Library of Congress
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The best free things to do in D.C.

Find the best free things to do in D.C. besides visiting a museum

Omnia Saed
Contributor: Holley Simmons
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Living in D.C. is fantastic, especially with all the freebies. The city is alive with fun events and beautiful public spaces—and it's not just museums. Though, the 19 free Smithsonian museums are pretty great, too. Something exciting is always happening, from botanical gardens and outdoor movie screenings to free jazz performances and festivals. So whether you're looking for free family activities, planning a budget-friendly date night, or just exploring the city, here are some of the best free things to do in DC. And if you need more ideas? Check out our list of the best things to do in Washington, D.C. With so much to explore, you'll never run out of things to do.

Best free things to do in DC

  • Attractions
  • Zoo and aquariums
  • Northeast

The only way you could enjoy Kenilworth Park more was if you were a frog and able to jump from lily pad to lily pad. The sprawling nature conservatory in Northeast D.C. is made up of a series of footbridges that allow you to take in all the beauty of the wetlands sprinkled with blossoming lotuses. The park is open year-round, but by far, the best time to visit is during the Locus and Water Lily Festival during the summer when the foliage will be in full bloom.

  • Art
  • Galleries
  • National Mall

Aside from being a good place to pause and call your friends to ask, “Did you say to meet at the West Building or the East Building of the National Gallery of Art?”, the Sculpture Garden plays host to free jazz concerts. Every Friday from May through August (check this season’s schedule to see the exact date it begins), Washington-area jazz musicians perform al fresco for nada. Though you’re prohibited from bringing that Mad Dog wrapped in a brown paper bag, the Sculpture Garden Pavilion Café sells wine and beer.

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  • Attractions
  • Zoo and aquariums
  • Woodley 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 panda habitat—which will soon get two new tenants—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 built an 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 10 adults along with their young; they have indoor and outdoor facilities, with features such as pools and sand piles that stimulate natural elephant behavior.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • National Mall

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, arranged 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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  • Shopping
  • Markets and fairs
  • Capitol Hill

Originally built in 1873, this market became the “town center” of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and continues to be one of the liveliest spots in D.C. The South Hall market, open throughout the week, hosts indoor merchants selling meats, baked goods, cheeses and flowers. On weekends, the area around the market building hosts arts and crafts vendors and furniture sellers in a flea-market style, along with farmers’ stands and food vendors.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Northeast

Technically a research division of the Agriculture Department, this 446-acre haven always has many more trees than people, even on its busiest days during the spring azalea season. Highlights include dwarf conifers, an Asian collection, a herb garden and “herbarium” of dried plants, as well as the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which contains more than 300 specimens that began as just 53 bonsai trees gifted by from Japan. Also on display, somewhat incongruously, are 22 columns removed from the Capitol’s East Front during its 1958 expansion. See the website for details of tram tours, talks and other events such as garden fairs.

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  • Museums
  • Foggy Bottom

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 (Wed–Sun at 6pm) liven up the Millennium Stage, and there are free 45-minute guided tours (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.

8. Gravelly Point

Head over to Gravelly Point, just 15 minutes from downtown D.C. in Arlington, Virginia. You'll find a perfect field right by the runway at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Spread out a picnic blanket, unpack some sandwiches, and watch the planes take off. It's an awesome spot, and as the sun sets, it becomes a memorable experience whether you're alone, with family, or hanging out with friends.

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9. Movies at the Wharf

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When summer rolls around and the sun is shining, neighborhoods all over the city host free movie nights. One of the best spots is The Wharf. You can watch the sunset by the water and enjoy classic movies by the pier. No tickets needed—just show up, grab a seat, and if you're hungry, enjoy some bites and drinks from the restaurants nearby.

10. Embassy tour

Most of D.C.’s 170-plus foreign embassies sit on Massachusetts Avenue between Scott Circle and the United States Naval Observatory. Dubbed Embassy Row, the stretch is like a refined Epcot Center: Each building is designed to reflect the architecture found in that country. Start at Scott Circle and head northwest on Massachusetts for almost a mile until you hit Sheridan Circle. You’ll have passed the Embassies of Australia, the Philippines, Peru, Uzbekistan, Chile, Sudan, Greece, Indonesia, the Bahamas and Ireland.

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11. Mural hopping

You can explore art indoors at galleries or go mural hopping around the city to discover colorful murals highlighting the beauty and history of D.C. neighborhoods. From Adams Morgan to Dupont, there are hundreds of unique outdoor artworks and street murals to admire—perfect for your next Instagram post or a dose of inspiration. Destination DC, created by business and community leaders, has compiled this handy guide to help you get started.

  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Arlington

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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  • Things to do
  • Northwest

Nestled between sprawling condo corridors and busy commercial strips lie 1,750 acres of forest called Rock Creek Park. One of the largest preserves in the nation, its 29 miles of hiking trails and 10 miles of bridle paths intersect a net of bicycle paths. At weekends, several park roads close to motor vehicles. Its central thoroughfare, Beach Drive, a major commuter cut-through during weekday rush hour, is a quiet route to picnic groves (some with barbecue facilities) and playing fields at other times. The Nature Center just off Military Road details its history and ecology, offering daily nature walks and similar events. The planetarium offers free star-gazing sessions from April to November. The District’s only public riding stable, sharing the Nature Center parking lot, offers guided trail rides through the hilly terrain.

  • Attractions
  • Libraries, archives and foundations
  • Federal Triangle

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 catalog 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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  • Attractions
  • Libraries, archives and foundations
  • Capitol Hill

The national library of the U.S., the Library of Congress is the world’s largest. Its three buildings hold some 100 million items—including the papers of 23 U.S. 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. 

  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Capitol Hill

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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