How to Enjoy Washington, DC for Free!

Capitol - Washington DC

We currently live in the Washington, DC area, and have come to know the US capital well. The famed Smithsonian includes 21 different museums and galleries, and along with the National Zoological Park, comprises the largest collection of free museums in the world. Many of the most important US artifacts are clustered in free museums and galleries along the National Mall, between the US Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. Here’s tips on how to experience the best of Washington, DC for free!

Washington Capitol Tour (Currently closed due to Covid and the January 6th Insurrection)

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!

The US Capital Building in Washington, D.C.

White House

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 White House lawn covered in snow

National Archives

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 Smithsonian 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!

Air and Space

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.

Where to Stay in Washington, DC?

If you’re looking for great hotel value in Washington, DC, you can sometimes find it on weekends, when the business travelers are gone. Weekend rates are sometimes 300% cheaper compared to weekday rates!

Sofitel Lafayette Square is a great luxury stay near the White House, often with much cheaper weekend rates. Located 1,300 feet from the White House in Washington, D.C., this historic hotel features an on-site restaurant and lounge. Offering French comfort food, Opaline Bar and Brasserie is located on site.

One of our favorite DC stays has been at the Hilton Washington, D.C. Capitol Hill. Located in the center of Washington, D.C, the hotel is within 2,800 feet of the United States Capitol Building and Union Station. Some rooms have views of the US Capitol, so it’s worth requesting them!

The Washington Hilton, Features an outdoor courtyard and has views of the capital skyline. This Washington, D.C. hotel is just 1.6 mi from the White House. The District Line Restaurant at the Hilton serves handmade cocktails and local American specialties. A large buffet breakfast is served daily. The Washington Hilton hosts the annual Washington Correspondent’s Dinner is another favorite stay of ours.

Lincoln Memorial

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.

Washington Monument

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. *note the Washington Monument is temporarily closed to visitors. 

Monument and flags


Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial is wonderful during a tour of Washington, DC for free. It draws far fewer crowds than the Lincoln Memorial, which is usually very crowded. 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

Arlington National Cemetary

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 Natural History

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.

More 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.

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  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

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18 thoughts on “How to Enjoy Washington, DC for Free!

  1. Great tips – thanks! I love exploring all the free options in a city, especially when it’s a capital like DC. It’s refreshing to be able to see somewhere considered ‘expensive’ on more of a budget. Good advice about visiting on a weekend, too – and totally the opposite of what I’d have thought! 🙂

    1. Thanks, glad you enjoyed the article, Katie! Yeah, like many American cities, DC hotels can be expensive. But because DC has a large volume of hotels to accommodate business travel (and there’s more lobbyists than ever these days) there are usually plenty of empty rooms on weekends. While DC museums can be busy on summer weekends, many tourists quickly visit while on a road trip and stay elsewhere. So DC is one of the best value weekend destinations in the country. DC’s official tourism site even markets itself as the “capital of free”

    1. Indeed, it’s pretty special to see the original Constitution and Declaration of Independence. And for free, can’t beat it!

    1. Thanks, travelling chingrita. Definitely go back as an adult. Plan a weekend getaway and get loads of additional bang for your buck with the reduced hotel prices!

    1. Thanks, Carolina. Indeed, we’ve had amazing weekend value in DC when we’ve combined leisure with business. One hotel we recommend is the Washington Court Hotel. Some of their rooms have views of the Capitol Building and their rates are sometimes 1/3 the price of what they charge during the week!

    1. Thank you, Gayle! Glad you enjoyed the virtual tour, and hopefully you visit someday in the future!

    1. Indeed, Nikki. DC really is an inspiring place. The founders of the nation brought back Greek revival architecture in full force here, and I often think DC is like a modern day version of what ancient Athens looked like during it’s golden age, during the time of Pericles nearly 2,500 years ago. Happy Travels!

  2. I was in Washington D.C. earlier this year and I loved the fact that everything was free! Even the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum. I would love to go back and see their cherry blossom festival 🙂

    1. Hey deafinitelywanderlust. We would love to visit DC for the cherry blossom festival too! We’ve visited DC in all four seasons the past couple years, and once we even traveled by Amtrak from Boston (we usually fly). Unfortunately, none of our bleisure trips to DC have coincided with the cherry blossoms yet. No doubt a spectacular time to visit!

  3. Great tips, Didn’t realize so many of the museums in DC can be explored for free. Such a great educational opportunity for the kids

    1. Thanks, Privin. Washington, DC is indeed a great value educational opportunity for kids and adults alike!

  4. I can’t believe all of these things are free (or almost free)! Tickets to D.C. are cheap from my city, but I worried that all that sightseeing would add up upon arrival. Pretty impressive that you can climb the Washington Monument for so little, especially when compared with the prices I’ve seen in Paris and Rome. Seems like D.C. would make a good surprise trip, since there isn’t AS much to pay upon arrival.

    1. Glad the article has piqued your interest in a visit to DC! If you can find a cheap plane ticket to visit DC over a weekend, it’s tremendous value given you can spend virtually nothing on so many world class sites. And yeah, it’s something you could sometimes find last minute deals for too. Happy travels!

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