We don’t want to sound misleading, as Washington DC is far from “cheap” when it comes to accommodation, food, and parking. However, Washington DC still offers amazing value for your travel budget as many of the city’s best attractions are free!
DC is one of the few U.S. cities we could visit time and time again without ever getting bored. There’s a surprising amount to see and do here. It’s a city of culture, art, and history. With so much Greek and Roman neoclassical architecture, there’s a European feel without the European price tag.
This is your guide to the best free sites in Washington DC. Let’s go!
Visiting Washington DC in 2021? Though most of Washington DC reopened this summer, some places remain closed, namely government buildings like the Capitol Building. Some open attractions, even free ones, require reserving a ticket online. Check directly with the attraction you want to visit as opening times and requirements are changing rapidly.
Some of the most impressive and historical sites in Washington DC are the government buildings, and most are open to the public and free. Some buildings just take advanced planning to arrange.
Typically, the White House takes the longest to sort out, of course. US residents must book free tickets through their local congressional representative. International visitors can contact their embassy in Washington DC to request a free tour. Spaces are highly sought after so we advise booking months ahead to avoid disappointment.
The White House isn’t the only government facility you can visit for free while in Washington DC. The below can be booked through a congressional representative, but only a few need to be. We recommend the ones in bold for any first visit to DC.
|Government Building||How to Book|
|White House||Book through Congressional Rep|
|FBI Experience||Book through Congressional Rep*|
|U.S. Department of Treasury||Book through Congressional Rep*|
|U.S. State Department||Book through Congressional Rep**|
|Pentagon||Book direct, 14 – 90 days in advance|
|U.S. Capitol Building||Book direct, day of tickets sometimes available|
|National Archives||Book direct, day of tickets sometimes available|
|Library of Congress||Book direct for timed tickets|
|Bureau of Engraving & Printing||Day of tickets available from 8 am at ticket booth|
|Supreme Court||Available for walk-ins|
|* US Citizens and Green Card Holders only|
|** Direct booking page removed, book through congressional representative.|
Browse the Art of the Smithsonian
The Smithsonian isn’t just one grand museum, but rather a collection of grand museums. Actually, with around 155 million artifacts and specimens in its collection, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum complex.
Though two of the buildings are in New York City, fourteen buildings, along with a zoo and a botanical garden, are here in Washington DC and they are all free to visit.
Based on visitor counts, these are the top five:
- National Museum of Natural History
- National Air and Space Museum
- Museum of American History
- American Art Museum
- National Museum of African American History and Culture
Be in Awe of the Masters at the National Gallery of Art
Though it seems like it should be part of the Smithsonian collection, the National Gallery of Art is a separate entity. However, it is also completely free to visit and one of the best museums in Washington DC.
The museum is split over two buildings. The main building, or West Building, houses the older art. Here you’ll find Renaissance paintings from the Old Masters like Peter Paul Rubens, Hieronymus Bosch, and even a very rare painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
The East Building seems to start with late 19th century art. Here you’ll find modern art, and famous works from artists like Pablo Picasso.
There’s also a Sculpture Garden worth wandering through. Plus, they have five cafes on site, which actually have pretty good food. It’s very easy to spend a whole day here.
Get Around Washington DC for Cheap
Go to the Top of the Washington Monument
For the best view of the city, head to the top of the world’s tallest free-standing stone structure, the Washington Monument. Closed to the public for about a decade, the eye-catching obelisk finally re-opened to the public in 2019. The new elevator system whisks visitors to the top of the 50-story structure in about a minute.
Technically, visiting the Washington Monument is free. However, at the time of writing, tickets to go inside the monument are only available online due to Covid restrictions. The National Park Service is charging a $1 reservation fee for up to four tickets in order to cover administration costs.
Honor Their Sacrifice at the Nation's War Memorials
For us, there was nothing more moving and humbling on our DC trips than visiting the war memorials. Memorials for World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War are beautifully set around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
At the Vietnam Memorial, it’s impossible to walk beside the more than 58,000 names of the missing and dead and not get choked up. During regular hours, there are typically volunteers who can help find names on the wall and answer questions.
Pay Your Respects at Arlington National Cemetery
Set upon the hill across the Potomac River, overlooking The Capitol, is Arlington National Cemetery. As a military cemetery, Arlington is the final resting place of over 400,000 veterans and eligible dependents, including presidents John F. Kennedy and William H. Taft.
A beautiful place to just walk the grounds, it’s also worth paying your respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during the Changing of the Guard Ceremony.
Visit Those Who Built and Defined The U.S.
Throughout Washington DC you’ll notice tributes and memorials to many great historical figures. However, none are as impressive as the Lincoln Memorial at the far west end of The National Mall. Viewing sunrise from here is breathtaking.
Near the Lincoln Memorial are other tributes to greats such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
If you keep walking east, around the Tidal Basin, you’ll come to memorials for George Mason, and a spectacular columned temple to Thomas Jefferson.
Walk the Grounds of the U.S. National Arboretum
The U.S. National Arboretum is just outside the main downtown area of Washington DC. Though we haven’t had the chance to visit these gardens ourselves (yet!), we’ve heard it is a beautiful place to spend the day. The 446 acres is divided into a dozen or so gardens containing everything from state trees, to bonsai trees, to the National Columns. Plus, they are all free to visit.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
- Holiday Inn – One of the most convenient locations on the south side of the National Mall and within easy walking distance of two metro stations.
- Hampton Inn – We really loved the proximity to the White House. Plus, it was an easy walk to the National Mall and a nearby metro.
- State Plaza Hotel – For our latest trip, we wanted to be as close as possible to the Lincoln Memorial for sunrise, and we wanted a room with a kitchen. The hotel was lovely and good value, but for a first visit we recommend staying more central to the main attractions on the National Mall.
Books and Guides on Washington DC
- DK Eyewitness Washington, DC – These are our favorite travel guides. Eyewitness always includes great motivational photos and great tips for easy planning.
- Fodor’s Washington D.C.: with Mount Vernon, Alexandria & Annapolis – If you’re looking for something that includes the suburbs of Washington DC, this book is a little more comprehensive than others out there.
- Secret Washington DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure – If you think you’ve seen it all in Washington DC, this book will give you a good challenge.