If you want to explore the Land of the Free, there’s no better place to start than the nation’s capital. Because just about everything is actually free – as in no cost, don’t have to spend a dollar, 100% free. Here’s a look at some of the cultural, historical, and fun things Washington, DC has to offer:
Of the 19 Smithsonian museums that line the National Mall our guests’ favorites include the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air & Space Museum. But there are also dozens of free museums sprinkled throughout the district. Check out the National Postal Museum next to Union Station to get a surprisingly interesting history of the U.S. mail system. The Portrait Gallery, which features American artists, is situated in the vibrant Penn Quarter, making it a great stop before grabbing dinner or drinks.
National Geographic’s headquarters are right in downtown DC and the building is rich with unique displays. But instead of entering through the main 17th Street entrance – where you have to pay to see their official museum – enter around the side on M Street to see a rotating free exhibit, typically featuring stunning photography from around the world.
This cultural center features theater, music, and dance performances from around the world, and boasts striking views of the Potomac River from its rooftop deck. And 365 days a year on its Millennium Stage, musicians and performers give a free show at 6:00 p.m.
This national landmark has deep roots in DC’s history, morphing from a gathering place for emancipated slaves in 1862 to a gathering place for drummers after Malcolm X’s assassination. Today, the drum circles continue every Sunday from 3:30-9:00pm, where area residents play African rhythms and people of all different walks of life come to dance and listen, while taking in sweeping views of the city.
If you head down to the Georgetown Waterfront, right where it appears to end under the Key Bridge, a trail actually begins. It will lead you all the way to Silver Spring, MD, but walk, jog, or cycle as far as you like or until you get to the picnic grounds outside Fletcher’s Cove, where boat and kayak rentals are available. It’s a great spot to relax and get up close to the Potomac River.
If you’re looking for something free to do at night, exploring the monuments along the National Mall is a great option. The vibe is electric with tourists from all over the world coming to see the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, among others, after the sun goes down. Strategically lit for night time observers, the Korean War and Vietnam War monuments become especially haunting.
Every night of the week in Summer you’ll find a range of outdoor venues featuring music performances spanning reggae, jazz, pop, Latin music, and more. Some staff favorites include the Navy Memorial on Tuesdays, Georgetown on Wednesdays, and Yards Park on Fridays. If you’re in town another day and looking for a free show, just ask the HI Washington DC staff for a recommendation.
Although the most famous is Screen On The Green in front of the Capitol, you’ll find 10 venues across the DC metro area that offer free outdoor movies during the summer. No matter what night you’re in town, you’re bound to find something playing in a grassy patch near you!
As part of the Smithsonian collection, this 163-acre zoological park is set amid Rock Creek National Park, just a short metro ride from downtown DC. You’ll find pandas, elephants, monkeys, and more, with daily programming scheduled.
Although a bit farther out from downtown, this is a must see for outdoor enthusiasts. Popular displays include National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, the National Herb Garden, and the National Grove of State Trees. The arboretum also has 9 miles of roads for you to explore by bicycle.
As a guest of our hostel, you can take advantage of free walking tours and outings daily. Just sign up in the lobby for a Georgetown walking tour, a pub crawl, a museum visit, a concert series, and more. You’ll meet other hostellers from around the world, and our local volunteers will give you an insider’s perspective on what to see and do around town – without getting lost!
Find more free things to across the country in the HI USA Free For All.