We all like to get more bang for the buck, and that desire typically extends to vacations, when we might feel pulled between the desire to treat ourselves and the reality of our bank accounts. A trip to Washington, D.C., allows you to accommodate both. With so many free attractions available, you won’t need to whip out the credit card every few hours. Pocket the money you save, or use it to indulge in dining and accommodations that are a step above your usual fare.
Here are some of our favorite free and low-cost attractions in D.C., but it’s by no means an exhaustive list. If you have additional ideas you want to share with your fellow AAA members, post them on our Facebook page: Facebook.com/AAAWorldMagazine.
You already knew that the Smithsonian museums were free, you say? Well, we’ll bet you didn’t know just how many museums the Smithsonian has in the greater D.C. area: a whopping 17 museums, gardens and even a zoo—all free, all the time. Of course, there are the big three: the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum (don’t forget about Air & Space’s companion museum, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport). The National Mall is also the location of the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian’s latest: the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
While you can just walk in most of these museums at any time during operating hours, you’ll need a (free) timed ticket to visit the African American Museum, which remains wildly popular 14 months after its opening. Three options are available for accessing tickets: you can get same-day passes online beginning at 6:30 a.m.; you can try to claim a walk-up pass at the museum beginning at 1 p.m. on weekdays only; or you can pre-arrange your timed ticket online, but you’ll need to do that months in advance. Passes for January 2018 were released beginning October 4. Go to nmaahc.si.edu for more information on tickets.
The Smithsonian also boasts the National Postal Museum near Union Station and eight art museums and galleries on or near the National Mall. Don’t miss the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which reopened in mid-October after a nearly two-year renovation. The Freer|Sackler features the art of Asia and reopened with exhibitions showcasing works from ancient Egypt, Iran and China; Buddhist art from throughout Asia; and a monumental brass installation by contemporary Indian artist Subodh Gupta.
Other Smithsonian art museums include the popular American Art Museum and adjoining Portrait Gallery, located a few blocks from the Mall. The art museum farthest afield is the Renwick Gallery, which is one-and-a-half miles from the Mall but well worth a visit, particularly if you’re interested in contemporary craft. It’s a pleasant walk or a short trip on the Metro, and it’s right near the White House.
If you’re a newbie to D.C. and the Smithsonian museums, stop first at the “Castle,” an eye-catching 19th-century red sandstone building on the Mall that serves as the Smithsonian Visitor Center. It has interactives and artifact highlights from all of the museums, and staff there can help you plan your visit. Find information on all of the Smithsonian attractions at si.edu.
Art Beyond the Smithsonian
Art lovers, rejoice! Even beyond the Smithsonian facilities, the city has a plethora of museums and galleries. The National Gallery of Art (nga.gov) always has free admission, and it offers free docent-led tours and gallery talks. From a nucleus of 126 paintings and 26 sculptures that made up the collection at the museum’s opening in 1941, the National Gallery has grown dramatically with donations and acquisitions—including gaining stewardship of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s collection when that D.C. landmark closed in 2014. The collection of the National Gallery of Art is strongest in European and American art from the Renaissance to the present day, while temporary exhibitions and special installations add to the breadth of the museum’s offerings.
The personal art collection of Robert and Mildred Woods Bliss can be seen free at Dumbarton Oaks Museum (doaks.org) in Georgetown, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection administered by Harvard University. The museum is renowned for its specialized collections of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, while the Music Room of the Bliss’ former residence houses a collection of medieval and Renaissance European art and furniture. Dumbarton Oaks is also known for its 10-acre formal garden, which will reopen March 15, 2018, after a renovation. An admission fee is charged for the garden most months of the year.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts (nmwa.org)—the only museum in the world dedicated solely to art by women—has a low admission rate of $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and students. And it’s free the first Sunday of every month. The museum’s collection of some 4,500 pieces spans the 16th century to the present and showcases works by more than 1,000 women artists, from well-known to emerging talents.
The Kreeger Museum (kreegermuseum.org) showcases the personal art collection of Carmen and David Kreeger in a modern edifice that is itself a work of art. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Phillip Johnson, the structure was built in the mid-1960s with the intention of opening eventually as a museum, although the Kreegers lived there for many years. The couple’s exquisite collection of 19th- and 20th-century painting and sculpture and traditional African and Asian art is particularly strong in Impressionist and European modernist art, with some outstanding works by Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. The Kreeger has a small sculpture garden, too. All of this splendor can be seen for a suggested donation of $10 ($8 for seniors and students), and there are free docent-led tours twice daily.
Another lower-cost museum, the Phillips Collection (phillipscollection.org) will be finishing up a building enhancement project in January 2018. About half of it remains open through construction, though, so visitors can still see the works of this nearly 100-year-old museum of modern art—America’s first. Displayed in small, charming galleries, including some that occupy the former DuPont Circle home of founder Duncan Phillips, the collection comprises Impressionist and Modern works by the likes of Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Winslow Homer, Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Vincent van Gogh. Admission to the Phillips Museum Collection is by donation Tuesday through Friday, with a usual charge on weekends of $12 for adults and $10 for seniors and students.
Other Free Museums
Some 1.6 million people a year visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (ushmm.org), created by so many visitors during the March to August tourist season that timed tickets are required to see the permanent exhibition The Holocaust. The exhibition’s chronological narrative spans 1933 to 1945 and makes use of historic artifacts, photographs, film footage and personal objects, ending with videotaped eyewitness testimony of Holocaust survivors. Spanning three floors, the main exhibition generally takes one to three hours to view. Viewing the exhibition is emotionally challenging and is recommended for children ages 11 and older. A smaller permanent exhibition, Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story, looks at the Holocaust through the eyes of a child and is recommended for ages 8 and up with their families.
It’s the best-selling book of all time—and now there’s a free museum dedicated to it. The Museum of the Bible (museumofthebible.org) is scheduled to open to the public November 18. At eight floors and covering some 430,000 square feet, D.C.’s newest attraction is as large as some of the Smithsonian museums. Although it’s two blocks from the National Mall, it should grab visitors’ attention with its soaring, glass-enclosed top level (which houses a biblical garden and a restaurant serving “foods of the Bible”). The founder and CEO of the museum is controversial Hobby Lobby CEO David Green, but the museum is promised to be nonsectarian and nonpolitical. The collection boasts highlights such as ancient biblical texts on papyrus, the world’s largest private collection of Torah scrolls, fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, rare medieval illuminated manuscripts and a Bible that was brought to the moon on the Apollo 14 mission.
Monuments, Memorials and Government Buildings
Most of the monuments and memorials in D.C. are free, with no tickets required. The biggies—Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, National World War II Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, FDR Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial—are open 24 hours a day and typically staffed by park service rangers from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Locals swear that the best time to visit is in the evening after the crowds have dispersed and when the memorials are lit up. You can see the Washington Monument from the outside, but it’s closed for repairs until spring 2019 (and tickets will be required to go inside).
While still a working theater, Ford’s Theatre is best known as the site where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. The Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site (fords.org) includes the theater and a small but rewarding museum about Lincoln’s presidency and his assassination, as well as an exhibit about the aftermath of the assassination that is housed in a building across the street. Admission to all of these sites is free. While you could chance it and try to get same-day tickets on-site, advance reservations are highly recommended, especially from February through July. The advance reservation fee is $3 per person. The theater isn’t always open to visitors, so confirm ahead online; you’ll want to step inside to get a glimpse of the box where the Lincolns were seated that fateful night. Tickets to the historic site and ancillary offerings can be reserved now for dates through May 2018.
Free docent-led tours of the Library of Congress’ historic Jefferson Building are offered Mondays through Saturdays (loc.gov). You’ll learn about the art and architecture of the building, how the library got started, and tidbits such as the continually growing number of materials in the collection. There are several specialized tours as well, including one focusing on the library’s music division. Ongoing and temporary exhibitions are free, as are lectures and performances.
The U.S. Capitol can be toured free. You can try to get a same-day pass at the Visitor Center, but it’s a better idea to make a reservation at visitthecapitol.gov. The guided tour of the building takes in the Rotunda with its massive fresco in the eye of the dome; the Crypt directly below the Rotunda, which houses statues donated by the 13 original states; and National Statuary Hall. Tours start at the Visitor Center, where there’s a display in Exhibition Hall about Congress and the Capitol building.
Two specialty tours are offered as well. Freedom Fighters in the Capitol Collection looks at four ordinary individuals who made an extraordinary impact on our civil rights history, and Halls of the Senate explores the beautiful Senate corridors decorated by Constantino Brumidi, who designed the Frieze of American History and painted The Apotheosis of George Washington in the Rotunda.
If you want to see your Congressional representative or senators in action on the House or Senate floor, you’ll need to obtain a Gallery Pass from the office of your senator or congressperson. You’ll need passes to get a glimpse inside the chambers even when the House and Senate are not in session, so plan accordingly.
While it’s free to tour the White House, getting in isn’t so easy. Self-guided tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday morning, and a limited number of visitors are accepted. You’ll need to request a tour reservation from your Congressional representative or senator at least 21 days in advance, but no earlier than three months in advance of your desired visit (whitehouse.gov/participate/tours-and-events).
If you’ve missed your window, or you simply don’t want to go to the trouble, you can still learn about the history of the presidential residence at the White House Visitor Center (nps.gov/whho/planyourvisit/white-house-visitor-center.htm), a National Park Service-run exhibition in the Department of Commerce Building at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue. Displays include nearly 100 artifacts, such as White House china, the telegraph used by the Lincoln administration and FDR’s desk. Be sure to watch the film The White House: Reflections from Within. You’ll be moved by the personal stories told by presidents, first ladies and other members of first families.
The website address moneyfactory.gov succinctly tells you what the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving is all about. A visit to the Bureau’s free D.C. Tour and Visitor Center (there’s also one in Fort Worth, Texas) provides a film and exhibition on how paper currency is printed, and you’ll even see the printing presses spitting out dollar bills as you observe the production floor from the gallery. The facility is open during renovation, but check the website for up-to-date information.
Maybe you’ve already made the pilgrimage to the Rotunda of the National Archives Museum (archives.gov/museum) to see our country’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But if you haven’t gone beyond that hallowed room to see the rest of the museum, you’re missing out.
The museum’s “Public Vaults” permanent exhibit showcases some of the National Archives’ most interesting documents, photos, films and audio clips. See George Washington’s handwritten letters and Abraham Lincoln’s telegrams about the Civil War. Delve into the lives of common citizens by perusing immigration records, naturalization papers, homestead applications and draft cards. There’s also a permanent exhibit, “Record of Rights,” about how Americans have debated and fought for free speech, voting rights and equal opportunity.
Admission to the National Archives Museum is free, but during holiday seasons and March through Labor Day, you might want to pony up a $1.50 per person “convenience fee” for an online reservation.
You can catch a free performance nightly at 6 p.m. at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage (kennedy-center.org). Shows run the gamut from comedy improv to storytelling to theater to dance to opera to classical music, hip hop, bluegrass and more. As an international city, D.C. attracts quite a few performers from abroad, too. In September, for example, free Millennium Stage performances included works by artists from Indonesia, Mexico, Sweden, Senegal, Paraguay and Cambodia. Tickets aren’t required, but admission is first-come, first-served.
During the summer, free and low-cost outdoor entertainment abounds, from concerts by U.S. military bands on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol to live music by local performers at Fort Reno Park to family movies at The Yards Park. The National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden provides an atmospheric location for weekly free jazz concerts from late May to early September.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
So Much to Do, So Little Time
Out of breath yet? No? Good, because D.C. has all sorts of outdoor attractions to keep you busy, too. You can explore the city cheaply on two wheels by renting a bike from Capital Bikeshare (capitalbikeshare.com). Purchase a 24-hour pass for just $8, or get three days of access for $17.
Ride your bike or take the transportation of your choice to Rock Creek Park (nps.gov/rocr). The 1,754-acre park has 32 miles of hiking trails and paths; a planetarium with free shows on Saturdays and Sundays; a nature center with live turtles, snakes and fish and an active beehive; and a number of historic buildings open for tours.
Birders and casual hikers love Theodore Roosevelt Island (nps.gov/this), a 91-acre wilderness preserve with its two-and-a-half miles of trails passing through woods and marshland and over a boardwalk. The entire island is a memorial honoring the president known for his conservation efforts, and there’s a statue of Roosevelt in the park’s center.
We could go on, and on. Instead, we’ll point you to the district’s tourism website: washington.org, which offers a wealth of information about attractions and more.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of AAA World.