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Free Things to Do in Washington DC

nighttime activities, things to do with kids, and museums and attractions. 

Updated: April 4, 2024

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.

How do we know about Free Things to Do in DC?

It's what we do! We are Free Tours by Foot after all.

Our guides have been leading tours through the city for more than a decade.

We've lived in the city as broke college students and frugal families with young kids.

Some of the 50K+ members in our Washington DC Travel Tips Facebook Group are looking for budget options and trust us to help!

Lonely Planet lists us as one of the best free things to do in DC.

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 sections:

Keep reading for more information about each option, but at a glance here are a few ideas...


  • Explore the Memorials
  • Millennium Stage Concert at Kennedy Center
  • Late at the Library of Congress
  • Window Shop and Stroll a DC Neighborhood
  • Military Parades & Concerts (Summer)
  • Jazz in Sculpture Gardens (Summer)
  • Movies in the Parks (Summer)


  • Smithsonian Museums & National Zoo
  • Explore one of the many green spaces
  • National Mall Scavenger Hunt
  • Watching Changing of the Guards at Arlington National Cemetery
  • Daniel's Story at Holocaust Museum
  • Watch planes take off and land at Gravelley Point
  • Junior Ranger Badge Activities


One of the unique reasons to visit Washington, DC is to tour the government buildings - all of which are free to visit.

United States Capitol

  • Timed Tickets Required
  • Open Monday-Saturday 830am-330pm
  • 1st & East Capitol St
  • Closest Metro: Capitol South

You can tour the historic Capitol Building 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.

White House

  • Timed Tickets Required to enter
  • Open 24/7 for Exterior Views
  • 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
  • Closest Metro: McPhearson Square

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.

Supreme Court

  • No Required
  • Monday-Friday 9am-3pm
  • 1st & East Capitol St
  • Closest Metro: Capitol South

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. The museum is only open on days that cases are not being heard.

No tickets are required to visit the Supreme Court but it is only open on weekdays. You can visit the museum above or you can attend an oral argument!

Supreme Court Tours

Library of Congress

  • Timed Tickets Required
  • Open Tues-Saturday 830am-330pm
  • 1st & East Capitol St
  • Closest Metro: Capitol South

One of the most beautiful buildings in the city, but 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.

Advanced reservations are required but have been very easy to get, even at the door.

The Library of Congress is open late on Thursdays until 8 pm so it is one of the free things you can do at night in DC.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing

  • Timed Tickets Required
  • Open Monday-Friday 8am-315pm
  • Entrance near 14th St and Independence Ave SW
  • Closest Metro: Smithsonian

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

Tickets are required, but there is no cost.

United States Botanic Gardens

  • No Required
  • Open Daily 10am-5pm
  • 100 Maryland Ave SW, Washington, DC 20001
  • Closest Metro: Federal Center SW

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

Read more about the Botanical Gardens...

FBI Building

  • Timed Tickets Required
  • Open Monday-Friday 9am-2pm
  • 10th & E St NW
  • Closest Metro: Metro Center

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.


  • Timed Tickets Required
  • Open Monday-Friday 9am-3pm
  • Arlington, VA
  • Closest Metro: 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.

For more details on the tour, click here.

National Archives Museum

  • No Tickets Required (but timed tickets for quicker access)
  • Open Daily 10am-530pm
  • Constitution Ave NW between 7th and 9th
  • Closest Metro: Archives/Penn Quarter

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.


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.

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

(The National Zoo, NMAAHC and the National Mall location of the Air and Space Museum all require timed tickets to enter but there is no cost for these tickets.)

In Washington DC, it may be easier to ask which museums are not free.

We have a list of the best museums in DC to cover which ones are worth the admission cost.

Glenstone Art Museum

  • Timed Tickets Required
  • Open Thursday-Sunday 10am-5pm
  • 12100 Glen Rd, Potomac, MD 20854

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.

Planet Word Museum

  • No Tickets Required
  • Open Daily except Tuesday 10am-5pm (6pm on weekends)
  • 13th and K St NW
  • Closest Metro: McPherson Square

This museum is free to enter but it is worth a suggested donation, especially for older kids.

Incredibly interactive museum, Planet Word focuses on the development of language.

There are hidden rooms, karaoke, joke rooms, and more.

Read our guide to Planet Word.

National Gallery of Art

  • No Tickets Required
  • Open Daily 10am-530pm
  • Constitution Ave NW between 4th and 7th
  • Closest Metro: Archives/Penn Quarter

The NGA has two wings - the more traditional West 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 are required. Read more about the NGA using our guide to this and other art museums in Washington DC.

You can also explore the Sculpture Gardens outside the National Gallery of Art and outside the Hirshhorn Gallery.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

  • Timed Tickets Required (but you can enter the building for smaller exhibits without tickets)
  • Open Daily 10am-530pm
  • 14th St SW & Independence Ave SW
  • Closest Metro: Smithsonian

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.

How to Get Tickets to the Holocaust Museum DC

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

  • No Tickets Required (but highly recommended)
  • Open Daily 830am-4pm
  • 10th and F St NW
  • Closest Metro: Metro Center

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 (Currently Closed for Renovations)

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.

Explore more about U Street NW.

Cedar Hill - Frederick Douglass House

  • No Tickets Required
  • Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday 9am-430pm
  • 1411 W St SE, Washington, DC 20020
  • Closest Metro: Anacostia

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

  • No Tickets Required
  • Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-4pm (12pm opening on Sunday)
  • 2118 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
  • Closest Metro: Dupont Circle

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

  • No Tickets Required
  • Open Monday-Saturday 9am-3pm
  • 400 Michigan Ave NE, Washington, DC 20017
  • Closest Metro: Brookland

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.

National Cathedral

  • No Tickets Required to Attend Service or Walk Grounds
  • 3101 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, DC 20016
  • Closest Metro: Woodley Park or Tenleytown

There is a charge to enter the National Cathedral unless you are attending a service or just touring the exterior of the building.

Find out more about visiting the Washington National Cathedra.

The Phillips Collection

  • No Tickets Required
  • Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm (but only name your own price after 4pm)
  • 21st & Q St NW
  • Closest Metro: Dupont Circle

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

While there is an admission cost on some days, some ticket times are name your own price.

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

Find out more.


It is always free to visit the memorials and most are open day and night. You do not have to pay to see the Lincoln Memorial.

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


Exploring some of the city's 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

  • No Tickets Required
  • Open Daily 8am-5pm
  • Arlington, VA
  • Closest Metro: 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.

Congressional Cemetery

  • No Tickets Required
  • Open Daily dawn-dusk
  • 18th and E St SE
  • Closest Metro: Stadium-Armory

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 grave markers.

Rock Creek Cemetery

  • No Tickets Required
  • Open Daily 9am-7pm
  • 201 Allison St NW, Washington, DC 20011
  • Closest Metro: Georgia Ave/Petworth

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

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

Oak Hill Cemetery

  • No Tickets Required
  • Monday through Friday –  9:00 AM – 4:30 PM
    Saturday –  11:00 AM – 4:00 PM (walk-in gate only)
    Sunday  – 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM (walk-in gate only)
  • 3001 R St NW
  • Closest Metro: Foggy Bottom/GWU

We offer tours of Oak Hill Cemetery!

A bucolic setting is the resting place of 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 is one of the few remaining cemeteries to still have an on-site superintendent living on the grounds.

Renwick Chapel at Oak Hill Cemetery

Gardens & Parks

Washington DC is beautiful at all times of year but when the flora is in full bloom, it is a sight to see.

Many of the city's parks and gardens are free to enter.

  • Teddy Roosevelt Island
  • Rock Creek Park
  • Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
  • Anacostia Park & River Trail
  • Bishops Garden at the Washington National Cathedral
  • Bartholdi Park & United States Botanic Gardens
  • Gardens at the Franciscan Monastery
  • United States Arboretum
  • Dumbarton Oaks (winter only, November-March)
  • Tudor Place Gardens (admission to the gardens is free, though we recommend entering the house as well!)
  • C&O Canal in Georgetown
  • Mount Vernon Trail

There are many small parks throughout the city - city parks and national park service-run parks are all free.

Many of the traffic circles in DC feature memorial statues as well.


Washington DC Tours
  • Our Self-Guided Tours!
  • Cherry Blossom Bloom Viewing on the Tidal Basin
  • Rock Creek Park Nature Center Planetarium
  • Beach Volleyball by the Lincoln Memorial
  • Walk/Bike ride along the Potomac River or take the Anacostia River Trail
  • Junior Ranger Badge Activities (TIP: On April 15, and only April 15, you can get a special Titanic Memorial stamp for your National Park Passport!)
  • Watch planes land at Gravelly Point at DCA Airport.
  • Sunday Drum Circle at Meridian Hill Malcolm X Park
  • Walk along Black Lives Matter Plaza by the White House

Explore one of the neighborhoods in DC for people watching, and window shopping:


  • 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 for the Performing Arts: free performance series at the Millennium Stage many evenings 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, and festivals, that are held during that month.

Sample Itinerary - Spend 3 days in DC for free (almost)

You can easily spend 3 days in DC while only paying for accommodation, transportation, and food!

You could get away without using much transportation but most budget hotels are going to be further out from downtown (see: Best Places to Stay in DC) which means using the Metro is a good idea.

You can save money by using the Circulator Bus system which is only $1 per person.

Make sure to read our guide on Cheap Eats to save money on the food, too.

DAY 1:

Start the morning exploring Capitol Hill - US Capitol, Library of Congress, and Supreme Court on our Capitol Hill tour.

Enjoy Eastern Market for lunch or eat in the Capitol Visitor Center if you plan on taking the US Capitol Building tour.

Spend the afternoon at one of the many free museums in DC - Air and Space if you're looking for something close by! Stop by the National Botanic Gardens on the way.

Dinner at a DC staple like Old Ebbits Grill, which is just a short walk from our evening tour. Walk by the White House at night on the way.

Take our Memorials and Moonlight walking tour to visit the National Mall

DAY 2:

Pay respects at Arlington National Cemetery on with our free self guided walking tour.

Have lunch at the food trucks on the National Mall before spending the afternoon at another museum.

Grab an early dinner in Georgetown to explore the neighborhood (we have self-guided tours!)

Depending on the time of year, spend the evening enjoying one of the military performances or a free concert at the Kennedy Center.

Famous People Buried at Arlington National Cemetery

DAY 3:

Start your day with a morning with breakfast at the Wharf (District Donuts is a favorite!) then walk to the Tidal Basin to visit FDR and Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

Visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (don't forget to get tickets in advance!)

Have lunch at the Cafe at the NGA Sculpture Garden and then head across the street to the National Archives

Visit Ford's Theatre (don't forget to get tickets!)

If you have some time, make your way to the nearby National Portrait Gallery open until 7 pm nightly.

Late dinner at one of the many amazing restaurants in the Chinatown/Penn Quarter area of DC.

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: April 4th, 2024
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