Our favourite free things to do in Washington DC

By: Virgin Atlantic

October 18, 2019

National Mall and Washington Monument © Jacob Creswick:Unsplash

National Mall and Washington Monument © Jacob Creswick:Unsplash

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, nowhere else in the USA comes close to Washington DC.

The nation’s capital is teeming with free-to-enter museums, galleries, gardens, libraries, churches, historic houses, cemeteries and memorials, as well as fascinating neighbourhoods and green spaces. Other than the cost of eating, sleeping and getting around, you could spend weeks in DC and not break into a dollar. Here’s a few ideas to get you started…

The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum and research complex in the world and includes 19 free museums, galleries and the National Zoo in DC, plus another two museums in New York. Between them, they house an estimated 137 million objects, including 124 million at the National Museum of Natural History alone.

Many of these museums line the showpiece National Mall. 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 showing how Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the aeroplane and its impact on the world in the years that followed, along with numerous groundbreaking examples of air and space innovation. Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis is here, the first aircraft to make it across the Atlantic, along with the Apollo Lunar Module, used to taxi astronauts from the lunar module to the moon and back, and Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit. All this and a touchable lump of moon rock, too.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum © pedrosz / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

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 sit, contemplate and restore your energy between institutions.

The garden houses works by Joan Miró, Louise Bourgeois, Joel Shapiro and Roy Lichtenstein among others, including Graft, a stainless steel tree by Brooklyn-based artist Roxy Paine. Overlooking it all is the spacious Pavilion Cafe, a great spot for lunch or afternoon coffee and cake.

Graft by Roxy Paine, at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden © Maxine Sheppard

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 historic, upmarket Georgetown. 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 redbrick warehouses were restored and when boats carrying cargo loads of coal, timber and corn regularly passed through.

Still water, overhanging trees and the pastel Georgetown houses around 30th Street are the perfect backdrop for a relaxing wander or bike ride. Fourteen miles from Georgetown, the canal leads to the pretty Great Falls Park, where the Potomac River flows through the narrow Mather Gorge.

C&O Canal in Georgetown, Washington DC © Maxine Sheppard

Free Performances at the Kennedy Center

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

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. 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, 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.

Arguably the best time to visit the memorials is at night when they’re beautifully illuminated and the crowds have thinned. The National World War II Memorial was only unveiled in 2004, but has made a big impact. Its central fountain is surrounded by 56 stone pillars, representing 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.

World War II Memorial, National Mall, Washington DC © 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 poignant memorial contains 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 © Derekskey / Flickr Creative Commons CC by 2.0

The Washington Monument

After years of works, the memorial to the nation’s first president George Washington finally re-opened on 19 September this year. The 555-foot-tall white marble obelisk was the tallest building in the world when it first opened to the public in 1886, and has been modernised several times over the past 130+ years. The latest improvements include repairs to cracks in the structure after a 2011 earthquake in Virgina, and a new elevator to whisk visitors to the 500-foot-high observation deck, from where the views of the National Mall, the Potomac River and surrounding states are the best in the city. Same-day, free-entry tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis, or you can book in advance for a $1 fee.

Washington Monument © Maxine Sheppard

Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Washington Dulles International Airport from London Heathrow: check out the best deals and book your flight today.

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic

Fly safe, and fly well, with us. The health and safety of our customers and our people is — and always has been — our number one priority. At every stage of your journey, you’re in safe hands.

Categories: Our Places