I’m going to get this out of the way up front: Washington, D.C. can be tough on the wallet. There, I said it.
While D.C. is one of our favorite travel destinations, it’s also one of the toughest to stitch together in a budget-friendly manner. Thankfully, D.C. offers an abundance of free activities that can help offset some of the expense of air travel, accommodations, and food.
With a comprehensive metro system and a pedestrian-friendly core, D.C. is a traveler’s dream. Even better, most of the area’s major landmarks and free attractions are in close proximity to each other. Here’s a look at some of our favorites:
Monuments and Memorials
Any visit to D.C. requires a stop by some of the memorials and monuments. As guys who like to take in a city on foot, we’re always eager to get to the Tidal Basin. The basin, a man-made inlet next to the Potomac River, is home to a string of D.C.’s key landmarks. We especially enjoy walking the Tidal Basin during the famous Cherry Blossom Festival. Making your way around (and under) the mature, pink-blossomed trees that swoop down and touch the water is something you won’t forget.
Our favorite sites around the Tidal Basin include the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, opened in 1997, and the even newer Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, opened in 2011. At nearly eight acres, the FDR Memorial is a real retreat. Four separate areas represent the different terms of Roosevelt’s presidency. We enjoy meandering through the areas, reading the powerful quotes on the granite walls, listening to the thundering waterfalls, and gazing at the serene fir and cherry trees.
The King Memorial, although less expansive, is equally impressive. The cornerstone of the memorial – a 30-foot tall stone depiction of Dr. King – brings visitors to a halt. We always take the time to walk the 450-foot, gently curved wall that highlights some of King’s most powerful quotes.
Many of D.C.’s museums are in the area between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. The most famous are, perhaps, the Smithsonian outlets that dot the National Mall. The Smithsonian – the world’s largest museum – offers a staggering array of attractions, from the National Zoo to the quirky National Postal Museum.
Our top pick among the Smithsonian’s offerings is the often-overlooked Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The museum’s works, many donated to the United States by Joseph Hirshhorn, focus on modern and contemporary art. During our most recent visit, we saw a bold, word-based installation, Belief + Doubt, by Barbara Kruger. I’ve decided that I like words as art!
In a city where visitors have to make a lot of tough to-do choices, another Smithsonian outlet, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, doesn’t always make the cut. But it should – you get two fantastic museums in one building. First off, the building itself is a showstopper. It’s among the oldest government buildings in the city and it has the intimidation factor to prove it. Occupying two full city blocks, just off the National Mall, it’s an immense, slightly overwhelming structure.
Don’t miss the iconic America’s Presidents collection within the National Portrait Gallery or the US Constitution Preamble, depicted via license plates, in the American Art Museum.
American Art Museum
There are tours for nearly everything in D.C. You can take a Segway tour of the National Mall with a group or tour D.C. landmarks at night. The choices can be daunting. In most cases, we prefer to go at it alone because that allows us to squeeze more into a day. However, a couple of tours are well worth it.
Viewfinder Tip: Do your research to find a free tour of D.C. that suits your interests.
First, we believe that every first-time visit to D.C. should include a Capitol tour facilitated by one of your representative’s offices. When we first visited the city, we contacted a Washington State senator’s office to arrange a tour. On our first day in D.C., we were treated to a private, intern-led tour of the Capitol. Even better, touring via one of your representatives gives you the chance to talk about issues that are important to you. Also, be sure to check if your favorite elected official offers a monthly/weekly meet-up. You may luck out and find that your visit coincides with, for instance, a designated constituent coffee session.
Another free tour we love is the one offered at NPR’s headquarter building. Offered twice a week, the tour treats you to a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on inside the walls of this news juggernaut. We were both surprised and impressed by the depth of the tour. We got to zigzag through the cube-lined floors (spying the familiar voices) and were able to peer into many of the recording studios.
Whichever freebies you end up deciding on in D.C., be sure to build in enough buffer time to simply take in this unique city. And one last thing: Go in late March or early April to see those cherry blossoms.
What are your favorite free things to do in D.C.?