36 Things to Do for Free in D.C.
We may be Jetsetters, but we’re always game to save some cash. D.C. local Nevin Martell gives us tips on how to enjoy the capital without spending any capital.
The District has arguably the greatest collection of museums in the country (Sorry not sorry, New York). Even better yet, many of them are free. The National Air & Space Museum is packed to the rafters – literally – with some of the most iconic airplanes and spacecraft in history, from Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis to the Apollo 11, which landed on the moon in 1969. Across the National Mall is the National Museum of Natural History. The Hall of Mammals is a must-see, filled with entrancing detail-driven dioramas that showcase creatures great and small from around the globe, it's also worth glancing the 45.5 carat Hope Diamond, and mummified Egyptian cats. For a look back at America's past, stop by the National Archives, home to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (just don't pull any National Treasure hijinks). While you're there, you can also trace your family's genealogy from immigration and naturalization records to military and land records. The National Museum of the American Indian holds 266,000 pieces of art and artifacts from native cultures across the Americas in a building that loops and swoops in such a fetching fashion that you won't be able to resist capturing an insta or two.
Image by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Watch the Government in Action (Or Inaction)
Witness some of the most groundbreaking decisions of our time as they unfold. First-come-first-served seats are available for the oral arguments at the Supreme Court when it's in session. Guided tours of the nearby U.S. Capitol building are given year-round. You can score separate tickets to the galleries overlooking the Senate or the House, so you can see what gridlock and partisan bickering look like in person. For a more uplifting experience, watch millions of dollars being printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which offers 40-minute tours (just don't try to steal any of their cash; they don't like that). You can even tour the White House, if you can get your member of Congress or embassy to hook you up with comp tickets.
Listen to Good Music
Think of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in June and July as a kind of Pan-American Coachella. The free concert series features traditional North and South American performers, , and this year’s programs include ‘Sounds of California’ – with Muslim-Filipino gong performances, Oaxacan ten-person wind ensembles, and ‘street breeze’ Latino dance music from East LA – and ‘Basque: Innovation by Culture’ with traditional song and dance. At the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, there are daily performances from orchestras, jazz ensembles and poetry slam artists. Looking for a little rhythm and groove? Head to Meridian Hill Park on Sunday afternoons to jam out at the drum circle that's been a DC tradition for more than 50 years. If jazz is more your thing, the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Take Five concert series happens on the third Thursday of every month.
See Mind-Blowing Art
To see the cutting edge of the cutting edge of art, your first stop should be the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden with contemporary works from Yoko Ono, Auguste Rodin and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Next should be the Phillips Collection, which showcases temporary exhibits in all media forms. For a mixture of old classics and new wonders, the National Gallery of Art is the place. Make sure to visit Leo Villareal's Multiverse, an immersive installation in the 200-foot long tunnel between the museum's two buildings. Composed of more than 41,000 LEDs, which go on and off to create the sensation of movement, it's like a murmuration of electronic starlings swooping through the sky. Then head outside to the museum's sculpture garden to see Roy Lichtenstein's House I, among others. On Community Day, the first Sunday of every month, admission is free at the National Museum of Women in the Arts - the only museum in the world with works exclusively by female artists like Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner and Nan Goldin. Another can't-miss: the National Portrait Gallery, which is filled with photos and artworks from notable painters, presidents, pop stars and more. Right now you can catch 'Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze' with video portraits, paintings, and rhinestone-bedazzled prints of folks like Peter Dinklage, Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayor. The gallery is also running a special 'In Memoriam' exhibition for Prince.
Experience Capital Culture
During the week, check out New York Times best-selling authors give readings at local favorite Politics & Prose. At Arlington National Cemetery, veterans and their families can watch the changing of the guard every hour on the hour October through March. The National Cherry Blossom Festival may signal the onset of allergy season, but it's still worth heading down to the Tidal Basin in the springtime to take in the trees in all their pink splendor. Or stop by the National Cathedral on Sundays for a free tour and to see the gargoyles that surround the church's upper reaches (keep an eye out for Darth Vader!). On Wednesdays and Sundays, head to Little Ethiopia where you’ll find a free cultural show hosted by Dukem (the most popular Ethiopian joint in town); the show includes traditional music and dance.
Drink and Dine
On Sunday mornings the Freshfarm Market in Dupont Circle has more than 30 vendors offering everything from just-harvested produce and tough-to-find herbs to fresh baked goods and gelato. Many stands offer free bites, so you can savor the flavors of the season. The iconic Eastern Market is open Tuesday through Sunday with fresh vegetables and prime cuts (samples are always available), local handicrafts and artworks. Not to be missed on your market tour is Union Market, home to some of DC's most exciting artisanal producers, including Righteous Cheese, Red Apron Butchery, Bazaar Spices, Honeycomb Grocer and Peregrine Espresso (open Tuesday through Sunday). After all your market hopping, head to One Eight Distilling,which produces top shelf vodka, whiskey and gin, and welcomes visitors to tours and tastings every Saturday from 1-5 pm.
Distillery photo by Jason Falchook
Be One With Nature
If you need a city break but don’t want to travel far, spend an afternoon at the United States Botanic Garden. The 93-foot-high jungle room is filled with gorgeous rainforest blooms. Or tour the 446-acre United States National Arboretum. Inside, you'll find the breathtaking National Bonsai & Penjing Museum with an impressive collection of highly-styled miniature trees. Animal lovers won't want to miss DC's Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens and the popular National Zoo, with its more than 300 species and 1,800 animals, including their most well-known/beloved bunch – four giant pandas. You can catch Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, Bao Bao, and the newest (ridiculously cute) addition: Bei Bei, 364 days of the year.
Image courtesy of U.S. Botanic Garden
Go For a Workout
Running down the middle of DC, the 1,754-acre Rock Creek Park is great for biking, hiking, jogging or rollerblading. Some of the roads are closed on Saturdays and Sundays, turning it into a sprawling playground for outdoor enthusiasts. If you're in the mood for a trek through the wilds in and around the District, lace up for some time on the C&O Canal Towpath, which follows the Potomac River from Georgetown all the way to Cumberland, Maryland (warning: that's 184.5 miles), or the Capital Crescent Trail, which starts in Georgetown and finishes to the north in Silver Spring, Maryland. Another option is Theodore Roosevelt Island, a 91-acre preserve in the middle of the Potomac and accessible by bridge. If you'd rather kick back outdoors, there's Gravelly Point Park, by Reagan National Airport. Put out a blanket and watch the planes glide high above.
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