Free DC: Washington on the Cheap

By: Sascha Zuger

September 23, 2014

Washington DC is filled with an astounding number of free museums””including the highly anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open in 2015″”and a handful of fantastic low-key restaurants. Here are a few of our favourite ways to experience free DC.

Kennedy Center, Millennium Stage

Washington on the cheap | Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center © Destination DC

You don’t have to pop for pricy opera or symphony tickets to enjoy the impressive Kennedy Center. Catch the complimentary shuttle from the Foggy Bottom Metro to a nightly concert featuring some of the nation’s top talent, for free. Solo artists from around the world sponsored by their embassies, dance troupes, classical quartets, jazz-funk groups, hip-hop and pop bands mean visitors can kick off a cheap night out on the right note.

DC by Foot

Free DC | Washington on the cheap
Stroll through Georgetown on a haunted history tour © Ron Cogswell/Flickr

Free-to-join, these tours not only wave any compensation until the end of the tour, when you can tip as you like, but offer unique angles to exploring the city by foot. Fans of suspense might enjoy the “Ghosts of Georgetown“ or “Dark Side of Dupont and Embassy Row“ strolls through the city’s haunted sites and hidden history. “Secrets and Scandals“ dishes the dirt on a few of the city’s notable misadventures, while “Lincoln Assassination“ is a compelling choice for history buffs. They even offer food tours (bites are pay as you go, but tend to run $10-$15 in total compared to a traditional food tour costing $45-$80) as well as bus tours, in season.

Supreme Court

Washington on the cheap | Supreme Court
Take a free tour of the grand Supreme Court building © Matt H 

A glimpse into the highest court in the land can be had for free, with lectures hourly describing the process and all oral arguments open to the public. With two lines in the Supreme Court plaza – one for those wanting to sit in on the entire session and another for those wanting to witness the court in action for just a few minutes – a smooth entrance can be expected (although some sensitive cases can draw crowds which can be an experience in itself, see court schedule in advance). Visitors are welcome to tour the building where a free film explains the history of the Court.

Dukem, Little Ethiopia

Free DC | Washington on the cheap
Ethiopian Berbere Chicken © Basheer Tome/Flickr

This renowned Ethiopian Restaurant offers dinner and a free show, with authentic cultural dance and music on select nights and afternoons. With hearty wots – lively stews of dried berbere, nitir kibe (a clarified butter made with Ethiopia-grown chilli peppers, Bishop’s weed and other spices) and meat or fish – starting at $13 and made to order for desired spice level, tear off a piece of injera and scoop up a unique night out at Dukem, situated in the popular U Street Corridor.

Ben’s Chili Bowl

Free DC | Ben's Chili Bowl
Ben’s Chili Bowl © Dave Newman/Flickr

Although not as much a hole-in-the-wall as it once was (pre-visit by Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, and a few other celebrities and notables), a trip to Ben’s Chili Bowl for a half-smoke is a great way to top off a day at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, and other free Smithsonian Museums. The 1958 establishment still uses the original recipe for its famous chili, enjoyed at the same counter and booths that first graced the eatery; a former 1910 silent movie house later converted into a pool hall by one of the city’s first African American police detectives.

Header Image © f11photo/ThinkstockiStock

Book your flight to Washington DC with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow.

Where do you go to experience Washington on the cheap? What are your favourite free DC spots? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Sascha Zuger


Sascha Zuger

Sascha Zuger is the author of several Moon Handbook and Spotlight guidebooks. Her work has been seen in National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post, The LA Times, Food Network Magazine, Parenting, SELF, Gourmet, WIRED, and a number of other national magazines. She also writes novels for teens under pseudonym, Aimee Ferris.

Categories: Our Places