Washington is literally packed with free things to do. If you think all the tourist hotspots come with a hefty price tag – they don’t (the majority of them anyway). From education-rich museums and monuments to outdoor concerts and performances, you can explore the city on a shoestring. Music to any school teacher’s ears. So put your dollars away and check out our guide to Washington’s top 10 free activities for schools.
1. Explore the Smithsonian Museums
The Smithsonian Museums are your gateway to the most fascinating aspects of the world – and they’re all free. Home to 17 impressive museums, galleries and a zoo, they’re simply made for schools. Check out the Natural History Museum, Air & Space Museum, African American History & Culture Museum, National Portrait Gallery and the National Zoo – amongst many more. P.S some of the best food can be found at the American Indian Museum! Think traditional fry bread, corn totopos and buffalo burgers!
2. Lincoln Memorial
Steeped in historical significance and open 24 hours a day, you can pay your respects to Lincoln any time of the day. Escape the crowds and visit the memorial at night, where the statue and reflecting pool are beautifully lit and much more peaceful.
3. Washington Monument
Here’s one you can’t miss. Built to honour George Washington, the iconic obelisk is the defining feature of the district’s skyline. Discover the history behind its construction, why it’s two colours and make sure you see the monument at night for a truly magical scene.
Lincoln Memorial & Reflecting Pool
4. Stroll down the National Mall
The National Mall is an absolute dream for school groups, where numerous monuments, memorials, sculptures and gardens are free to visit within the 146-acre park. From the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building and everything in between, you’ll find all of Washington’s big-hitting attractions. P.S there’s usually a second set of doors to the museums, so rather than entering through the National Mall, try to find the doors on the other side which often have shorter queues.
5. National Archives Museum
Take a look at America’s founding documents at the National Archives, including the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the Public Vaults. Open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, this is living, breathing history at its finest. And if you’re feeling the heat outside, the Rotunda is nice and cool to prolong the life of the documents.
6. Arlington National Cemetery
Pay your respects to thousands who gave their lives in the name of US freedom at Arlington National Cemetery. As the country’s largest military cemetery, it provides a place for quiet reflection away from the bustle of the city. Make sure to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy, Arlington House and see the Changing of the Guard ritual.
7. White House Visitor Centre
Trying to secure a tour of the White House is tricky, but the free Visitor Centre has well-curated displays and videos about everything you could ever want to know. From the presidents’ favourite snacks to how long it takes to move one president out and another in, it provides a great insight to the political powerhouse.
8. Capitol Visitor Centre
The Capitol Visitor Centre is the best place to begin your Capitol experience, with engaging exhibits, theatres and gift shops that tell the history of the Capitol Building. Similar to the White House, free guided tours are available, but you’ll need to reserve your tickets up to 4 months in advance. You don’t need a ticket to enter the Visitor Centre.
9. Visit the world’s largest library
Gaze up in awe as you step into the Library of Congress – the largest library in the world! The Thomas Jefferson Building provides the best experience, with exquisite Gilded Age architecture and a collection of over 168 million items, including books, papers, recording, maps and more.
10. Enjoy an outdoor concert
Take a break from the monuments and opt for one of Washington’s free concerts. You can catch a free music performance at the Kennedy Centre every evening at 6pm, from jazz and soul to opera and theatre. Yards Park puts on a free summer concert series, whilst the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden hosts open-air jazz fests every Friday from May to September.
The White House
Handy tips every tourist should know:
- See the monuments at night when they’re beautifully lit up
- Stand on the right and walk on the left when riding the escalators
- Avoid the cherry blossom crowds along Tidal Basin, instead head to the terraced gardens at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown for equally beautiful views
- Don’t try to visit all of the museums in one trip – know what your group is interested in and plan ahead
- Rush hour lasts all afternoon, so get where you want to be as early as possible