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.
While all three of these require tickets, there is no charge for them. You can find out how to obtain these tickets here.
It is free for US citizens to tour the White House, though appointments are required in advance and require a lot of planning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
During peak season (March – Labor Day and again during Thanksgiving Weekend), tickets are required but there is no cost.
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.
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.
These tours are only open to US citizens, though.
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.
These should be made pretty far in advance, so be sure to read our post on how to do so.
Here you can see the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, US Constitution, and more!
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.
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:
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
President Abraham Lincoln
Korean War Veterans
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.