The President may live here alongside his many diplomats and bureaucrats in their fancy motorcades, but that doesn’t mean you need a champagne budget to visit Washington D.C.
The US Capitol is a fantastic destination for any traveler, particularly those on a budget. For one thing, you can get around a lot of Washington D.C. on foot, and many of the top attractions in Washington D.C are free or cheap to visit.
But if you’re not sure what free things to do in Washington D.C to add to your itinerary, read on!
Top Cheap or Free Things to Do in Washington D.C.
Below are the top free attractions in Washington D.C. for any visitor to the city. Whether you’re visiting with family, friends or by yourself, make sure you don’t miss these top attractions.
1. Visit The Library of Congress (National Archives)
The Library of Congress is where you can see the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the Gutenberg Bible.
It has over 33 million books, along with other historical treasures.
Hot tip: Classical music concerts are offered free throughout the year.
2. Take a Free Walking Tour of D.C.
DC. by foot offer free walking tours of Washington D.C. They have a wide range of tours available, including the signature National Mall tour, Capitol Hill Tour, and a U Street Food Tour.
Walking tours are completely free, and the best thing about them is you explore the city with a local so you not only learn about the history, but the culture of the people and get tips for places to visit, eat and drink.
It’s customary to tip your guide at the end of the tour if you enjoyed the experience, but you can tip however much (or little) you want.
Top tip: You can do your own self-guided walking tour by downloading maps from culturaltourismdc.org (available for your mobile device). The trails cover historic neighborhoods (Adams Morgan, U Street, and Barracks Row) and themes (Civil War to Civil Rights Downtown Heritage Trail). Signs en route feature stories, historic photos, and maps.
3. Explore the Smithsonian Museums
Perhaps the most famous museums in the United States, if not the world, are the Smithsonian Museums. There are several museums in the Smithsonian Institution around D.C, each offering incredible exhibits on history, art, nature, space, art, and more.
You’ll never be without something to learn.
The most famous museums in the franchise are the National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of the American Indian and National Portrait Gallery.
Pop on down to the National Mall and do a museum crawl. It will take you a few days to see them all.
If you’re short on time, I recommend you don’t miss the National Museum of African American History and Culture and National Museum of African Art.
The Air and Space Museum is great for kids as it has a five-story-high IMAX theater screen, planetarium show, Sesame Street Characters reading story times, plus model planes and rocket ships, and many other interactive exhibits.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is also pretty cool, too! Make sure you check out the Renwick Gallery here.
Top tip: another museum you should check out that is not part of the Smithsonian Institute is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
4. Tour the U.S. Capitol Building
You might be surprised and happy to know that you can have a guided tour of the U.S. Capitol for FREE. You do need to make your reservation well in advance from the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.
The tours are about an hour long and are conducted from 8:50 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
5. Tour The White House
Yes, you can visit the White House if you’re traveling to Washington D.C. on a budget. It’s free of charge to tour the White House, but the catch is you have to book really far in advance!
You can book three months in advance, and no less than 21 days in advance.
Tickets are available on a limited, time-slot basis. If you’re visiting from overseas, you must contact your embassy in Washington for a ticket, and US citizens must approach their member of Congress.
It sounds complicated, and it is, but it really is one of the best free things to do in Washington D.C.
6. Visit the Monuments at Sunrise
Washington D.C. has many impressive and historical monuments to see, including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Albert Einstein Memorial, and George Washington Memorial Parkway.
One of our favorite memorials to visit is the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (just in front of the U.S. Capitol). This is a great spot to watch the sunrise over the impressive monuments, and offers a serene sight for self-reflection.
Afterward, you can take a morning walk (or run) along the 2-mile stretch down to the Lincoln Memorial, passing the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial along the way.
Some other memorials to consider visiting are the Korean War Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
7. Trek Down the C&O Canal Towpath
The C&O Path is a dirt and stone path that runs for 184.5 miles along the C&O Canal. It’s a popular spot for visitors of D.C. to walk, run, or bike between Georgetown and Cumberland.
While most people don’t do the whole stretch, you can if you want to as there are campgrounds along the way.
We recommend cycling so you can see more of it. Just choose your segments and take in the beautiful views along the way.
8. Visit the Old Post Office Pavilion
For an inspiring aerial view of the city, visit the Old Post Office Pavilion on12th Street, Pennsylvania Avenue. Guided tours are available from the National Park Service in the USA, but it’s free to enter for anyone who just wants to visit it.
The good news is you do not need to book in advance to see this free attraction in D.C. You just need to go through a security screening.
The Old Post Office is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was built in 1892.
Visitors can take the elevator to the 270-feet level of this 315-foot-tall clock tower and enjoy 360-degree views of downtown DC.
9. Walk Around Georgetown
Georgetown was one of our favorite areas in D.C. We loved wandering the streets to look at the colorful homes and cobblestone streets. It’s cute and has a historic flavor.
There is plenty of shopping here and great places to eat. Be sure to visit Baked & Wired for the best coffee I tasted in D.C.
10. Visit Freedom Plaza
Freedom Plaza is a must-visit attraction in D.C. It’s located across the street from the Willard InterContinental Washington and is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Afterward, you can head over to the Lincoln Memorial to stand where he delivered it.
Make sure you also visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Tidal Basin. The memorial features a statue of the famous civil rights leader flanked by a wall featuring inscriptions of some of Dr. King’s most famous quotes.
11. The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land. It also has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all U.S. federal court cases. In short, this is where laws and history are created.
The building itself is an architectural marvel and worth seeing for its beauty. But if you are interested in American history and politics, make sure to take one of the free 40-minute lectures in the main hall.
The lectures teach you about the history of the court and how the legal system works.
There are no free tours of the courtroom but visitors can take a self guided visit. You just need to make sure you check the website to see when oral arguments are taking place as visitors cannot attend at this time.
12. See the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Located at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery, you can witness a special changing of the guard ceremony.
The tomb is a historic monument that’s dedicated to deceased U.S. service members who were never identified.
The military guard at the tomb is changed in an elaborate ceremony. This takes place all year round, but from October 1 through March 31 the guard changes every hour, and from April 1 through September 30 every half an hour.
While there you can see the grave sites of the Kennedy family.
13. See the Cherry Blossoms
A spectacular photographic natural event if you visit D.C. during the months of March or April is to see the Cherry Blossoms bloom.
These trees only bloom for a week a year, so you do need to time your visit right (sadly, there is no definitive date to when they will bloom – nature like to surprise you!)
The best place to see the Cherry Blossoms is in The Tidal Basin on Potomac River, which has many cherry blossom trees. They were a gift from Japan to the United States.
Their blossoming is marked by a celebration known as the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which includes concerts and fireworks. Be sure to check the website to see when the celebrations are planned for.
14. Tour Honest Abe’s Summer Home
President Lincoln’s Cottage is a national historic site in Washington D.C. and gives an insight into the home life of one of America’s most historic figures.
The museum is located on a 250-acre site and is said to be where Abraham Lincoln made some of his most nation-changing decisions, such as the development of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Learn about what life was like living 150 years ago and get an intimate view of the ideas, thoughts, and decisions of one of America’s former presidents.
15. Check out Black Broadway (U Street)
U Street, also known as “Black Broadway,” is a neighborhood that remains a trove of the capital’s African American history.
It was once a thriving center of African-American culture and an area that sparked social change.
For anyone visiting Washington D.C., you should be sure to educate yourself on American Black History so you can appreciate how significant this area is.
Top Tip: U-Street cafe has coffee starting at $2 and cheap eats.
16. Check Out Cheap Places to Eat and Drink in D.C.
Of course, we can’t forget about the foodies! Finding cheap places to eat in Washington D.C. is not easy, so here’s some recommendations for places to eat:
Ben’s Chili Bowl is home to the original Half Smoke and has inexpensive chili, served with a bit of history.
Little Ethiopia is an area that is highly recommended for cheap food. Pick a restaurant and explore mildly spiced stews served communally on circles of spongy bread.
On Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons, offers a free cultural show: traditional dancing, music and coffee great for groups and families.
The student areas are also where you’ll find cheap food and there are plenty of student areas in D.C. We stayed near Foggy Bottom and found lots of cheap eating places, including our favourite Whole Foods. Georgetown and DuPont Circle are great places to find cheap eats in DC.
D.C. also has many food trucks within the city. Good places to find the food trucks are around C Street, Farragut Square, or Franklin Square.
On Eighth Street SE, a commercial strip known as Barracks Row has had a bar-and-restaurant boom in recent years. There are several places on Barracks Row that will quench that thirst – and at fair prices.
With $4 specials at Balkan restaurant Ambar, half-priced wine at Trattoria Alberto and Zest, and cheap pizzas and beer at the Ugly Mug.
Every Sunday, DuPont Circle hosts FRESHFARM Markets. During peak season, there are more than 30 farmers offering items that include fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish, and baked goods. Samples are always available.
Market hours are 9.00a.m – 1.00p.m, April through December, and 10.00 am – 1.00pm. January through March
Cheap and Free Things to Do with Kids in Washington D.C.
If you’re visiting D.C. as a family, then you’ll want to make sure you have the following attractions on your list.
Kids will enjoy most of the activities and attractions we’ve listed in this guide, but these are specifically for them!
17. The Pilgrim Observation Gallery at Washington National Cathedral
While you do need to pay admission to enter the Cathedral (except for worshipping), it’s one of the most striking buildings in the city.
The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, better known as the Washington National Cathedral, belongs to the Episcopal Church. Construction of the church started in 1907 but it was only completed in 1990.
At the National Cathedral, you must make sure you check out the Pilgrim Observation Gallery which has unobstructed 360-degree views of the city.
The Cathedral sits on one of the highest points in Washington D.C, so you can bet the views here will be incredible.
You can also take part in a scavenger hunt, which is a fun way for kids to learn about the cathedral and see many of its famous sites. Look for stained glass windows, wrought iron animals, tiny carvings and gargoyles.
18. Explore the National Zoo
Visiting the National Zoo is free to enter and is one of the best things to do in Washington D.C. for families. It’s one of the oldest zoos in the U.S. and was founded in 1889. It has 390 species of animals, the most famous being the giant pandas, tigers, and sea lions.
You can see daily programs at the zoo including animal training, feeding demonstrations, and keeper talks. You can also get guided tours for a small fee.
19. Visit the National Geographic Museum
If your kids love traveling and exploring the globe, then a trip to the National Geographic Museum is a must. It features a wide selection of changing exhibitions, where you can learn about world history, cultures and geography through engaging, innovative exhibitions.
You can see examples of Nat Geo’s iconic photography and even see temporary exhibits showcasing world-famous artifacts.
While the museum has an admission fee, 100% of the proceeds support its nonprofit educational, conservation, and scientific work, so you know your money is going to a good cause.
The National Geographic Museum is included in the Washington D.C. Sightseeing Pass, which will save you money on Washington D.C’s top attractions. See what else is included here.
Unique Attractions in Washington D.C.
If you’re looking for some hidden gems or unique things to do in Washington D.C. then be sure to check these out!
20. Watch a Baseball Game at Washington Nationals
Baseball games at Washington Nationals can go for really cheap, you just have to do some research to find the deals.
Alternatively, Stub Hub is a great resource for finding sporting tickets in Washington D.C. for cheap.
21. Jazz in The Park, The National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Arts sculpture garden hosts an open-air jazz festival called ‘Jazz in the Garden‘ every May to July and tickets are reasonably priced.
To save money on food, you can bring your own! Pack a picnic and some drinks, and enjoy the festivities.
There’s sangria available for purchase.
If you enjoy live music and theater, The Cultural Alliance offers half-price, day-of-show tickets to the public for performing arts performances.
22. Watch a Free Outdoor Movie
During the summer months, free outdoor movies in Washington D.C. have become popular and are offered at many places around the region.
You can find free outdoor movies at Adams Morgan Movie Nights, Congressional Cinematery, and Films at the Stone near the Martin Luther King Jr. monument to name a few.
If you enjoy indie movies, you can pay as little as $5 to catch French movies, discussions, and wine tastings at the Alliance Française de Washington.
23. Meridan Hill Park
Head to Meridian Hill Park on Sundays, (weather permitting) between 3 and 9 p.m. to hear the famous drum circle.
For more than 40 years it’s been bringing people together from all different backgrounds to hear drum beats and watch African dancing.
For a hands-on experience, bring your own drum and join in.
24. Take Free Salsa Classes at Cafe Citron
If you love dancing, then you might enjoy a free salsa lesson! Every Wednesday, you can take free salsa classes at Café Citron in Dupont Circle.
Classes run from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m, just bring your dancing shoes and a can-do attitude.
25. See Free Performances at Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center
Catch a free movie or live act on the Millennium Stage every week at Kennedy Center. Every Wednesday and Saturday at 6.00pm, in the Grand Foye, you can watch a free live performance. Or catch the live stream online.
Every Sunday at 3.00pm, you can watch a free film in the Justice Forum or outside in the Reach Plaza.
Even though it’s free, you do need to book tickets. Either visit the box office early or get your tickets online.
26. Chill Out at The National Arboretum
Another free place to visit in Washington D.C. is the National Arboretum, a huge open garden where you can run, walk or have a picnic.
It was built in 1927 by an Act of Congress. It also houses The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.
It’s a relaxing place with a lake, lawns, and The National Capitol Columns, a recognizable landmark in the park.
The gardens are open daily from 8.00am – 5.00pm, except Christmas Day, and are free to enter.
If you love nature and enjoy wandering around green, open spaces, consider checking out Rock Creek Park which is a great place to go for a run or walk.
There’s also of course the United States Botanic Garden for anyone interested in seeing beautiful plants and fauna.
Budget Places to Stay in Washington D.C.
Choosing where to stay in Washington D.C. is no easy task, especially when you’re traveling on a budget. Washington D.C. is a popular tourist attraction, so you can expect your accommodation to be your biggest expense.
However, rates for Washington hotels usually drop in April and August when Congress is away on recess. You can jag a flash hotel for up to 50% off. The Duo Nomad Hostel is a great budget accommodation option for those wanting to stay in the city.
Low-cost hotels are also available on weekends (and less traffic) as the bureaucrats and business people leave the city.
When choosing where to stay, consider staying in North Virginia and taking the Metro to D.C. Wherever you stay, just make sure you book a Washington Hotel that is within walking distance of the Metro.
Cheap or Free Ways to Get Around
The Metro system is the most convenient way to get around the city. A one-day pass to Reagan National Airport for $6.50 can get you everywhere you need to go. Buy after 9:30am.
The Metro offers one-day passes ($14.50) as well as seven-day passes ($59.25 or $36 depending on travel times and trip costs).
Bus 5A is also a very affordable option. From Dulles Airport to L’Efant Plaza station, it’s only $7.
When visiting Great Falls Park, take the C&O Canal Trail for just $5 per vehicle, or $3 a person if you go on a bike.
These 800 acres of beautiful parkland with green space, cascading rapids, and waterfalls are located just beyond the Beltway.
The DC Circulator is another cheap transport option. It offers bus connections between Georgetown, Union Station, the Walter E. Washington Convention Centre, DuPont Circle, the National Mall, and several other popular stops for just $1 per ride, or $3 for an all-day pass.
Of course, there’s always Uber.
A Washington D.C. Sightseeing Pass also includes a Hop on Hop off DC tour which can help you get around. I prefer a day pass over the Flex pass. Check current deals and prices
Washington D.C. Budget
Are you wondering how much a day in Washington DC is going to cost? This table shows a rough estimate of costs to help you plan your trip. All prices are in US Dollars.
|Budget Washington hotels||100|
|Metro day pass||14.50|
|Light breakfast and coffee||10|
|Lunch: food trucks||8|
|Happy hour drinks||10|
|Dinner in a casual restaurant||20|
Summary on Cheap or Free Things to Do in Washington D.C.
Wow, isn’t there a crazy amount of free or cheap things to do in Washington D.C? I bet you were shocked to learn how much you can see without needing to break the bank.
Of course, there are some attractions that cost money, but hopefully, this list helped you add a few budget-friendly activities to your itinerary.
We hope you have an incredible time in Washington D.C.
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Do you have any tips for free things to do in Washington D.C. Share them in the comments!