24 Free or Cheap Things to Do in Washington, D.C.
Closed for three years to add security and fix a troublesome elevator — important in a 555-foot obelisk! — the Washington Monument reopened Sept. 19 to tourists no doubt frustrated to come to the National Mall and find one of its most iconic attractions off-limits. The monument was built to honor George Washington in two phases: by private citizens from 1848 to 1854 and taken over by public fundsfrom 1876 to 1884 after a joint resolution by Congress. When it was complete, it was the tallest building in the world (though the designer actually intended for it to be 600 feet), and its first elevator took up to 12 minutes to reach the top. There are first-come, first-served free tickets available every day, and reserved tickets by calling or visiting the monument website.
National Museum of African American History & Culture
More than 2.5 million visitors have passed through the doors of the Smithsonian Institution's newest museum since it opened in September 2016. This is the hottest ticket in town, with passes snapped up months in advance — but it's free, and same-day passes are available.
The National Mall is home to many of the city's most iconic monuments, and it doesn't cost a dime to visit. From the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, visitors can soak up highlights of the nation's history within a two-mile span.
Visitors can see giant pandas and play at the kids' farm for free at the National Zoo. Open 364 days a year, the zoo can easily entertain young and old alike for an entire day.
Learn more about the nation's political system at the center of the action. Free hourlong tours of the Capitol give visitors access to the crypt, the National Statuary Hall, and the Capitol Rotunda, with its unique art. This is a popular attraction, though, so it's best to reserve a spot ahead of time.
Arlington National Cemetery
Home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame, the cemetery across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, has enormous historical resonance. The gravesites of 300,000 American soldiers are a reminder of the sacrifices made throughout the nation's history.
A free White House tour takes some planning. Contact your congressional representative for tickets at least three weeks before your trip. Reservations can be made up to three months ahead, so book early.
National Air and Space Museum
The most hands-on of the Smithsonian museums, the Air and Space Museum is a must-see for adults and kids. Admission is free to the enormous collection of historical planes and rockets, and all kinds of educational activities and events.
The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, designed to make the performing arts accessible to everyone, is the venue for free performances daily at 6 p.m.
National Gallery of Art
Visitors can wander the gallery on their own, taking in such pieces as Leonardo da Vinci's "Ginevra de' Benci," or take a free tour with one of the gallery's many docents. Guides can assist young families with games and highlights aimed at children 4 and older.
Cherry Blossom Festival
The National Cherry Blossom Festival is held in late March and early April. The spectacular cherry trees at the center of the celebration were a gift to the United States in 1912 from Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people now attend the annual festivities, which typically includes fireworks, a parade, and a kite festival.
U.S. Botanic Garden
The exhibits are always changing at this living plant museum. For no cost, visitors can explore the beautiful landscape of the Conservatory, the National Garden, and Bartholdi Park every day of the year.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Millions of dollars are printed right before your eyes at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. A short film explains U.S. currency and a free gallery tour (tickets required) explores the production process. The tour and visitor center is undergoing renovations through spring 2019, although tours will continue throughout.
Rock Creek Park Nature Center
The Nature Center is the first stop for visitors to Rock Creek Park, a natural area in northwest D.C. Ranger-led programs and some of the park's shorter trails begin at the center, where visitors can find trail maps, a planetarium, and a children's discovery room.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery holds paintings of all the U.S. presidents, as well as famous poets, activists, athletes, and a long list of others who have influenced American history. At no cost, visitors can explore at their own pace.
Anyone who is interested in American history should take the opportunity to see the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. They are all under one roof at the National Archives, and access is free.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
The home of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass is in Anacostia, a historic neighborhood in southeast D.C. Access to this National Historic Site and a guided tour cost $1.50 for each reserved ticket and $5 for an entire school group.
Library of Congress
In addition to the vast book collection, some of the most interesting pieces of American culture are at the Library of Congress, which has no entry fee. The library's exhibits include Bob Hope's 85,000-page joke file and the 1908 sheet music for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
The Arboretum, established in 1927, is free to the public. The gardens are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and were designed for scientific research and education — but the grounds are lovely, and it maintains a full calendar of public events.
Saturday Morning at the National
Saturday mornings at the National Theatre are dedicated to kids ages 4 to 10, with performances at 9:30 and 11 a.m. Free tickets can be reserved online a week ahead. Or get there early for the limited number of walk-up tickets distributed 30 minutes before each show.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
This museum hosts permanent and special exhibits about the horrific events of the Holocaust. There is no entry fee, although timed tickets are required March 1 to Aug. 31. If advance tickets aren't available, visitors can try for same-day tickets online or in person.
Sundays in Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park
The beautified Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park in Columbia Heights has hosted a drum circle every Sunday (weather permitting) for four decades, inspiring dance and — more recently — a thriving scene of circus artists who juggle, do tightrope walking and demonstrate impressive hula-hooping and human-pyramid skills. While not everyone is happy to see this event become a tourist attraction, it's still a peaceful way to picnic and enjoy a community.
The National Cathedral
There's a surprising number of things to do and see at the National Cathedral, which overlooks the city from a perch near the U.S. Naval Observatory. Along with appreciating the more traditional aesthetics — from the overall gothic architecture to the 10,000-piece rose window — it's also fun to go hunting among the hundreds of unique gargoyles, which include a "yuppie" gargoyle holding a briefcase, carved in 1975-76, and a 1986 gargoyle of Darth Vader (find it on the "dark side").