The city of Washington, DC, is my favorite juxtaposition – an incredibly expensive city with a myriad of free things to do.

Yes, you may have heard horror stories of vacation bills that just keep climbing, but you don't need to bust your bank account with fine dining and exclusive bars. With my insider tips and some planning, you can have an incredible time in the US capital without even opening your wallet.

Save your budget for accommodations and special meals – this is how you can see the best of DC for free.

1. Marvel at Cherry Blossoms from a less frequented spot

Early spring means streets and parks filled with cherry blossoms and lots of eager crowds. Ditch the touristy Tidal Basin and head to Hains Point in East Potomac Park for fewer crowds and even more trees.

Local tip: Catch a free ride across the channel to Hains Point on the District Wharf Jitney. It's only a five-minute journey, but it will give you a nice view of the blossoms on the water before you reach your destination.

2. Visit a lesser-known but still wonderful museum

The Smithsonian Institution has 17 museums, galleries and the National Zoo. And yes, they are all free to visit. Get off the beaten path and explore lesser-visited museums like the National Postal Museum, where you don't have to be a philatelist (fancy word for stamp collector) to marvel at the world's most extensive stamp collection. Amelia Earhart's flight suit also lives here. Fun fact: She sold postal souvenirs to help finance her round-the-world adventures.

3. Attend a unique Smithsonian Event

No one throws an event quite like the Smithsonian Institution. If you're visiting DC, try to coordinate your dates with some of their happenings. A fan favorite is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an exciting five-day event aiming to preserve unique and diverse traditions through larger-than-life exhibitions on the National Mall.

If jazz music is your rhythm, enter the lottery for The National Gallery of Art's Jazz in the Garden summertime concert series. It's worth it.

Theodore Roosevelt Island Park gates in fall.
Escape the political whirlwind on a walk through Theodore Roosevelt Island Park © Getty Images / iStockphoto

4. Envelop yourself in nature at Theodore Roosevelt Island

One of the true gems of the city is the tiny but mighty Theodore Roosevelt Island. The 88.5-acre island sits on the banks of the Potomac River and is a beautiful tribute to the 26th President. Here, you'll find easy walking trails, like the 1.5-mile-long Swamp trail, and peaceful refuge from the busy city just minutes away.

Local tip: This is a popular spot for biking, walking and kayaking, so parking here can be limited. The island is only a short 15-minute walk from the Rosslyn Metro Center or a quick hop across the Key Bridge from Georgetown.

5. Catch a riveting performance at Millenium Stage

You haven't witnessed grandeur until you've seen a performance at The Kennedy Center, and I have some good news for your wallet: their cherished Millennium Stage has been whipping out free, inspiring performances to visitors since 1997. Greats like Chaka Khan and Norah Jones have graced the stage here.

The Kennedy Center offers a limited number of advanced reservation tickets, but you can always try to grab tickets at the box office before the performances.

Local tip: It's close to the metro but a bit of a walk, so use the free Kennedy Center metro shuttle from the Foggy Bottom/GWU station.

6. Watch animals play at the National Zoo

Although our beloved pandas have left us, don't let that deter you from exploring the extensive 163-acre zoo's exhibits and exciting creatures. Be sure to look up as you browse to catch Orangutan Redd and Iris (amusingly named after the IRS) swinging across the famous O-line overhead. Reserve your free passes on the National Zoo website.

Local tip: Woodley Park metro may be the closest stop, but it's all uphill to the Zoo. Instead, exit one stop later at Cleveland Park for a more manageable walk.

7. Tour the ins and outs of the Capitol Building

Catch a glimpse of the Pantheon-inspired Rotunda or a gifted replica of the Magna Carta on a tour of DC's most important building. The US Capitol Visitor Center recommends scheduling these tours in advance, but same-day tours are almost always available. Keep your eye out for a member of Congress at work (they're almost always around), identifiable by a tiny gold pin on the lapel of their businesswear.

Local tip: US residents can get a VIP in-depth Capitol tour by booking through their Congressional representative.

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

8. Peruse through the world's largest library

The Library of Congress boasts several titles, including being the oldest federal cultural institution in the Nation. You cannot pass up the opportunity to peak into the exclusive Main Reading Room, which is now selectively open to the public. Be sure to reserve your free-timed entry pass before your visit.

Local tip: If you're planning on visiting both the Capitol and the Library of Congress, use the unique underground tunnel that connects the two; that way, you only go through security once.

9. Meditate amongst the trees at the National Arboretum

DC is known as the "City of Trees," and the US National Arboretum can attest to that. Check out the one-of-a-kind Bonsai and Penjing Museum, where you can meditate amongst expertly shaped bonsais from China and Japan and make a photo stop at the retired and mighty National Capitol Columns.

10. Visit the home of the father of the Civil Rights Movement at Cedar Hill

Frederick Douglass dedicated his life to fighting for freedom and equality for African Americans. You can visit his former DC home, Cedar Hill, across the river in Anacostia. Guided ranger tours can be reserved for a small fee of $1 per ticket (not required but recommended), but unreserved tickets are free to the public.

Shoppers browsing in the Eastern Market in Washington, DC
It's free to wander, but good luck resisting the urge to splurge at Eastern Market © cdrin / Shutterstock

11. Get a taste of local flavor and flare at Eastern Market

Weekends at Eastern Market are a local favorite – you'll find eclectic vendors offering everything, from knickknacks and skincare to local produce from DC-area farmers. Oh, and there's a flea market. It's free to peruse, but don't fight the temptation to buy something – just lean into it.

12. Admire the view from the top of the Old Post Office Tower

If I told you the back entrance to a luxury hotel reveals one of the best viewpoints of DC, would you believe me? The Old Post Office has worn many names over the years, from office buildings to iconic hotels. The federal government maintains the Old Post Office Tower, so the famous lookout remains open to the public. Just be sure to enter through 12th St. Here, you'll find a 270-foot observation deck promising 360-degree views of DC's most iconic landmarks.

13. Watch planes soar overhead at Gravelly Point Park

DC's closest airport is Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, and adjacent to the runway is a planespotters' dream: Gravelly Point Park. Here, you can view planes take off and land right above your head and watch them soar over the Potomac River.

Local tip: Try biking or walking to Gravelly Point on the Mt. Vernon trail. It's a great way to avoid the lack of parking, and there are plenty of picnic tables and food trucks here.

The Lincoln Memorial illuminated at night.
Escape the summer heat and go sightseeing at night © Veni / Getty Images

14. View the monuments by moonlight

To beat the crowds, enjoy a blissful night stroll around the tidal basin and along the Potomac to see stoic monuments like the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial and Lincoln Memorial truly shine under the moonlight. In the summer months, it's an excellent way to beat the heat.

Local tip: Download the National Park Service app to access free self-guided tours of the National Mall and Monuments.

15. Get an inside look at the White House

Visiting the first family's residence takes a bit of prior planning and luck, but it can happen. US citizens can contact their Congressman to check their availability for upcoming White House tours. Foreign residents can contact their local embassy to see if a visit is possible during their stay. Tours must be requested between 21-90 days before your potential visit.

16. Stroll through the gorgeous US Botanic Gardens

How often can you say you visited the oldest continuously operated botanic gardens in the US? The US Botanic Gardens – once just a dream of the US founding fathers – has grown into an extensive collection of hundreds of vibrant orchids, a medicinal plant garden, and a mystical forest encased in a rather balmy 93-foot dome.

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

17. Feel the rhythm at Meridian Hill Park

Locals refer to this sprawling green space in the heart of Northwest as Malcolm X Park. Every Sunday, you'll find a historic drum circle that started in the 1960s as a celebration of Black liberation. The tradition has a strong community feel, and you're welcome to spectate or participate.

18. Dive into the history of one of DC's most iconic neighborhoods

Amongst the cobblestone streets, rowhouses and the infamously long Georgetown cupcake line lies a rich history. Uncover the story with a "pay what you want" historic walking tour of Georgetown provided by Free Tours by Foot. Spot historic homes of former presidents and learn about Cold War spies.

Explore beyond Georgetown with our insider's guide to DC's best neighborhoods

19. See a different side of DC on the Anacostia River Walk

This 12-mile-long path meanders adjacent to the Anacostia River, providing gorgeous views of the newly unveiled Frederick Douglass Bridge. Be sure to make a stop by Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens – depending on the season, you may catch stunning, colorful lilies in bloom.

Local tip: A great place to start your River Walk journey is the waterfront in the Navy Yard neighborhood. Grab a scoop from locally-owned Ice Cream Jubilee before heading out.

Keep planning your trip to Washington, DC:

Find the best times to visit
Getting around DC is easier than you think – here's how
These experiences should be on your DC itinerary 
These day trips are all less than two hours from DC

This article was first published Nov 30, 2017 and updated Apr 2, 2024.

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