Washington, DC for Free: Exploring the Nation’s Capital on a Budget

Posted on Thursday, November 15, 2018

Washington, DC is known for being an expensive city, but there’s actually a tonne to do in this wonderful city that’s completely free. In fact, you can build your entire itinerary around the free things to do in DC so you don’t need to spend a penny on activities. Below I’ve broken down a list of free things to do, as well as my take on paid activities to help you plan the most affordable DC vacation.

Free DC-Specific Activities

Memorials. A nice thing about walking around in DC is that there are memorials all around and of course they require no entrance fee. You can see the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, World War II Memorial, and many more in the historic DC Mall.

Take a tour of the White House. It’s a bit of a process to book a tour of the White House but it can be done with planning, and it is free.

Tour the Capitol. Yes, tours of the Capitol are free, as well.

See the Library of Congress. Going inside the Library of Congress and taking a tour is free, as well.

Visit the Supreme Court. It’s true; you can visit the US Supreme Court for free.

See the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. See all these and more at the National Archives Museum.

Free Museums

Washington, DC does a lot of things, but free museums are one of its specialties.

My personal favourites are the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the Native America, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Freer-Sackler (Asian art), and the National Gallery of Art. Yes, all of those are free, all the time.

Locals’ favourites also include the Air and Space Museum and the Renwick Gallery. All free, all close, all very doable on your trip.

And no, I’m not done listing all the free museums.

You can also see the National Portrait Gallery, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Hirshhorn (sculpture), the Phillips Collection (art), the National Museum of African Art, and the U.S. Botanical Garden – for free.

Free Events

The Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Centre has free performances daily, which are quite popular. You can also stop by Eventbrite and Facebook to see what’ll be going on when you’re in the area.

Paid Activities

In my humble opinion: The Spy Museum is pretty fun if you don’t mind paying the $22 entrance fee. It’s definitely a specialty museum.
The Newseum is also pretty interesting but unless there’s an exhibit you want to see, there’s nothing too special about the museum. You can get the same information at other places for free rather than pay $25 to see it at the Newseum. I’d say skip it.
The National Geographic Museum is worth seeing if the exhibit is something that interests you. They do a fantastic job with their exhibits.
Ford’s Theatre has a museum that’s a must-see for history and Lincoln assassination enthusiasts, and it’s not a bad price to see it. However the theatre looks nothing like it did the night Lincoln was shot, so rather than seeing a performance there, just pay the $5 or so to stop in and see the President’s box.

Other Ways to Save

As always, you can save money by looking for cheap flights and accommodation; my eBook on budget travel should help with that. Transit within DC is a few dollars from point A to B, so it’s not incredibly expensive unless you use it a lot. I highly recommend walking since the city’s rather small, and the tourist areas condensed.

Food and outings are generally quite expensive and there’s no real alternative to that other than fast food. I’d recommend saving extra money and put it towards any restaurants and any clubs or paid events you’d like to attend.
Since DC does have a tonne of great restaurants and events, I’d recommend splurging at least once on those things since it would be a shame to miss out on them. Groupon is really popular so you can also check out deals there to save on your trip, as well.

Have you ever been to Washington, DC? How much did you end up spending or saving?

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