D.C. on a Budget: 22 Museums & More You Can Visit for Free

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Photo of the National Mall in Washington, DC.
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From the monuments lining the National Mall to the White House and Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., is awash with historical sites that together form the bedrock of the United States. 

Unfortunately, it’s also flooded with over-priced hotels and expensive restaurants that are sure to sink your budget. (Seriously — D.C. is the second most expensive drinking city in the entire country. 💸) 

At Wanderu, we believe cost shouldn’t be a prohibiting factor when it comes to travel, which is why you can find absurdly cheap prices on bus rides to D.C. from places like New York, Philadelphia and Boston. It’s also why we put together this comprehensive guide of free museums, tours and other attractions throughout the greater Washington, D.C. area. If you’ve already gotta shell out for accommodations, why not save a buck when it comes to entertainment? 

D.C. is also unique because it’s home to the Smithsonians — 16 museums in total scattered across the District, a number of which are featured below. Most of these world-class institutions are open every day of the week, and even better, every single one is free. 

The following places are sorted by interest, so simply click a subject to see what suits you, or scroll down to see the full list of free fun.

ART

Photo inside of the United States National Gallery.
(Credit: ctj71081 / Flickr)

Constitution Ave NW 
Washington, DC 20565
Open daily
Monday–Saturday: 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Sunday: 11:00 a.m. –6:00 p.m.
www.nga.gov

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Established in 1937 by philanthropist Andrew W. Mellon, the National Gallery of Art is an acclaimed museum that features paintings, sculptures, illustrated books, woodcuts and more. Notable works include Francisco de Goya’s Marquesa de Pontejos, Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance and Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques.

Independence Ave SW &, 7th St SW 
Washington, DC 20560
Open daily
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
hirshhorn.si.edu

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: A modern art museum located on the National Mall, the Hirshhorn’s mission is “to share the transformative power of modern and contemporary art by creating meaningful, personal experiences in which art, artists, audiences and ideas converge.” Works on display at the Hirsshorn challenge the perception of what art can be, playing with space and format in a way that leaves you thinking long after you’ve left the museum.

1050 Independence Ave SW 
Washington, DC 20560
Open daily
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
freersackler.si.edu

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery together make up the national museum of Asian art. Their vast collection contains more than 40,000 objects that date back to the Neolithic period, and include works from China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world.

950 Independence Ave SW Washington, DC 20560
Open daily
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
africa.si.edu

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The National Museum of African Art seeks to “inspire conversations about the beauty, power and diversity of African arts and cultures worldwide.” While the original collection focused on the traditional art work of sub-Saharan Africa, today its scope is far more broad, including modern and contemporary pieces.

8th and F Streets NW
Washington, DC 20001
Open daily
Hours: 11:30 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
npg.si.edu

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The National Portrait Gallery contains more than 23,000 portraits in a multitude of forms, from paintings and drawings to video and photos. The collection seeks to portray the movers and shakers of United States history, and includes official portraits of recent presidents, including a vibrant depiction of Barack Obama by artist Kehinde Wiley.

1250 New York Avenue, NW, 
Washington, DC 20005
Free admission the first Sunday of every month
Hours: 12:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
nmwa.org

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The National Museum of Women in the Arts is — get this — the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to championing females and female artists. Their permanent collection has more than 5,000 objects, and with 10 rotating exhibitions each year, this museum is the answer when Beyoncé asks, “Who run the world?”

HISTORY

Photo of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
(Credit: Mobilus in Mobili / Flickr)

1400 Constitution Ave NW 
Washington, DC 20560
Open daily
nmaahc.si.edu
This museum requires timed entry passes on most days. For more information, visit the NMAAHC website.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Opened in September 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the youngest Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall — and among the most popular. (It broke attendance records upon its opening.) In addition to historically significant artifacts like Nat Turner’s bible and Dr. J’s basketball shoes, the museum traces African American history from slavery through the civil rights movement and beyond.

100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl SW 
Washington, DC 20024
Open daily 
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
ushmm.org

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum seeks to teach visitors about the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, but also speaks to more overarching themes like “the fragility of freedom, the myth of progress and the need for vigilance in preserving democratic values.” Their vast collection follows the events of the Holocaust year by year through gripping artifacts, photos and video.

1300 Constitution Ave NW Washington, DC 20560
Open daily
Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
americanhistory.si.edu

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: From Abe Lincoln’s stovepipe hat to the original Star-Spangled Banner, the National Museum of American History holds the largest collection of United States memorabilia in the world. Aside from showcasing more than 1.8 million artifacts, the museum touches on themes woven into the fabric of the country — including democracy, opportunity and freedom.

Independence Ave SW 
Washington, DC 20560
Open daily
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
americanindian.si.edu

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Through artifacts, photographs and other media, the National Museum of the American Indian offers a window into the lives and culture of the Americas’ indigenous peoples. The museum’s unique design and lush grounds were conceived in collaboration with native tribes and communities from across the continent, making the museum building a landmark unto itself.

1000 Jefferson Dr SW
Washington, DC 20560
Open daily
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
si.edu/museums/smithsonian-institution-building

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Nicknamed “The Castle,” the Smithsonian Institution Building is a National Historic Landmark that houses the Smithsonian’s visitor center — interactive displays and maps that detail the history of the Smithsonian museums. Built in 1855, The Castle was the very first Smithsonian building constructed, and also contains the tomb of James Smithson (for whom the Institution is named).

701 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408
Open daily
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
museum.archives.gov
Between March and Labor Day, it’s recommended that you make a reservation to avoid long lines at the door.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: “I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.” Fans of the National Treasure movies will remember that line, and the National Archives Museum is the iconic rotunda from which Nic Cage and his crew nab the founding document. Other items on display include the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and four additional galleries include a range of historic prints and papers.

1307 New Hampshire Ave NW
Washington, DC 20036
Open Thursday, Friday & Saturday
heurichhouse.org
To visit this museum you must attend a free tour. Tours take place at 11:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Reservations can be made online at the Heurich House website.
*While the museum is technically free, they do ask for a $10 donation.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: In the late 1800s, Christian Heurich’s brewery was the largest in D.C., and today you can explore the magnate’s elegant, Romanesque residence. Bonus: Heurich’s recipe for “Senate Beer” (perfected in the 1890s and produced until 1956) has been revived by local brewery DC Brau, and is now sold exclusively at the museum.

1411 W Street SE
Washington, DC 20020
Open daily
Hours: 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
nps.gov/frdo
Tours run five to six times per day. Reservations are strongly encouraged, and cost $1. Visit recreation.gov to reserve online.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: A former slave who escaped to freedom in 1838, Frederick Douglass played a prominent role in the abolitionist movement through his articulate speeches and moving essays. The house in Cedar Hill is where Douglass spent the final 17 years of his life, and is still decorated with his belongings.

2 Massachusetts Ave., N.E.
Washington, DC 20002
Open daily
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
postalmuseum.si.edu

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Exhibits at the National Postal Museum showcase the (surprisingly!) interesting evolution of the United States postal system. Sure, they’ve got stamps on stamps on stamps, but also old mail-delivery coaches and train cars, historic mailboxes and more.

NATURE

Photo of the United States Botanical Gardens.
(Credit: GPA Photo Archive / Flickr)

100 Maryland Ave SW 
Washington, DC 20001
Open daily
Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Open until 7p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day
usbg.gov

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Escape the frigid halls of the more traditional Mall museums for the grounds and greenhouses of the U.S. Botanic Garden — established by Congress in 1820. The campus includes a Rose Garden, Butterfly Garden, and hundreds of diverse plant species, including endangered ones you won’t find anywhere else.

10th St. & Constitution Ave. NW 
Washington, DC 20560
Open daily
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
naturalhistory.si.edu/visit

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: You don’t have to be a taxidermy enthusiast to appreciate all the NMNH has to offer (although the Hall of Mammals, featuring stuffed and posed animals from floor to ceiling, is pretty incredible). Our other favorite exhibits include a wing of mummies from ancient Egypt, cases of skeletons with hundreds of different vertebrates, and the new Fossil Hall, with specimens like a T. Rex and a saber-toothed cat.

SCIENCE

(Credit: Pedro Szekely / Flickr)

600 Independence Ave SW 
Washington, DC 20560
Open daily
Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
airandspace.si.edu

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: You’re cleared for liftoff at the NASM, which has exhibitions that illustrate the history of both aviation and space travel. Highlights include the Wright Flyer — which Orville and Wilbur Wright flew over Kitty Hawk, N.C., as they were developing the first airplane — and the Spirit of St. Louis — the first plane to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean.

GOVERNMENT

Overhead view of the United States Capitol Building.

First St NE 
Washington, DC 20515
Closed on Sunday
visitthecapitol.gov
To visit this museum you must attend a free tour. Tours take place from 8:40 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. Reservations are recommended, but not required. For more information, visit the Capitol Visitor Center’s official website.

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The U.S. Capitol is a functioning office building, and where the United States Congress passes (or, more often these days, votes down) proposed legislation.  Your guided tour will take you through the Crypt (it’s corpse-free, but was originally proposed as the final resting place of George Washington), the Rotunda (the interior of that iconic half-sphere on top of the building), and the National Statuary Hall (which houses, as the name suggests, a number of impressive old statues).

20. The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Washington, DC 20500
Closed Sunday & Monday
Hours: 7:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. (T, W,R); 7:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. (F,S)
whitehouse.gov1.info/visit/tour.html
Tickets to tour the White House must be served through either your local member of the House of Representatives or Senate. Tickets are on a first-come, first-serve basis, and must be requested at least 21 days in advance. 

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: While in the District, don’t miss out on a chance to be in the room(s) where it happens. (Well, at least some of them, anyway.) The tour includes the Blue, Red and Green rooms in the East Wing, the State Dining Room and the China Room. Unfortunately, you won’t get a glimpse of the Oval Office unless your name starts with “K” and ends with “anye” — West Wing tours are privately reserved for celebrities and other high-profile individuals.

MILITARY

Arlington, VA 22211
Open daily
Hours: 8 a.m. – 7 p.m. (April-Sept); 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Oct – March)
arlingtoncemetery.mil

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Arlington Cemetery resides across the Potomac from Washington, and is home to the graves of soldiers dating back to the Civil War. Among the cemetery’s most well-known sites is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument to dead American soldiers whose remains were never identified. For an interactive map of notable graves, or if you want to search for the tombstone of a particular person, download ANC’s app from the App Store or Google Play.

One Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, D.C. 20001
Closed Saturday & Sunday
Hours: 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
ngef.org/national-guard-memorial-museum

WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Those into military history absolutely must visit the NGMM, which covers the early days of the Guard in 1636 up until today. Artifacts like weapons, uniforms and battle gear bring the past to life, and the new 9/11 Era Gallery illustrates the group’s transformation “from a strategic reserve into an operational force” since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

So if you’re plotting a trip to D.C., don’t feel like you need to smash the piggy bank. 🔨🐖 

These museums and historic sites are the very best way to explore the United States capital city on a budget. And the best way to get there is by booking through Wanderu, where you can compare cheap bus, train and flight options in the same search. 

And once you’ve had your fill of D.C, don’t stop there! The Mid-Atlantic to the Northeast is dense with major cities that make a multi-city vacation very doable. Don’t believe it? Just check out all the places you can visit from Washington for less than $20.

Looking for low-cost activities in other expensive cities? Check out our list of 20 parks and museums in New York City that you can visit for free.

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About the author
Tyler Moss

Tyler Moss

Tyler Moss has danced on tables at Oktoberfest and petted alpacas in the Andes. He prefers to eat at restaurants where the menu is in a language he can’t understand, and likes bars where the lighting is dim and the drafts are cheap. His writing has been published by Condé Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, New York, Outside, Atlas Obscura, Playboy and other fine venues.