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An 8-Minute Guide to Free Stuff in Washington DC  

by Brian Gate

July 16, 2018 

Anyone can tell you that when it comes to visiting Washington D.C., there's the usual list of free museums, free art galleries, free zoos, free aquariums and free parks. The free admission sure help visitors save tons of money when they are in the Capital.

The list of free things to do and the activities you can enjoy in Washington D.C. is mind-numbingly endless and they include poignant monuments, historical memorials, Smithsonian museums, a massive National Gallery of Art, fun festive events, quintessential nooks and crannies, The White House, the National Mall and many more! It’s impossible to cross off all the free things you can do in your checklist with one trip; chances are, you’d have to make other trips to D.C. to enjoy ALL the cool activities.

Most of these museums, memorials and kid-friendly attractions in our nation’s capital are open all year round (except for specific holidays). They are packed during spring and summer months which are peak seasons for Washington D.C. as a whole, so, if you’re not keen on crowds, autumn is best. It’s when things are slowing down and the number of tourists dwindles. Instead of choking heat, you’re left with a light and airy breeze to accompany you with big splashes of bold fall colors.

Since there’s plenty of entertainment, events, shows and tourist attractions to visit in downtown D.C., with many of them charging you absolutely or close to nothing, do come by to check out winter and holiday events too. It’s off-peak period so, chances are, hotel rates are also lower compared to other times of the year.

So, wait no more! Here is a summary of free places to visit and things to do that in downtown Washington D.C.

free events, attractions, parade in Washington DC

1. The Tidal Basin

The basin was designed and named after Major William Johnson Twining, Washington D.C.’s first Engineer Commissioner. Major Twining's idea was to construct a tidal reservoir to help flush the Washington Channel. Today, the basin is a gorgeous place to visit from mid-March to October especially during the Cherry Blossom Festival in April. Hotspots like Jefferson Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument, George Mason Memorial, and the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial are found a short distance away from the Tidal Basin.

Today, the basin is used as an entertainment and cultural space rather than one for its original function. You can rent a paddle-boat when the weather is nice and head out for an outing with the entire family at an affordable rate. The basin takes up 107 acres of land and is approximately 10 feet deep, making it suitable for paddle-boating. Paddle boating is just one of those intelligent ways to get around the crowds, especially during the massive congregation of people during peak season. Another way to avoid getting into the pile-up of a lineup at the entrance is by making your reservations online; this guarantees you a boat during the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Even as you make your way around the Independence Avenue to 15th Street towards the Paddle Boat Dock, you can hear the laughter, the cheer, the joy. The rental company is open every day from March to October and from 10am to 6pm. After paddling on a two-person or four-person boat, there are daily performances to enjoy during peak season. They come in the form of music, dance, song, martial arts, cultural offerings from bands, drum performances, rugby, walks, runs and lantern tours. If you’re lucky, take part in annual activities like the junior ranger programs, the Japanese Film Festival, Blossom Kite Festival, Cherry Blossom Freedom Walk, Japanese Stone Lantern Lighting Ceremony, a waterfront fireworks festival, parade and many more!

Stop by during the night when the crowds have dissipated to enjoy a quieter walk, lounge around the waterway trails to take photos of Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, the National Mall and the White House, or head out early during the cherry blossom season for a calming, relaxing walk.

JEFFERSON MEMORIAL & CHERRY BLOSSOMS: Swipe ⬅️Left to see different perspectives! — PHOTO TIP - UNIQUE PERSPECTIVES: Change your #POV to tell the whole story in 5 different ways... 1. Use a prime lens with a shallow depth to blur the subject and focus on blossoms instead of the monument 2. I tell my students to “Get Down and Turn Around” because a better shot may be waiting for you. So for the second shot I sat down under a tree and looked up for unique lines. 3. When I turned around I saw a macro op where the blossoms had fallen. I used the closeup filters and water dropper I carry in my camera bag to capture a mini-fisheye lens effect in a water drop. 4. Next I captured the joy of a boy in a tree shaking branches on his sister who was dancing in the “blossom rain.” 5. Finally I saw an artist painting the scene and everyone taking in the glorious day! So don’t forget to get down, turn around and try unique techniques and perspectives. — — #tidalbasin #cherryblossom #cherryblossoms #jeffersonmemorial #monument #phototips #shallowdepth #wideaperture #primelens #sunrise #reflection #cherryblossomfestival #dc #washingtondc #perspective #pov #macro #closeup #waterdrop #tree #branches #lines #nature #landscape #travel #creative

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2. Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

3001 Connecticut Ave., NW Washington, DC 20008
(202) 633-4888
Hours: 8am - 7pm
It’s a free zoo on a hill that does not compromise on its size and quality of care. It’s the fifth zoo of its kind to house animals who were born through artificial insemination and one of only four zoos in the United States with pandas. Visitors are reminded, time and again, to don proper footwear for their trip because it is built on a hill and you’ll be legging your way around the entire time. However, if you take it slow and spend adequate time at each exhibit, the entire day will feel like only a couple of hours. Food choices are not impressive but if you pack your own food and drinks, that's one potential problem out of the way.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, also known as SCBI, is headquartered right here at the National Zoo and it is a renowned participant in the wildlife conservation scene. Not only are they extremely proactive in saving endangered species from extinction, training is provided to train future generations of conservationists. Covering everything from tackling modern day complex conservation challenges to learning new ways to interpret animal behaviors, reproduction habits, and ecological needs, the 163-acre zoo is home to 1,500 animals across hundreds of species.

The group of scientists has been active in breeding animals to preserve as much genetic diversity as possible since opening its days of conceptualization. Together with scientists from all around the world, the zoo has seen the birth its first black-footed ferret kits in 1991; the animals were later returned to the wild through an intensive reintroduction program. Their efforts are relentless to this day. You’ll be charmed with Bei Bei the baby panda, cute like Asian elephants seeking shelter in the shade or splashing around in the water, orangutans swinging around through the vines and towers, and Yellow-rumped caciques chomping down on their favorite snacks in their comfy hideouts.

Other exhibits to note:-
  • Experience Migration
  • Great Cats
  • Cheetah Conservation Station
  • a Kids' Farm
  • Small Mammal House (cute!)
  • Amazonia
  • American Bison
  • American Trail
  • of course, the ever-popular Asia Trail with the pandas grabbing the spotlight
If you’re coming in using either the Metro or a rented charter bus, you don’t have to worry about the rather hefty $25 parking fee (accurate to the date of writing) it requires; you can find updated information about it at the zoo’s website link provided above or their social media accounts.

In honor of National Zookeeper Week, we're featuring some of the dedicated professionals who go above and beyond for the animals in our care! 🦍 Primate keeper Melba Brown trained western lowland gorilla Calaya to voluntary participate in ultrasounds, allowing husbandry and vet staff to monitor for important changes throughout Moke's fetal development. VIDEO & NOMINATION: (Link in our profile.) #NZKW2018 #WeSaveSpecies #GorillaStory

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3. Washington National Cathedral

3101 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, DC 20016
Mon to Fri 10am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 4pm, Sun 8am - 4pm
Like the warm embrace of a mother, regardless of religion, race, color, sexual preference, educational background, occupation and country of origin, there is no prerequisite to entering this amazing place of worship. Comprising the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, everyone recognizes the attraction for its neo-gothic aesthetic beauty both on the inside and outside. Even without stepping a toe past the Episcopal Church’s doors, the garden and architecture are still mesmerizing.

Designed to be pretty much a piece of Heaven on earth, take your time wandering around the cathedral going from chambers to open grounds, from the quiet room to 7th floor where visitors can check out breathtaking views of the cathedral’s surroundings. You’ll sometimes find art exhibitions, talks, seminars and events held on its grounds.

What’s impressive is that it may be a national historic site, but they subscribe strongly to modern ways of working with green partners to do their part for the environment. They are working with green partners on rainwater management, recycling, waste reduction, reusing of old materials, electricity efficiency, and installation and upgrades of water fountains on grounds to discourage the use of plastic bottles.

Isn’t that simply awesome?

Washington National Cathedral #dc #cathedral #washingtondc #washingtoncathedral #nationalcathedral

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4. National Air and Space Museum

600 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560
(202) 633-2214
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, VA 20151
(703) 572-4118
This attraction easily wins the hearts of kids over. Give or take 15 minutes, they’ll be blasting off exploring one exhibit after another; it’s worth mentioning that the museum, a Smithsonian, offers free admission to everyone. Telling a tale of aviation history, deep space travel, scientific advancements, and an inspiring world of possibilities, it lets you touch the moon rock and learn about the remnants of the fated Apollo 11 spacecraft that made it back to earth. Educators and parents would clamor around historic artifacts and larger-than-life exhibits to teach and inspire children of all ages about components of space artifacts, aviation, and human flight. Due to its unsuspected popularity, the museum opened its second location, Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, which turns out to be one of the most visited attractions in the world!

Visitors will get to marvel at artifacts related to the world’s first successful flight operated by the Wright brothers in the early 1900s, the remainder of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the first aircraft to have ever made a non-stop flight from New York to Paris, France, the Albert Einstein Planetarium, Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, the Public Observatory, or watch one of their science demonstrations, take on one of its virtual reality simulators, enjoy Story Time, or sign up for a free tour. There’s also a relatively new exhibit called the Boeing Milestone of Flight Hall which features The Enterprise from the world-famous film franchise, Star Trek, on display. Drool-worthy for hard core Trekkies, I safely assume.

The main museum on Independence Avenue has free admission for all and is open from 10am to 5.30pm daily; the doors stay open later until 7.30pm during spring and summer!

In the early hours of this morning, teachers in our Teacher Innovator Institute launched a weather balloon with their own experiments on board. #TII2018 📸: Mike Allard

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5. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566
(800) 444-1324
It is arguable that there is no other city in the world that offer as many art-related events, concert series and open galleries than Washington D.C. With free admissions for a string of shows ranging from comedy to opera, ballet to piano performances, you can also take part in and support its extensive young school groups programs. It maintains a large archive of free videos online on their website and it continues to be free to view.

They hold most of the free performances on the two world-class theaters at Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer; they’re equipped with state-of-the-art lighting, camera and sound systems and holds approximately 3,500 performances annually, catering to well over two million patrons. Television and radio broadcasts are also hosted at the center which are seen by a record 20 million people from all around the world. On top of working with the National Symphony Orchestra which nurtures, produces and commissions the works of aspiring and developing artists with 200 theatrical productions in the form of musicals, ballets and operas, the center also works hand in hand with local art organizations like Opera Lafayette, Washington Concert Opera, Washington National Opera, VSA Arts, The Washington Ballet, American Film Institute, The Cathedral Choral Society of Washington, Korean Concert Society and many others.

Don’t worry if you’re not into the whole art scene because you can also opt for a free tour around the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts available in 17 languages! Here’s where your eyes will open to the world of the arts, pulling you into its enchanting embrace via interactive exhibits related to the life of President Kennedy, the jaw-dropping view of the city from Rooftop Terrace, and stories about how the 50-foot Austrian chandelier came to find its home at the center.

The performances are so multi-faceted and encapsulating that you might end up a fan of opera and ballet after the tour after all.

We broke out our best moves—and now we challenge @ashleybouder to do the same! 💃🎶🕺 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Watch our full annual staff video—link in profile—and join us July 28 for our FREE #NationalDanceDay2018 celebration! #DanceMadeMeDoIt

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6. Explore DC on Foot

This is, by far, one of the biggest benefits of exploring the Capital of the United States; tours whether by bus or on foot, are almost always free. Knowledgeable, passionate tour guides are on the ready to take you for a stroll around some of Washington D.C. best and most well-known sites.

For instance, Destination DC serves as a leading organization that promotes tourism in Washington D.C.; it puts together special events and global conventions to serve the D.C. community every year. DC By Foot, in the meantime, lets you name your own price for their DC tours. Pay more if you think the tour totally rocked, or pay less if you’re on a budget. Regardless of what you pay, they'll take visitors to top tourist attractions like the historic Georgetown, Arlington National Cemetery, National Mall, site of Lincoln Assassination, Ghost and Scandals Tours, Tidal Basin, Embassy Row, Old Town Alexandria and many more! They’re high energy and always waiting to weave interesting untold stories into your minds. They have lots of useful tips about the hidden gems of DC to share with you too, so, ask away!.

These tours are incredibly popular with students, families and corporate groups because it takes the burden of planning off of the shoulders of parents, teachers and committee members. Guides know best after all.

I NEED S’MORE‼️❤️🍓🍴 @eatthecapital #fabfoodfiesta

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7. Palmer Alley DC by City Center DC

10th & H St NW, Washington, DC 20001
(202) 289-9000

It’s fortunate that one does not need a fat wallet to enjoy the seasonal sights and wonderful outdoor spaces downtown Washington D.C. Window shopping along the vibrantly decorated Palmer Alley is a must if you want to find exclusive brands, enjoy the cherry blossom season, or take tons of pictures to show off to your family back home. Although the holiday season records peak percentage of footfall in the area, City Center DC runs frequent free events and attracts throngs of visitors and tourists regardless of time of the year.

Spring and summer, with their welcoming weather, invites a session of shopping spree at the expansive shopping district which boasts of shops like Paul Stuart, Hermes, and Gucci, cafes like RareSweets and Dolcezza Gelato & Coffee. City Center DC also actively promotes the city via the FreshFarm CityCenterDC Farmers Market where you can get your hands on delicious egg rolls, fresh fruits and baked goods, join the Kids Corner at the DC Public Library for storytime, enjoy a quick mini golfing season at The Park, or soak in season-inspired decor all around town. When your legs are ready to give out, take time to enjoy a picnic in the park and or hop on for a scenic road trip along the neighboring winding country roads on a charter bus.  

Need to get out of the office? Stop by The Park at CityCenter to enjoy lunch at the Farmers Market and a round of mini golf 🏌️‍♀️ 🏌️ #CityCenterDC #Hines #FarmersMarket #Freshfarm #DCLunch #MiniGolf #LunchBreak #DowntownDC #WashingtonDC

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The District Of Joy from CityCenterDC on Vimeo.

8. Gravelly Point

George Washington Parkway, Arlington, VA 22202
(703) 228-3969
It’s a bird, is it a plane! Is it a....yup, it’s a plane.

Gravelly Point, located in Arlington County in Virginia but a stone’s throw away from downtown D.C., is an amazing place to watch planes take off and land at the Ronald Reagan International Airport. If you pack up a picnic for lunchtime, you can, literally, spend half the day enjoying the great outdoors with your loved ones without spending a cent on anything! Neighboring restaurants like nearby restaurants King Street Blues and Potbelly Sandwich Works offer fabulous lunch options and when you’re done, bring the rented charter bus to attractions like Tombs of the Unknown, Arlington House and Long Bridge Park.

For many who live around the area, it is a popular childhood stomping ground. Some grown-ups who have spread their wings away from the neighborhood would make their way back to Gravelly Point with their children in tow just to share their childhood memories with their offspring. The International Airport is extremely busy because it is Washington D.C’s and Baltimore's primary airport. Located right next to the George Washington Memorial Parkway is Potomac River, Roaches Run, and Mount Vernon Trail, so, you can go boating if the weather permits. Other entry points include Crystal City and other points along Mount Vernon Trail. Some visitors would bike their way along Potomac River only to find themselves savoring their lunch at Gravelly Point before taking off again for Lincoln Memorial.

The park is found at the end of the airport runway and it is fun to see the underbelly of the planes as they approach the park or airport, sometimes coming so close you’d be caught by surprise! How close? Just imagine that as the planes whizz past you, you might see passengers in the plane waving at you from within the aircraft.

Raise your hand if you're ready for the weekend! 🙋🏽‍♂️🙋🏾‍♂️#TGIF . . . . #FuturePilot #AACadetAcademy #DCA #AmericanAirlines #AmericanAir #Pilot #Kids #DreamBig #Weekend #Friday #Friyay #Airplane #IGAviation #Boeing #737 #Boeing737 #InstaGood #GravellyPoint

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Charter An Affordable, Luxurious Charter Bus or Minibus for your Trip to Washington D.C.

rent affordable charter bus for group trip to Washington DC

The same way a DC Explorer Pass can help you save big on your D.C. adventures, Bus Charter Washington D.C. will help you make the best of your time here in this amazing city! Check out our affordable charter bus and minibus rental packages that can take your group anywhere you want to go, be it within downtown Washington DC, Maryland or Virginia. We also cater to long-distance, city-to-city tours.

We are committed to delivering affordable, competitive charter bus rental rates for corporate functions, school trips, field trips, proms, weddings, casino outings, religious events, conferences, sporting events, airport transfers and more! Let’s get the adventure going by contacting us using the inquiry form on our website or dial 1-800-304-1993 to speak to our customer service representatives. We're available 24/7 a day and 365 days a year. You’ll find the perfect affordable, luxurious charter bus in our fleet in no time.