Tick off our 23 picks for going free in DC.
Catch a band at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage
As DC's performing arts 'memorial', the Kennedy Center would be impressive for its setting alone, on the banks of the Potomac River. But every evening at 6pm, no matter whether or not you're attending a ticketed performance, you can catch a live act at the Millennium Stage. (Where else in the world would you be able to do that?)
Go wild in Rock Creek Park
This 'urban park' 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, ride horses and cycle. The Rock Creek Park Nature Center/Planetarium offers starry experiences (great for kids).
Ride or amble 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.
Don't miss the cherry blossoms 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).
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.
Get lost among masterpieces at the National Gallery of Art
Who needs the Louvre when you've got this extraordinary treasure trove – 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 IM Pei) is chock-a-block with abstract works and a twinkling moving path connects the two buildings underground. Plus there's a sculpture garden.
Walk through history with DC cultural tours
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. (OK, so you name your price here: you pay with whatever tip you can afford.) Or tap into your inner 1865 and head off on a mysterious and conspiratorial jaunt on the popular Lincoln Assassination Night Tour.
Hittin’ the beat at the Drum Circle
Every Sunday at around 3pm, Meridian Hill 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 diverse crowd heads to the park to lounge, enjoy a picnic or just tap to the rhythm.
Power up for a tour of the US Capitol
This is it, folks. The building with the distinctive white rotunda is DC's power-house sanctum (read: where Congress sits). Hour-long tours take you through the hallowed halls of the Capitol – think busts, sculptures and that fabulous dome. To visit, it's best to plan ahead and book a tour online, but you can take your chances and try for a same-day tour pass at the Capitol Visitor Center.
Walk through history with DC cultural tours
Take yourself on a fascinating self-guided neighborhood walking tour, courtesy of Cultural Tourism DC. Their 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.
Immerse yourself in contemporary art 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.
See where it all happens at the White House
Understandably, it's not easy to get into the White House. It's doable if you plan ahead: tickets are available on a limited basis. Chances are best for US citizens, who must request admission through their member of Congress. Overseas visitors, however, have to contact their embassy in Washington (and at the time of writing, several embassies were not assisting travelers). Requests can be submitted up to three months but no less than 21 days in advance. You won't get to cover all 55,000 sq feet (nor all 132 rooms), but you'll rub shoulders with a lot of 'important' ghosts.The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC. Image by John Haslam / CC BY 2.0.
Get down with the US Army Band 'Pershing's Own'
Get into the rhythm (and more) with the US Army Band 'Pershing's Own', the talented and locally renowned musical unit of the US Army. Various ensembles play everything from jazz to chamber music and perform free concerts throughout the year. Many shows require reservations; get your free e-tickets and see the full performance schedule on their website.
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.
Cool off in the greenery 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, over quaint bridges, past deer...you get the picture. 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).
Remember the fallen at the National Mall
The Mall – the 3-mile-plus-long rectangle of lawn, and the city's pride – is packed with more monuments and memorials than there are pieces in a child's Lego set. You can visit everything from the Lincoln Memorial (which receives 5.4 million visitors), National WWII Memorial (4 million), Vietnam Veterans Memorial (3.8 million), the Martin Luther King Jr National Memorial and more besides.
Witness the most important signatures in US history 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.)
Wow your senses at 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.
Immerse yourself in knowledge at the Smithsonian Institution
This one entry officially doubles this freebie list. The Smithsonian comprises 19 museums and galleries (plus the zoo), and all (yes, all!) are free. See www.si.edu for a complete rundown of what's on offer (we're talking 137 million items, of which only around 1% is ever on display).
Shop up a storm at DC's many markets
Sunday shopaholics 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 the Union Market, a funky, contemporary spot where you can buy your lunch from one of the ever-expanding funky foodie pop-up stalls.
Jazz it up among sculptures in summer
Given that jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Shirley Horn cut their teeth in DC it's not surprising that jazz is big here. In fact, locals claim the city is the birthplace of jazz – jazz pioneers used to jam in joints on historic U Street. Swing on in to free performances of salsa, blusion, xylophone and Afrofunk at the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden on summer Fridays (5pm to 8.30pm).
Summons yourself to the Supreme Court
A visit to America's highest court lets you can see justices, clerks, marshals and attorneys strutting their stuff. 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.
Lose yourself in books at the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is to books what Google is to the internet. We're talking 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. (Oh, and the 'fine print'? The collection's smallest book is Old King Cole: it's no bigger than a full stop.)