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22 free things to do in Washington, DC

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22 free things to do in Washington, DC

Looking for fun, free activities to do in Washington, DC during the weekend or your next trip? From world-class museums and beautiful parks, you will be spoiled for choice.

Accommodation in the city can be pricy but it’s easy to balance your budget with our top pick of the very best free things to do in Washington, DC.

Rock Creek Park

Twice the size of Central Park, this is the nearest thing you’ll get to a jungle in an American city. Rock Creek Park starts in downtown DC as a tree-lined path alongside Rock Creek itself. Further north, it widens into a lush oasis, where you can hike, ride horses and cycle. The Nature Center and Planetarium offers starry experiences and is great for kids.

Introducing Washington, DC

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Abolitionist, author and statesman Frederick Douglass occupied this hilltop house from 1878 until his death in 1895. Original furnishings, books, photographs and other personal belongings paint a compelling portrait of this great man. Visits into the home are by guided tour only and are free on a first-come-first-served basis but can be reserved ahead of time online for a small fee.

C & O Canal

The C & O Canal runs all the way to Maryland ©Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

The beautiful trail along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal runs from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland, for around 180 miles (though most visitors tend to go only as far as Bethesda). Walk, jog or cycle along the former mule tow paths.

West Potomac Park

DC’s best meditation spot has to be the West Potomac Park, the area between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It includes the Tidal Basin, which shimmers pink when the beautiful cherry trees bloom around March or April (according to spring’s whim).

FDR Memorial

Wander over to the Tidal Basin’s left bank (it’s especially beautiful at night), and it’s hard to miss the grand Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Set on 7.5 acres, the monument comprises four outdoor gallery rooms with 10 bronze sculptures that depict President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and events from the Great Depression and WWII.

National Gallery of Art

The interior of an art gallery. There is couch in the middle of the room and a few people viewing paintings on the wall.
The National Gallery of Art is a treasure trove for the visual arts ©Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock

The National Gallery of Art has several wings jammed with masterpieces. The gallery’s original building, a handsome neoclassical construction, houses Rembrandts, Titians and the like. The East Building (designed by IM Pei) is chock-a-block with abstract works and a twinkling moving path connects the two buildings underground. Plus there’s a sculpture garden.

DC cultural tours

Learn about local secrets and scandals, try a local cupcake, or head back in time on a ghost walk. These ultra-fun themed walking tours are run by Free Tours by Foot (you pay what you can afford.) Or tap into your inner 1865 and head off on a mysterious and conspiratorial jaunt on the popular Lincoln Assassination Night Tour.

Touchstone Gallery

Brush up on the works of local artists at Touchstone Gallery, an artist-owned gallery that represents 50 local artists – we’re talking ultra-skilled folk who work in a variety of media.

Meridian Hill Park 

Two people smile and dance in the park
Lord Aziantu, left, and Sydney Todd dance to the drummers who are a regular feature in Meridian Hill Park © The Washington Post via Getty Images

Every Sunday at around 3pm, Meridian Hill Park (also called Malcolm X Park) plays host to the drum circle, a tradition that started in the 1960s during the Civil Rights struggle. These days it has the ambiance of a mini music festival: a crowd heads to the park to lounge, enjoy a picnic or just tap to the rhythm. While the atmosphere is especially great at the weekend, it’s still worth a visit at other times of the week.

US Capitol

Hour-long tours take you through the hallowed halls of the Capitol – think busts, sculptures and that fabulous dome. To visit, it’s best to plan ahead and book a tour online, but you can take your chances and try for a same-day tour pass at the Capitol Visitor Center.

Self-guided tour

Take yourself on a fascinating self-guided neighborhood walking tour, courtesy of Cultural Tourism DC. Their free guides, downloadable to your mobile device, cover dozens of trails cover historic ‘hoods (Adams Morgan, U Street and Barracks Row) and themes (Civil War to Civil Rights Downtown Heritage Trail). Signs en route feature stories, historic photos and maps.

White House

The White House in Washington DC with beautiful blue sky at summer.
For many visitors, this is as close to the White House as you can get ©Dmitry Vinogradov/500px

Tickets to the White House are available on a very limited basis. Chances are best for US citizens, who must request admission through their member of Congress. Overseas visitors, however, have to contact their embassy in Washington (and at the time of writing, several embassies were not assisting travelers). Requests can be submitted up to three months but no less than 21 days in advance.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The USA’s official memorial to the Holocaust, the main museum takes you on a journey of a single Holocaust victim. There is a special exhibit geared more towards young children. It is free but passes do run out in busy times. You can reserve a ticket online for just $1 to be guaranteed entry. 

The Wharf

Head just south of the Mall to The Wharf, DC’s newest neighborhood, a mile-long stretch along DC’s Potomac River. The waterfront is lined with funky eateries, elegant hotels and several boutiques. Browse in Politics & Prose, a fabulous book store, before dining at one of several high-end restaurants that overlook the river. Grab a water shuttle from here to Alexandria or Georgetown waterfronts.

Dumbarton Oaks Park

This little known and very beautiful public park, on the northern edge of Georgetown, is one of DC’s local secrets. Wander down Lovers’ Lane off R Street and into the foliage and over quaint bridges. Dumbarton Oaks Park is the coolest place to be in the height of the humidity. (Note: don’t confuse it with the mansion of Dumbarton Oaks or the historic house called Dumbarton House).

National Mall

The Mall – the 3-mile-plus-long rectangle of lawn, and the city’s pride – is packed with monuments and memorials. You can visit everything from the Lincoln Memorial (which receives 5.4 million visitors), National WWII Memorial (4 million), Vietnam Veterans Memorial (3.8 million), the Martin Luther King Jr National Memorial and more besides.

A close up of the Martin Luther King Junior's likeness
Martin Luther King, Jr Monument in Washington, DC ©Dave Newman/Shutterstock

National Archives

The National Archives is the spot to see John Hancock’s John Hancock (American slang for ‘signature’) on the country’s Declaration of Independence, along with the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. For US citizens, visiting here is almost a rite of passage.

United States Botanic Garden

While crowds are drawn to the smelly ‘corpse flower’ (Amorphophallus titanum – we’ll let you translate that), which blooms every three to five years, the United States Botanic Garden is equally fragrant at other times. The greenhouse conservancy and the children’s garden are particularly beautiful spots to stroll through.

Smithsonian Institution

This one entry officially doubles this freebie list. The Smithsonian comprises 19 museums and galleries (plus the zoo), with the majority of them in the Washington DC area and all are free. See their website for a complete rundown of what’s on offer.

DC’s markets

Sunday shopaholics can pick up a deal at the lively Eastern Market (Capitol Hill neighborhood): a three-in-one flea market, farmers market and arts-and-crafts market. Or head to the Union Market, a funky, contemporary spot where you can buy your lunch from one of the ever-expanding funky foodie pop-up stalls.

A man smiles and strums an electric guitar
A street musician playing at the weekend at Eastern Market © Dan Herrick/Lonely Planet

Supreme Court

A visit to America’s highest court lets you can see justices, clerks, marshals and attorneys strutting their stuff. The public is allowed to enter the court to view sessions or ‘oral arguments’ in action (seating is first-come, first-served and long lines form: one for those wanting to catch the full session, the second for those who want to get the gist of it in only three minutes). On the days when court isn’t in session, you can catch lectures about the Supreme Court.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is to books what Google is to the internet. 838 miles of bookshelves with around 158 million items, including 36 million books and other print materials; 3.5 million recordings; 13.7 million photographs; 5.5 million maps; 6.7 million pieces of sheet music and 69 million manuscripts – all in more than 470 languages.

This article was first published November 2017 and was last updated April 2021.

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Source : Lonelyplanet

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