21 of the best free things to do in Washington, DC – Lonely Planet


If you’re looking for fun, free activities to do in Washington, DC, you are in luck. From world-class museums and beautiful parks, you will be spoiled for choice.

Accommodations in the city can be pricey, but with these top picks of the very best free things to do in Washington, DC, you’ll easily be able to balance your budget.

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Chill out under cherry blossom in West Potomac Park

DC’s best meditation spot has to be the West Potomac Park, the area between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It includes the Tidal Basin, which shimmers pink when the beautiful cherry trees bloom around March or April (according to spring’s whim).

Soak up the atmosphere at The Wharf

Head just south of the Mall to The Wharf, DC’s newest neighborhood, a mile-long stretch along DC’s Potomac River. The waterfront is lined with funky eateries, elegant hotels and several boutiques. Browse in Politics & Prose, a fabulous book store, before dining at one of several high-end restaurants that overlook the river. Grab a water shuttle from here to Alexandria or Georgetown waterfronts.

A huge taxidermied elephant is the centerpiece in the entrance hall of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.
The National Museum of Natural History is completely free to visit © Kamira / Shutterstock

Visit the Smithsonian Institution’s many museums and galleries

Start counting the individual museums and galleries that are part of the Smithsonian Institution and you double this freebie list. The Smithsonian comprises 20 museums and galleries (plus the zoo), with the majority of them in the Washington, DC area and all are free to visit. See the website for a complete rundown of what’s on offer.

Admire the FDR Memorial

Wander over to the Tidal Basin’s left bank (it’s especially beautiful at night), and it’s hard to miss the grand Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Set on 7.5 acres, the monument comprises four outdoor gallery rooms with 10 bronze sculptures that depict President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and events from the Great Depression and WWII.

Two people smile and dance in the park
Join the festivities of the drum circle in Meridian Hill Park on Sunday afternoons © The Washington Post via Getty Images

Dance to the beat in Meridian Hill Park 

Every Sunday at around 3pm, Meridian Hill Park (also called Malcolm X Park) plays host to the drum circle, a tradition that started in the 1960s during the Civil Rights struggle. These days it has the ambiance of a mini music festival: a crowd heads to the park to lounge, enjoy a picnic or just tap to the rhythm. While the atmosphere is especially great at the weekend, it’s still worth a visit at other times of the week.

Take a cultural walking tour

Learn about local secrets and scandals, try a local cupcake, or head back in time on a ghost walk. These ultra-fun themed walking tours are run by Free Tours by Foot (you pay what you can afford.) You can even tap into your inner 1865 and head off on a mysterious and conspiratorial jaunt on the popular Lincoln Assassination Night Tour.

The interior of an art gallery. There is couch in the middle of the room and a few people viewing paintings on the wall.
The National Gallery of Art is a treasure trove for the visual arts © Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

See masterpieces at the National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art has several wings jammed with masterpieces. The gallery’s original building, a handsome neoclassical construction, houses Rembrandts, Titians and the like. The East Building (designed by architect IM Pei) is chock-a-block with abstract works. Walk between both buildings on the underground light sculpture, Multiverse, created by Leo Villareal. There’s also a sculpture garden dotted with modern artworks.

Browse works by contemporary artists at Touchstone Gallery

Brush up on the works of local artists at Touchstone Gallery, an artist-owned gallery that represents 50 local artists – we’re talking ultra-skilled folk who work in a variety of media.

Download and follow a self-guided neighborhood tour

Take yourself on a fascinating self-guided neighborhood walking tour, courtesy of Cultural Tourism DC. The free guides, downloadable to your mobile device, cover dozens of trails cover historic ‘hoods (Adams Morgan, U Street and Barracks Row) and themes (Civil War to Civil Rights Downtown Heritage Trail). Signs en route feature stories, historic photos and maps.

The White House in Washington DC with beautiful blue sky at summer.
For many visitors, this is as close to the White House as you can get © Dmitry Vinogradov / 500px

Lucky ticket holders get to visit the White House

Tickets to the White House are available on a very limited basis. Chances are best for US citizens, who must request admission through their member of Congress. Overseas visitors should contact their embassy in Washington. Requests should be submitted up to three months and no less than 21 days in advance.

Pay your respects at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the USA’s official memorial to the Holocaust, taking you on a journey of a single Holocaust victim. There is a special exhibit geared more towards young children. It is free with timed-entry tickets, but passes do run out in busy periods. You can reserve a ticket online for just $1 to be guaranteed entry. 

The back of a woman as she follows a tow path alongside a canal approaching a stone bridge on the C & O Canal near Washington DC
Walk some of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath from Georgetown © David Louis Econopouly / Shutterstock

Follow the trail along the C & O Canal

The beautiful trail along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal runs from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland, for around 180 miles (though most visitors tend to go only as far as Bethesda). Walk, jog or cycle along the former mule tow paths.

Get active in Rock Creek Park

Twice the size of Central Park, this is the nearest thing you’ll get to a jungle in an American city. Rock Creek Park starts in downtown DC as a tree-lined path alongside Rock Creek itself. Further north, it widens into a lush oasis, where you can hike, go horsebackriding, and cycle. 

Explore the beautiful landscapes of Dumbarton Oaks Park

This little known and very beautiful public park, on the northern edge of Georgetown, is one of DC’s local secrets. Wander down Lovers’ Lane off R Street and into the foliage and over quaint bridges. Dumbarton Oaks Park is the coolest place to be in the height of the humidity. (Note: don’t confuse it with the mansion of Dumbarton Oaks or the historic house called Dumbarton House.)

Visit the memorials on the National Mall

The Mall – the 2-mile-plus-long rectangle of lawn, and the city’s pride – is packed with monuments and memorials. You can visit everything from the Lincoln Memorial (which receives around 5.5 million visitors a year), the National WWII Memorial (4 million), the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (3.8 million), the Martin Luther King Jr National Memorial, and even more.

See the documents that built the nation at the National Archives

The National Archives is the spot to see John Hancock’s John Hancock (American slang for “signature”) on the country’s Declaration of Independence, along with the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. For US citizens, visiting here is almost a rite of passage.

Stroll through the United States Botanic Garden

While crowds are drawn to the smelly “corpse flower” (Amorphophallus titanum – we’ll let you translate that), which blooms every three to five years, the United States Botanic Garden is equally fragrant at other times. The greenhouse conservancy and the children’s garden are particularly beautiful spots to stroll through.

A vast reading room in the Library of Congress, with tables laid out in a circular format
Book a free timed-entry ticket to see the Library of Congress © f11photo / Shutterstock

Explore miles of bookshelves at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is to books what Google is to the internet. Here you’ll find 838 miles of bookshelves with around 158 million items, including 36 million books and other print materials; 3.5 million recordings; 13.7 million photographs; 5.5 million maps; 6.7 million pieces of sheet music and 69 million manuscripts – all in more than 470 languages. Reserve your timed-entry tickets in advance.

Wander the best of DC’s markets

Sunday shoppers can pick up a deal at the lively Eastern Market (Capitol Hill neighborhood): a three-in-one flea market, farmers market and arts-and-crafts market. Or head to Union Market, a funky, contemporary spot where you can buy your lunch from one of the ever-expanding funky foodie pop-up stalls.

Watch the action at the Supreme Court

A visit to America’s highest court lets you can see justices, clerks, marshals and attorneys strutting their stuff. Access is temporarily suspended, but when it reopens, the public is allowed to enter the court to view sessions or “oral arguments” in action (seating is first-come, first-served and long lines form: one for those wanting to catch the full session, the second for those who want to get the gist of it in only three minutes). On the days when court isn’t in session, you can catch lectures about the Supreme Court.

Take a free tour of the US Capitol

Check before your visit to see if free hour-long tours through the hallowed halls – packed with busts, sculptures and that fabulous dome – of the Capitol are available. The Capitol Visitor Center will be able to advise.



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