Traveling on a budget is so much easier when you have a list of free things to do. How much more wallet-friendly does it get than free?! These six ideas are a few in particular that we recommend but they are not the only free things available in Washington DC. In fact, DC is one of the easiest cities to save money in if you ask me. Buildings and institutions that offer free tours and/or visits include the White House, Capitol Building, all the Smithsonian Museums and Institutions, National Library, National Archives, Arlington Cemetery, every single memorial and so much more. If you google, “Free Events in Washington DC,” you’ll find calendars and lists full of fun things to do that will not cost you a cent. Another way to freely explore the city is to walk through each neighborhood. Georgetown is gorgeous to walk around any time of year. Capitol Hill is also a great neighborhood to walk through and explore. For a few specific ideas, see below for our picks...
C& O Canal
Head over to Georgetown for access to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O). It’s one of the best ways to experience history because it’s almost completely intact from its original build. You get a real experience of what life was like in the 18th century as the canal was created. Restoration goes on often to protect it but it’s uniquely qualified to provide an authentic historical experience. The canal runs from Georgetown to Maryland and along the Potomac River. Walking or cycling along the canal is free (pending how you get your hands on a bike). There are also options to canoe down the river or take a cruise, both of which would cost a few bucks if you're up for it.
Located in Capitol Hill, the Eastern Market is an indoor/outdoor market open from Tuesdays to Sundays that sells everything from artisan goods to produce. The weekends are where it’s at though. Over 100 exhibitors set up booths with handmade crafts, produce from local farms, artisan goods and more. Live music brings energy to the market and the indoor hall sells all kinds of prepared foods from sweets to barbecue. The market is full of different cultures, local sellers and sellers from surrounding states and events.
Remember when I mentioned how many memorials are in DC? Well, all 160 of them are free. That’s 160 free things to do but you will regret it if your entire trip to the capitol is full of memorials. Not only can it get depressing, it can also get boring and it’s limiting you from all the other amazing things the city has to offer. So my advice stands as I’ve mentioned a few other times now. Start with what you’re interested in whether it’s presidents, a certain war or period in history. Do a little research to see what memorials would fit into that topic and narrow down the ones you’d most like to visit. Not only will it give you a guide so you’re not wasting time, it also saves you a few bucks since they’re free. Many of these memorials are quite moving but a trip made up of only memorial visits is not a trip you’ll come out satisfied with. A few I recommend include the Washington Monument, which frankly is hard to miss, the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, WWII memorial and the Eternal Flame at John F. Kennedy’s gravesite.
Rock Creek Park
Go for a hike, attend one of many free events and explore nature in the nation’s capitol at Rock Creek Park. It’s home to Meridian Hill Park and Dumbarton Oaks Park as well as the planetarium, Old Stone House and Peirce Mill. Even more, everything is FREE! It’s a fantastic way to cover a lot of ground while you’re visiting DC. Pets are welcome as long as you follow the rules on their website. Not sure where to start your Rock Creek adventure? Visit the Nature Center for a little guidance.
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
While all the Smithsonian Museums are free, the ones along the National Mall can get crowded. The National Portrait Gallery is in Chinatown and doesn’t see as much foot traffic thanks to its location. You may not get to see dinosaur bones here but you can browse through over 15,000 portraits of celebrities, presidents, historical figures, athletes and more. It’s a change of pace from the other museums, generally taken hostage by families and schools on field trips. A few portrait collections include those of Josephine Baker, Shirley MacLaine, Brad Pitt, Pete Rose and Serena Williams.
Union Market Drive-In + Free Events
Union Market, located in the center of Eckington, Ivy City, Northeast Washington, H Street Corridor, NOMA and Truston Circle, is an open air warehouse market that hosts regular free events. Catch outdoor yoga, special pop-ups, food events and the Union Market Drive-In. Available April through November, the drive-in is exactly as it sounds, a drive-in movie theater on Fridays. It costs $10 for cars but walk-ups are free so ditch the car and grab a picnic blanket instead.