Balance Your Family Vacation Budget: 19 Free Things to Do in D.C.

May 15, 2016

Washington, D.C., is a destination where it's easy to balance your vacation budget, thanks to so many free (or super cheap) activities to fill your day. With that in mind, here's our list of 19 free things to do in our nation's capital. Don't miss these activities and sights, and take advantage of hotel, dining and activity deals that can save you up to 50%.

1. Sing "Happy Birthday" to Bei Bei.

The panda cub is one of the Smithsonian National Zoo's newest residents, and turns one year old on Aug. 22. Oh, and while you're there, take a look at some of the 1,800 other animals at the zoo, too.

Flickr/Bex Walton

2. See the monuments in a whole new light.

An evening walk along the Tidal Basin brings a new view on the Jefferson, FDR and Martin Luther King, Jr., memorials.

Flickr/Kyle Rush

Nearby on the National Mall, the Korean War Memorial walks a haunting night patrol alongside the Reflecting Pond between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

Flickr/Jeff Kubina

3. Celebrate diverse, authentic and beautiful traditions -- both old and new.

The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes place in late June/early July on the National Mall, is like a mini World's Fair with food, activities, booths, performances and more. This year's themes celebrate Basque Country and the Sounds of California.

Flickr/S Pakhrin

4. Walk on the waterfront.

A short walk from the tony shops of Georgetown and the university, Georgetown Waterfront Park is a popular green space nestled up against the Potomac River. People-watch, picnic, or just enjoy the view of the Key Bridge, skyline and curving Potomac. A path along the river connects hikers and bikers to the Capital Crescent Trail for adventures farther down the river. The Washington Harbour complex at the park's east end, includes shops and dining -- as well as a fountain for kids to cool off.

5. Check out American icons.

See the flag that inspired our national anthem, Dorothy's ruby slippers, Julia Child's kitchen or any of the 3 million other historical objects that call the National Museum of American History home. Go beyond the history book and get up close with the Declaration of Independence (240th anniversary this year), the Constitution and the Bill of Rights at the National Archives Museum.

Flickr/Chris Evans

6. Get the inside story.

D.C. is easy to see on your own, but to go deeper than your guidebook, try a guided tour. DC by Foot's pay-what-you-like guided walking tours, rated as the No. 1 Outdoor Activity in Washington D.C. by TripAdvisor, covers D.C. from the awe-inspiring monuments of the National Mall, the ghosts of Georgetown, scandals on Embassy Row, the Arlington Cemetery and more.

Flickr/Brian Holland

7. Enjoy some complimentary culture.

Take in free performances at The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage every evening at 6 p.m. Performances feature everything from the National Symphony Orchestra preludes to poetry slams.

Flickr/Tom Finzel

8. See the Supremes.

Learn about the building, courtroom, laws and people that have changed the course of American history during a complimentary courtroom lecture inside the Supreme Court. Court in session? Limited seating for a full argument is available on a first-come, first-served basis or you can catch a glimpse of the oral arguments for three minutes.

Flickr/Ryan Wick

9. Get your outdoor groove on.

Friday nights are rocking at Yards Park with a free summer concert series that runs from May 20 to Sept. 2. This riverfront park is part of a revitalized Navy Yard area close to the Nationals Ballpark. During the day, beat the heat by walking behind the water wall or dip your toes in the "canal".

Flickr/Rudi Rlet

10. Picnic on "America's Front Yard".

Spread out a blanket on the National Mall for a picnic lunch (maybe with some goodies from the indoor/outdoor Eastern Market nearby.) It's a great midday break surrounded by possibilities -- the Capitol Building, Washington Monument, 6 free Smithsonian museums, World War II Memorial and more are a short walk away.

11. Go beyond the museums and monuments.

For cuisine from around the world, lively nightlife and boutique shopping, leave the National Mall and head into the neighborhoods. You'll find a diverse, cosmopolitan city that welcomes guests -- whether it's for a four-year term or a couple nights. In Dupont Circle, a 2-mile walk along Massachusetts Avenue takes you down Embassy Row, with statues and sights from the city's many diplomatic missions. A visit to artsy U Street puts you in the footsteps of Duke Ellington (stop in a jazz club, the "Black Broadway" legacy lives on).

Flickr/Mike Maguire

12. Stop and smell the roses.

The U.S. Botanic Garden, established by Congress in 1820, is a state-of-the-art living plant museum that houses approximately 4,000 seasonal, tropical and subtropical plants and you can admire all of them for free.


13. Search for Darth Vader at the National Cathedral.

If you're looking for Lord Vader, he's on the "dark side" of the building, where the grotesque (not a gargoyle) watches over visitors. Want to go inside? There are paid tours during the day, but you can attend Evening Prayers most days or visit for Sunday services for free.

14. Take a trip to the library.

A really, really big library. While you can't check out a book from the Library of Congress, you can check out a reading room, take a guided tour, or take the kids to story time -- all free of charge. If the Bard is more your style, the Folger Shakespeare Library a block away holds the world's largest Shakespeare collection and features exhibitions that include some of William's earliest works.


15. Appreciate the masters.

Come face-to-face with world-famous works by legends like Matisse, van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt and da Vinci at the National Gallery of Art. (While you're there, make sure to stop in the basement of the West Building for some the best gelato in D.C.) Stick around until 6:40 p.m. on Sunday night and enjoy the view with a side of free live music.

Flickr/Kārlis Dambrāns

16. Warm up in the bullpen.

The Half Street Fairgrounds -- affectionately called as "The Bullpen" by Nats fans -- is a popular spot to hang out before or after baseball games at nearby Nationals Park. Stop by for live music and yummy eats in this open-air spot surrounded by brightly colored shipping containers. If you time it right, you can be there for Truckeroo -- a monthly event where the most popular food trucks line up for the best meals on wheels in D.C. Don't miss out -- this is the final season that the Bullpen will be open.

Flickr/Daniel Rosenstein

17. Get back to nature.

Escape from the city without ever leaving town. Rock Creek Park is an 1,800-acre park in Northwest Washington, near the Zoo. Hike or bike the 32 miles of trails, relax by the cascading waterfall at Meridian Hill Park or stargaze at the planetarium (free Ranger-led sessions on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays).


18. So many museums, so little time.

The Smithsonian includes 17 museums spread around D.C. and the metro area. We touched on a few here, but there's even more to see -- and it's worth mentioning again that they are free. You can pop in for a quick visit (and some air conditioning). Venture behind the National Mall -- whether it's to see portraits of all 43 U.S. Presidents at the Portrait Gallery, or to check out the space shuttle Discovery, the Concorde and more at the Udvar-Hazy Center out near the Dulles Airport in Virginia.

Flickr/Tim Evanson

19. Celebrate America's birthday with a bang.

Free fireworks on July 4th cap the national celebration of Independence Day with flashes of red, white and blue (and numerous other colors lighting up the sky.) Here are best spots to catch the show.

Promoted by: Washington, DC. Want more ideas of free and budget-friendly fun in D.C.? Here's even more for you, free of charge. Need a place to stay in the capital? Search for Washington, D.C., hotel deals. Insider tip: You'll find the lowest rates on summer weekends.

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