12 Can’t-Miss Free Things to Do in Washington D.C.

U.S. Capitol Building

As I’ve set out on this path towards early retirement, I’ve had to confront one of my biggest expenses: travel. When I say I’m a travel addict, I’m not exaggerating. I spent more than $6,000 on flights alone in 2017 – gah! I’m not willing to give up travel, but I know I have to get smarter about it if I’m going to reach my goal of financial independence in ten years. One of the ways I thought I could do this is by seeking out free activities at each place I visit. I’m counting on blogging to keep me on track, so here’s the first in a series of what I hope will be many more: Can’t-Miss Free Things to Do in (Insert Exciting Destination Here).

Washington D.C.’s National Mall is one of my favorite places to visit. There’s a ton to see and do, and a lot of it is free. Whether you’re interested in history, politics, art, or science, and whether or not you’re traveling with kids, there’s something for everyone. I’ll admit that I’m a national park nerd, so I love getting cancellation stamps on my National Park passport from the various monuments and sites run by the NPS.

I just visited Washington D.C. for my third time, and I was able to do a few things I haven’t tried yet. I’ve ordered them so that you could start at #1, and walk all the way around to #12 in a big loop. If you do that, there are many other museums and monuments that you’ll pass and could easily stop at.

   1.  Take a tour of the United States Capitol

U.S. Capitol Building

I toured the U.S. Capitol the last time I was there and was really impressed with the experience. It began with a short film about the history of our government and how it operates now. We were then divided into groups and given a headset. Each group has a guide, and as our guide led us around the building, he talked through the headset, so it’s easy to hear. I reserved the tour through my state senator, but you can also book through the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center online, or take your chances with a same day pass (availability apparently varies).

   2.  Visit the Library of Congress

Library of Congress Main Reading Room

It’s a short walk through a tunnel from the Capitol Building to the Library of Congress. They offer a free one-hour walking tour, but I opted to explore on my own. The building is opulent, and the Main Reading Room will put your local library to shame (although you won’t be allowed in unless you have a card).

   3.  Check out the National Air and Space Museum

The National Air and Space Museum is one of the many Smithsonian Museums you can visit, and a great stop if you’re traveling with kids. They have everything from aircraft to engines to a lunar rock you can touch.

   4.  Enjoy the art at the Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden

You can enter the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden from the National Mall, and it’s also a great place to take kids. It’s not too big, but it’s a good stopping point and you’ll definitely see some unusual art.

   5.  Tour the Bureau of Engraving and Printing

I have to admit I haven’t toured the Bureau of Engraving and Printing yet, but I really want to! This is where they print the money – a fascinating place for a personal finance geek like me. Tickets are first-come, first-served, and when I tried to visit on a recent holiday weekend, they’d already run out. I’d recommend getting there early, particularly if you’re there for a holiday or anytime in the spring, when the city tends to be inundated with tourists.

   6.  Loop around the Tidal Basin

Tidal Basin with view of Washington Monument

The Tidal Basin is a really pretty body of water not far from the National Mall. I found the walk around it really peaceful, with lots to stop at and see along the way.

   7.  See the Memorials for Jefferson, FDR and MLK Jr.

FDR Memorial

MLK Memorial

If you do #6 and walk around the Tidal Basin, you’ll go right by the Memorials for Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. If you happen to have a national park passport, there are cancellation stamps available for all three of these Memorials – bonus!

   8.  Pause at the World War Two Memorial

WWII Memorial

The World War Two Memorial is located right by the Washington Monument, at the other end of the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty-six granite columns represent each state and territory at the time of the War. It’s in a great central location, so wherever you’re heading to next, it’s probably on your way.

   9.  Get some exercise by hiking down to the Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial is at the very end of the National Mall. If you’ve walked up to this point, your feet might be hurting by now, but if they’re not, I recommend walking down to the memorial for the 16th President. You’ll pass right by the biggest reflecting pool in Washington D.C. on the way down there.

   10.  Explore the White House

I haven’t toured the White House yet, but it’s not for lack of trying! You have to apply through your member of Congress at least 21 days in advance, and tours are available on a first-come, first-served basis. If you’re foreign, you should contact your embassy in Washington D.C. to request a tour. This is definitely on my bucket list, as I think it sounds like an incredible experience!

   11.  Visit Ford’s Theatre

Ford's Theatre Sign

Ford’s Theatre is an important piece of American history, because it’s where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. In addition to touring the theatre (and getting your national park passport stamped), you can also walk around the Jefferson House. It’s right across the street, and it’s where Lincoln was taken after being shot and where he ultimately passed away.

   12.  Look around the Museum of Natural History

Museum of Natural History

The Museum of National History is hands-down my favorite museum in D.C – I go there every time I visit! The last time I was there they had an entire exhibit on the narwhal, a marine mammal I’d never heard of. I’ve also seen some incredible photos there of animals in their natural habitat.

I’d like to hear from you. What are some of the best free activities you’ve found while traveling?

12 Can’t-Miss, Free Things to Do in Washington D.C
12 Can’t-Miss, Free Things to Do in Washington D.C. A list of the best tours, monuments and museums that won’t cost you a dime.