You’ve got your cross country movers for your move to Washington, DC, it’s time to get excited about all of the amazing free things that the city has to offer. Museums, shows, festivals, and events are plentiful and even a D.C. resident can stay engaged without feeling like a tourist. Here’s a list of things to get you started so that you can hit the ground running.
The Smithsonian Museums
Though these are certainly popular with the tourist, the 19 Smithsonian Museums always have rotating exhibits to keep things interesting even for those already living in Washington, DC. From the Air and Space Museum to the Freer Gallery of Art and the American History Museum, you can find something up everyone’s alley — including the kids. Dinosaur skeletons and space shuttles, anyone?
Shows at the Kennedy Center
Home to the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera, and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts hosts top-notch artists and performers year round. The main stage shows aren’t free, but the Millenium Stage offers free shows daily to the public, no tickets required, at 6pm. Jazz concerts, tango music with dance lessons, and international performers bring high-quality entertainment to the Capitol for free.
The National Zoo
If you’ve been dying for a visit to the Giant Pandas or the kids have been asking about the cheetahs, the National Zoo is your destination. General admission is free and the daily programs give you an opportunity to meet some of the animals up close, or to watch feeding time. For an added bonus, consider joining one of the zoo’s fee-based “Snore and Roar” sleepovers between June and September — either a family program, or one of the adults-only nights — and wake up to the sounds of walruses, or perhaps the squawk of the bird house. Participants get an after-hours tour of their chosen area with a keeper-led tour.
National Gallery of Art
With a collection that boasts well-known pieces from the greats like Van Gogh, Leonardo DiVinci, and Claude Monet, the National Gallery of Art is the place to go for culture. The 6.1 acre Sculpture Garden is an oasis in the middle of the city, hosting Friday night jazz concerts during the summer and a skating rink in the winter, and the two wings of the museum house both permanent and temporary exhibits that are open year-round. Gallery talks give adults an opportunity to learn more about art history and specific artists, or join some of the free family workshops or Stories In Art events to get the kids involved.
Rock Creek Park
2015 is Rock Creek’s 125th anniversary, making it one of D.C.’s historical monuments not to miss. Run by the National Park Service, it is a gem among the parks in D.C. You can explore the history of the people who called it home at the Old Stone House, or take a walk to see what animals you can discover on the miles of trails. The park also has a planetarium and nature center where you can get information about hiking trails or join one of the park’s many ranger-led programs — or bring the kids to the Discovery Center for some rainy day fun with the Junior Ranger Program.
U.S. Botanic Garden and Conservatory
A truly living and thriving museum, the U.S. Botanic Garden and Conservatory is one of the most unique free activities in Washington, DC. Fruit trees, rare orchids, almost any kind of plant you can imagine can be found on display at the gardens, and the staff provides materials for you to take along on your tour to maximize your learning. In the summer you can stroll the paths of the Bartholdi Park, while in the winter, the greenery indoors might be just the breath of fresh air — literally — that you need.
The National Arboretum
A part of the USDA, the National Arboretum is a living research and educational facility as well as a museum. This is no small arboretum at 446 acres of buildings and trees, so you can tour the facility by car, bicycle, or foot. Tram tours are available as well, for a 35 minute non-stop narrated tour of the gardens in an open-air vehicle. Anything and everything you’ve ever wanted to know about trees can be found here, and then some.
The Library of Congress
So you thought it was just a place for old books? The Library of Congress is one of the things to do in Washington, DC that might not be obvious at first, but the Library also hosts rotating exhibits, lecture series, concerts and author’s book signings that are open and free to the public. Get your dose of culture, weekly, for free.
Free festivals and events city-wide
Don’t forget to check out the city calendar for a full listing of street events, concerts, sports events and other festivals in Washington, DC year round. You never know when there might be a theater festival, or a cycling event, or an arts, crafts, and wine festival, and many of the unique neighborhoods of DC host their own local festivals, so pay attention to fliers at the local grocery store, too.