Free Things to Do in Washington DC

This post lists hundreds of free things to do in Washington DC, including nighttime activities, things to do with kids, and museums and attractions, updated for 2020. 

Washington DC is a great place to travel for those on a budget thanks to the number of free or cheap things to do, from the Smithsonian Museums to touring the government buildings.

You can really plan an entire week in the nation’s capital and only pay for accommodation and food.


We list over 100 free things to do in DC below, but we divided them into Public/Government Buildings, Museums, Memorials, and Free Activities.

PUBLIC & GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS

United States Capitol

You can tour the historic Capitol and watch the Senate and/or the House of Representatives in session.

 

US Capitol

 

While all three of these require tickets, there is no charge for them. You can find out how to obtain these tickets here.


White House

It is free for US citizens to tour the White House, though appointments are required in advance and require a lot of planning.

 

Washington DC White House

 

You can read more about how to get tickets to a public tour of the White House here.

Another option is to tour the White House gardens and lawns during one of the spring or fall garden tours, which are also free and available to anyone who has a first come first served ticket.

The White House Visitor Center is about a block away from the President’s House and is open to all.


Supreme Court

The actual courtroom is open to the public, both when the court is in session or for docent-led lectures when the court is out of session.

 

Supreme Court Lectures

 

You can also explore the historic building and the small museum on the ground floor. No tickets required for visiting the Supreme Court.


Library of Congress

One of the most beautiful buildings in the city, don’t expect to check out any books.

 

Library of Congress Tours

 

You can tour this historic building for its art, architecture, and history during opening hours, no tickets required.


Bureau of Engraving and Printing

If you want to see how money is made, the BEP is open for a quick tour to watch the process.

 

Bureau of Engraving and Printing Gift Shop

 

During peak season (March – Labor Day and again during Thanksgiving Weekend), tickets are required but there is no cost.


Botanical Gardens

A chance to explore during flora from around the different climates of the United States, the Botanical Gardens is located at the base of Capitol Hill.


FBI Building

Tours of the FBI Building are possible but take a little know-how.

You will be guided to an exhibit room and small museum but only if you have an advance reservation.

 

Visiting the FBI

 

These tours are only open to US citizens, though.


Pentagon

A guided tour of the Pentagon is a great way to learn more about the Department of Defense and is open to anyone who has an appointment.

 

How to get a pentagon tour

 

These should be made pretty far in advance, so be sure to read our post on how to do so.


National Archives

Here you can see the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, US Constitution, and more!

 

Visiting the National Archives

 

You can get timed tickets in advance for a small processing fee or you can walk up with no appointment, just be prepared to wait in line during busy times.

Read our post on how to plan your visit to the National Archives in DC.

 


MUSEUMS

There are a number of free museums in DC thanks to the Smithsonian Institution.

Most Smithsonian museums do not require tickets and have no admission cost to enter. These are some of the most popular sites in Washington DC.

These Smithsonian Museums are located in DC and do not require tickets to enter – that does mean they can get crowded during peak season!

A great way to explore the museums without being overwhelmed is to join us on a museum tour:

  • American History
  • Natural History
  • Air and Space & the Udvar Hazy Annex
  • American Indian Museum
  • National Postal Museum
  • Anacostia Community Museum
  • The Smithsonian Art Museums: National Portrait Gallery, American Art, Renwick, Hirshhorn, Freer Sackler Gallery, African ArtAfrican American History & Culture

This is the newest Smithsonian museum. In it, you’ll find discussions on slavery, race, and how black Americans shaped modern culture.

Due to its popularity, this museum does require timed tickets for some of the busier times but it is free to visit. You can find out more about those on our guide to the NMAAHC.


Glenstone Art Museum

The Glenstone Art Museum is located outside of Washington DC and has both an interior gallery and outdoor sculpture garden.

It is a small space so tickets are required but there is no admission fee.

 

National Gallery of Art

 

National Gallery of Art

The NGA has two wings – the West traditional wing and a more modern East wing.

Here you can find the only Leonardo Da Vinci painting in the Americas, Turner landscapes, and Calder mobiles.

No tickets or admission fees required. Read more about the NGA using our guide to this and other art museums in Washington DC.


US Holocaust Memorial Museum

This is an incredibly moving museum focusing on the events leading up to, during, and aftermath of the Holocaust during WWII, but also on other genocides in modern history.

 

Holocaust Memorial Museum

 

During Spring and Summer, timed tickets are required to visit the permanent exhibition. You can get these in advance or try for same-day tickets on the day.

If you aren’t able to get tickets to the permanent exhibit, you can still explore other areas of the museum.


Ford’s Theatre

Ford’s Theatre is where President Lincoln was shot that fateful night in April 1865.

While it is a working theatre again where you can attend performances in the evening, you can also tour the theatre and museum during the day for free.

 

 

Ford's Theater

 

Advanced tickets require a purchasing fee but it is worth it if you want to visit during peak tourist season.

Same-day tickets are available at no cost every day but go fast. Read our post on planning your visit to Ford’s Theater.


African American Civil War Museum

Located just off the U Street Corridor once known as “Black Broadway,” this museum focuses on the less credited African American soldiers during the Civil War.


Belmont-Paul House

This is the headquarters of the National Women’s Party and has a museum on the women’s suffrage movement.


Cedar Hill – Frederick Douglass House

Cedar Hill is the historic home of Frederick Douglass located in Anacostia.

It is a National Park site today with a small museum and ranger talks. Frederick Douglass’ wife maintained the home and his belongings so it is an incredible flashback into his life.


Anderson House

A once private home on Embassy Row, it was donated to the Society of the Cincinnati

You can explore a museum about the Revolutionary War and tour a beautiful Gilded Age home.


Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Second only to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, this is the second-largest church in the world.

It has 81 chapels and sacred images that you can tour with a dedicated docent to learn about the background of this Catholic Church, as well as the architecture and mosaic artwork.

You can visit most days of the week.


The Phillips Collection

The Phillips Collection is one of, if not, the first modern art museums.

While there is usual admission cost the museum is free Tuesday-Friday, with the exception of special exhibits.

It’s most well-known piece is Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. You can also find works by Picasso, Rothko, and Whistler.

 


MEMORIALS

It is always free to visit the memorials and most are open day and night. 

The best way to explore memorials is with a tour guide – you can join us for a guided tour.

But you can also use our guide to the top 25 monuments and memorials for a self-guided tour.

 

Abraham Lincoln Memorial

 

  • President Abraham Lincoln
  • Vietnam Veterans
  • Korean War Veterans
  • WWII Memorial
  • Washington Monument (though if you want to take the elevator to the top, a ticket is required! Like many of the ticketed sites, they are free but there is a processing fee to reserve them in advance)
  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • President Thomas Jefferson
  • George Mason
  • Japanese American Memorial
  • President Teddy Roosevelt Island
  • President Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • American Veterans Disabled for Life
  • President Ulysses S. Grant
  • Air Force Memorial
  • Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial
  • US Naval Memorial
  • Law Enforcement Memorial
  • DC War Memorial
  • Pentagon 9/11 Memorial
  • WWI Memorial at Pershing Park


CEMETERIES

Exploring some of the cities historic cemeteries is a great free option.

A guide is a must so you can find your way around these large sites and learn the stories about those buried here.


Arlington National Cemetery

This hallowed ground is our nation’s most famous military cemetery.

 

Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery

 

You will find presidents, 5-star generals, and military heroes buried here as well as a chance to pay respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

We have a guide to the cemetery and offer guided and self-guided tours.


Congressional Cemetery

What started out as a cemetery for Congress, this landscaped cemetery is now open to the local community.

It is a favorite of our guides for being a self-proclaimed “hip cemetery” that hosts 5Ks, Yoga Mortem in the Crypt, and Halloween tours.

A guided tour introduces you to historic figures who signed the Declaration of Independence, and more recent additions with artistic and unique gravemarkers.


Rock Creek Cemetery

Rock Creek Cemetery is another cemetery with rolling hills that appears like a park.

You’ll find a number of beautiful and some haunting sculptures here.


Oak Hill Cemetery

We offer tours of Oak Hill Cemetery!

A bucolic setting is the resting place to famed Americans and is most recently known for being the setting of the book, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Oak Hill Cemetery has a beautiful Renwick Chapel to explore and one of the few remaining cemeteries to still have an on-site superintendent living on the grounds.

 


OTHER FREE ACTIVITIES

Washington DC Tours


FREE PERFORMANCES

  • Woolley Mammoth: pay-what-you-can seats, offered for the first two performances of every mainstage production (usually Monday or Tuesday). Tickets (two per person) are sold at the theater 90 minutes prior to showtime.
  • National Theatre: free performance series Saturday Morning
  • Kennedy Center: free performance series at the Millennium Stage every evening at 6 p.m.
  • American Art Museum Take Five!: performance series usually takes place on the third Thursday of each month
  • Sculpture Garden: Jazz in the Garden on Friday evenings during the summer
  • Folger Shakespeare Library: Select events are free, with many family programs that are free.
  • Screen on the Green: Free films shown on a giant outdoor screen on the National Mall each Summer.

 

Sunset Parade at Iwo Jima

 

Military Band Summer Performances:

 


Free Monthly Activities

Our monthly posts include a section on free things to do that month. This includes special events, parades, festivals, that are held during that month.

 

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.