Free Things To Do in Washington, D.C.
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Although the Lincoln Memorial is just one of the District's many monuments, the larger-than-life Honest Abe is also among travelers' favorites. History buffs might enjoy the man of few (albeit powerful) words' two famous speeches, the second inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address, which are both etched into the memorial's opposing walls. Meanwhile, art history and architecture aficionados will enjoy admiring the building's striking design by Henry Bacon, complete with 38 Doric columns, 36 of which signify the states in the Union at the time Lincoln passed away.
Though most agree the Lincoln Memorial is worth checking out during the day or at night, many recent travelers say the most captivating time to visit is after dark when the attraction is lit and less crowded. Plus, evening temps will make peak summer visits more comfortable.
- #2View all Photos#2 in Washington, D.C.0.8 miles to city center0.8 miles to city centerMonuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
One of the most moving war memorials, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – or "the Wall," as it's commonly referred to – is a long black granite wall with the names of more than 58,000 Americans who perished during the Vietnam War emblazoned on its surface. Recent travelers said their visits to the site were heartbreaking but thought-provoking and powerful, adding that even the toughest of individuals will find it hard to not become emotional while reading the wall's names. If you're looking for a specific person, keep in mind that the soldiers' names are ordered by the date they died, not alphabetically. Also, reviewers recommend using the attraction's name books and visiting during the day when there's ample sunlight.
When you're wandering along the eastern side of the Mall, venture to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Paying tribute to the 1.5 million who served in "The Forgotten War," this privately funded site contains 19 stainless steel statues of soldiers in combat. In a triangular area known as the Field of Service, soldier statues march toward an American flag. Next to the soldiers is a 164-foot-long granite wall that pays homage to the unnamed troops that fought in the Korean War. Another highlight of the memorial is the Pool of Remembrance, a tranquil place for reflection. However, some past travelers cautioned that the memorial lacks signage, so younger visitors may not understand as much as those who lived through the war.
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If you've never been to D.C. before, plan to spend some time along the Tidal Basin, a 2-mile-long pond that was once attached to the Potomac River and serves as the backdrop to some of D.C.'s best-loved sites. Every spring, the Tidal Basin bursts with color as cherry blossom trees (gifted to D.C. from Tokyo) bloom into cotton candy-colored tufts, and they attract hordes of visitors. You can follow the path that leads around the basin, but many recent visitors recommended testing the waters in a paddle boat. Paddle boats are available to rent starting March 15 for $18 per hour for a two-passenger boat or $30 per hour for a four-passenger boat. You can pick up a paddle boat every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from March 15 through October 9 from the boat dock near Maine Avenue.
Even if you don't make it to town for the cherry blossoms, you won't want to miss the three memorials that can be found along the Tidal Basin's shores: the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
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Attracting millions of people each year, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum contains a trove of celebrated aircraft, including Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega 5B, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and Wilbur and Orville Wright's 1903 Wright Flyer, among others. Exhibits include a flight simulator, an IMAX theater and the Einstein Planetarium. And parents beware: The three-level gift shop is huge, so get ready for pleas from your kids.
Visitors recommend arriving in the morning to avoid the heaviest crowds, which are sure to pour in, especially once summertime rolls around. Some say parts of the museum are also starting to look worn but insist this is a must-visit site for families and aviation enthusiasts.
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You need to be in the right frame of mind to visit this sobering museum that focuses on the atrocities of the Holocaust during World War II. Upon entering the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, you'll be given an identification card with the name and personal information of an actual person who experienced the Holocaust; as you move through the exhibits – Hitler's rise to power, anti-Semitic propaganda, the horrors of the Final Solution – you'll be given updates on your person's well-being.
Past travelers felt moved by this powerful museum but cautioned that its graphic collection is not ideal for younger children. Many were especially impressed with its informative, thorough and respectful displays, adding that you can easily spend a few hours perusing its halls. Tickets are not needed to visit the museum's permanent exhibit between September and February but are required in the spring and summer and often run out, so consider reserving yours in advance online. Other exhibits and facilities like the Hall of Remembrance, the Survivors and Victims Resource Center, a library, restrooms and a gift shop can be visited year-round without a ticket.
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If you're any kind of art connoisseur, you should make a stop at the National Gallery of Art. Composed of the East Building, which houses the gallery's more modern works (think: Henri Matisse and Mark Rothko), and the West Building, which contains the collection's older works (from Sandro Botticelli to Claude Monet), this museum has enough to fill an entire afternoon; pace yourself and maybe order a coffee, gelato or lunch at one of the gallery's five bars and cafes.
Also, if you're traveling in the summertime on a Friday evening, past visitors recommend heading into the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. for some jazz. Or, travelers suggest catching one of the free concerts offered in the East Building's auditorium and the West Building's East and West Garden courts. The latter are available every Sunday evening from February to June.
- #7View all Photos#7 in Washington, D.C.1.3 miles to city centerEntertainment and Nightlife, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND1.3 miles to city centerEntertainment and Nightlife, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Many travelers highly recommend a visit to The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, built and named for America's beloved Camelot president. The Kennedy Center houses the National Symphony Orchestra, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and the Washington National Opera, as well as a number of other theater and musical performances throughout the year. Although ticket prices run a bit high, you can take in a performance for free on the Millennium Stage.
Past visitors loved taking in a show at The Kennedy Center, adding that the venue's rooftop terrace offers breathtaking views of the Potomac River and the surrounding area. To learn about the theater's history and architecture, recent travelers recommend joining one of the building's free guided tours. Tours are offered several times a day by theater volunteers on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
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With more than 126 million artifacts on display, this robust Smithsonian museum on the National Mall attracts millions of visitors each year. Some of the museum's highlights include tarantula feedings in the O. Orkin Insect Zoo and the replicas of giant whales and other marine life in the 23,000-square-foot Sant Ocean Hall. You can also venture to the Samuel C. Johnson IMAX Theater for a show or the Butterfly Pavilion for some fluttery fun with multi-colored bugs. And no stop at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History would be complete without stopping by the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, which traces the history of human species over the past 6 million years and displays life-size models of early human faces generated using modern forensic techniques. While the museum's famous National Fossil Hall is currently closed while it undergoes renovations, dinosaur fossils can be viewed in "The Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World" exhibit on the second floor.
Although this museum is especially appealing to families, past visitors said there's something for everyone here. However, the property can get quite crowded on weekends, holidays and during the busy summer season, so consider arriving on a weekday or in the offseason if you don't want to rub elbows with crowds. Recent museumgoers also suggested saving some time for the Hope Diamond exhibit.
- #9View all Photos#9 in Washington, D.C.0.1 miles to city centerMuseums, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND0.1 miles to city centerMuseums, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Designed to replicate the three-tiered crowns found in Yoruban art from West Africa, with bronze-colored latticework accents that honor the United States' slave roots, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture opened on the National Mall in 2016. More than 36,000 African American artifacts are displayed inside, including photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a fedora once worn by Michael Jackson.
Though you'll likely get emotional while looking around the property, past travelers said this museum is "phenomenal" and well worth a visit. But remember, this institution is still fairly new, so you'll need to obtain a free timed entry pass. Same-day tickets are available every day at 6:30 a.m., while advance passes for visits that are three months away are released on the museum's ticket page on the first Wednesday of every month at 9 a.m. Both are offered on a first-come, first-served basis until they run out. A limited number of walk-up passes are also handed out on weekdays starting at 1 p.m.
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Construction first began on this massive cathedral – the sixth largest in the world – in 1907, but it wasn't actually completed until 1990. Designed in the Gothic style, the Washington National Cathedral sits surrounded by gardens, creating a pleasant atmosphere for visitors. Take a stroll around the cathedral and peer at its high vaults and flying buttresses, or step inside to admire its intricate glass-stained windows. Another highlight is the cathedral's Gargoyle Tour. This tour – offered between May and September – gives you a chance to gaze up at the building's stony grotesques and gargoyles. (There's even a Darth Vader gargoyle that was appointed in the 1980s along the right-hand side of the northwest tower.)
Recent visitors were wowed by this cathedral's grand architecture and colorful stained-glass windows. If you're religious, consider attending one of the free worship services, which are offered every Sunday at 8, 9 and 11:15 a.m. Evening prayers led by the choir are also available on Sundays at 4 p.m.
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Arlington National Cemetery sits in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The cemetery spans almost 1 square mile and serves as the final resting place for more than 400,000 service members, veterans and their families. Visitors should be sure to spend some time at the Memorial Amphitheater, the John F. Kennedy Gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Additionally, finding the grave of a notable veteran, family member or friend proves to be a powerful experience. The cemetery also has a downloadable app available to help you pinpoint the exact location of a grave.
Previous travelers appreciate the trolley tour from Arlington National Cemetery Tours, but they warn that the excursion is a bit pricey at $15 for adults, $7.25 for children ages 3 to 11 and $11 for seniors ages 65 and older. The tour stops at the top attractions throughout the cemetery, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the John F. Kennedy Gravesite. Be ready for a humbling experience during your visit, and make sure to be respectful as you visit the numerous monuments and wander through the cemetery.
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A popular memorial, the World War II Memorial was dedicated in 2004 to the 400,000-plus Americans who died during the war. A circle of 56 pilings (representing the then 56 U.S. states and territories) looks over the Rainbow Pool. At night, with lights shining, this memorial can be quite ethereal.
Past visitors said they felt inspired after visiting the World War II Memorial. Though you'll rub elbows with other tourists in the spring and summer, previous travelers suggest timing your visit during one of these seasons so you can enjoy the memorial's fountains and waterfalls.
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A treasure trove of the United States' founding documents, the National Archives Museum is high on travelers' to-do lists and almost always has long entrance lines. But once you do get inside, you'll see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, along with one of the surviving copies of the Magna Carta and the Emancipation Proclamation. Other interactive and kid-friendly exhibits fill the museum, which is located off the Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter Metro station on the Green and Yellow lines. Conveniently, the museum is also a popular stop on many of the city's best bus tours.
If you love history, you'll enjoy visiting this museum. Reserving free passes on Recreation.gov's website comes with a service fee of $1.50 per ticket, but travelers say paying for advance tickets will save you from having to wait in a long line to enter. Also, leave your camera in your hotel room since photography is not permitted anywhere inside the building.
- #14View all Photos#14 in Washington, D.C.0.6 miles to city center0.6 miles to city centerMonuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Even if you're only in town for a short trip, visiting the Washington Monument and the White House – two marbleized symbols of the free world – is a must for any first-time D.C. visitor.
At 555 feet and 5 inches, the Washington Monument (at its completion in 1884) was the tallest structure in the world. And nowadays, you can ride one of the monument's glass-encased elevators to the top observation deck to enjoy 360-degree views of the city. You can explore the attraction's exterior for free 24 hours a day, but National Park Service rangers are only available from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. to answer questions. The monument itself is open to visitors every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit the National Park Service's Washington Monument page for more information.
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Arguably the most magnificent building in Washington, the U.S. Capitol is where visitors go to witness politics in action. Inside, members of both houses of Congress debate and create national policy and law, while visitors explore the building's north and south wings and circular centerpiece: the Rotunda. This iconic hall houses paintings, frescoes and sculptures depicting famous scenes from American history, not to mention a 150-year-old cast iron dome.
Touring the Capitol is free of charge, but you'll need to make your reservation well in advance if you want to explore areas of the Capitol outside of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center welcomes visitors Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Inauguration Day), and offers passes available on the day of your visit or online. If you wish to tour the Senate or House of Representatives galleries, you'll need to contact your senator or House representative’s office, respectively, to obtain free passes. If you're planning to visit during peak tourist seasons like spring and summer, same-day tour passes can be difficult to come by, so plan to make your reservations prior to your visit. Though some travelers express mixed reviews on whether the U.S. Capitol warrants the time and effort spent (both making reservations and going on the actual tour), most agree the site is well worth a visit.
- #16View all Photos#16 in Washington, D.C.0.7 miles to city centerMonuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND0.7 miles to city centerMonuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
Located beside the Tidal Basin, this 30-foot-high granite memorial pays homage to civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Everything from its address at 1964 Independence Ave. (a reference to the year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by Congress) to its design (which shows King emerging from the "Mountain of Despair"), are meant to reflect King's significant contribution to American history. What's more, this towering sculpture opened to the public in 2011, making it one of the newest memorials to open in the District. It is also the National Mall's first memorial dedicated to an African American.
Previous visitors raved about this memorial, adding that its powerful symbolism and beautiful design will give you the chills. Plus, the sculpture's close proximity to other memorials and monuments like the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the National World War II Memorial make it convenient to reach. However, some reviewers wished there was more information on King's life and legacy.
- #17View all Photos#17 in Washington, D.C.3.8 miles to city centerMuseums, Parks and Gardens, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND3.8 miles to city centerMuseums, Parks and Gardens, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Located northeast of downtown Washington, D.C., the United States National Arboretum rewards its visitors with beautiful outdoor spaces. The arboretum’s outdoor collections range from dogwoods to azaleas to magnolias, but none of the plants are the area’s primary attraction. Instead, most travelers make the trek here for the National Capitol Columns and its bonsai collection. The National Capitol Columns were built in 1828, decorated the Capitol building until 1958 and found their way to the arboretum in the 1980s. Now, the columns serve as an excellent place to snap photos or enjoy a picnic. The area’s bonsai trees sit in the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, which boasts an astounding 300 miniature trees that staff members rotate through the museum’s three pavilions and special exhibits gallery.
Previous travelers appreciated the U.S. National Arboretum’s bonsai collection and Capitol Columns, but the 446-acre space offers significantly more for nature lovers. Visitors suggest wearing a pair of comfy sneakers and visiting during the spring or summer so that you can best take advantage the arboretum’s numerous winding walking trails and experience peak bloom for its various gardens.
- #18View all Photos#18 in Washington, D.C.0.7 miles to city centerMuseums, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND0.7 miles to city centerMuseums, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
The National Portrait Gallery most notably houses images of every previous president, allowing visitors to reminisce about each political figure as they progress through the increasingly eccentric hall of portraits. The presidential portraits aren’t alone, though, as the National Portrait Gallery also houses notable American citizens ranging from sports figures to civil rights leaders. Not to mention, the National Portrait Gallery only takes up half of the building and shares the space with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This additional attraction showcases rotating exhibits, which means that the Smithsonian American Art Museum could expose visitors to work created in response to the Vietnam War, a gallery for folk and self-taught art or many other displays.
Previous travelers insist that you take a few minutes to enjoy the shared building’s Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, whose glass-paneled roof protects visitors from the elements while maintaining an abundance of natural light. These visitors also recommend that you take a few hours to explore both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as there are a variety of interesting, small exhibits that are easy to miss if you’re in a rush. Dipping in and out for lunch is also an option due to the building’s location in the Chinatown neighborhood.
- #19View all Photos#19 in Washington, D.C.2.9 miles to city center2.9 miles to city centerZoos and Aquariums, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
More than 1,500 animals call the Smithsonian's 163-acre National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute home, from Asian elephants to great apes to sea lions. While here, don't miss your chance to meet the zoo's most popular resident, a baby panda named Bei Bei who was born on Aug. 22, 2015. Also, be sure to look up every now and then as you stroll beneath the Orangutan Transport System (called the O Line): Chances are you'll spot orangutans swinging along cables between eight steel towers. Or, if you're more intrigued by the exotic animals native to South America, head over to the 15,000-square-foot Amazonia exhibit, home to creatures like titi monkeys and yellow-rumped caciques.
Recent visitors praised the zoo's pleasant surroundings and broad selection of species, but they do caution that visitors should set realistic expectations. Though some said the zoo could be more exciting, keep in mind the nearly 400 species are free to visit.
- #20View all Photos#20 in Washington, D.C.0.3 miles to city centerMuseums, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND0.3 miles to city centerMuseums, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
The Freer|Sackler combine to display the majority of the Smithsonian museums’ Asian art. The Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1923 with donations from Charles Lang Freer. The gallery currently showcases American paintings from the aesthetic movement, plus art from China, Egypt, India, Japan, Korea and the Islamic world. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery opened in 1987 in the adjacent building, and it displays Chinese jades and bronzes, as well as international loan exhibitions from Japan and South Korea.
Past visitors particularly appreciated the Freer|Sackler’s Peacock Room, which Charles Freer shipped from London to Detroit, and the Smithsonian subsequently moved to Washington after Freer’s death. The Sackler Gallery’s underground exhibits also serve as a boon for sweltering tourists during the District’s hot summer months, which delighted recent travelers.
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