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The best free things to do in Washington, DC

Use our ultimate guide of the best free things to do in Washington, DC to plan a great day out without spending a dime

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While there’s no admission charge to enter the 19 museums and galleries of the Smithsonian Institution, they’re merely a fraction of the many free things to do in Washington, DC. Cheapskates can spend an entire day visiting most of the capital’s most popular attractions without reaching for their wallet. Need more inspiration? Check out our essential list of 50 things to do in Washington, DC.

Best free things to do in Washington, DC


National Archives

The vast collection of the National Archive & Record Administration (NARA) represents the physical record of the birth and growth of a nation in original documents, maps, photos, recordings, films and a miscellany of objects. The catalogue resonates with national iconography and historical gravitas (and pathos), and includes the Louisiana Purchase, maps of Lewis and Clark’s explorations, the Japanese World War II surrender document, the gun that shot JFK, the Watergate tapes and documents of national identity (collectively known as the Charters of Freedom). Nearby is one of the original copies of the Magna Carta. The Public Vaults, where most of the documents on permanent display are housed, has over 1,000 items on display at any one time. 

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Federal Triangle

National Zoological Park

The free-admission National Zoo offers a diverting escape. Particularly during the off-season, when the paths are not cluttered by pushchairs, the zoo offers a perfect (albeit hilly) stroll, away from the bustle of Connecticut Avenue. Tree-shaded paths wind through the margins past the various animals. The stars are two pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, brought on ten-year loan from China in 2001; their cub Tai Shan was returned to China in 2010. The panda habitat is part of the Asia Trail, which links the habitats of sloth bears, fishing cats, red pandas, clouded leopards, Asian small-clawed otters and a Japanese giant salamander. The zoo has built a new environment for Asian elephants as part of its effort to preserve these endangered animals. The Elephant Trails are large enough to house between eight and ten adults along with their young; they have indoor and outdoor facilities, with features such as pools and sand piles that stimulate natural elephant behaviour.

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Woodley Park

Arlington National Cemetery

It is the right of anyone killed in action in any branch of military service, or who served for 20 years, to be buried at Arlington, along with their spouse. It’s ironic, then, that the cemetery started almost as an act of Civil War vengeance: in 1861 Union forces seized the estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and in 1864 they began burying soldiers close enough to Arlington House to make sure that Mr. and Mrs. Lee could never take up residence again. However, time has worked its healing magic and transformed Arlington into a place of honor and memory. 

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United States Botanic Garden

In 1842, the Navy’s Wilkes Expedition returned from exploring Fiji and South America, showering Congress with a cornucopia of exotic flora. The present conservatory was erected in 1930 and recently modernized with state-of-the-art climate controls and a coconut-level catwalk around the central rainforest. The conservatory displays 4,000 plants, including endangered species. Themed displays feature the desert and the oasis, plant adaptations and the primeval garden. The orchid collection is a particular delight. Across Independence Avenue, Bartholdi Park displays plants thriving in Washington’s climate, ranged around an alluring fountain created by Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. The new National Garden aims to be a showcase for "unusual, useful, and ornamental plants that grow well in the mid-Atlantic region."

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District of Columbia

Kennedy Center

Festooned with decorative gifts from many nations and some wonderful 20th-century works of art, "Ken Cen" is as much a spectacle as the shows it presents, with its flag-filled Hall of States and Hall of Nations, six theaters and concert halls, three rooftop restaurants and great views from the open-air terrace. Free concerts (6pm daily) liven up the Millennium Stage, and there are free 45-minute guided tours (call 1-202 416 8340 or walk-ins welcome; visit the Tour Desk on Level A). Parking is inadequate when several shows are playing at once—better to walk or take the free shuttle bus from the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro stop.

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Foggy Bottom

Torpedo Factory Art Center

Originally a World War I munitions plant, the Torpedo Factory now spawns arts rather than arms, with three stories containing 82 studios, six galleries—among them spaces dedicated to enameling, ceramics and photography—and two workshops, one devoted to fiberwork, the other to printmaking. Also on site is the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.

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Library of Congress

The national library of the US, the Library of Congress is the world’s largest. Its three buildings hold some 100 million items—including the papers of 23 US presidents—along 535 miles of bookshelves. Contrary to popular notion, the library does not have a copy of every book ever printed, but its heaving shelves are still spectacular. To get to grips with the place, it’s best to start with the 20-minute film in the ground-floor visitors’ center, excerpted from a TV documentary, which provides a clear picture of the place’s scope and size. An even better option is to join a guided tour. 

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Capitol Hill

Supreme Court

The ultimate judicial and constitutional authority, the United States Supreme Court pays homage in its architecture to the rule of law. Justices are appointed for life, and their temple reflects their eminence. Designed by Cass Gilbert in the 1930s, its classical façade incorporates Corinthian columns supporting a pediment decorated with bas-reliefs representing Liberty, Law, Order and a crew of historical lawgivers. The sober style conceals whimsy in the shape of sculpted turtles lurking to express the "deliberate pace" of judicial deliberations. There are also ferocious lions—enough said. You can tour the building any time. Visitors enter from the plaza doors, on either side of the main steps. The ground level has a cafeteria, an introductory video show, a gift shop and changing exhibitions. 

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Capitol Hill