How To: See Washington D.C. for Free

By: Maxine Sheppard

October 12, 2011

If you’re looking for a destination to entertain, inspire, educate and move you – and for none of it to cost you a dime – you’re in luck. When it comes to getting something for nothing, there is simply nowhere else in the USA that comes close to Washington D.C.


The nation’s capital is teeming with free world-class museums, galleries, gardens, libraries, churches, historic houses, cemeteries and memorials, not to mention a clutch of established and up-and-coming neighourhoods to explore. Other than the cost of accommodation, food and getting around, it would be perfectly possible to spend weeks in Washington D.C. and not break into a dollar. Here’s a few ideas to get you started…


The Smithsonian Institution


Far from being one single entity, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. (there are other sites in New York, Puerto Rico and elsewhere) is the largest museum and research complex in the world and includes 19 different museums, galleries and the National Zoo. Between them, they house an estimated 137 million objects, including 124 million specimens at the National Museum of Natural History alone.


Many of these museums line the showpiece National Mall and after the Natural History museum, the most visited is the National Air and Space Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft and a hugely important centre for aviation research. Highlights include the 1903 Wright Flyer, centrepiece of an exhibition which tells the story of how Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the aeroplane and how this mammoth achievement affected the world in the years that followed, along with numerous important and historical examples of air and space innovation. Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the first aircraft to make it across the Atlantic is here, along with Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, and the Apollo 11 command module Columbia. All this and a touchable lump of moon rock, too.


National Air and Space Museum © Maxine Sheppard

National Air and Space Museum © Maxine Sheppard

Occupying a prime location on the mall and centred around a reflecting pool and fountain (which doubles as an ice rink in winter), the National Gallery of Art‘s Sculpture Garden offers a year-round, open-air respite from ‘museum-legs’ syndrome and is the ideal place to come and sit, contemplate and restore your energy between institutions – don’t underestimate how far apart they actually are; the mall may only be two miles long but something about the enormity of the buildings and the grandeur of the public space makes it seem much longer, and the distances involved can be deceiving.


National Sculpture Garden © Maxine Sheppard

The Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art © Maxine Sheppard

The garden houses works by Joan Miró, Louise Bourgeois, Joel Shapiro and Roy Lichtenstein among others, including this stainless steel tree by Brooklyn-based artist Roxy Paine. Overlooking all this is the light and spacious Pavilion Cafe, which is a great place to grab lunch or an afternoon coffee and pastry.


Walk the C&O Canal


Beautiful at any time of year, but especially pretty in autumn and spring, the 185 mile Chesapeake and Ohio canal runs through Georgetown and the towpath is an excellent way to get a feel for what this area must have been like in the mid-nineteenth century, before the elegant red brick warehouses were restored and when boats carrying cargo loads of coal, timber and corn regularly passed through.


Georgetown homes along the C&O Canal by Richard Gunion on

Georgetown homes along the C&O Canal by Richard Gunion on

Overhanging trees, the still water and the pastel-coloured houses of Georgetown around 30th Street make for a relaxing and stress-free day of ambling – or a particularly scenic bike ride or jog, if you’re feeling energetic. Fourteen miles from Georgetown, the canal leads to pretty Great Falls Park, where the Potomac River flows through the narrow Mather Gorge.


Free Performances at the Kennedy Center


The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is a huge, four-auditorium cultural centre with restaurants, bars and further exhibition space, and home to the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Opera and the Susan Farrell Ballet. It’s free to have a nose around the concert halls and theatres as long as there’s no rehearsals taking place, but for value-driven visitors the main attraction here is the nightly free performance on the Millenium Stage in the imposing chandelier-bedecked Grand Foyer, which takes place at 6pm every evening, every night of the year.


John F. Kennedy Center by Richard Gunion on

John F. Kennedy Center by Richard Gunion on

Since 1997, more than 42,000 artists have performed here, representing the entire spectrum of the performing arts, from comedy to jazz, folk music to contemporary dance, and each night’s performance is streamed live on the internet and archived in a database which can be accessed via the archive website.


Wander the War Memorials


On the western side of the Washington Monument, which stands halfway along the National Mall, are a series of genuinely moving monuments and memorials to past presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt and veterans of the Korean War, Vietnam War, World War I and World War II, along with a 2000 ft long reflecting pool which runs through the middle of this half of the mall.


WWII Memorial © Maxine Sheppard

WWII Memorial © Maxine Sheppard

One of the best times to visit the memorials is at night when they are all beautifully illuminated and the crowds have thinned. The National World War II Memorial was only unveiled in 2004, but has made a big impact. It comprises a central fountain surrounded by 56 stone pillars, which represent the number of US states and territories at the time and a concave wall with its own reflecting pool, containing four thousand golden stars – one for every thousand fallen US soldiers.


Korean War Memorial © Maxine Sheppard

Korean War Memorial © Maxine Sheppard

Equally stirring but completely different in style and tone is the Korean War Veterans Memorial; a Field of Remembrance populated with nineteen stainless steel, life-size combat troops, heading towards the Stars and Stripes in the far corner, where a granite wall contains the inscription “Freedom is not free”.

The memorial that is probably best visited during daylight (it’s not so well illuminated at night) is the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, the work of American artist Maya Lin who won a public design competition at the age of 21 while she was still a student. The memorial is exceptionally poignant, with the names of all 58,191 American casualties carved in chronological order into gently curving black granite walls. Books on each side list all names and locations for friends and relatives to locate their loved ones, to leave flowers and messages and take rubbings of the names.


Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC by derekskey on

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC by derekskey on


Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Washington Dulles International Airport from London Heathrow: check out the best deals on flights to Washington now. For accommodation and sightseeing options visit Virgin Holidays who will be able to tailor a Washington trip to your exact requirements.


Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

Categories: Our Places