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Looking to visit Washington DC with your family this summer? After you’ve reserved your hotel, you might be questioning whether there is enough money left in your family budget to see everything. You’ll be happy to hear that you can put that worry aside. There are lots of free things to do in Washington DC! In fact, all of the Smithsonian Museums are free. With a little planning, families can easily spend several days enjoying the variety of no-cost activities in Washington DC.
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Free Things to Do in Washington DC with Kids
To help you plan your family vacation to Washington DC, we have listed the free things to do both indoors and outdoors in DC. Plus, we’ve outlined the many places that require tickets (Don’t worry, reservations are typically free as well.). But it’s important to start planning well ahead of time. While most of the free things to do in Washington DC are within walking distance of the National Mall, there are also some free things to do in DC that require either a car or public transportation. Those attractions are listed separately.
Free Things Indoors in Washington DC
Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate in Washington DC. It’s either too hot and humid or too rainy to enjoy a day outdoors walking around the monuments. However, these are the best days to visit the free museums in Washington DC. We ranked these free museums in DC by their available kids’ programming.
The Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC that Do Not Require Advance Tickets
All the Smithsonian Museum in DC are free for families to visit. They range from the popular Smithsonian Museum of American History to some lesser known art galleries. In addition, all of these museums hold seasonal free events for families traveling with kids.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Seeing the original Star-Spangled Banner and First Ladies Inaugural gowns dating back more than a hundred years are highlights for the entire family. For tots, the Smithsonian Museum of American History has the best play space on the National Mall, Wegmans Wonderplace. It features a mini model of Julia Child’s kitchen where little ones can play as well as a climbing structure. Ready for hands-on fun for school-age kids? The Spark! Lab has STEM activities for children ages 6-12.
Looking for fun things to do in Washington DC with toddlers? Check out Trekaroo’s Exploring Washington DC with Toddlers and Young Children.
National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum features many unique airplanes. In fact, the museum is home to Charles Lindbergh’s airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. In addition, there are moon rocks and all sorts of tools from America’s space missions on display. The How Things Fly Gallery is the museum’s hands-on area for kids where they can explore gravity in an interactive way. Plus, family programs include weekly story times for tots and special family day activities.
Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery
The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery share a building a few blocks from the National Mall. This is an important stop in Washington DC for families looking to see the portraits of American Presidents dating back to George Washington. The atrium of the building often hosts family events. During the summer months is a favorite place for local families to escape the heat indoors due to its fun water features. The Education Center at the National Portrait Gallery is often open to the public on Fridays and weekends. It offers special programming for families as well.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Featuring the Hope Diamond and the Hall of Mammals, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is an educational stop for kids curious about the world around them. The Q?rius experimental learning space is geared toward tweens and teens. It is open to the public when it is not in use by school groups. The Q?rius Jr. Discovery Space is a favorite with preschool and early elementary students.
Looking for more free things to do in DC? Free tickets are available for the Butterfly Pavilion at the National Museum of Natural History on a first-come-first-served basis on Tuesdays.
National Museum of the American Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian is one of the more overlooked museums on the National Mall. Families should be sure to see the unique presentation up on the top floor. Families with young children enjoy this museum because of the interactive, family-friendly imagiNATIONS Activity Center. At the imagiNATIONS Activity Center children can build an igloo and stamp their passport as they move from one activity to the next.
Smithsonian National Postal Museum
If you’re looking to escape the summer crowds, head to the National Postal Museum. It is located just across the street from Union Station. Families love the National Postal Museum because it has many hands-on exhibits for kids. It also features trains, airplanes, and trucks for transportation obsessed tots.
The Renwick Gallery
The Renwick Gallery is a great place for families to escape the heat of summer near the White House. This art gallery managed by the Smithsonian features several large art installations that change periodically. These large art installations are a favorite for local Instagrammers. Your teens will love grabbing a selfie or two on a quick visit to the Renwick Gallery.
The Hirshhorn Museum, Arthur M Sackler Gallery, and Smithsonian Museum of African Art
Need to escape the crowds on the National Mall? The art museums near the Smithsonian Castle are a great place to enjoy Washington DC without the crowds. The largest of these museums is the Hirshhorn. The Hirshhorn features contemporary art. Exhibits change on a regular basis. The Hirshhorn is one of many Smithsonian Museums that has a story time for preschool age children.
Free Museums in DC Near the National Mall That Do Not Require Advance Tickets
There are many free museums in Washington DC that are not managed by the Smithsonian. Some of these, like the National Archives and White House Visitor Center, are must-see attractions for families visiting Washington DC. Others like the US Botanic Gardens are a great place to spend some time indoors if the Smithsonian museums are crowded and the weather is rainy, cold, or humid.
The National Archives is one of the most important free attractions for families visiting Washington DC. At the National Archives, families can see the Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The National Archives offers many family programs including story times for tots and sleepovers for children 8 years and older.
White House Visitor Center
The White House Visitor Center is located across the street from the White House. It does not require tickets and takes about 20-30 minutes to visit. It is a modern museum. Children will enjoy the touch screen that provides an inside look at some of the rooms that can be seen on the White House tour. This is also the place to pick up booklets for Junior Ranger programs featuring the White House and President’s Park, the area surrounding the White House.
US Botanic Garden
Near the US Capitol on the National Mall, the US Botanic Garden is a popular free Washington DC attraction during December when they display plant-based models of many Washington DC museums and monuments. However, the US Botanic Garden is a local family favorite in any season with a cute outdoor children’s garden available in the summers months and warm, tropical indoor gardens to visit in the winter months.
Library of Congress
Locals agree that the Library of Congress is one of the most beautiful buildings in Washington DC. If you’re touring the US Capitol or checking out the Supreme Court, take a short detour to the Library of Congress. Families can generally look out over the main reading room. If you have younger children, the Young Readers Center is a great place to escape the business of DC and spend a few minutes reading with your little one.
National Gallery of Art
The children’s programs available during the summer months at the National Gallery of Art are some of my favorites in the Washington DC area. However, the National Gallery of Art is a fun place for families to visit any time of the year. Trekaroo families have enjoyed the museum’s audio guides and the cafeteria serving gelato in the basement of the museum.
There is nothing inherently kid-friendly about a visit to the Supreme Court. Families looking to go inside should check the Supreme Court’s schedule. While there is a small museum inside, a visit to the Supreme Court is about watching the court in action. Watching part of a Supreme Court argument is undoubtedly an appropriate educational experience for teens. For more information on how to observe an argument at the US Supreme Court, check out this review from a local mom.
Free Museums in Washington DC That Require Public Transportation or a Car to Reach
Most families visiting Washington DC choose to stay close to all the Smithsonian Museums and the National Mall. However, if you are visiting Washington DC as part of a road trip, your family might choose to see some of the places more off the beaten path.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is located across the Anacostia River from most of the historic sites. Families can tour the house where Frederick Douglass lived at the end of his life while he worked in Washington DC. It is best to drive to this area of town. Luckily, there is a parking lot at the site itself. In addition, it is highly recommended that visitors reserve tickets in advance for a tour of the house. There is a one dollar reservation fee per ticket. Lastly, junior ranger booklets are available for children.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – America’s Catholic Church
The Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington DC is the largest Catholic church in North America and one of the largest churches in the world. It is truly impressive, and it is free to visit. If you happen to be out by the Brookland/CUA Metro stop in Washington DC, it is worth 30-45 minutes to walk through this amazing church.
Free Performing Arts Performances in Washington DC for Families
With so many free things to do in Washington DC, it should be no surprise that there are free performances for families as well.
Kennedy Center – Millennium Stage
The massive Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is always free to walk through. Families can stop to enjoy the view of the Potomac River, see the bust of John F Kennedy, and walk through the Hall of States and Hall of Nations. If you want to see a performance at the Kennedy Center, stop by at 6PM any night for a free performance on the Millennium Stage. Performances range from dance to folk music to theater and everything in between.
The National Theatre – Saturday Morning Performances for Children
Those visiting Washington DC with young children might want to consider taking in a performance at The National Theatre. Each Saturday morning free children’s performances for kids ages 4-10 are held in a small gallery on the second floor of the theater. Free tickets are available to reserve on the National Theatre website one week prior to each performance. The National Theatre is located just about one block east of the White House.
Free Things to Do Indoors in Washington DC that Require an Advance Ticket All Year Long
There are lots of free things to do in Washington DC. However, tourists should aware that some of these places do involve advanced planning for tickets. Tickets to the White House and US Capitol can be obtained by contacting your Member of Congress at least three weeks in advance of your visit.
The rules and security procedures for visiting the White House change frequently. So, carefully read the information when you receive your tickets from your Member of Congress. Be aware that many people dress nicely for the self-guided tour. Tours can be canceled at any time due to events or security concerns. If your family is visiting Washington DC in the fall or spring, check to see if your visit coincides with the weekend of the White House Garden Tour.
It is recommended to contact your Member of Congress to reserve a tour of the US Capitol. Yet, it is possible to reserve a tour on your own. US Capitol Tours visit the Capitol rotunda, statuary hall, and a few other rooms. However, they generally do not visit the galleries where the Senate and House meet. Extra passes are required to watch while Congress is in session. Leave time before or after your tour to visit the small, modern museum in the US Capitol Visitor Center.
Free Things to Do Indoors in Washington DC that Require an Advance Ticket Only in the Summer
Some of the more popular free museums require tickets only in the busy spring and summer months. Planning a visit to Washington DC during a school break? Then, it is likely that you’ll need to reserve tickets in advance for the following museums.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
It’s likely that if you visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2019, you will still need a timed entry pass. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is located on the National Mall between the Smithsonian Museum of American History and the Washington Monument. It looks deceivingly small from the outside. This is because the historical galleries begin well below ground-level. Start in a dark basement visitors learn about how slavery came to America. Then, walk upwards through the time of the Civil War. Finally, arrive at the Civil Rights Movement. There are also cultural galleries highlighting music, sports, and other achievements of African Americans in the United States.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is located directly across the National Mall from the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Tickets for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum are required in the spring and summer months. There is both a sobering memorial and a large, modern museum that guides visitors through the timeline of the Holocaust.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing families can learn how money is printed in the United States. A short 40-minute factory style tour is available where visitors can overlook the machines that do the printing and see the bills being checked before they go out in circulation. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing tour requires tickets in the spring and summer months.
Free Things to Do in Washington DC Outdoors
From war memorials to sculpture gardens, to the zoo’s famous pandas, there are lots of free things for families to do outdoors in Washington DC.
The National Zoo is located a short metro ride away from all the action on the National Mall. If you have young children and choose to drive, the fee to park in the zoo parking lots is about 20 dollars (depending upon how long you stay). The zoo’s famous pandas are the highlight. They are located about a third of the way down the hill from the entrance if you are walking in from the metro. Trekaroo families have found that the National Zoo tends to have more rare animals than the average zoo. However, the National Zoo seems to have fewer large mammals than many of the bigger zoos in the United States.
Memorials and Monuments
Most visitors to Washington DC plan to spend a few hours walking around the memorials on the National Mall. After many visits to the memorials, I would recommend starting by the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial. From there, walk towards the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Then, cross the street to walk through the Korean War Veterans Memorial before arriving at the Lincoln Memorial. While there, be sure to climb the steps to the top of the Lincoln Memorial for the best view in all of DC from where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. After leaving the Lincoln Memorial, walk along the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial back to the World War II Memorial and the Washington Monument.
For information on each individual monument and how to earn a free junior ranger badge visiting the monuments on the National Mall, check out Trekaroo’s Guide to Monuments in Washington DC – National Mall Junior Ranger Program.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden is located between the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It has a small café serving sandwiches. In the winter, the café also sells warm drinks to the people skating at the ice rink in the middle of the garden. The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden is one of the best places to take a break from the museums on the National Mall in any season.
I never tire of walking the area around Massachusetts Ave NW and spotting all the international flags flown outside of the dozens of embassies in this neighborhood. If you are visiting Washington DC in May, check with Passport DC to see if your visit coincides with the Around the World Embassy Tour. One day of the year, many of the embassies in Washington DC hold an open house selling food or giving out treats to visitors. It is a fun, free event in Washington DC.
Looking for a hotel in Washington DC? Many of our favorite family-friendly hotels are located near Embassy Row.
Georgetown Waterfront Park and Yards Park Water Features
Looking for a place to cool off in Washington DC during the summer months? Local families love the water features at Georgetown Waterfront Park. It’s located along the bank of the Potomac River. The best part is that it gives families a great excuse to go explore Georgetown and grab a cupcake at either Georgetown Cupcake or Baked and Wired. Sadly, the cupcakes are not free.
On the other side of town along the Anacostia River, families can enjoy the fountains and huge fountain for wading at the Yards Park. This is also the place to stop before or after a Nationals baseball game. The Yards Park is only a short half mile walk along the Anacostia River to Nationals Park.
Free Things to Do in Washington DC Outdoors that Require a Car or Public Transportation
There are many free things to do in Washington DC that are fun for families with a car. All these parks are good places to escape the crowds of Washington DC and go for a short hike.
The National Arboretum sits on the edge of Washington DC near Maryland. It is best reached by car. In fact, it’s so large that it’s best to drive around the National Arboretum to reach the parts with the best blooms during the season in which you visit. One of the most beautiful parts of the arboretum in any season is the 22 Corinthian columns that came from the US Capitol in 1958. The azalea garden, when in bloom, is another favorite for families.
Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium Show
One of the hidden gems in Washington DC is Rock Creek Park. While parts of Rock Creek Park border the National Zoo, it is best to have a car. Begin at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center. At the Nature Center, families can ask about the park’s trails, pick up a junior ranger booklet, and check out the nature center’s animals and exhibits. The Rock Creek Park Nature Center has the only planetarium in the National Park System, and the planetarium programs are free.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
During the summer months, the lotus flowers bloom at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. The gardens are managed by the National Park System and have a junior ranger booklet. The gardens themselves are not particularly interesting. There are ponds and ponds of waterlilies and lotus flowers. The gardens are not far from the Baltimore Washington Parkway and require a car to visit.
Free Seasonal Events in Washington DC
From cherry blossoms to 4thof July fireworks, Washington DC celebrates the seasons of the year like no other American city. Most of the festivities are free if you choose to brave the crowds.
Outdoor Summer Concerts
During the summer months, military bands offer free concerts on a weekly basis. On Tuesdays, the US Air Force Band performs on the West Steps of the US Capitol while the US Navy Band performs at the US Naval Memorial across the street from the National Archives. On Fridays, the US Army band performs on the West Steps of the US Capitol. If enjoying a summer concert is a high priority for your family, do check the schedules ahead of time as there are often additional concerts in other locations. Frequently there are schedule changes due to thunderstorms and weather. Traveling during another season? There are often performances in the Washington DC area year-round, especially during the holiday season.
Cherry Blossom Festival
The Cherry Blossom is a two-week celebration in Washington DC each year. Families enjoy the Blossom Kite Festival. In fact, kids can fly kites on the grass surrounding the Washington Monument. What fun! The National Cherry Blossom Parade is another family highlight. Typically, the cherry blossom blooms are at their best in early April. But it is difficult to plan because late snow can put a hold on the blooming process.
Planning a visit to Washington DC in the spring? Check out Trekaroo’s guide to Where to Find Washington DC Cherry Blossoms in the Spring.