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January 08, 2009

D.C. for Free: 57 Activities in the U.S. Capital That Won't Cost You a Penny

View of Washington Monument from the Jefferson Memorial (Adam Jones/Photodisc/Getty)

If the November 2008 election and its after-party was anything to go by, the January 20 inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama is going to be one massive people's party. So, to get in the spirit, we present our list of the top free-for-the-people activities and excursions in the Washington, D.C. area. Visit's Washington, D.C. guide for more travel-planning information (including top hotels and attractions), plus websites for the places listed below for more specific details and directions. And if you have other tips on places to freeload in D.C., leave your ideas in the comments section below.

Monuments & Memorials
1. Head to the top of the Washington Monument, but get there early as long lines form, especially during spring break and summer.
2. Dodge the crowds at the Washington Monument (see 1, above) and head instead to the 315-foot Old Post Office Tower, the third-highest structure in the capital—and where views are just as good.
3. Savor the Lincoln, Vietnam, and World War II memorials when they are illuminated and pleasantly crowd-free at night.
4. Tour the U.S. Capitol and find out more about this iconic landmark (not to mention, the work that goes on within) by way of a brand-spanking-new underground visitor center. More pork, anyone?
5. Skip the dull ceremonial tour inside and stroll the perimeter of the White House for photo-ops and a good orientation to downtown D.C. Note that if you do want to tour the White House, you must be in a group of ten or more and schedule your tour six months ahead of time through your appropriate Member of Congress.
6. See the original Declaration of Independence and other historically important documents at the National Archives Building.
7. Enjoy a good view of the city and its monuments from the gravesite of JFK at Arlington National Cemetery.
8. Take a 30-minute guided tour of the Washington National Cathedral to learn about this prominent religious landmark in northwest D.C. No reservations required.
9. Visit the outdoor commemorative garden at the Pentagon to reflect on the lives lost on September 11, 2001. Public tours of the Pentagon are also available, but you must contact your member of Congress ahead of time to schedule.

Museums and Culture
10. Familiarize yourself with the National Museum of Art's sprawling array of genres on a docent-led tour of the collections, galleries, and even the building's architecture. No advance reservations required.
11. Visit the National Mall's most architecturally and culturally significant new addition, the spectacular National Museum of the American Indian.
12. Enjoy the quiet sanctuary of the Sackler and Freer galleries, located next to the Smithsonian "Castle," where you'll find an interesting mix of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern art (there's a good gift shop here, too).
13. Visit the sobering Holocaust Memorial Museum, but get there in the morning as lines form early for timed admission slots.
14. Go on a free behind-the-scenes tour at the Voice of America studios, where you'll learn how live broadcasts get produced and beamed out to the four corners of the world.
15. Join the glitterati (OK, freeloaders) for wine, canapés, and art during monthly "First Friday" art-gallery open houses around Dupont Circle.
16. Get steamy and exotic in the U.S. Botanic Gardens, a good place in which to duck if rain's threatening your jaunt to the National Mall. Free guided tours available.
17. Catch free performances of dance, song, and music, offered most evenings at 6 p.m. on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage (no tickets required), after which you can ride the elevator up for a great rooftop view of the city.
18. Tour the building and exhibits at the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to the world's largest collection of Shakespeare materials. No advance reservations required.
19. Exercise (exorcise?) your inner Beatnik at an open-mic night at Busboys & Poets, a coffeehouse-cum-bookstore-cum-leftie hangout in the happening U Street Corridor.
20. Get a glimpse (albeit limited) of the murky world of spooks and spies at the National Security Agency's National Cryptologic Museum. Car required.
21. Take a docent-led tour of the Library of Congress' Thomas Jefferson Building, where you'll learn about the building, its history, and its collections. No reservations or tickets required.
22. Enjoy free evening concerts on select Sundays at the National Gallery of Art. Admission is on a first-come, first-seated basis, starting 30 minutes before each performance.
23. Expand your art horizons with contemporary and modern art at the Hirshhorn down on the Mall, or the American Art Museum in appropriately-named Gallery Place.
24. Support local actors, comedians, musicians, singers, and dancers by attending free performances at Monday Night at the National Theatre, which runs from October to April.
25. Hear an oral argument before the Supreme Court on certain Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays from October to April. Seating is on a first-come, first-seated basis.

Out and About
26. Walk past the Jefferson Memorial and around the Tidal Basin, an especially scenic—if somewhat crowded—experience when over 3,000 cherry blossom trees flower each spring. (Many more free events take place as part of the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.)
27. Stroll Eastern Market for an eclectic mix of art, food, and assorted knick-knacks (purchases optional), then wander past the brownstones in the Capitol Hill neighborhood toward the Library of Congress, U.S. Supreme Court, and U.S. Capitol.
28. Join a game of pickup soccer, ultimate Frisbee, volleyball, hell, even touch rugby, in any number of grassy spots on the National Mall. Your best chances for a game are over the weekend, when this work-obsessed town stops to relax.
29. Drive out to the oft-overlooked 446-acre National Arboretum for a stroll, picnic, and some interesting horticultural exhibits. Car required.
30. Leg it up to the U.S. Naval Observatory on alternating Monday evenings for a tour of the 1830 installation, plus a peek at the celestial firmament through a 12-inch Alvan Clark telescope (weather permitting). Advance reservations required.
31. Get spiritual at Mount St. Sepulchre, a tranquil Franciscan monastery in northeast D.C., located close to the impressive Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
32. Visit one of the area's best scenic spots, Great Falls, by hiking on the C&O Canal towpath and then along the rocky two-mile Billy Goat Trail. Car required.
33. Discover the surprising outdoor enclave of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, 12 acres of open pond land where lilies and lotuses are the horticultural highlights. D.C. was built on a swamp, after all.

For Families
34. Enjoy the well-tended indoor and outdoor animal exhibits at the Smithsonian National Zoo, where you'll see everything from big cats and elephants to comb jellies and chickens.
35. Let your kids construct (and demolish) in the National Building Museum's cheerily-decorated Building Zone.
36. Catch free ballet performances, magic shows, children's plays, and other kids fare at the National Theatre's Saturday Morning at the National program.
37. Hit the bite-sized museum of the National Geographic Society for some interesting traveling exhibits, plus items culled from the century-old scientific organization's vault of artifacts, exhibition memorabilia, and photography.
38. Boost your java levels before a busy day's sightseeing while the kids enjoy Monday morning storytime at Politics & Prose, a well-regarded indie bookstore.
39. Kids will love the space artifacts and planes at the National Air and Space Museum. Drive out to the museum's annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and see—among other amazing aircraft—the world's fastest jet and the space shuttle Enterprise. Admission is free, though you'll need to pay $12 for parking if you drive.
40. Introduce the kids to science and research—from anthropology to zoology—in the American Museum of Natural History's Discovery Room.
41. Visit the newly remodeled National Museum of American History, where the kids will enjoy clambering aboard a real Chicago "El" train and spending time in two fun hands-on activity centers (one with live science experiments, the other lots of puzzles and problem-solving activities).
42. Find out all about the greenback on a tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Note that free same-day tickets are required in the busy spring and summer months, so get there early to assure admission.
43. Have a breather from the city by taking younger kids to two-acre Clemyjontri Park in McLean, Virginia, which boasts a kaleidoscopic array of slides, swings, and climbing structures. (Bring water and sun hats in summer—with little natural shade, there's lots of sun!) Car required.
44. Join an Imaginasia class at the Sackler Gallery, where kids ages 8 to 14 study a particular museum exhibition and then create a related art project to take home. No advance reservations required.
45. Head out to Homestead Farm in Poolesville, Maryland to pet goats, sheep, calves, and pigs. Fruit picking and hayrides also available, though you must pay for rides and what you pick. Car required.

Festivals & Events
46. Watch the blockbuster Fourth of July fireworks display explode over the city. The National Mall is ground zero for the action, though there are lots of other less-crowded viewpoints scattered around the city and over the Potomac River in Virginia. (Click here for more detail and an interactive Google Map.)
47. Catch an outdoor movie on the National Mall during summer's Screen on the Green festival.
48. Snag a curbside seat on Memorial Bridge or Constitution Avenue to watch thousands of Harleys and other big bikes rumble by as part of Rolling Thunder, an annual Memorial Day gathering to commemorate fallen veterans.
49. Watch the quirky High Heel Drag Race in Dupont Circle before every Halloween—or participate, if you have the heels to compete with the other dressed-up divas.
50. Head downriver to Old Town Alexandria for the pipers, Irish dancing, and antique cars in the annual St. Patrick's Parade (held two weeks before St. Paddy's... go figure).
51. On Friday evenings throughout the summer, bring a picnic and enjoy live jazz in the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden.
52. Discover new writers and listen to author readings at the weeklong National Book Festival, held each September on the National Mall.
53. Enjoy the Bard for naught courtesy of the Shakespeare Theatre's Free For All program, being held for the first time in September 2009 at the metro-accessible Sidney Harman Hall.
54. See fighter jets scream overhead and up close to an array of amazing aircraft (military and civilian) at the Joint Service Open House, an air show held each May at Andrews Air Force Base. Car required.
55. Mill around the happening neighborhood of Adams Morgan with tons of other D.C.ers at the Adams Morgan Day Festival, held every September. Watch dance and music performances, and, for a little dough, taste ethnic foods and shop for art and crafts.
57. Learn about the traditions, stories, song, dance, crafts, and food of different cultures from around the world and the U.S. at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which runs for two weeks every summer on the National Mall.

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Related Topics: Budget Travel · Free Stuff · Holidays, Events, & Festivals · Trip Ideas


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