National Museum American Indian Capitol

The National Museum of the American Indian highlights history and traditions.

Photograph by Karen Ballard

By Benay Brotman

An ongoing urban renaissance has jazzed up Washington, D.C. Among the trendy restaurants and shops are plenty of memorials and museums to visit, many of which are free to explore. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find even more activities and sites that don't cost a thing. Following are some ideas to get you started.


Between January and June, admittance to the National Gallery of Art Sunday Concerts, ranging from classical music to Africapin-American spirituals, is on a first-come, first-served basis. Seating begins at 6 p.m.; concerts begin at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday evenings.

Explore Mexican culture and art at the Mexican Cultural Institute, a mansion-turned-art gallery. Open Mon.-Fri. 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

During the week, admission to the permanent collection at the Phillips Collection is by donation only (Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.) Closed Mondays. Phillips After 5, an extended-hours program on the first Thursday of each month featuring gallery talks and other programs, is free with the cost of admission to the exhibition. The cost of admission to the exhibition is $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. (The museum has extended hours every Thursday from 5 to 8:30 p.m.)

On the first Friday of each month, 13 galleries in Dupont Circle hold informal open houses. Click here to see a list of all of the galleries in the Dupont area.

On the third Friday of each month, Galleries 1054, located in Georgetown's Canal Square, host opening receptions from approximately 6 to 8 p.m. Although the receptions occur every month, those held April through June and September through November offer an added bonus: catering by Georgetown's Sea Catch Restaurant. The Galleries 1054 include the MOCA DC Gallery, the Parish Gallery, the Alla Rogers Gallery, the Winter Palace Studio, Georgetown Pics Photography, and the Cross Mackenzie Ceramic Arts gallery.

Seasonal Art/Music

Monday Night at the National Theatre features local actors, comedians, musicians, singers, and dancers in free performances. Check the website for exact times. Tickets are required and are distributed one half-hour prior to each performance. The Monday Night program switches to the Summer Cinema film series between June and August and screenings start at dusk during the summer. Also, from September to April, every Saturday from 9:30 and 11 a.m. the National Theater has a free kids theater event. Click here for details.

During the summer, the Jazz in the Garden program offers free, live jazz concerts on Friday evenings in the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden.

Each Thursday evening, throughout the summer, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., the National Zoo presents Sunset Serenades—musical performances of every genre—on Lion/Tiger Hill.


The National Building Museum, acclaimed for its architectural splendor, celebrates the history and methods of architecture, design, engineering, construction, and urban planning through exhibitions and hands-on activities. Opening hours are Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Free tours are offered every day at 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., based on docent availability. Every weekend, docents roll out Discovery Carts to teach families about elements of construction. Saturday's program, "Bridging the Gap," is offered from 10:30 to 11 a.m., and Sunday's program, "Arches and Trusses," from 11:30 a.m. to noon. Other family programs, films, and lectures are also free of charge. Museum admission is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested.

Avoid the lines at the Washington Monument and climb to the observation level of the 315-foot-tall Old Post Office Tower for an equally spectacular view of the city. From Labor Day through Memorial Day (approximately), the Old Post Office Tower is open Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. From the first weekend in June through Labor Day, the hours are Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-8 p.m., except Thursdays when the tower closes at 7 p.m. for bell ringing practice. Free self-guided tours begin every five minutes. The last elevator leaves 15 minutes before closing.

Pre-arranged, guided tours of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the Department of State are conducted Mon.-Fri. at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and 2:45 p.m. While touring the rooms used for official functions hosted by the secretary of state and other government officials, visitors learn about the 18th-century American furniture, paintings, and other fine arts housed in the rooms. Reservations must be made at least 90 days in advance.

As a part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Zoo charges no admission. Watch a mother and young elephant take a bath, see what a giant octopus eats, and meet a New Zealand kiwi as part of the zoo's regular programs.

Visitors can take tours of the U.S. Naval Observatory on alternating Monday nights from 8:30 to 10. Weather permitting, tours include a view through the 12-inch Alvan Clark Refracting Telescope. Requests for tour reservations should be made 4-6 weeks in advance of the tour.

The U.S. Supreme Court offers public lectures every hour on the half-hour Mon.-Fri. 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. on days when the Court is not sitting. Seating is available on a first-come, first-seated basis. On certain Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays from October to April, visitors may listen to an oral argument heard by the Supreme Court. Non-argument sessions are open to the public from May until the end of June. Seating is on a first-come, first-seated basis, and visitors are encouraged to line up on the front plaza of the Court by 8 a.m. Refer to the calendars posted online for a schedule of arguments and court sessions .

The National Mall & Memorial Parks are some of the most famous free attractions in D.C. Try visiting the monuments, such as the Lincoln Memorial, the National World War II Memorial, and the FDR Memorial at night to enjoy the dramatic lighting and smaller crowds. Most monuments are open until midnight.

At Mount St. Sepulchre, a Franciscan church and monastery , take a tour of the buildings, shrines, gardens, and catacombs. Tours are given daily at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. On Sundays, tours are available only at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. Tours are free, but donations are appreciated.

The U.S. Botanic Garden is a great place to visit, rain or shine. Find current and permanent exhibits inside the conservatory, walk through the home landscape demonstration garden of Bartholdi Park, or experience the National Garden, which opened in October 2006. Check the website for a list of free events, including tours and lectures. Some pre-registration required. Conservatory open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Bartholdi Park open dawn to dusk.

Ford's Theatre, offers daily presentations on the theater's history and the assassination of President Lincoln. Final entry to the museum is at 4:30 p.m. and it opens at 9 a.m. The two half-hour performances throughout the day include a one-act play about Lincoln's assassination and a lecture style presentation analyzing the assassination. Tickets are required, and are distributed free at the box office beginning at 8:30 a.m. for same-day presentations on a first-come, first-seated basis.

The National Geographic Society Headquarters is home to the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall. View changing photography exhibitions on a variety of scientific, geographic, and cultural themes daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The full gallery spaces are ticketed and charge admission for entry.

Visitors are welcome to tour the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., which includes a library and mosque. Open Mon.-Fri. 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The center offers free Arabic classes and courses on Islam on the weekends. Check the site for details and schedules.

The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum offers free tours and lectures about the role of African-American troops in the Civil War. Reservations are suggested for groups of five or more. Open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Admission is free to the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, which exhibits collections of American historical objects and more than 30 period rooms displaying antique furniture from colonial times. Museum gallery is open Mon.-Fri. 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m., and Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Docent led tours are every hour and half hour Mon.-Fri. 10:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9 to 4:30 p.m. Self-guided tours are available before 10 and after 3 or when all docents are guiding other tours.

At the Kennedy Center, take a free guided tour of the Hall of States and Hall of Nations, the main theaters, and the artwork and sculptures donated to the Center by foreign countries. Tours are available Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sat.-Sun.10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Tour the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, headquarters of the National Woman's Party, to view Susan B. Anthony's desk, suffrage parade banners, and other art and artifacts from the women's rights movement. Tours depart on the hour Wed.-Sun. noon-4 p.m. (last tour begins at 3 p.m.). A suggested $5 donation is appreciated.

On the first Sunday of every month, the National Museum of Women in the Arts offers Free Community Days. View the Museum's diverse permanent collection of art by women from the 16th century to the present and a special collection of silver by 18th- and 19th-century Irish and English women silversmiths.

The Eastern Market, located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, welcomes visitors to browse a flea market, farmers market, and arts-and-crafts market. The farmers market is open Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m.-4 p.m.


Visit Grace Church in Georgetown for Coffee Hour every Sunday. Listen to local poets and enjoy free coffee. Washington City Paper named it the best coffee hour in the city.

At the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, see free performances of all types, from the National Symphony Orchestra to Afghan music and dance, daily at 6 p.m. A free shuttle bus transports guests from the Foggy Bottom Metro station to the Kennedy Center. After the show, take the elevator up to the roof for a free 360-degree view of the city lit up at night.

Though the Smithsonian Institution provide visitors with endless hours of budget-friendly entertainment, the organization offers far more than just free admission to the museums. The Smithsonian shows films and offers workshops, craft demonstrations, special tours (gallery talks and exhibition tours), lectures, seminars, and performances at each of the different museums free of charge.

Anacostia Community Museum

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

National Air and Space Museum

National Museum of African Art

National Museum of American History

National Museum of Natural History

National Museum of the American Indian

National Portrait Gallery

National Postal Museum

National Zoological Park

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Smithsonian Institution Building, the Castle

Take a guided tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library building to view the current exhibition, the theater, and Shakespeare's First Folio, and have a peek into the restricted-access Reading Rooms. The Folger is open to the public Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Docents lead tours Mon.-Fri. at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. At 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. every third Saturday of the month from April to October, docents lead tours of the Elizabethan Garden.

The Library of Congress offers guided tours of the Thomas Jefferson Building, including the Great Hall, the Main Reading Room, and several galleries Mon.-Fri. at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m., 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30 p.m.; and Saturday at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m., 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. Visitors should arrive at least 15 minutes early for a security check. The Library will be closed for Martin Luther King Day and Inauguration Day.

Walk along the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue between Dupont Circle and the National Cathedral known as Embassy Row, and pass by many of the foreign embassies located in the District. Kids can go trick-or-treating at most of the embassies on Halloween.

The Carnegie Institute hosts "Capital Science Evenings," monthly lectures on current scientific topics, one Thursday a month at 6:45 p.m.

Seasonal Cultural Activities

Experience the song, dance, performance, crafts, and food of diverse cultural traditions at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, held on the National Mall for two weeks every summer overlapping the Fourth of July holiday.

Celebrate Shakespeare's birthday at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Sunday, April 26, 2009, from noon to 4 p.m. A variety of entertainment is offered, including theater performances; Renaissance music and dance; tours of the reading rooms and the Elizabethan Garden; Elizabethan crafts, games, and storytelling for kids; and, of course, birthday cake. Take advantage of the one day of the year when the Folger reading rooms, decorated with 16th-century tapestries and a stained-glass window depicting the "Seven Ages of Man," are open to the public.

Every fall, the ethnically diverse Adams Morgan neighborhood hosts the Adams Morgan Day Festival, offering food, crafts, and entertainment to celebrate the multicultural area. The next festival will be held on September 12, 2010.

At the annual Arts on Foot Festival, held in the fall, the Penn Quarter neighborhood opens its streets for a variety of visual and performing arts. Guided tours of local venues and galleries, in addition to outdoor exhibits and entertainment, introduce visitors to a variety of art forms.


Enjoy complimentary wine tasting every Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Bistrot Lepic's upstairs Wine Bar. Located at 1736 Wisconsin Ave., Georgetown.

Several bars around town offer open bar nights, some that include buffets. For information on the ever-changing free drink scene, check out the Washington Post Going Out Gurus.


Kids can enjoy Monday Morning Storytime at the well-known Politics & Prose Bookstore on Mondays at 10:30 a.m. The store also hosts monthly meetings of teen book groups and over a dozen adult book groups, as well as author talks and other events that are free and open to the public.

The Smithsonian Institution offers many children's and family programs, which include storytelling, special tours, family days, arts and crafts, and other hands-on activities. At the Imaginasia Family Program at the Sackler Gallery, children and adults view an exhibition and then make a craft related to the exhibit.

The Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium, open Wed.-Sun. from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., offers daily environmental education programs at the Nature Center, and weekly shows at the Planetarium on Wednesday at 4 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Free tickets are available at the Nature Center's information desk. Monthly evening stargazing sessions are hosted from April through November. Call 1 202 895 6070 for dates and times.


Walk, bike, or skate the Mount Vernon Trail, an 18.5-mile (30-km) stretch that runs from Mount Vernon to Theodore Roosevelt Island and borders the Potomac River on the Virginia side.

Though it lies just off the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Theodore Roosevelt Island offers two-and-a-half miles of pepeaceful pathways through its 88-acre (36-hectare) nature preserve. Trade your car for tennis shoes as you walk through swamp forests and over the boardwalk made of recycled materials.

The 446 acres of outdoor and indoor exhibits at the National Arboretum include the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum (open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily), the National Herb Garden, and the National Grove of State Trees. The Arboretum grounds are open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, except December 25 and some federal holidays, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Inauguration Day.

At Arlington National Cemetery, watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The guard changes every half hour between March 15th and September 30th. They change ever hour for the rest of the year. The cemetery is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. from October 1 to March 31, and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. for the rest of the year.

Explore the many offerings of Rock Creek Park, including the Peirce Mill and Barn. The Mill is open on weekends in the summer. The Barn is generally open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Call 1 202 895 6000 to confirm. The park offers free ranger-led programs through different trails and sites.

While strolling through the historic neighborhood and shopping area of Georgetown, visit the 18th-century Old Stone House and adjacent English garden. The house is open for tours Wed.-Sun. from noon to 5:00 p.m.

Pay a visit to Montrose Park, located between Dumbarton Oaks Park and Rock Creek Park (R St. NW, between 30th and 32nd Sts.), and stroll along the serene,18th-century cobblestone path called Lovers' Lane.

Seasonal Outdoor Activities

Watch pro kite-flyers and fly your own kite at the Smithsonian Kite Festival. The festival is held on the National Mall on a Saturday in late March or early April. To learn how to make your own kite, sign up for the Family Day kite-making workshop at the National Air and Space Museum's Family Day, a week before the Smithsonian Kite Festival, to inspire you to make your own kite for the Festival's competition.

Experience the famous National Cherry Blossom Festival in late March and early April. Highlights of the festival include a parade, the Tidal Basin Stage Cultural Performances, which feature music, dance, and martial-arts demonstrations on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. Performances begin each day at different times, check the site for details.

The gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, a research institute run by Harvard University, include ten landscaped acres featuring a rose garden, ellipse, and an open-air theater. Although admission is charged from March 15 to October 31, you can visit for free from November 1 to March 14 from 2-5 p.m. The museum is also open from 2-5 p.m. and is always free. Closed Mondays.

During the summer, bring your blanket and picnic supper to the National Mall and view classic films at the Screen on the Green outdoors. These free film screenings are shown at sunset every Monday from July to August. Call the HBO hotline at 877 262 5866 or the AOL CityGuide.


Once every few months, the Shakespeare Theatre Company offers free staged readings that are open to the public, at the Lansburgh Theatre location. Reservations are required.

Seasonal Theater

Enjoy two weeks of free Shakespeare plays at the Shakespeare Theatre Company Free For All at Sidney Harman Hall. The dates for the performances are announced in the spring, check the site. Though admission is free, tickets are required for all performances and are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis only on the day of each performance at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Box Offices and online. Arrive about 4 hours early if you want a good seat.

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