I’ve been receiving emails about tips on visiting Washington, DC on a budget. So, I decided to write down a few of our favorite museums that offer free admission. Keep in mind that all the Smithsonian Museums, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities, offer free admission and are open everyday but Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Also, as you’re getting around the District, I highly suggest skipping the car rental and riding the Metro. Not only will it give you a new appreciation of city life, but it will also save you the cost of a rental car and the stress of driving among the Beltway craziness! You can purchase a One Day Metro Pass for $14.50 (it is valid for one day of unlimited Metrorail travel; no time restrictions. Pass expires at the end of the operating day: 3 am on weekends, midnight on weeknights) or a Seven Day Short Trip Pass for $36 (it is valid for seven consecutive days for Metrorail trips costing up to $3.50 from 5-9:30 am and 3-7 pm on weekdays. During these times, if your trip costs more than $3.50, you must use an Exitfare machine to pay the additional fare). You can also purchase a 7-Day Regional Bus Pass for $17.50 (it gives you seven consecutive days of unlimited bus travel). Or, you can take the DC Connector – it provides daily bus service on five convenient routes throughout Washington, DC for just$1 and their buses arrive every 10 minutes.
Tours of the White House
Free public tours of the White House are available, but requests must be submitted through one’s Member of Congress. These self-guided tours are available from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (excluding federal holidays). Tours are scheduled on a first come, first served basis. Requests can be submitted up to six months in advance and no less than 21 days in advance.
Tours of the Capitol
To visit areas of the Capitol beyond the Capitol Visitor Center, you must make a reservation in advance. Guided tours of the historic Capitol begin at the orientation theaters with a 13-minute film, “Out of Many, One,” which will introduce you to the magnificent building that houses our Congress. Once inside the historic Capitol, visitors will see the Crypt of the Capitol, the Rotunda, and National Statuary Hall. All tours begin and end at the Capitol Visitor Center. U.S. residents can go directly through the offices of their Representative or Senators, or arrange them through the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center using an online reservation system.
Tours of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the U.S. Department of State
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the Department of State, which are used for official functions hosted by the Secretary of State, are open for pre-arranged tours at no charge. These rooms hold a premier collection of 18th century American furniture, paintings and decorative arts. Guided tours are conducted Monday through Friday at 9:30 am, 10:30 am, and 2:45 pm. Tours are 45 minutes in duration. Reservations are required and should be made approximately 90 days in advance, due to the large volume of requests.
Tours of the Naval Observatory
Public tours of the USNO are offered on select Monday evenings from 8:30 pm until 10:00 pm, except on Federal holidays. Tours include a presentation of the mission and history of the Naval Observatory, an explanation of of USNO’s timekeeping responsibilities and its Master Clock system, and (weather permitting) viewing of celestial objects with the 12-inch Alvan Clark refractor with an astronomer. For more information, click here.
Free Washington DC Walking Tours
DC by Foot is pleased to present the only free, tip-based walking tours of Washington, DC. These interesting and informative tours will take you from the National Mall to Arlington Cemetery to the Pentagon and beyond. To see their schedules and their different tours, click here.
Saturday Morning at the National Theatre
Every Saturday at 9:30 & 11 am, the National Theatre offers free programs for children at the Helen Hayes Gallery. To see a list of upcoming shows, click here. Tickets are required, and are distributed 30 minutes prior to the performance on a first come-first seated basis.
Enjoy the Eastern Market
Visit the Eastern Market, Washington DC’s oldest continually operated fresh food public market. Located in the heart of the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood, Eastern Market is DC’s destination for fresh food, community events, and on weekends, local farm fresh produce and handmade arts and crafts.
Visit Ford’s Theatre
A visit to the Ford’s Theatre traces the story of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, assassination and legacy. Advance individual tickets are $2.50. A limited number of free tickets are available at the Ford’s Theatre Box Office beginning at 8:30 a.m. for same-day tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. Individuals are limited to six tickets per person for same-day tickets.
Listen to Oral Arguments at the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is open Monday through Friday (except Federal Holidays), from 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. All oral arguments are open to the public, but seating is limited and on a first-come, first-seated basis. Before a session begins, two lines form on the plaza in front of the building. One is for those who wish to attend an entire argument, and the other, a three minute line, is for those who wish to observe the Court in session only briefly. Seating for the first argument begins at 9:30 a.m. and seating for the three-minute line begins at 10 a.m. To see the oral argument calendar, click here.
Tour the Library of Congress
Entrance to the Thomas Jefferson Building is free and open to the public. You may participate in a guided tour or a gallery talk, or take a self-guided tour of the building and the exhibitions. For more information, click here.
Stroll Through The National Mall
I think it’s the most beautiful to tour the monuments at night, when everything is awash in moonlight! Be sure to visit the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson Memorial. Here is a comprehensive list of the national monuments in DC, complete with a schedule of events for the free ranger program.
Attend a Service at the Washington National Cathedral
See the beautiful architecture and grounds, learn more about their history, and enjoy the spectrum of spiritual and cultural activities offered year-round by Washington National Cathedral. It is gorgeous and the music from their pipe organ is heavenly!
Visit Arlington National Cemetery
The Visitors Center opens daily at 8:00 AM and closes at 7:00 PM from April 1 to Sept. 30 and at 5:00 PM from October to March, and is open everyday, except December 25th. The first stop on a trip to Arlington National Cemetery should include the Visitors Center, located by the cemetery entrance. In the Visitors Center, there are maps, guidebooks, information services (to include grave locations), a bookstore, exhibits, and displays. My favorite part is the ceremony of the changing of the guard. The guard is changed every hour on the hour from October 1 to March 31 in an elaborate ritual. From April 1 through September 30, another change is added on the half hour. You don’t want to miss it!
The National Zoo
The National Zoo is a favorite for families with little ones – it covers 163 acres and takes several hours to see all of their animals and exhibits. Admission is free and is open every day of the year, except December 25th. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing, as the Zoo is set on hilly terrain and some paths are steep. Also, parking is limited – the lots fill up by 10:30 AM, especially during the summer. So, consider taking the Metro via the Red Line and exit at either the Woodley Park or Cleveland Park stations. (It’s about a 10-15 minute brisk walk, so I would only do it on a cooler day!) Our favorite exhibits were the giant pandas and the huge elephants – my daughter still talks about them!
American History Museum
The American History Museum is open every day except Dec. 25, from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM, and admission is free. It offers a journey through American History, from the original “Star Spangled Banner” to exhibits on American sports and music. Our “must-see” for this Museum is the display of the First Ladies’ Inaugural Gowns!
Air and Space Museum
The Air & Space Museum has a branch in DC as well as by the Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. Admission is free at both locations and is open every day, from 10:00 AM – 5:30PM. The National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. has thousands of artifacts on display, including the Wright 1903 Flyer; the Spirit of St. Louis; the Apollo 11 command module Columbia; and a Lunar rock sample that visitors can touch. The National Air & Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy building provides enough space for the Smithsonian to display the thousands of aviation and space artifacts that cannot be exhibited on the National Mall, such as the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest jet in the world; the Boeing Dash 80, the prototype of the 707; the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay; and the deHavilland Chipmunk aerobatic airplane.
Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is open every day except Dec. 25 from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM. The Museum offers more than 126 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts, including 30 million insects carefully pinned into tiny boxes; 4½ million plants pressed onto sheets of paper in the Museum’s herbarium; and 7 million fish in liquid-filled jars. Our favorites are the Hope Diamond and the African Elephant.
Admission is free, and the Museum is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except December 25. They invite you on an interactive journey through American postal history to follow the path of postal transportation development and explore the beauty of stamps!
The Folger-Shakespeare Library is open to the public, every Monday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 5:00PM and Sunday from Noon to 5PM. The Library is home to the world’s largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials and to major collections of other rare Renaissance books, manuscripts, and works of art.
The National Archives
Museum hours are 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM. The National Archives Experience is home of the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Visitors may wait in the general public line for entry at any time the museum is open. However, advance reservations are highly recommended and will allow visitors to avoid the exterior portion of the line during the height of the tourist season (mid-March through Labor Day) and during holiday seasons such as the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. The convenience fee for online reservations is $1.50 per person and admission to all of the National Archives Experience exhibits is free. Reserved visits are available at the following times: Guided Tours, 9:45 a.m., Monday through Friday; and Timed Visit Entry, 10 a.m. to 90 minutes before closing, daily.
The Millennium Stage at Kennedy Center
Do you love music? Kennedy Center offers free daily performances at their Millennium Stage, at 6:00PM. No tickets are required. To see a list of all the upcoming performances, click here.
I would love to hear your favorite, free museums in Washington, DC, and I’m sure many of our readers would be curious to know your opinions! Be sure to stay tuned for more posts about our favorite eateries and places to visit.