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.
- "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.
- Go to The Mall. D.C. is home to some of the most famous memorials in the world, all located on the National Mall. Lace up some walking shoes and head to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington Monument and the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial at the mall. Each site is free and within walking distance of each other. Bring plenty of water and a camera.
- 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.
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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.
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!