Have the Best Time Exploring Washington DC - For FREE!
Updated: Mar 10
Best of... This is my DC Free Day Itinerary. While I divide activites into a 3 day itinerary towards the bottom of this apge, feel free to grab what ever you like to match the time and needs of your own trip! These are some of the best times we have had over several trips. I made this list after reviewing our adventures and consulting the the experts: My 4 Kids. We've been to DC now several times, usually for a few hours at a time when stopping on our way through to NY.
This could be one really full day itinerary list or spread into as many days as you have. When I roll, I try to keep costs as low as possible and DC runs as a touristy upscale city, so all of the free stuff is perfect!
BTW: The National Zoo is "free" but charges $22.00 to park. The Zoo could truly be it's own day... But also if you wanted to stop by and see pandas and lions then get back out into the streets for some monuments that is very possible. Let's explore!
This page has been updated to reflect new adventures from my work travels and sharing the time with coworkers.
Washington DC ~~~ A Great place for Family Adventure or just wandering with your love ~~~
You can click each underlined place to visit the website for more info!
The National Zoo
3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C., U.S.
The zoo is free but parking is $22
(You can take the Metro Red Line and get off at the Woodley Park/ National Zoo stop)
One of the few places to see Pandas in the US! Tigers, Lions, bison, very convincing habitats, the animals look very comfortable and the Zoo itself is large but interactive and well laid out.
Of all the Zoo's we've been to , this is in our top 2. Worth some time :-)
Arlington National Cemetery
1 Memorial Ave
Arlington, VA 22211
Open: 8-5 Oct- March
8-7 April to September
(the express bus runs to/from the national mall or you can walk/ bike across the Memorial Bridge)
Changing of the Guard/ Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
On a hill overlooking Washington DC the tomb is guarded 24 hours a day and every hour there is a ceremony to change out the guard watching it is quite impressive to witness
J.F.Kennedy resting place
JFK, Jackie Onassis, and baby are placed here with an ever burning flame. Beautiful monument to our favorite President
This is such an impressive sight to see. At any age, this experience will leave a lifelong impression. Gives an amazing perspective of the vastness of history and how it impacts us every day. Wars of the past are never over. We feel them for generations in ways we may not realize on a day-to-day basis. This place helps appreciate the value of life, and peace.
50 Massachusetts Avenue NE Washington DC
Washington DC is train station and shopping mall. Historic building with lots of places to eat inside in the food court. Shopping here is extensive if you want to grab any of the most recent styles while you are here there is a store for every shopper!
Liberty bell (located in the front of Union Station stop for pictures)
The Mint/ Bureau of Printing and Engraving
300 14th St SW, Washington, DC 20228
The tour and visitor entrance is located at 14th Street, SW. For information regarding the tour, please call (202) 874-2330. The Free 40 minute tour is free but requires advanced tickets you can get from the ticket booth, located at 15th Street, SW, Raoul Wallenberg Place which opens at 8:00 a.m., Monday through Friday, and closes when all tickets have been distributed for the day. Visitor lines form early at the ticket booth and are often distributed by 8:30 a.m., especially during the Cherry Blossom Festival (March 20 - April 12). Be prepared to go through security screening.
See how money is made! And find out your height in dollars…. Surprisingly fun (my kids favorite stop)
Natural History Museum
1300 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560
May look familiar due to the movie Night At The Museum, fun interactive history – a great museum to wander through! History and Evolution.... if you are into that! So much fun for the youngest of the visitors as there are lots of exhibits show casing a variety of species (many now extinct) and evolution. Pays homage to prehistoric man and those classifications!
The National Museum of African American History & Culture
1400 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560
One of the newer museums holding tons of relics and history that take a journey through time.
Free timed tickets are required for entry.
Open 10:00 - 5:30 Daily, except Mondays, hours are 12:noon to 5:30 PM.
Click HERE to reserve: Plan Your Visit | National Museum of African American History and Culture
This museum has some very heavy content. It is designed to span the times and begins with the slavery days and explores life and how it evolves through time. The first floor shows the worst part of our history and some shameful practices. The second floor moves up to Emmett Till and Rosa Parks. This floor has a life-sized train to emphasize how the policies were in those dark days for America. As emerge from the bottom two floors, there is a waterfall room, where you can wash off the negativity of the past and continue on to better. The rising floors feature MLK's original "I have a dream" speech and lots of memorabilia. Great quotes hang. The top floors are dedicated to Music and Sports and have some true genius featured.
511 10th St. NE Washington DC
Admission to Ford's Theatre is free. Same day tickets will be available at the Box Office beginning at 8:30 a.m. There is a limit of six tickets per person for the same day tickets.
Timed Entry Tour Tickets
Reserve tickets online at www.fords.org for $3.00 each. This way you can get the time you want. Or call 1-888-616-0270.
The heart of downtown Washington DC where you can watch a reenactment of Abraham Lincoln being shot by John Wilkes Booth and then walk across the street to see where the president died in a family home aka The Patterson House. Not only was it very educational and historical but it was also fun!
White House/ Mall area - GREAT place to walk and explore. So much history packed into one place! If you have just a little time, start here.
Touring the White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20006
US citizens can submit a request to a member of Congress—not less than 21 days in advance of your proposed tour date. They prefer to receive these requests as far as 3 months prior. So once you know your travel dates/ times and plan proactively. Citizen's of another country, work with your embassy to get your request approved.
If you use the metro, take the orange, silver or blue line to the Smithsonian stop. You will have fairly easy access to the White House, and surrounding memorials. The Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are all on the route. Plan to walk about three miles round trip from the Smithsonian metro stop to these monuments and back. If you want to see the FDR Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, you will walk at least one mile further.
Monuments and Memorials
If you walk around the 3 mile loop there are several stops with many landmarks and gardens in-between
· Jefferson Memorial
· Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
· Korean War Veterans Memorial
· Lincoln Memorial
· Vietnam Veterans Memorial
· Washington Monument
· World War II Memorial
· Martin Luther King Memorial
The Washington Monument
Is free but time tickets can be picked up in the morning at the base of the monument. You can also reserve times online for a small processing fee.
(These are pictures of the Washington Monument as taken from the Lincoln Memorial)
We've done the timed tickets and gone up to the top for the most awesome views of Washington DC. From up there you clearly see all of the geometry that marks the land and designs the streets. Really cool if you appreciate the engineering factors! Great place.
Much bigger in person than it looks on Tv. Located at the end of the National Mall. Must climb the steps and go inside for the grandeur effect.... Lincoln in all his glory with all his quotes!
(This is especially impressive as the sun is going down)
Puts life in perspective with stunning visuals and water falls that memorialize each State.
Also very dramatic after sunset!
Walking around the basin of the Potamic -
The Tidal Basin is part of West Potomac Park in Washington, DC. The Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the FDR Memorial, the George Mason Memorial, the John Paul Jones Memorial, the Floral Library, the Japanese Pagoda, and the Japanese Lantern and site of the First Cherry Tree Planting all surround the Tidal Basin. They can all be visited via the Tidal Basin Loop Trail. It is the location most associated with Washington's Cherry Blossom Festival that takes place each spring. All of these monuments are off the path of the Mall which is why they can be missed on a typical day. They are also a bit spread out, as it is just under a mile to circle around from the MLK Jr. monument to the Jefferson Memorial.
Martin Luther King Jr. Monument
1850 West Basin Drive SW, Near West Basin Drive SW & Independence Ave. SW, Washington DC, DC 20024
*Don’t miss, you have to walk around on the tidal basin side to see this huge memorial but it is easy to miss if you don’t know it is beyond the Lincoln Memorial, and you must walk around to get there. The Ranger Station, gift shop and bathrooms are right across the street from this monument.
Does a great job telling the story of the person President being honored with waterfalls, sculptures and a walk through the Great Depression.
Also not directly on the mall so often missed, but worth the stroll. You can go inside and downstairs into a small museum highlighting that era.
What is great about visiting Washington DC is the current affairs of all things.
It is a place that brings the focus to how we began, without losing wight of where we are now.
Many National Museums tell the narrative of how we present the story through our own eyes.
Now you may or may not agree with everything you see, but that's another reason to go. Have those conversations and use these emblems as a springboard to deeper understanding and discussion. While we were there with our families we wanted to impress upon them how some of the foundations of this Nation were intended. They wanted to impress upon us the mysteries of a city built by Free Masons and hidden passageways. LOL it was a fun adventure, and always continues to be!
Yes - you do want to experience each monument in its grandeur and it's best not to hurry through. Some of our favorite times here were spent just wandering around looking at the geometric patterns and laughing about the conspiracy theories of the area. It's fun to just sit in the grass and have a picnic. We saw groups of people doing scavenger hunts and geo fetching. At one time Poke-man - go was the hype and there were all kinds of great battles to be had! But what ever your time frame, walk the Mall! Go by the White House, you may be able to see a good protest. My kids were looking for secret passageways and convinced that everyone was an undercover spy!
We have not yet been to the Museum of African American History, which has recently opened and I have heard great things about it! We will try to catch that on our next stop in the Nation's Capital!
Navigate with the National Mall App Use the National Mall App on your smartphone to navigate your way around the National Mall. Key features include:
Map: An official National Park Service map of the central tourist area in Washington, D.C. Easy to use while outdoors, the map features large font sizes, walkways that are easily distinguishable from roads, and three zoom levels. By tapping the 'locate me' icon, you will always know where you are.
Park Lens: Find out what is around you with augmented reality views of the National Mall. Just hold up your device and look through the activated camera view. labels will appear identifying all sites on the National Mall.
For $1.00 you can hop on and off the big red circulator bus! They run continuously in this loop. You must have exact change. Good if you would like to get out of the elements or need a break!
Crystal City - If you are flying in or out of Ronal Reagan Airport (DCA) you will be in the heart of Crystal City, Arlington VA. Most Hotels offer free shuttles to the airport for easy travels.
Bordering the Potomac River with dramatic views of Washington, D.C. this well-maintained area is home to many businesses and offices. There is shopping and eating in excess. Because of a large hotel presence, there is everything from fine dining to casual fast food available in close proximity. There is a scenic trail which leads along the Potamic River and offers those biking or running exercise opportunities while taking in the panoramic views. Visitors can access the extensive network of bike paths via the Mount Vernon Trail, which offers opportunities for recreational riding and two-wheeled tours of local monuments. Because you can use the Metro for easy access into downtown DC, this is a popular and less expensive option for staying in the Capitol while still keeping proximity.
Personal History: For years we'd stop in DC on our drives from NY to Fl. These pit stops usually involved parking, running around, specifically by the white house for an hour, and getting back in the car. As the kids have gotten older, the stops have gotten longer. My kids began requesting to see certain things, so we had to plan some trips. With the Scandal series taking off, it became more fun to see some of our much-loved places being pinpointed as relevant in today's world. Who didn't want to be Olivia Pope rushing through DC with a coffee in hand and a white peacoat?
My friend Kim moved to Chester VA, which was 124 miles from DC, and we worked her in as a 2 - 3 day stop. One day we'd let the kids play, 1 day we'd see the area, and 1 day we'd hit DC. The good thing about traveling with them, is her hubby was a great tour guide. He stayed aware of the parking rules and times, and even kept us on schedule as we saw all we wanted to see!
DC Tips & Tricks:
- All the Smithsonian Museums are free! So much history and culture are found here.
- BYOW - Bring your own water! Your pocketbook will thank you. Refillable stations are set up all over the city. Purchasing a bottle will cost between $3 - $5.
- SmarTrip cards - Refillable cards you can use on just about every transit provider in the D.C. metro area—including the bus, light rail, subway, and even the transit lines to popular D.C. suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Buy one before your trip; you can always add to it throughout your stay. A one-day unlimited pass is just $14.75, which is a great value if you plan to see a lot of different parts of the city. If you are driving in for the day this is not needed.
- Wear good shoes. This is a walkable city, and you don't want to be hurting the next day. Driving/ Parking is a chore, it's easier to plan walking or plan public transit.
- Staying close by - Stay in Rosslyn, Crystal City, or Falls Church where the prices are much more affordable. You can hop on a train and be on the National Mall in 30 minutes or less, depending on where you stay.
- Washington Harbor - Escape to the waterfront for excellent restaurants, upscale shops and boutiques, and a lovely boardwalk where you can watch the boats, toss treats to the ducks, or just enjoy a sunset. If you visit in winter, you can even go ice skating!
- C&O Canal - Cycle, hike, climb, rock scramble, kayak, canoe, horseback ride (west of Seneca only), camp, snowshoe, skate, and more. Pay $20 to see the great falls or use your America the Beautiful pass. Stretching 184.5 miles from Georgetown in Washington, DC, to Cumberland, Maryland, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal gets you out of the city and into nature.
Each trip we've done has been totally different.
Sometimes we focus on the Mall and monuments and museums, other times we've planned around the Washington Monument and Bureau of Printing and Engraving timed tickets. Each time we do name a few things we'd like to see and see more than we have seen in prior trips. The Forde theatre is still a favorite years later, as well as Bureau of Printing & Engraving.
Also, I LOVE this website: it provides many ideas and a ton of info
Itinerary Suggestions for 3 days:
All Free except for parking/ transportation and eating.
To cut costs you could also pack a lunch, bring your own water and have some snacks on hand.
These routes include a lot of walking! DC is very easy to explore as the streets are well marked and there are signs posted for pedestrians to make this easier.
The National Zoo (morning)
Union Station for lunch/ Liberty Bell
Arlington National Cemetary
Dinner at Ted's Montanna Grill in Crystal City
Day 2: Reserve your free timed tickets!
Bureau of Printing & Engraving
Walk around the Mall area and Lincoln Memorial
We typically hit one of the Museums in the area as well on this day, and most likely eat in the cafe to save time as we want to end out day in the Lincoln Memorial which is beautiful as the sun is setting and also in the dark.
The National Museum of African American History & Culture
2. Continue around the Tidal Basin....
* MLK Jr. Memorial
*George Mason Memorial
3. End the day in China Town, check out the Friendship Archway, and eat at Wok n Roll. Great food and drinks! The ramen was the best we've ever eaten.
Most importantly: Enjoy your trip
May all your travels be safe and fulfilling
Thank you for coming by to plan your travels!
Good walking shoes and a wind breaker go a long way!
Be flexible, roll with the flow but have a plan in mind
A note from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip. I hope this makes it easier for your planning process.
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