I always love going to Washington D.C. It gives me a chance to visit my money. Rim shot! Old Bob Hope jokes aside, this time of year (negative political campaigns) can make the nation’s capitol seem anything but appealing. But it is a lovely city, rich with history and much to fascinate visitors. And even though politicians argue about overspending, it doesn’t mean visitors have to overspend.

Tax dollars and the tourist bureau are hard at work here (unlike Congress…wink!), so tourists can visit many iconic sites for free.

The Sites

  •  “App” It. The National Park Service offers a free downloadable app. Take advantage of this tool to enrich your Washington, D.C. experience with maps, walking directions, events and news, and tour information. No smartphone? The city is full of helpful signs to point you in the right direction.
  • Capitolize: A symbol of our nation, the U.S. Capitol Building is a must-see destination in D.C. The Capitol Visitor Center is open to the public, free of charge. A tour reservation is required for a free guided tour beyond the visitor center. Book well in advance.
  • Be Institutionalized: The Smithsonian Institution is a must-see collection of museums housing everything from dinosaur bones to moon rocks to Dorothy’s shoes. Most of the museums are located on the National Mall. To really see everything, dedicate a few days. Time crunch? The most popular collections are housed in the National Museum of American History (like the Muppets and first ladies’ gowns), The National Museum of Natural History (dinosaur bones and the Hope Diamond), and the Air and Space Museum (jet fighters and space suits). Admission to all Smithsonian museums is free!
  • Walk with the Animals. Meander through the National Zoo. Free admission provides access to adorable pandas on the Asia Trail, a Kids Farm and newly renovated Elephant Trails. The zoo is situated on a hill, so start your trek at the bottom and work your way up!
  • 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Plan ahead to get into one of the most iconic homes in the world—the White House. Contact your Congressional representative to submit a request for a free tour. Permission is granted on a first come, first served basis. Bring your photo ID and be on time.
  • Eat (Cup)cake! Georgetown sits on the Potomac River and is one of the oldest neighborhoods in D.C. The area is known for excellent shopping and entertaining people-watching. Take a self-guided Kennedy Walking Tour and reward yourself after with a Georgetown Cupcake, featured on the TLC program DC Cupcakes. Pay for the pastry, but not for the fun photos in front of the busy, popular shop.
  • Encore! One of the best-kept secrets for a romantic date (or just a moment of quiet reflection) is The Kennedy Center. The Roof Terrace is open to anyone and offers breathtaking views of the city and river. Take advantage of a free guided tour. You’ll get a peak into the various theaters and see numerous works of art.
  • Public Transportation: Save a ton getting to the free sites by using D.C.’s accessible, easy public transportation. The D.C. underground rail system, or “Metro,” is clean, safe, and user-friendly. Take advantage of reduced fares for non-rush hour transport or pick up a special one-day unlimited pass. The Circulator Bus is only $1 and stops at many of the sites and other great D.C. neighborhoods.
This has been a guest post by Kristen from Arlington, VA
Find out more about the KCL Contributor Network!

Other Cities

Free tourist sites are available in almost every city across the country. Here are some tips for finding free tourist attractions:

Travel/Tourist Websites: The official tourism site for the city or state you are visiting is a great resource for fun and free things to do. Call or send an email. These cities want you to come visit and will happily provide you with all the information you need.

Local Visitor’s Bureau: Make the local visitor’s bureau your first stop. Tell them you are interested in free local activities, and see what they come up with.

Ask Locals: Who knows better than residents the best of free things to do. Every town has a few hidden gems, and if you don’t ask, you might not find them.

Call Before You Go: Before you head out to a tourist site, pick up the phone and ask a few questions. Many places offer reduced prices or free tickets on certain days and times or have free exhibits available. Don’t be afraid to ask for discounts and specials.

A Note

Nickel Tours is a new series of KCL’s travel section. Look for periodic posts highlighting free and very inexpensive things to do in destination cities around the United States. Leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Leave a Reply

16 thoughts on “Nickel Tours: Capitol Hill Sans Capital Spending”

  1. Save a ton by using Metro? With their recent fare hikes, taking a family of four downtown is about as expensive as simply parking downtown. Park at the Kennedy Center – if you’re in by 10 and out by 7, it’s only $9. If you do choose to ride Metro, be sure to avoid rush hour. Besides trains and platforms being scarily packed, the lines (especially the Red line) are extremely prone to breaking down at those hours.

    • Kristen says:

       Great tip on Kennedy Center parking!  Yes, Metro can get pricey with multiple people, compared to a cheap parking find.  But if you’re in town without a car, Metro can be a lot cheaper than a taxi, or a commercial sightseeing bus.  A one day pass is a good option for someone who plans on using it a lot in one day.

  2. sarah says:

    Perfect! I live in D.C. Well this is my second summer here. And you covered it wonderfully! There are also free concerts from the military bands Monday-Friday at 8:00PM on the West(back) Capitol Steps.

  3. Denise says:

    I love this!!! Thanks so much for doing this. We’ve been wanting to explore DC so this is perfect timing!! :)

  4. Susie says:

    Forgot to mention too, as a general rule, when congress is not in session, prices on hotels are half what they are when congress is in session. 

  5. Susie says:

    Also, if you use the on and off trolly’s, which are great, the cheapest and most efficient one is the one ran by the government. We always caught it at Arlington Cemetary (which also has the cheapest parking for the day). It runs more trolleys, more often than Old Town Trolley. We tried both, Old Town never had enough space for all the people waiting at a stop. The government ran trolleys were much larger and came by more often. They always had space, and they’re much cheaper.

  6. Guest says:

    City Segway Tours DC looks like a ton of fun. Seeing groups of people all crossing the street on a Segway will really make you do a double take. I dont know how much it costs, but how fun would it be to visit DC on a Segway?!  Got any people in your group with bad knees? Hop on a Segway and cruise around town. lol.

  7. Kim says:

    I would recommend the DC Ghost Tour. A family of 4 can go for under $50. It is a great tour and is very entertaining. It’s also educational. My daughter learned that Dolly Madison was a real person and not a maker of sweet treats!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great post! Another must for Washington DC is going to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s also free and so full of learning. Beautiful building too. The main exhibit can be difficult for young children, but there is an exhibit specifically for children called “Daniel’s Story”. Also, while not exactly frugal, there is a cafe on the premises if you need to take a break from walking (just ask anyone working there how to get to it). I only mention this because if you are at the Holocaust Museum, there isn’t many restaurants very close. There is a great little hot dog cart nearby though.

    • Guest says:

      Right next door to the Holocaust Museum is the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (ie Where our money is made!) so you really can “visit your money” like the writer of this post said. It’s free to tour and quick too. A great place to visit if you have an hour or so empty between other functions/tours. Note: If the presses aren’t running it can be a little boring, but like I said it’s a quick tour so check it out!

  9. Lynice Williams says:

    Baked & Wired has delicious cupcakes! They are also located in Georgetown!

  10. Theresa says:

    dear KCL where can i find your weekly preview for 8/5/12