Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Free things to see and do in Washington, DC

Washington D.C. is one of the top tourist cities in the United States. Throughout the year visitors come from near and far to visit this historic and amazing city. A city full of wonderful landmarks, attractions and other things to see and do.

Traveling is typically expensive no matter where you go and, while it is true accommodations and food are pricey in the District, there plenty of free things to do too. This can help make bring costs down if traveling on a budget.

Walk the city

Upon arrival in the capital city, visitors are often bombarded with pricey tours and other ways to explore the city. While it’s true organized tours provide a thorough (and often faster) viewing of the city overall, many of them are expensive. If you want to tour the city and keep to a budget, as long as you do not mind walking and have the time to do it, it is fun to tour the city on foot and/or using the Metro rail and bus system when possible. Or you can rent a bike to cover more ground.  


The Hope Diamond
Unlike other cities which charge high entry fees for their museums, this is not the case for much of Washington. For instance, the Smithsonian museums house some of the most amazing artifacts and special exhibits and all are free to enter. You can make a donation but these are low-key and not forced on you as “admission” in some museums do in other cities. There are many museums in the network, each with a different focus. For the most part, the Smithsonian museums are close in proximity to one another and the Smithsonian Metro station puts you smack in the middle of the museum area of the National Mall. For a list of museums, the Smithsonian website offers a wealth of information. 

Ford's Theatre and Petersen House are run by the National Parks Service. Touring the historic museum and the home where President Lincoln passed on after the assassination took place in the theatre is free of charge but does require tickets. Occasionally, these tickets can be gotten on the fly, but this option is not always available, especially during peak tour times of the year because tickets go quickly. Plan to get them early! If you're only going to be in Washington once, book tickets online (there is a fee).

Monuments and Memorials

When one thinks of the U.S. Capital City, the monuments almost immediately come to mind. Entry to all the monuments are free, although the Washington Monument does require tickets for those who are adventurous enough to ride to the top (note: the elevator is closed for repairs until sometime in 2019).
Jefferson Memorial/Tidal Basin (2017)
Nestled throughout the National Mall, the monuments in Washington are truly a wonder, especially from an architectural perspective.  Many of the memorials have small museums, plaques or storyboards where you can see or learn more. Then there is also the Tidal Basin that many of the monuments surround. It’s a beautiful walk and there are benches along the way so you can stop and take in the view. Many people also picnic here.

Capitol, Library of Congress and U.S. Botanic Garden

The U.S. Capitol Building, the hub of U.S. government, offers free tours, although passes must be gotten in advance through specific channels. Although, a newer option is to book a tour online; limited tours are available this way. During non-peak seasons, you can book very close to the time you want to visit. If you’re visiting during peak tourist times, I recommend you reserve your tickets early. 
U.S. Capitol (2012)
While you're in the area of the Capitol, check out the Library of Congress. After your tour, you can take the underground corridor right into the Thomas Jefferson building of the LOC. There are two other buildings, the John Adams Building and the James Madison Memorial Building (I haven’t gotten into those yet). Additionally, just next to the Capitol is the United States Botanic Garden, a beautiful place to visit.

White House

The White House is another can't miss landmark; however, admission to the free self-guided tour also
White House (taken many years ago)
requires pre-planning and advance booking. This one cannot be booked online, you have to go through designated channels. With heightened security, the current process could change at any time. Recently, when I've been downtown the barrier placements have moved a few times. When I first moved here, we were able to walk up to the White House fence itself but over the years times have changed. If you can't get close on your visit and want to minimize the barriers in your photos, you can get some nice shots by standing back a bit further into Lafayette Square.

National Zoo

The National Zoo, run by the Smithsonian, is also free. Certain attractions or special events (i.e. ZooLights) may have a small nominal cost and parking is not free, but entrance the zoo and most exhibits are all open to the public free of charge. The zoo is open year-round.

Old Post Office

Old Post Office (2017)
The Old Post Office is another wonderful landmark. NPS runs the elevator up this historic tower and it’s a free tour. Spectacular views! This is in the building that now houses the Trump International Hotel. I haven’t taken this tour since the remodel but from what I understand getting to the clock tower is now a separate entrance.

National Archives
Other places you can visit for free include the National Archives (see the 1297 Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights), U.S. Holocaust Museum, U.S. Supreme Court, Washington National Cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Union Station and also the many cool neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Marine/Iwo Jima Memorial
Just across the river in Virginia and close to the District are Arlington Cemetery (including Arlington House), Marine Corps War Memorial, United States Air Force Memorial and the Pentagon. Entry to all are free. If you want to tour the Pentagon, plan ahead of time, you cannot do it any shorter than 14 days in advance. Check the website for current policy.

While paid guided tours are useful to cover more ground, if you’re on a budget and do not mind doing some of the legwork yourself, you can see most of the District on your own, customizing based on your available time. Not to mention, you also never know what other landmarks, gardens, statues and other things you may stumble across by strolling through Washington, there is usually something to see in every corner of the city.

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