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This is a definitive list of free museums in DC and some that are almost free. 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.
The Smithsonian Institute consists of almost 20 museums and the National Zoo… and all are free to visit.
The most popular museums are on the National Mall: American History, Natural History, Air and Space Museum. We offer small group private guided tours of each of these if you don’t want to wander your way through the numerous exhibits.
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 is the only Smithsonian museum open late year round (it closes at 7pm) and is located in Chinatown.
There are a number of other museums that are part of the Smithsonians, read more in our Guide to the Smithsonians
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.
The National Gallery of Art features the only Leonardo da Vinci painting on permanent display in the Americas!
This museum is technically free, but advanced reservations are required during peak travel dates (March – October ) 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.
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)
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.
Washington DC has enough always-free museums to keep you occupied for weeks, 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.
Each summer you can visit 5 of the smaller private museums in Dupont Circle neighborhood during the Dupont Kalaroma Museum Walk. Anderson House, Dumbarton House, National Museum of American Jewish Military History, The Phillips Collection, and the President Woodrow Wilson House free of charge during this two day event.
Ford’s Theatre Museum and Education Center does require tickets. While these are free on a same day basis, they are limited and go quickly. An advanced reservation is only $3 per person and well worth supporting the museum.
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.
While you can tour the White House on 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.
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.
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. 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.
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
This list could continue on 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, Bureau of Engraving & Printing, National Archives, and historic homes that are now National Park 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.
BOTANICAL GARDENS AND ZOOS
CULTURAL AND HISTORY MUSEUMS
The government and public buildings below are open to the public, though some require advance reservations or tickets at certain times of year. Click on the link for a comprehensive guide on how to visit each site.
And don’t forget, 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.