We frequently visit Washington, D.C. for work, so we’ve gotten to know America’s capital well. The famed Smithsonian is actually 19 different museums and galleries, and along with the National Zoological Park, they comprise the largest collection of free museums in the world. Many of the most important historical US artifacts are clustered in free museums and galleries along the National Mall, between the US Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. Here’s advice on how to experience the best of Washington, DC for free!
Washington Capitol Tour
Free tours of the beautiful US Capitol building are available Monday through Saturday via the US Capitol Visitor’s Center. You can also organize a tour through your House representative or Senator’s office. It’s good PR for them and free for you, so if you know when you’re going, utilize this! Tours of the Capitol building are not available on Sundays, so plan accordingly!
You have to at least take a stroll by the White House. It’s beautiful anytime of year. You can also organize a free tour of the White House through your Congressman, and you need to request it a minimum of 3 weeks in advance. To be on the safe side, request your White House tour as early as 3 months in advance if you know your dates of travel.
The National Archives house all Congressional laws and other important records and documents. The original US Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights are all housed here, in a beautiful room, right next to each other. If you visit during a weekday, you might have the room practically to yourself to closely examine the faded signatures of John Hancock and other “founding fathers.”
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
This is one of the best and most popular free museums in Washington, DC for both adults and children. The National Air and Space Museum features a massive collection of aircraft and space memorabilia. One of the biggest highlights here is the lunar module, which Neil Armstrong emerged from to be the first man to step foot on the moon!
National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History is where you can view the original star spangled banner. This is the American flag that was raised at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, after a crucial victory over the invading British during the War of 1812, inspiring the famous anthem by Francis Scott Key. The museum offers a lot of insight into American life, both past and present.
Many historians consider Abraham Lincoln America’s greatest president because his administration kept the union together, while abolishing slavery. The Lincoln Memorial, impressive in itself, also offers a dramatic view of the Washington Monument across the National Mall. “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” are the words inscribed above the famous statue of Lincoln.
Go to the top of the Washington Monument for an amazing view of the city. Visitors can pre-book tickets for just $1.50 or take a chance by just showing up (not advised during peak tourism season). If you don’t climb it, you get wonderful views of the landmark from the US Capitol Building on one side of the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial on the other side.
The Jefferson Memorial is wonderful during a tour of Washington, DC for free. It generally draws far fewer crowds than the Lincoln Memorial which is usually packed with people. You can also get a great 360 degree view of America’s 3rd president and influential founding father, with stunning views of DC from its marble steps. While Jefferson was an outspoken critic of slavery, he owned many slaves and even fathered children with them.
National Zoological Park
Not only is the National Zoo free, it’s also home to several pandas! Pandas are rare big ticket items and are expensive for zoos to purchase or rent. In addition to pandas, the National Zoo is home to other endangered animals including orangutang, gorillas and more. It’s a fantastic zoo and it’s wonderful to stroll through without any ticket windows or even security (for now).
Arlington National Cemetery
The Arlington National Cemetery rests just across the beautiful Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia. While technically not in Washington, DC the cemetery can easily be reached via the DC metro’s blue line. This is the national cemetery for US armed forces. Among the highlights here are the tomb of President John F. Kennedy and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The cemetery also offers stunning panoramic views of Washington, DC.
National Museum of Natural History
One of the best museums while touring Washington, DC for free. Major highlights of the National Museum of Natural History include dinosaur fossils, mummies and one of the world’s best collections of precious gems. The famous Hope Diamond has lived here since Harry Winston donated it to the museum in 1958.
National Museum of the Native American
The National Museum of the Native American highlights the continents original inhabitants. You’ll not only learn about the history of various tribes, but you’ll also learn about important modern day contributions of Native Americans. They also have the best cafeteria of all the Smithsonian museums featuring tasty Native American foods like traditional fried bread, corn totopos and contemporary items with a native twist, like buffalo burgers.
Final Tips on Experiencing Washington, DC for Free
Often there are lines on weekends in the warmer months to see the most famous artifacts, so arrive early for what you’re most interested in. There’s so much more to consider, so be sure to look over the full collection of Smithsonian museums and galleries. You should also consider a Supreme Court tour and the amazing Library of Congress, that includes the private book collection of Thomas Jefferson.
Asides from so many wonderful free attractions, you can get excellent hotel deals in DC on most weekends because the majority of DC travel is business related. So DC hotel prices, at great centrally located hotels, often drop by 300% on weekends compared to weekday rates!
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