Washington, DC is one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S., but for savvy travelers, it can be a very affordable place to visit if you’re willing to sacrifice luxury and proximity to the city center.
In fact, you can travel cheaply in the District and still experience its most well-known destinations.
I’ve rounded up my favorite free things to do in the nation’s capital, including must-see places for tourists and activities that will allow you to see the city like a local.
The only thing left to figure out is what to do with the extra dollars in your wallet!
Washington, DC is well known for its monuments to former presidents and iconic American figures. The western end of the two-mile-long (3 km) park holds the most famous monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Memorial, World War II Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The monuments are walkable in a (long, tiring) day, and each are powerful and memorable in their own way. All new visitors to the District should take the time to walk this part of the Mall.
The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, comprises of 19 museums, galleries, gardens, and the National Zoo that are all free for the public to enjoy. All but two museums are located in Washington, DC.
You can simply walk into all of the museums and galleries once you arrive, with no advance tickets required. The only exception is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016. Demand is so high that the museum limits entry to those who have reserved timed-entry passes. If that’s a museum you’d like to check out, go to the NMAAHC’s website to see if any advance tickets are available for the dates of your visit.
From history to aeronautics to art to culture, you can find a world-class museum or gallery to check out no matter your interests. Oh, and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is one of only two U.S. zoos that has a panda!
Jazz in the Garden and Other Cultural Events
As if the National Mall didn’t have enough free attractions, at any given point during the year there’s bound to be a free cultural event happening. One of my favorites is Jazz in the Garden. The open-air concert takes place weekly from May through August in the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art.
Each Friday from 5:00-8:30 p.m. (weather permitting), visitors can come into the garden and listen to live jazz while enjoying a picnic and drinks. Food can be brought in, but all beverages must be purchased at one of the vendor stands in the park.
From time to time the National Mall will hold concerts headlined by popular bands, and there are festivals nearly every weekend in the open grassy areas of the mall. The National Park Service website has an up-to-date listing of all National Mall events.
For those interested in visiting the final resting place of America’s veterans, including former presidents, war heroes, and national icons, Arlington National Cemetery is a must. The sprawling grounds provide a tranquil place to reflect as you walk past row upon row of graves dating back to the Civil War. Each time I visit I’m reminded of the sacrifice of so many to our country.
More than 400,000 active-duty service members, veterans, and their families are buried at Arlington. The cemetery is perhaps best known for the graves of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The cemetery is walkable from the Lincoln Memorial by taking Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River. And Memorial Bridge is a beautiful site in itself: You can watch planes buzz directly overhead as they depart and arrive nearby Reagan National Airport, or simply enjoy the views of Arlington and Washington, DC on each side of the wide river.
Drum Circle at Meridian Hill Park
Drum circle is a local treasure and hands-down my favorite thing to do in DC in the summer. The premise is simple: Anyone who wants to bang a drum can join in the circle, and everyone else can listen to the rhythmic beats as they spend a summer afternoon picnic in the park.
My friends and I go nearly every Sunday, blankets and snacks in tow, and hang out for hours in the shade of Meridian Hill (Malcolm X) Park’s old growth trees. We’ll toss frisbees and watch people practice slacklining and acrobatic yoga in the center grassy area.
The consistency and reliability of drum circle is remarkable. The spontaneous gathering has happened every Sunday from roughly March through October for more than 50 years. People of all backgrounds and all walks of life descend on Meridian Hill each week to enjoy the simple pleasure of an afternoon in a park. You should too.
If you like farmers’ markets and flea markets, then you’ll want to pay a visit to Eastern Market during your visit. Situated just southeast of the Capitol, the market has been running since 1873 and sells everything from fresh produce to local meats and cheeses to artisanal crafts.
The indoor market is open every day except for Monday. The best time to visit is on the weekends when outdoor vendors can sell products and produce as well. In my six years in the city I’ve never walked out of Eastern Market empty-handed. If you’re looking for a perfect souvenir for your visit, this is the place to get it!
There are myriad ways that visitors can enjoy the Potomac River, but one of my favorites is hiking the Billy Goat Trail near Great Falls in Maryland. It’s well worth the Uber or cab ride it’ll take to get there.
The Billy Goat Trail is a long trail and rock scramble along the banks of the Potomac. The trail is located on Bear Island, which is bounded on one side by the C&O Canal and by the Potomac on the other side. It has three sections that hikers can tackle all in one go (4.7-miles total), or in smaller portions.
There are numerous hiking trails within DC in Rock Creek Park, as well as Theodore Roosevelt Island on the Potomac, where visitors can scratch their nature itch a little closer to the city. But to me, the Billy Goat Trail is worth the additional fifteen minutes in the car for more of a getaway and physical challenge.
It’s hard for those of us who grew up outside of DC to view it as anything more than a government town. A place to visit once to say you did it, but probably never go back. But anyone who has been to DC knows: The city is a treasure hidden in plain sight.
The District is visually rich: Bright street art reflecting the city’s cultural heritage (and some political commentary). Picturesque neighborhoods accentuated by elegant row homes and perfectly-trimmed hedges. Neoclassical and colonial architecture. Countless parks and tree-lined streets. It’s well worth it to spend part of a day simply walking around and taking in the sights.
Some of my favorite neighborhoods for aimless wandering are Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and Kalorama. The Georgetown Waterfront walking path boasts wide open views up and down the Potomac, from the Kennedy Center north past Key Bridge. I consider myself lucky to live in such a charming and visually-rich city!
Were these tips helpful? Are there other free activities in DC that you think should be added to the list? Be sure to tell me in the comments!