Our nation’s capital has enough popular museums and monuments to keep a visitor busy for days and days. Fortunately for Washington’s tourists and museum-goers, not every notable attraction asks you to open your wallet. These world-class museums and landmarks in D.C. welcome guests at no charge.
Best Free Attractions in Washington D.C.
1. National Museum of Natural History - Constitution Ave. at 10th St. NW, Washington, DC 20013
One of many federally-administered Smithsonian Institution operations on the National Mall, the National Museum of Natural History is the third-most visited museum in the world—prepare for crowds! Home to natural and man-made artifacts, this free museum is a must-visit attraction both adults and kids who enjoy the sciences. Among its awesome exhibits is the “Last American Dinosaurs”, which offers both a visual representation of these extinct creatures and a scientific investigation into their fossil records. Flashier displays at the National Museum of Natural History include famous jewels like the Hope Diamond (once owned by King Louis XIV) and the 858-carat Gachala Emerald. If you’ve visited the Smithsonian before and want to see something new, walk through the temporary “Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed” exhibit, which displays incredible photographs of ice, lava and the “northern lights.” NMNH is open every day except Christmas from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
2. National Gallery of Art - 6th St & Constitution Ave NW Washington, DC 20001
Once again, a museum run by the U.S. government fails to disappoint. The National Gallery of Art, located on the Mall near the Capitol, covers all the bases when it comes to art and art history. From Vermeer paintings to Picasso sculptures, this top D.C. museum houses some of the world’s finest artwork. Its current temporary exhibit, “Civic Pride: Group Portraits from Amsterdam,” looks inside the fanciful world of the Dutch Golden Age, which celebrates political camaraderie. A cool subterranean tunnel, designed by Leo Villarreal, connects the two buildings (one classic, the other modern), allowing visitors to dodge rain or any unfavorable weather while touring both sides of the gallery. Need another reason to enter the Gallery? Check out its Instagram profile, an apt illustration of the museum’s breadth. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
3. National Zoological Park - 3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008
Worldwide, free zoos are uncommon, and it’s somewhat unusual in the U.S. to be able to see wild animals for free. If you’re in D.C., take advantage of the National Zoological Park and the 400 species it houses, nearly 40 of which are endangered. The hosts two Chinese pandas (under an international contract) that have produced an adorable and famous young panda named Bao Bao. The zoo’s extraordinary collection of lovable animals includes lions, tigers, seals, elephants, giant tortoises as well as an ape house and reptile house, and much, much more. Except for Christmas, the zoo is open daily, but hours change depending on the season—double check with the website.
4. Ford’s Theatre - 511 10th St NW, Washington, DC 20004
This historical venue, the place of President Lincoln’s assassination, still operates as a working theater and national historic site, although the building was closed for 100 years after Lincoln’s death. Ford’s Theatre paints a picture of what Washington D.C. was like in the 1860s with its antique clothes, guns and furniture. Instead of paying the regular $3 admission price, grab one of the first-come-first-serve free tickets available at the Box Office mornings at 8:30 a.m. Open seven days a week, Ford’s Theatre closes at 4:30 p.m. and often hosts National Park Service Rangers who explain the assassination in depth throughout the day. Be sensitive about whether your children are mature enough for this violent story.
5. Washington National Cathedral - 3101 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, DC 20016
This cathedral’s grandiosity demands appreciation, regardless of religious affiliation. Governed by the Episcopal Church, the stunning Washington National Cathedral is surprisingly the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and has housed many significant, state-sponsored funerals, including astronaut Neil Armstrong and President Ronald Reagan. While gazing up at its neo-Gothic features, look out for unique intricacies, like its numerous gargoyles and the Darth Vader Grotesque. Visit this Washington landmark for free on Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., unless you’re looking to purchase a pricey but fun Tower Climb (up 333 steps!). Feeling hungry? Grab a bite at the Open City Café. Fortunately for the Cathedral’s visitors, this popular brunch spot has a location inside an old baptistery next door.
6.National Museum of Women in the Arts - 1250 New York Ave NW Washington, D.C. 20005
This Smithsonian specialty wing honors female participation in art history and is one of the only museums in existence of its kind, with an emphasis on equity and empowerment through research and education. Exhibits like “Pathmakers,” a dig into midcentury pieces perhaps overlooked in their day, give work in handicrafts and welding political meaning. “Esther Bubley Up Front,” a temporary exhibit on display until January 16th, looks at the art of a photojournalist who immersed herself into a Texas oil boom town to capture American life at that time. NMWA opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and opens at noon on Sunday.
7. Daughters of the American Revolution Museum (DAR) - 1776 D Street NW Washington, D.C. 20006
The DAR Museum, similarly gender-specific, is a tribute to the women and girls who toiled through the days of the American Revolution, run by proven descendants of soldiers involved in the fight for U.S. independence. View 18th-century attire and interior design as well as items passed down through patriotic families in the museum gallery and period rooms. Domestic tools on display at the DAR Museum range from spinning machines to high-wheeled bicycles, all with their own historic explanations. A trip to the DAR museum is especially recommended to fans of U.S. history or sewing and quilting. DAR Museum, though closed on Sunday, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
8. Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center - 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway Chantilly, Virginia 20151
For a modern collection of impressive items, look no further than Udvar-Hazy Center, the companion museum to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the Mall in D.C. Udvar-Hazy houses the Boeing Aviation Hangar and the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, with more than enough room for vessels like Korean War fighter jets, early missiles and the Discovery space shuttle. Although Udvary-Hazy sits outside the D.C. city limits, (it’s technically annexed from Washington-Dulles Airport), a trip to this massive archive will inspire aviation geeks of all ages. Both hangars are open every day except Christmas from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
9. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site - 1411 W St SE, Washington, DC 20020
Cross east over the Anacostia River and take a stroll on the estate of Frederick Douglass, a famous abolitionist, freed slave and great political mind of the 1800s. The house itself, dubbed Cedar Hill, has many quirks. After his wife’s death, Douglass built a new spousal quarter next to his loved one’s old room for a new wife. Historical evidence lurks at every corner, and the free guided tour helps to clarify life during Reconstruction. Additionally, visitors can enjoy fantastic views of D.C. from the top of Cedar Hill on a clear day; just be prepared to walk up a steep incline. The estate is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. November through March and until 5 p.m. April through October.
10. United States National Arboretum - 3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002
Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this beautiful attraction is a must-visit place for D.C. visitors looking to maximize time outdoors. Its fantastic herb garden and flowers of all shades allure green-thumbed guests from around the world. Within the Arboretum is the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which houses decorative Japanese and Chinese miniature trees that are notoriously difficult to grow and maintain. Photographers will adore the serenity and cultural significance of this outdoor museum, while nature fans might appreciate the National Grove of State Trees, an eclectic collection of species from each state. Visit this 446-acre arboretum daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but pay attention to the weather!
This article was written by Juliana Cohen and edited by Lexi Perman.