Big cities can be notoriously expensive, but Washington D.C. offers so many free museums and tours that it is a great destination for families looking for an affordable big-city experience. Here are 25 of my favorite free things to do in Washington D.C. with kids.
Museums and Buildings
Smithsonian Museums – Washington D.C. is home to 17 free Smithsonian museums. My favorite ones for families are the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, and the Natural History Museum. Check out our top 10 museums in Washington D.C. for kids, many of which are free.
U.S. Botanic Gardens – The U.S. Botanic Gardens are a great place to visit anytime of year, but if you are going to be in Washington D.C. between Thanksgiving and New Years, you must stop by to see the astounding holiday botanical display and model train exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Gardens.
National Archives – Pop into the National Archives for a great history lesson to show your kids the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. Find out just how big John Hancock's signature really is.
Bureau of Printing and Engraving – Visit the Bureau of Printing and Engraving to see millions of dollars being printed before your eyes. This short tour is free but requires advance tickets that you can pick up starting at 8:00 a.m. the morning you want to visit.
National Cathedral – The National Cathedral is only free on Sundays, but this beautiful building is worth a visit if you are in town. Worship, prayer, and spiritual visits are free. You may pay for tours Monday-Saturday.
U.S. Holocaust Museum – This sobering museum is more appropriate for older teens and adults, but is worth visiting to appreciate the harsh realities of the Holocaust. Timed tickets are required March-October and can be reserved online or picked up at the entrance to the museum starting at 10:00 a.m. until they are gone.
Kennedy Center Millenium Stage – Stop by the Kennedy Center at 6:00 p.m. any day for free concerts, no ticket required.
Albert Einstein Statue – Make a quick stop at 2101 Constitution Avenue to stop by the Albert Einstein memorial and take a picture.
U.S. Capitol – The free tours of the U.S. Capitol are a must for visitors to Washington D.C. Check out our tips on how to get tickets and plan your trip.
White House – White House tours are notoriously hard to come by but they can be scheduled six months in advance through a Member of Congress. If you are not able to schedule a tour, my favorite place to view the White House is either from the base or top of the Washington Monument, or from the bar at the top of the W hotel.
Library of Congress – The Library of Congress is my favorite building in Washington D.C., partly because I love books, and partly because it is so beautiful. You can walk through the building anytime it is open, but the free docent-led tours give you interesting history and point out unique architectural features.
National Park Service Tours – The National Park Service offers dozens of free walking tours of the monuments and other historic sights in Washington D.C. Check website for a listing of tours, meeting locations, and times.
DC by Foot Tours – Okay, this one isn't technically free, but DC by Foot offers “name your own price” tours. At the end of your tour you pay what you think the tour was worth or what you can afford. Reservations are required for these unique tours like “Lincoln Assassination” and “Ghosts of Georgetown.”
Supreme Court Tour – Free 30-minute tours are available on days when the Supreme Court is not in session. On days court is in session, you may be able to watch the proceedings. Check the website for details and tour times.
Pentagon – Schedule a tour of the high-security Pentagon to get inside the Department of Defense. These tours must be scheduled between 14-90 days in advance, and will require some security clearance before you are permitted to enter the building. The tour is informative and worth doing. While you are there, make time to visit the 9/11 Pentagon memorial on the grounds of the Pentagon.
Monuments and Memorials
One of the most popular free things to do in Washington D.C. is walk around the monuments and memorials. Walking around all of them is about a 3-mile loop and will take a few hours, but kids have room to run and explore while learning some significant history along the way. Check out our tips for seeing the monuments at night when the crowds die down and the temperature drops.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial – Stand in the bread line for a photo op at the FDR Memorial. This memorial is a favorite with kids because of the many water features and the great views of the Tidal Basin.
Washington Monument – Take a trip to the top of the Washington Monument for a great view of downtown Washington D.C. Timed tickets are free and can be picked up first thing in the morning at the base of the monument. If you prefer a reserved time, get advance reservations online for a small processing fee. I recommend booking 3 months in advance.
National Mall – A picnic at the base of the Washington monument with views of the U.S. Capitol is a great place for a family to unwind after a day of sight seeing. Several free festivals and concerts happen year-round on the Mall.
Theodore Roosevelt Island – This free island is a fun destination for families who love the outdoors. Located in the middle of the Potomac River, this park has hiking trails, a junior ranger program, and great bird watching.
Gravelly Point – Young kids will love stopping at Gravelly Point just off the George Washington Memorial Parkway to watch the airplanes land and take off from Reagan National Airport every few minutes. This beautiful point along the Potomac River is a great destination for a picnic and some down time.
Rock Creek Park – Rock Creek Park is a treasure right in downtown Washington D.C. With over 32 miles of trails, ranger-led astronomy and other educational programs, and summer concerts in the amplitheater, this free park has something for everyone.
National Zoo – The Smithsonian National Zoo is free, but parking will cost $22. We recommend using the metro if possible. We love the “O-lines” where the orangutan's roam the zoo above our heads.
Arlington National Cemetery – Visit Pres. Kennedy's gravesite and the eternal flame, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and Robert E. Lee's home on the hill at Arlington National Cemetery. Plan for plenty of walking in this beautiful cemetery. My favorite time to visit? Spring and fall.
Yards Park – Stop by Yards Park for summer concerts in the evening and a fun splash pad where kids will love to cool off.
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Wonderful list! Pinning to save for my next trip to DC!
Tamara Gruber (@tgruber)
There are so many things here that I still want to do! As a family we have only spent 1 day in DC and managed to squeeze in a White House tour, Air and Space Museum and Natural History Museum, plus stops at the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorial at night. Can’t wait for a chance to do the rest.
That was a big day, Tamara! Hope you can visit again soon. I feel pretty spoiled to live so close.
What a fantastic list! My husband and I visited Washington nearly 18 years ago but have never been with the kids. We have been thinking of heading there for a weekend so it’s nice to know that there are so many free activities! Do you happen to know if non-Americans can book a tour of the White House?
I hope you can visit again soon, Lisa! Yes, citizens of foreign countries can book a tour of the White House. They need to contact their embassy in Washington D.C. to schedule a tour. Thanks for asking!
Katja - globetotting
I would love to visit D.C. My husband occasionally goes for work and I keep threatening that the kids and I will tag along one day. Now I know how much there is to do, we’ll be going along next time for sure. Great post!
Thank you, Allison & Katie for ALL of this posted info as well as the answered questions via email. We’re excited for our trip to VA this July: so much to do, so little time. 🙂