can enter without tickets.

About The Author

Canden Arciniega

Follow On Instagram | I'm a historian & tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. I have written for HuffPost Travel and have been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. I've also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. I am the producer of the podcast, Tour Guide Tell All. I am an authority on D.C. history, and have led tours in the city since 2011. I currently resides in DC, but have also lived in London and South Korea, and have traveled to over 28 countries and every US State but Hawaii. I homeschool my 2 children by exploring the plethora of museums in DC. Read More...
Updated: March 20th, 2024
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