Every year, 16 million people visit Washington, DC. While travel and accommodations can sometimes be pricey, once you are in DC, you will find there are find hundreds of free things to do in and around the nation's capitol.
All 19 museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution, including the National Zoo, are free for admission. The Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorials are free. The Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol tour, and White house tour are all free, though require tickets or advanced appointments.
This month's About.com Parenting and Family blog carnival theme is Cheap Fun, so I thought we should explore the many free things to do in Washington DC that you may not have thought of. And, many of these free things to do in Washington DC are kid-friendly and easy to get to by public transportation.
1. Take in a free performance at the Kennedy Center
The Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center offers free performances at 6 p.m. every night of the week. Concerts are held on the river side of the Kennedy Center and are accessible by shuttle bus from the Foggy Bottom metro station.
There are always kids at Millennium Stage performances. School age kids are most common but the setup up of the performance space is conducive to bringing babies and toddlers as well. The lobby is enormous and there is terrace access right by the stage. It would be quite easy for Mom or Dad to take a fussy tot away to run around while the rest of the family finishes the show.
Monthly performance schedules are posted online. Performances are popular for both tourists and local fans of the performing groups so arrive early if you want to be sure of a seat.
2. Enjoy free live music at the National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art hosts free live music at 6:30 pm on Sundays in the winter and the and live jazz in the Sculpture Garden from 5 to 8 pm on Fridays in the summer.
The summer concert series is a popular Friday night picnic destination for DC locals as well as tourists and the place is crawling with kids every week. The fountain in the middle of the garden is a favorite for kids if parents don't mind damp clothes. The Pavilion Cafe in the sculpture garden serves food and there are other good options near the Archives/Navy Memorial metro station, from which the garden is an easy walk.
The winter series is held inside. There is designated seating for families with small children, but again, arrive early to secure a seat.
3. Watch local talent or a classic movie at the National Theatre
The National Theatre stages performances of local actors, comedians, musicians, singers, and dancers in free performances on Monday evenings from October to April and free movie screenings in the summer. Food and drink are not permitted inside. The National Theater is an easy walk from the Federal Triangle metro station on the blue and orange line.
4. Cool down with musical guests of the National Zoo
The National Zoo presents Sunset Serenades on Lion/Tiger Hill on Thursdays from 6 to 8 pm in July. Another great picnic destination, food can be purchased from zoo vendors of from the many restaurants near the Woody Park/Zoo or Cleveland Park metro stations. The series is extremely popular for families with kids and may draw large crowds. See the zoo web site for the exact schedule and featured performers.
5. Explore architectural history at the Natural Building Museum
The National Building Museum boasts fantastic architecture and hosts exhibits on urban development and architectural history. There is great educational play-space for kids complete with oversized building blocks that is a favorite for Washington DC play-groups, stay-at-home moms, and nannies on rainy days. The National Building Museum is accessible from the Judiciary Square metro station on the red line.
6. Catch classic works of art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is home to a fabulous permanent collection of painting and sculpture and regular special exhibits. Admission is pay-as-you-wish Thursdays evenings from 5-9 p.m. Most DC museums are closed at that time and there are not too many other family-friendly activities near the mall after dinner. The Corcoran is just to the west of the White House and an easy walk from the McPherson Square metro station.
7. Learn about America's longest sitting president at the FDR Memorial
To escape the crowds around the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin, head toward the Potomac River to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. This fascinating monument chronicles each of FDR's presidential terms and makes a great place to visit after sunset. The relief sculptures are begging to be touched and the layout of the monument is very kid-friendly. The monument is a bit of a walk from the Smithsonian metro station on the blue and the orange line.
8. Contemplate relativity at the Albert Einstein Memorial
For something a little different, check out the Albert Einstein Memorial at the National Academy of Sciences, just north of the mall near the Vietnam Memorial. Your kids (and those young at heart) won't be able to resist having their picture taken sitting in that great thinker's lap.
9. Ponder the stars in the Rock Creek Park Planetarium
Visit the only planetarium operated by the National Park Service in Rock Creek Park. There are presentations especially for kids (ages 3 and up) on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons. Maps of the park are available online. There are a number of other kid-focused programs and several playgrounds within Rock Creek Park. The Nature Center and Planetarium is near the Military Road entrance to the park.
10. Roam the exhibits at the National Arboretum
The National Arboretum features plenty of walking paths, a permanent bonsai exhibit, seasonal flowers, the original capitol building pillars, and a grove of state trees. Feeding the huge koi at the visitors center pond is not free, but is cheap, and fun for the kids. The grounds are expansive but there is a reasonably price tram tour that runs several times a day if you want to see the whole thing. The B2 Metrobus runs from Union Station to the Arboretum.
11. Sample the wares at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market
Dupont Circle hosts more than 30 farmers selling fruits, vegetables, cheeses, baked goods, and more at its weekly farmers market on Sunday mornings from April to December. See the FRESHFARM Market web site for details.The market is probably the cheapest way to feed an entire family in Dupont Circle and the variety will thrill kids and adults alike.
12. Wander through time on a Culture Tourism DC Walking Tour
Experience a neighborhood in depth by following one of Cultural Tourism DC's free self-guided walking trails. Most tours start near metro stations and maps of the walks are available online.
Monuments at Night, Sculpture Garden, and FDR Memorial photos copyright Jennifer Mueller.