Don’t you love it when you find out something you’d be willing to pay for is actually free? It’s a rare treat when it comes to tourist attractions, as most major must-dos around the world burn holes consumers’ pockets. However, Washington DC is a bit of an exception to that rule. In fact most of the main monuments, museums, memorials, galleries and historical/cultural venues in the city are completely free of charge (or, rather, taxpayer-funded). Don’t kid yourself, the US capitol should not be considered a budget-friendly destination – your food, lodging and taxi bills will take care of that misconception. However, you do get a break when taking in many national treasures and public spaces, so you can plan several days worth of outings without depleting your wallet. Check out this list of over 15 major sights and things to do DC that don’t cost a cent. Call it the land of the free!
1. Explore the Three Branches of Government
Want to see the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government in action? The Capitol, Supreme Court and even the White House are free to visitors, with a few caveats. You can’t just mosey into the Oval Office to photobomb the president, of course. In fact, the White House is the most restricted one of the three to access in this post-9/11 era. However, if you write to your Member of Congress or your country’s Embassy in Washington DC 21 days to six months in advance, you may be able to secure a spot on a White House tour. Visiting the Capitol – even watching Congress in session – is also free, but passes are required. Book online at www.visitthecapitol.gov. This impressive government building is like a living history museum, full of art, sculpture and necoclassical architecture, including winding halls, secret tunnels and that iconic dome. The Supreme Court doesn’t offer guided tours, but you are free to walk around the hallowed halls and attend oral arguments, with limited first-come first-served seating.
2. Peruse the Presidential Monuments
Almost everyone who comes to Washington has the National Mall on their roster. Within this two mile green-space are four must-see monuments to past presidents, all free and open 24 hours a day. Right in the center is the George Washington Monument, the world tallest stone structure at 555 feet. A limited number of free tickets to the top of this obelisk are available each day. At the western point sits the Lincoln Memorial, an enormous marble likeness the 16th president seated within a columned temple. If Abe was to stand up, he’d be 28 ft tall – and that’s without his stovepipe hat. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is towards the south tip of the Mall on the shores of the Tidal Basin. The bronze likeness of this Founding Father stands under a dome flanked with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. It’s especially impressive when lit up at night or during cherry blossom season in March and April. Mid-way between Jefferson and Lincoln is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which features four outdoor galleries and ten bronze statues depicting 12 years of FDR’s presidency. Stop by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial just north of here while you’re making your making your monumental rounds.
3. Pay Respects at the War Memorials
While you stroll around the National Mall soaking in the art, nature and history, you’ll want to stop by the moving war memorials scattered throughout the park. You’ll find the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the National World War II Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial all positioned around the rectangular Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Each one of these DC sights honors the millions of Americans who served or sacrificed their lives in the armed forces throughout the major wars of the 20th century. They are open for viewing 24/7 and free of charge.
4. Go Museum Crazy at the Smithsonian
The National Mall holds even more free and fabulous attractions through multiple museums of the Smithsonian Institution. There’s the National Museum of American History, The National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum and the American Indian Museum, for starters, and plenty more scattered throughout the city. All in all, there are 19 Smithsonian museums, galleries, sculpture gardens and parks within Washington housing over 142 million eclectic items including the Hope Diamond, the Apollo lunar landing module, an 80 ft. dinosaur skeleton, the original Star Spangled Banner, Lincoln’s top hat, the Fonz’ leather jacket and Dorthy’s ruby slippers. You’d need a lifetime to explore it all, so save yourself the overwhelm and just hone in on a few highlights at a time. The rest can wait for subsequent visits to Washington.
5. Monkey Around at the National Zoo
The National Zoo is also part of the Smithsonian’s offerings but it deserves it’s own special mention here because it’s rare to find a world-class zoo that doesn’t cost a penny to visit. The giant pandas are the big attraction, but over 2,000 animals of 400 different species are also represented, including many endangered or threatened creatures. One of the highlights is the overhead cable system where free-swinging orangutans traverse around the park. Go early to avoid crowds and catch the animals at their best.
6. Catch a Concert at the Kennedy Center
Enjoy a free 1 hour performance every evening at the Kennedy Center. This is more than just your standard concert in the park. The Millennium Stage attracts local, national and international musicians, dancers and performers of exceptional talent. Not only do you get to take in a fabulous concert for free, you can then head to the terrace afterwards to snap a million dollar view over the Potomac.
7. View the Originals at the National Archives
Pouring over old manuscripts isn’t on most people’s top list of holiday fun, but the National Archives holds America’s biggies. You don’t have to be a history buff to feel a little humbled in the presence of the original US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence – big John Hancock signature and all. It’s just something “we the people” should see when in DC, whether you’re American or not. The fact that it’s all free for the viewing just sweetens the deal. Over three billion records are kept here, and many people use it for research into their family histories.
8. See Lincoln’s Box Seat at Ford’s Theater
It seems slightly macabre to gawk at the spot where President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth back in 1865, but history buffs might enjoy hearing tales of this fateful night from the park rangers that operate the Ford’s museum. If you want to catch a play at this working theater, you’ll have to shell out for a ticket, but popping in for a look-see visit is free. Across the street is the Peterson House, where Lincoln succumbed to his gunshot wound, also free to visitors.
9. Roll in Dough at The Bureau of Engraving and Printing
No, they won’t exactly let you roll in, touch or take any money here, but it is interesting (and free!) to tour of the moneymaking machines that supply America’s currency. In this quick tour you’ll learn about the evolution of money and see sheets and sheets of bills rolling off the presses. Apparently it’s not considered “real” money until it’s handed over to the Federal Reserve.
10. Gaze at the Masters at the National Gallery of Art
This treasure trove of art and sculpture is where you’ll find America’s only Da Vinci painting, Ginevra de’Benci. There’s also Gaugin’s Self Portrait, Vermeer’s A Lady Writing a Letter and an extensive array of Italian Renaissance, Impressionis and 20th century masterpieces from artists like Botticelli, Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rodin and Degas. Located in the National Mall, many people assume the National Gallery is part of the Smithsonian, but it’s not. It is, however, free to enter just like the many impressive Smithsonian galleries throughout DC (including the Sackler, Hirshhorn and National Museum of African Art). You can certainly get your fill of artistic culture in this town.
11. Check out the Books at the Library of Congress
You can’t literally check out books to take home, but this enormous library holds 36 million volumes of printed materials shelved on 838 miles of stacks in three Capitol Hill building and basically comprises the world’s most comprehensive record of human creativity and knowledge. The stacks are off-limits, so you can’t just peruse the shelves looking for some light reading material. It’s more of a research facility for scholars and Congress, but anyone 16 years and over can access materials to read on the premises. You’re welcome to walk around or take a free guided tour to see the Great Hall, the Visitor’s Gallery and the Main Reading Room. See one of the world’s remaining copies of the Gutenberg Bible circa 1455, or a first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The library’s Thomas Jefferson Building with its marble floor, columns, staircases, mosaics, paintings and stained glass ceiling is one of the most impressive public buildings in the country.
12. Stroll the C & O Canal
Among the many free parks and trails to enjoy around Washington, this one is particularly noteworthy. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal runs 185 miles through Maryland and the District of Columbia. Pop down almost any side street in the charming Georgetown area to find the canal trail. You can stroll, bike or jog along the bank all the way to Cumberland, Maryland, but most people only go as far as Bethesda.
13. Give Regards to the Bard at the Folger Shakespeare Library
The Brits might not like to admit it, but this DC library contains the worlds finest collection of the Bard’s manuscripts and related materials, including a 1623 First Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays. It also houses an Elizabethan-style theater that stages Shakespearean and other Renaissance playwrights’ productions. Exhibits, lectures and performances are all free and well worth a look for any fan.
14. Ruminate at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
You’ll find America’s official memorial to the Holocaust just south of the National Mall. It opened in 2008 contains around 13,000 artifacts, 50 million documents, 80,000 historical photographs, 1,000 hours of archival footage, 84,000 library items, and 9,000 oral history testimonies. The museum aims to help leaders and citizens confront hatred, prevent genocide, promote human dignity and strengthen democracy around the world. One exhibition is designed to sensitively explain the Holocaust to elementary and middle school children. It’s a somber yet important museum to experience.
15. Reflect at Arlington National Cemetery
Just across the river in Virginia is the final resting place of over 300,000 American war veterans and dignitaries. Here you’ll find the grave of John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie and sons, marked by an eternal flame. Brother Bobby lies nearby. You’ll also find Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where a changing of the guard happens every half hour or hourly, depending on the season. The Robert E. Lee Memorial/Arlington House is also here. Just outside you’ll find the famous Iwo Jima/Marine Corp War Memorial statue. It should go without saying, but the National Cemetery is not the place for a mad-dash photo-op, but a solemn area for respect and quiet contemplation.