Top Free Museums in DC

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.

For a full list of all the free things to do in DC, read our post here.



And remember, our self-guided tours of DC are always free and our DC walking tours operate as name-your-own-price walks!

Jump down to see ALL the museums organized by type (art, cultural, government)

With so much changing as Washington DC slowly reopens due to COVID-19, we are trying to keep all information updated. Note that opening hours, ticketing policies and procedures may vary. For the most up to date information, check the location’s individual website.

Museums that are currently open in Washington DC (these museums require timed tickets)

  • International Spy Museum
  • Museum of the Bible

All Smithsonian Museums & National Zoo, National Gallery of Art and Ford’s Theatre will close Monday November 23. They have not announced a reopening date.

 


Smithsonian Museums

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.

 

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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 pm) and is located in Chinatown.

There are a number of other museums that are part of the Smithsonian, read more in our Guide to the Smithsonian.


National Gallery of Art

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.

 

National Gallery of Art

 

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!

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


US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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.
 

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.


African American Civil War Museum

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.

 

African American Civil War Memorial

 

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.


Free Days at Private Museums

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 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.


Ford’s Theatre

As of November 23, 2020 Ford’s Theatre is closed with no definitive reopening date.

Ford’s Theatre Museum and Education Center do 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.

 

Ford's Theatre Interior Presidents Box

 

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

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.

 

White House Visitor Center Film

 

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

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. 

 


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.

 

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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


Other Free Attractions

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

 

Library of Congress Tours

 

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, and the National Archives.

There are also 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.


 

MUSEUMS BY TYPE


ART MUSEUMS

ALWAYS FREE:

 

SOMETIMES FREE:


BOTANICAL GARDENS AND ZOOS

ALWAYS FREE:

 SOMETIMES FREE:

 


CULTURAL AND HISTORY MUSEUMS

ALWAYS FREE

 


HISTORIC HOUSE MUSEUMS

SOMETIMES FREE:

  • 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!)


PUBLIC BUILDINGS

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 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.

ALWAYS FREE:

RELIGIOUS CENTERS

ALWAYS FREE:

SOMETIMES FREE:


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About the author

Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with 3 published books about the city. She has written for HuffPost Travel and has been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. She's also been interviewed by the Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. Canden is the host of our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All

With a M.A. in History from University College London and a B.A. in History from Elon University, she is an authority on D.C. history, and has led tours in the city for over 10 years. She currently resides in DC, but has also lived in London and South Korea, and has travelled to 25 countries. Her two children (both under the age of 3) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts.