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Hannah
Milwaukee

Washington, DC

Fun free things to do in D.C.?

Taking a trip to Washington D.C. this summer and plan to explore on a limited budget. I love art, history, food, the outdoors and just about anything else! What are your favorite cheap/inexpensive things to do in the city?


11 Answers

top answer by
Tiffany from Corvallis

Most of DC's favorite attractions are either free or inexpensive. I think the only expensive thing about DC is lodging and some restaurants.

FREE MUSEUMS: The first 12 are all along the National Mall.

  1. National Gallery of Art - A HUGE art museum with both old and modern art pieces and an impressive collection of Impressionist art. Stop in for a few minutes or enjoy hours.
  2. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden - Next to the Gallery is this nice place to relax. Have a coffee or small snack at the Pavilion Café, sit by the fountains, and peruse the outdoor sculptures.
  3. National Museum Of The American Indian - See an interesting collection of Native American art and culture and eat at the most expensive, but best museum cafe at the mall, the Mitsitam Cafe - it's delicious.
  4. National Air and Space Museum - This museum has a sister museum near the Dulles Airport that is also free and has an impressive plane collection and the space shuttle.
  5. Freer Gallery of Art - Both the Freer and Sackler galleries contain Asian art collections.
  6. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
  7. National Museum of African Art - This has an interesting collection of African art and pottery.
  8. United States Botanic Garden - The nearest "museum" to the Capital building.
  9. US National Archives & Records Administration - Go early to avoid crowds and see the Magna Carta, US Constitution, Bill of Rights, and other documents.
  10. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden - A hidden gem if you love sculpture. They get some really interesting collections.
  11. National Museum of American History - This is where you'll see the flag that flew over Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired the Star Spangled Banner. You'll also see the President's exhibits and the 1st Ladies dresses.
  12. Museum of Natural History - The Hope diamond, a butterfly exhibit, a extensive mineral exhibit, dinosaurs, etc.
  13. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - Book ahead for timed tickets as this gets VERY busy in the summer months. Intense and emotional, but complete, this museum gives a complete overview and history of WW2 and the genocide.
  14. National Postal Museum
  15. Smithsonian American Art Museum
  16. National Portrait Gallery - This is across from the International Spy Museum which is expensive but fun. Inside on the corner of the Spy Museum, they have a good breakfast cafe.


FREE GOVERNMENT Buildings:

  1. The United States Capitol - Book ahead for timed tickets for a Capitol tour, then walk through the underground tunnel to the library.
  2. Library of Congress Jefferson Building, directly across from the US Capitol is my favorite interior in DC. It's beautiful. See Jefferson's library, the Gutenberg Bible, and the main reading room. There's a Subway and a Dunkin Donuts in the library basement, but I love to walk a block down to We, The Pizza. The lunch special is filling and delicious.
  3. Bureau of Engraving and Printing - Book ahead for a timed ticket and see paper money printed here. This is near the Holocaust Museum and Tidal Basin, so an easy thing to combine with those.
  4. The White House takes months of planning to visit inside, but do walk around it. The Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door is pretty, you'll walk by the Renwick Gallery (currently closed for renovation). Nearby is also the DAR Constitution Hall which has a small free museum and several other beautiful parks and buildings.


FREE MONUMENTS, MEMORIALS, AND PARKS: Numbers 1-11 can be walked in succession for a half day tour.

  1. Washington Monument  - Book ahead online to get a timed ticket to go to the very top. Great views and free.  (There's a small fee for online booking - free on the day of, but long lines can be tricky.)
  2. National World War II Memorial
  3. Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool - From one end see Lincoln reflected and from the other, see the Washington Monument reflected. Lots of ducks.
  4. Lincoln Memorial
  5. Vietnam War Veteran's Memorial - Veer to the right of Lincoln to see this. If you love the weather and the walk, keep going and see #6 & #7, otherwise skip to #8.
  6. Albert Einstein Memorial - It's just an amazing statue, but it's beautiful and you can sit in his lap. :) It's next to the National Academy of Sciences which is also free.
  7. Constitution Gardens - Small, and quick to see, it's a quiet spot in DC with the signatures of the signers of the constitution.
  8. Korean War Veterans Memorial
  9. MLK Memorial - At one side of the Tidal Basin, walk around the basin and see a few more monuments. It's a pretty walk through old cherry trees.
  10. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial - Goes through all of his terms of office. Very well done.
  11. Thomas Jefferson Memorial - Gorgeous reflections of this from the bridge to the right.
  12. Arlington National Cemetery - This is a beautiful place to see, walk, and contemplate. You can see #13-#16 while here.
  13. President John F. Kennedy Gravesite
  14. Lee's House - Great views from here. A short tour inside is also free.
  15. Tomb of the Unknowns - Watch the changing of the guard.
  16. US Marine Corps War Memorial
  17. United States National Arboretum
  18. National Zoological Park
  19. Rock Creek Park


NEIGHBORHOODS:


FREE OTHER:

  • Washington Union Station - This is a gorgeous building but also has restaurants, shops, a Metro and train station, and is next to the National Postal Museum which is free.
  • Washington National Cathedral - Technically this is free, but they do ask for a small donation. It's a beautiful cathedral though, different, and you can go up in the towers. Look for the piece of the moon in one of the windows and explore the gardens outside.


FOOD: DC boasts the largest Ethiopian population outside of Ethiopia, so check out the restaurants near U street. There are several Stop by for lunch. They aren't cheap, but lunch won't be expensive. Check out the menus ahead of time. It's a unique food experience and very typical of DC.

There is more. SO much more. Just walk, explore and discover your own treasures. Many buildings allow free tours.


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. National Mall (attraction)
  2. National Gallery of Art (restaurant)
  3. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden (attraction)
  4. Pavilion Café (restaurant)
  5. National Museum Of The American Indian (attraction)
  6. Mitsitam Cafe (restaurant)
  7. National Air and Space Museum (attraction)
  8. Freer Gallery of Art (attraction)
  9. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (attraction)
  10. National Museum of African Art (attraction)
  11. United States Botanic Garden (attraction)
  12. US National Archives & Records Administration (attraction)
  13. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (attraction)
  14. National Museum of American History (attraction)
  15. Museum of Natural History (attraction)
  16. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (attraction)
  17. National Postal Museum (attraction)
  18. Smithsonian American Art Museum (attraction)
  19. National Portrait Gallery (attraction)
  20. International Spy Museum (attraction)
  21. United States Capitol (attraction)
  22. Library of Congress (attraction)
  23. We, The Pizza (restaurant)
  24. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (attraction)
  25. The White House (attraction)
  26. Eisenhower Executive Office Building (attraction)
  27. Renwick Gallery (attraction)
  28. DAR Constitution Hall (attraction)
  29. Washington Monument (attraction)
  30. National World War II Memorial (attraction)
  31. Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool (attraction)
  32. Lincoln Memorial (attraction)
  33. Vietnam War Veteran's Memorial (attraction)
  34. Albert Einstein Memorial (attraction)
  35. National Academy of Sciences (attraction)
  36. Constitution Gardens (attraction)
  37. Korean War Veterans Memorial (attraction)
  38. MLK Memorial (attraction)
  39. Tidal Basin (attraction)
  40. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (attraction)
  41. Thomas Jefferson Memorial (attraction)
  42. Arlington National Cemetery (attraction)
  43. President John F. Kennedy Gravesite (attraction)
  44. Lee's House (attraction)
  45. Tomb of the Unknowns (attraction)
  46. US Marine Corps War Memorial (attraction)
  47. United States National Arboretum (attraction)
  48. National Zoological Park (attraction)
  49. Rock Creek Park (attraction)
  50. Georgetown (Washington DC) (neighborhood)
  51. Old Stone House (attraction)
  52. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (attraction)
  53. Baked & Wired (restaurant)
  54. Thompson Boat Center (attraction)
  55. Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial (attraction)
  56. Eastern Market (attraction)
  57. Washington Union Station (attraction)
  58. Washington National Cathedral (attraction)
9 thanks


answered by
peggy from Washington, DC

If you google summer 2015 free events in Washington, D.C. you will get a very large list!

My favorite art museum is the National Portrait Gallery. It is not located on the National Mall but it is free and has amazing works of art. Check out their website. It is located in the China Town/ Verizon Center area, not far from the Mall. The area also has many restaurants and bars. Other than that museum,visiting the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the National Gallery of Art is a must. If you are in town on a Friday night the Pavilion Café, located in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden,  offers a free jazz concert from 5-8PM, It is very crowded and filled with young professionals. Food and wine and beer is available but I would suggest bringing your own food, though don't try to bring your own alcohol in, security checks your bag at the gate and will take it! Don't worry if you don't have a blanket, you can sit on benches or on the cement seats surrounding the enormous fountain.

You won't believe you are still in DC when you visit the United States National Arboretum, 446 acres in the middle of the city. It's a quick cab ride there and a beautiful place to take a walk. There is so much there but the Bonsai Collection is a must see. Another beautiful option is the United States Botanic Garden, located next to the United States Capitol. Inside is a rainforest, an area of orchids, and many other areas. Outside there are beautiful gardens to wander through.

Across the street and behind the Botanical Garden is United States Botanic Garden Bartholdi Park. This is a little known hidden garden that is just beautiful. The incredible fountain makes you feel like you are in Paris. This is a perfect spot to bring a bagged lunch or better yet a light dinner at dusk before walking toward the monuments. Across from Bartholdi Garden is the newest memorial in D.C. , The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. Don't miss it. It is small and quite peaceful.

There is a concert somewhere on the Mall, on the Capitol steps or in the area of the monuments every night during the summer months. All are free.

Be sure to save the evenings for walking around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and the Tidal Basin. It is very safe at night and an unforgettable way to see the Monuments. Also, the summer here is so very hot and walking in the evening really makes a difference.

Since you mentioned you are on a budget, I would suggest bringing snacks or a lunch. The museum food is expensive. FYI, if you eat McDonalds, there is a small portable McDonalds next to the National Air and Space Museum. It does not offer a full menu but has some basic stuff. Otherwise most everything on the mall area can be pricey. There are no restaurants on the Mall. You'll have to walk a few blocks before coming upon anything.

You can use the Metro to get to some places further out, such as the National Zoological Park (also free) but for sure use the D.C. Circulator bus. It is only $1.00 and takes you to the most popular places in the city. Visit their website.

Also, if you go to my Pinterest site and check out my boards, Photos of DC and Washington DC Walk Everywhere, you will see so many more things to do while visiting.

Have a great time!


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. National Portrait Gallery (attraction)
  2. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (attraction)
  3. National Gallery of Art (restaurant)
  4. Pavilion Café (restaurant)
  5. United States National Arboretum (attraction)
  6. United States Botanic Garden (attraction)
  7. United States Capitol (attraction)
  8. United States Botanic Garden Bartholdi Park (attraction)
  9. The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial (attraction)
  10. Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool (attraction)
  11. Tidal Basin (attraction)
  12. National Air and Space Museum (attraction)
  13. National Zoological Park (attraction)
3 thankscomments (1)


answered by
Ellen from Washington, DC

If you are at all interested in plants and flowers, stop in at the United States Botanic Garden at the base of the Capitol. It is close to the National Mall (with the Smithsonian museums) as well as the Capitol itself.


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. United States Botanic Garden (attraction)
  2. National Mall (attraction)
  3. Smithsonian (attraction)
3 thanks


answered by
Scotty from Houston

Hi Hannah! 

The good news is there are a LOT of cool things in Washington that cost little to no money to do!   Of course you already know about The Smithsonian and all the things along the National Mall.  But since you like history, here is a best kept secret...

Plan a stop at National Building Museum.  It's located right in the city across the street from the Judiciary Square Metro Station.  Or you can easily walk there. 

They have an AWESOME shop in that museum!!!


Also, if you get a chance to stop by Jaleo for a nice tapas lunch, it's awesome!  Get a glass of sangria and a few tapas for cheap and people watch! I've run into quite a few stars in there!!  :-)

Have a blast!

Scotty


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Smithsonian (attraction)
  2. National Mall (attraction)
  3. National Building Museum (attraction)
  4. Judiciary Square Metro Station (attraction)
  5. Jaleo (restaurant)
3 thanks


answered by
Scott from Washington, DC

If you're here on a Friday, you should check out Jazz in the Garden at Pavilion Café. Great jazz, beer/wine, and relaxing in the grass near the mall.


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Pavilion Café (restaurant)
3 thanks


answered by
Ruth from Washington, DC

The Library of Congress is a great place to visit and the tours are free!


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Library of Congress (attraction)
3 thanks


answered first by
Jacey & Scott from Fort Collins

Hello Hannah!  The list of free things to do is almost endless.  I believe all but one of the nineteen Smithsonian affiliated museums is free.  Many of these are located along the National Mall.  The National Zoological Park (Smithsonian). Presidential monuments, war monuments, National Gallery of ArtUS National Archives & Records AdministrationLibrary of Congress.  Arlington National CemeteryWith some advance planning you can also tour the United States CapitolThe Pentagon.  You really have so many options.  I would also recommend using a search engine of free things to do.  You will find a plethora of information, and some fantastic tools to help you plan your trip. Enjoy!


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. National Mall (attraction)
  2. National Zoological Park (attraction)
  3. National Gallery of Art (restaurant)
  4. US National Archives & Records Administration (attraction)
  5. Library of Congress (attraction)
  6. Arlington National Cemetery (attraction)
  7. United States Capitol (attraction)
  8. The Pentagon (attraction)
3 thanks


answered by
Jim from Washington, DC

Art and museums; you are in luck. In DC all the big museums like the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian museums are free, unlike other cities where they charge. Usually open until 8 or so; ck websites on that. Almost all museums sited within a mile of each other on Mall. (Corcoran Gallery of Art does charge.)You can cover oriental, middle eastern, modern, Euro-American art, U.S. history, National Museum Of The American IndianMuseum of Natural HistoryNational Air and Space Museum. Hiking on C&O canal starts in Georgetown (Washington DC); can also rent bikes there; United States National Arboretum in DC accessible by bike; more serious hiking will require a car for initial access to surrounding national forests etc.


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. National Gallery of Art (restaurant)
  2. Smithsonian (attraction)
  3. Corcoran Gallery of Art (attraction)
  4. National Museum Of The American Indian (attraction)
  5. Museum of Natural History (attraction)
  6. National Air and Space Museum (attraction)
  7. Georgetown (Washington DC) (neighborhood)
  8. United States National Arboretum (attraction)
2 thanks


answered by
Jessica from Washington, DC

Eastern Market (mentioned in a previous post) is a great food destination, especially on a weekend when they have a full farmer's market and flea market outside. 

If you are renting a car, Great Falls (Virginia) is a great hike but it is definitely not metro accessible. 

I would look at the Washington Post's Going Out Guide.  They have a list of free events each week.  I use that all of the time. 


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Eastern Market (attraction)
  2. Great Falls (Virginia) (city)
2 thanks


answered by
Marian from Brooklyn, New York

We loved the Renwick Gallery near the The White House.  It has an amazing sculpture exhibit that is even more amazing if you listen to the artist's video describing their process.  Even our 5 year old grandson liked what he saw!


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Renwick Gallery (attraction)
  2. The White House (attraction)
1 thanks


answered by
Margot from Washington, DC

See a Nationals Ball game if you can, and there will be a host of food trucks outside the ball park. Also, try milling around Georgetown (Washington DC) and the U Street corridor.


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Georgetown (Washington DC) (neighborhood)
  2. U Street (attraction)
1 thanks




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