Top 25 Free Things to Do in Washington, D.C.

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Few U.S. cities reward the frugal traveler as much as the nation’s capital. While it's true that hotels and restaurants don’t offer much respite from big-city prices, Washington, D.C., is teeming with historic sights that won’t empty your pockets. From the bustle of the Capitol and the National Mall, to the tranquility of Arlington National Cemetery and the Tidal Basin, to countless world-class museums, D.C. combines the best of America with a distinct international flavor. Here are 25 of the district’s top sights that come free of charge.

By Abbey Chase

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Museums

Thanks in large part to the Smithsonian Institution, Washington is absolutely stuffed with some of the country’s best museums, all of which are free to the public. Endowed by a donation from James Smithson in 1846, the Smithsonian is responsible for ten of D.C.’s top museums, including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, and the National Postal Museum, as well as several galleries.

Other free museums include the National Gallery of Art and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. On the other side of town, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, you’ll find the Anderson House, headquarters of the prestigious Society of the Cincinnati.

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The White House

Home to the First Family, the nation’s most famous address needs no introduction. Construction on the White House began in 1792 and has been the residence of every president since John Adams moved in in 1800. Several expansions and restorations over the years have altered the footprint, but the neoclassical façade looks much as it did in James Hoban’s original design. Earlier this month, the White House announced photos would now be permitted on tours of the famous estate. Tours can be arranged through the office of your congressmen and run Tuesday through Saturday at select times. Check the White House's website for more information.

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National Mall and Memorial Parks

Forming the spine of the city, the National Mall is one of the most picturesque and landmark-filled strolls in the country. The Lincoln Memorial stands tall at the west end of the Mall, which stretches for 1.9 miles to the steps of the Capitol. Punctuated by the Washington Monument in the middle, the Mall is lined with several commemorative monuments, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and other memorials recognizing service to the country. The site of many important protests and presidential inaugurations, the Mall functions as a work of public art, a space for its many commemorations, a public park, and a stage for national civic engagement.

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Gardens

D.C. is dotted with several gardens interspersed among its many neoclassical and Georgian facades. The U.S. Botanic Garden, its most recognizable feature being the Lord & Burnham conservatory, is spread out over three separate areas at the base of the Capitol. The National Arboretum sits in the northeast corner of the city and features a variety of native and exotic species of trees and several landscaped gardens and works of public art.

For something a little different, head to the Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens for a look at the native flora and fauna that once covered the whole city. Finally, if you visit the National Gallery of Art, don’t miss the Sculpture Garden to the west of the Gallery’s West Building along the Mall.

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Arlington National Cemetery

Established on land once owned by Robert E. Lee, Arlington National Cemetery has been the final resting place for hundreds of thousands of service men and women since 1864. Its uniform white headstones make for a striking, somber tribute to the more than 400,000 people buried there. It is also the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has been guarded uninterrupted since 1937.

Presidents Taft and Kennedy are buried at Arlington, in addition to members of the military and select civilians, including several former Justices of the Supreme Court and First Ladies. Arlington sits just across the Potomac River in Virginia, an easy walk or drive from the city.

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Dumbarton Oaks

Dumbarton Oaks began as a land grant given to Colonel Ninian Beall by Queen Anne in 1702 and was acquired in 1920 by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, who significantly expanded the house and created a research institute that they later turned over to Harvard University. With a focus on Byzantine and Pre-Columbian studies, garden design, and landscape architecture, Dumbarton Oaks now operates as a research library, museum, and public garden. Grab a space on one of the docent-led tours for a more in-depth look at the history of the house, its collections, and the Bliss family.

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Libraries

Bookworms will have plenty to keep them busy strolling around Capitol Hill, home to two of the largest and most prestigious libraries in the country. Spread out over three buildings, the Library of Congress holds the title of largest library in the world, with nearly 161 million total items, including 23.9 million catalogued books. Just a few blocks away, the Folger Shakespeare Library holds the world’s largest collection of printed works by William Shakespeare, notably eighty-two copies of the 1623 First Folio. Both libraries offer guided tours for free.

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Courtesy of Destination DC

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Now in its forty-fourth year, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is one of the largest U.S. performing arts facilities, staging roughly 2,000 performances a year. The idea for a national cultural center was put into action in 1958, and the project was later renamed as a public memorial to honor President Kennedy. Free tours of the Kennedy Center include a stop at an exhibit about Kennedy’s life and presidency and a walk through several of the main theaters. On your way out, catch a glimpse of the famous Watergate complex, just north of the complex.

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National Zoo

An act of Congress created the National Zoo in 1889, and it has since become an important part of the Smithsonian Institution’s larger conservation program. Famous landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, one of the designers of New York City’s Central Park, helped draw up plans for the 163-acre zoo, now home to 300 animal species, nearly sixty of which are endangered or threatened.

Two Giant Pandas are some of the zoos most notable residents today, as are other rare Asian mammals, several large cats, and many primate species. Smokey Bear, a black bear cub rescued from a fire in 1950 and the inspiration for the wildfire preservation campaign that bears his name, called the National Zoo home until his death in 1976.

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The Pentagon

A building so big it requires six zip codes, the Pentagon houses the headquarters of the Department of Defense in its astonishingly large confines; at its widest point, the Pentagon is almost as wide as the Empire State Building is tall. Construction began in September 1941 and was finished in a remarkably quick sixteen months.

Reservations no fewer than fourteen days in advance are required for tours, which take you through a small portion of the Pentagon’s 6.5 million square feet. On the tour, you’ll learn about the history of the military and see the September 11 crash site and the Hall of Heroes, which honors winners of the Medal of Honor. Check the Pentagon’s website for details about booking tours.

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United States Supreme Court Building

Tucked just behind the Capitol, the highest court in the land is housed in a neoclassical building designed by Cass Gilbert to be a “temple of justice.” After meeting in New York City and other locations around D.C., the Supreme Court moved to its current location, which houses the courtroom, the judges’ chambers, the court library, and the infamous basketball court on the top floor, in 1935. The building is open Monday through Friday, and if you’re willing to brave long lines, you can queue for a seat in the courtroom while judges hear arguments when Court is in session.

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Courtesy of Destination DC

U.S. Capitol

George Washington laid the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol in 1793, and while the building has changed and expanded over the years, its white rotunda has remained an iconic American symbol. On a tour of the building, you’ll have the chance to linger in the stately rotunda, with The Apotheosis of Washington fresco on the ceiling. Check out the several paintings in the gallery depicting important moments in American history and the Statuary Hall Collection of presidential statues. Tours and viewings of the Senate and House galleries can be arranged through the offices of your local senators or representatives.

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Gravelly Point

For a quiet respite from the many hallowed halls of D.C., cross the Potomac into Virginia and take up a spot on Gravelly Point. The grassy hill is part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a national park created to help facilitate easy access to Mount Vernon for D.C. visitors. With its location directly north of Regan National Airport, Gravelly Point is the perfect spot for plane spotting at close range. The Tidal Basin, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol can also be seen from here.

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U Street

U Street bisects the Shaw neighborhood, the birthplace of Duke Ellington and an important hub of African-American culture, known primarily for its theaters and live music. Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong were all known to frequent the area, and after suffering a decline in the 1960s and 70s, a redevelopment program has helped revitalize the historic area. Restaurants serving everything from Ethiopian food to chilidogs, funky boutiques, and tons of live-music venues make U Street a perfect area to visit day or night. Keep an eye out for public art, graffiti, and murals as you tour the area.

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Old Stone House

This otherwise unassuming house in Georgetown holds the distinction of being the oldest unaltered building in Washington. Christopher and Rachel Layman purchased the property in 1764 for about £1 (the property is now valued at more than $7 million) and built the house the following year.

Competing theories exist as to why the house was not demolished during the city’s design and building phase in the late eighteenth century, and since then, various businesses, including a used car dealership, have occupied the space. The house was purchased by the government and turned over to the National Park Service in 1953, which has operated Old Stone House as a museum and public garden ever since.

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Rock Creek Park

After Yellowstone and Mackinac National Parks, Rock Creek Park was the third national park ever created, signed into law by President Harrison in 1890. The peaceful, wooded parkland is only a twenty-minute drive from the center of the city, boasting 1,754 acres for roaming, horseback riding, cycling, and inline skating. Within the park you’ll find the Peirce Mill, a water-powered gristmill from the 1820s that has been listed on the National Register.

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Washington National Cathedral

Space for a “great church for national purposes” was outlined in the original plan of the city in the late eighteenth century, but it wasn’t until Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency that ground was broken in 1907. Construction was officially completed in 1990, its heavily Gothic design echoing many of Europe’s great cathedrals. The Washington National Cathedral does include some unique, atypical features, though, including a space-themed stained glass window with a lunar rock in the middle and a Darth Vader gargoyle. The cathedral offers free admission on Sundays and tours for $10 Monday through Saturday.

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Walking Tours

In a city so packed with history, some of Washington’s most prominent sights can be found simply by walking down the street. Free Tours by Foot offers twelve walking tours of D.C., ranging from the predictable to the bizarre. More traditional tours of the capital take you past all the major sights along the Mall, through Arlington, down Embassy Row, and around Capitol Hill.

For something a little different, head out on the Lincoln Assassination tour, one of two Georgetown tours (including a haunted look at the neighborhood), or an architecture tour. Fans of political intrigue should opt for Secrets and Scandals or the Dark Side of Dupont & Embassy Row. All walking tours are free, though reservations are required.

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National Archives

Fittingly located along Constitution Avenue, the National Archives houses the country’s founding documents in its stately Classical Revival building. Bulletproof glass with protective UV-light filters and titanium and aluminum frames encase the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, all of which can be viewed in the dramatic Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. Other notable documents stored here include an original version of the 1297 Magna Carta, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Wait times can be daunting, so plan to line up well before the archives open at 10 a.m.

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Eastern Market

Few things in D.C. are without historical significance, and Eastern Market on Capitol Hill is no exception. Thomas Jefferson issued a proclamation for the market in 1805, and it was moved to its current location in 1873, where it has remained for the last 142 years. Weathering the storm of competition from grocery store chains, Eastern Market has become a community staple and a great place to stock up or simply window shop.

Vendors selling fresh produce, flowers, baked goods, meat, dairy products, handmade arts and crafts, and antiques all pack into the market’s two halls and outdoor spaces. Weekends feature live music and local artists, and the farmers’ market runs from 3-7 p.m. on Tuesdays.

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Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

One of the best views of the Capitol and the D.C. skyline can be found at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, perched on a hill in Anacostia overlooking the city. Douglass purchased the estate in 1877, named it Cedar Hill, and lived there until his death in 1895. The famous abolitionist and writer spent his final years working in Washington and became a prominent member of D.C. society, in addition to his work with women’s rights activists. The National Parks Service conducts tours of the house, while the grounds are open to the public.

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Tidal Basin

South of the National Mall, the Tidal Basin is one of the most tranquil spots in the city and best known for its cherry blossom display every spring. Even if your visit does not fall during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the Basin is still well worth a visit to see some of D.C.’s best memorials and explore the green space. Closest to the Mall sits the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, completed in 2011. The FDR Memorial lines the southwest corner of the Basin, and the Jefferson Memorial occupies its powerful perch exactly due south of the White House.

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U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Everything from stamps to paper currency to military commissions is produced at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Between the D.C. headquarters and the BEP location in Fort Worth, Texas, the Treasury Department prints up to 38 million notes a day, the total value of which is approximately $750 million. On the forty-minute tour, you’ll see every step of currency production, beginning with design and ending with the cutting and stacking process. Free tours are offered Monday through Friday, though tickets must be booked in advance.

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C&O Canal Towpath

Beginning in Georgetown, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal stretches 184.5 miles north and culminates in Cumberland, Maryland. The project began in the 1820s as a way to facilitate commerce between the Eastern Seaboard and the Appalachian Mountains in areas south of the Erie Canal, and thanks to the extensive preservation efforts of Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, the Canal has survived to this day. Whether you’re interested in making the trek up to Maryland or simply looking to while away the afternoon, the C&O path makes for the perfect cycling route that is easily accessible from the heart of D.C.

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Embassy Row

Massachusetts Avenue has long been a sought-after address in Washington as the site of numerous elaborate mansions that earned the street its first nickname, “Millionaires’ Row.” During the Great Depression, many of the buildings became too expensive to maintain as single-family homes, and Embassy Row was born. Along the avenue, stretching from Scott Circle to the Naval Observatory, you’ll find many of the original estates, now home to more than 175 embassies, ambassadors’ residences, chanceries, and diplomatic missions. Embassy Row runs for just over two miles, making it a comfortable walk though the northwest part of the city.

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