Last Updated on May 18, 2023
“Free” is one of the great traditions the United States shares with Britain…
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
By Donna Manz
When you visit America’s capitol you’ll find that there are many free things in Washington, DC to do.
It’s a tradition that the United States shares with Britain, keeping many of our “national” treasures free to visit. The multiple museums that comprise the Smithsonian Institution have no admission fee, although a couple – such as the National Zoo and Udvar-Hazy Air and Space campus – charge for parking.
But free in D.C. goes beyond our nation’s great museums. For your next trip to our nation’s capital, here’s a brief list of places to visit and enjoy, while keeping your wallet in your pocket.
The Smithsonian Institution, the Most Popular Free Museum(s)
The centerpiece of the 19 free museums and galleries in Washington, DC that comprise the Smithsonian lies along the National Mall and Constitution Avenue. Here you’ll find the original Air and Space Museum, American History Museum, the Natural History Museum, the African American History and Culture Museum, the Hirschhorn and the American Indian museum and many more. The National Gallery of Art skirts them and all are open most holidays.
The National Zoo with its pandas and tree-covered setting, also a part of the Smithsonian, is a couple of miles from the National Mall, off Connecticut Avenue at Rock Creek Park. You can take the Metro from the Mall to the zoo. The Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Center, near Washington Dulles International Airport, is the companion facility to the Air and Space Museum in the District. Go and see the Space Shuttle, Concorde, Enola Gay, a Blackhawk and hundreds of other air and space vehicles up close. http://www.si.edu/
The White House
The White House, across Constitution Avenue from the Washington Monument, is open to the public and is totally free. While it’s unlikely you will run into the President or anyone from the First Family, it’s well worth visiting since the public rooms are fascinating. Contact your congressman in advance of your trip for tour reservations. http://www.whitehouse.gov/
The nation’s domed Capitol building is also free and welcomes visitors. Let your congressman know of your plans and you’ll likely have the opportunity to be welcomed into his/her office. The Rayburn Building, housing most Congressional offices, is adjacent. http://www.visitthecapitol.gov/
Washington’s Iconic Monuments, All Free
Washington’s iconic monuments should be visited by every American and international visitor. The Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Memorial are within a few minutes of one another and the Washington Monument is but a five-minute walk away, accessible from Constitution Avenue, a block from the White House (the monument, in fact, was intentionally built where it is so presidents could look out at it). The Jefferson Memorial is further away, off Independence Avenue, but is still “walkable” from the White House, All, of course, are totally free for everyone. http://washington.org/topics/monuments-memorials
Arlington National Cemetery
Of course, as one would expect, Arlington National Cemetery is free to all. Being in Arlington County, Virginia, it’s so close to the District – it’s only across the Arlington Memorial Bridge – that most people make it a part of their tour of Washington. Opened during the Civil War, it includes the grave of JFK as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a short walk from the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington National Cemetery.
The nearby Marine Corps Memorial is accessible from either the George Washington Parkway or Rt. 66 at Key Bridge, technically a Virginia exit bordering the Potomac River. While many tourists only see this monument during the daylight hours, it is most spectacular at night when it is lit up in all its splendor. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/
Also in Arlington, off Route 395, is the Pentagon, the Nation’s Capital sad reminder of 9/11 and a symbol of resilience and strength, as well. I drove past it about a week after the attack and cried looking at the gaping hole and the flag that hung over it. There is a memorial to that day at the Pentagon now, and if you have a few hours you’ll likely enjoy a free tour here, which must be reserved in advance through an online reservation system. The complex is huge and the tour takes in but a small slice. Be forewarned, though, that the Pentagon takes its security seriously and identification is required for anyone over age 12.
The National Archives, a Wonderful Free Place In Washington
The National Archives doesn’t receive the publicity most of the capital’s other free attractions enjoy, but it should. It is here, in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights are permanently homed. Located on Constitution Avenue NW, between 7th and 9th streets, the Archives opens at 10a.m and you can visit anytime during the day. http://www.archives.gov/
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, is the currency-production arm of the Treasury Department and it sponsors free tours for visitors. It’s a popular stop for tourists, and interesting since you get to see our currency printed, but I don’t put it on the top of my list. The Bureau of Engraving is at 14th and C Streets, S.W., Washington, DC 20228. Call (866) 874-2330 for tour times. https://www.moneyfactory.gov/washingtondctours.html.
If you go:
A trip to Washington, D.C. is good at any time of the year since there is so much to do and see. Spring, when the cherry blossoms and flowers burst into bloom, is spectacular. Summer vacation time brings the big crowds, as you might guess, and winter can be quite brisk especially if you plan to do a lot of walking.
For me, though, Fall is the best season. Washington sparkles in the autumn when the leaves turn warm colors, the air is crisp, the sky blue and, best of all, most of the tourists have gone home. Somehow, reverence arises more easily when there are fewer tourists milling around, making noise and bumping into one another wherever you go.