When Steven and I want an adventure, we usually just journey into nature and wander around for a while. It’s a great way to travel because it’s both freeing and free — you don’t need a tour guide to get lost in the woods.

But when we visited Washington DC this summer, we immediately realized that the magic there is in the history and cultural significance — and storytelling is everything. In spite of that, though, you don’t need to pay for tours in Washington DC.

All of the best things to do in DC are totally free to enter and staffed with extremely knowledgeable workers and volunteers who are truly excited to tell you about every document, monument, and artifact. So, expensive private tours of Washington DC aren’t necessary at all.

We spent five days in the District and packed our schedule full with a Capitol Building tour, the Smithsonian Museums, the White House Visitor Center, the Library of Congress, the National Archives Museum, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and more — without paying for any DC tours, or even a single entry fee!

How to Visit the White House & Get a Capitol Building Tour

I’ll admit it: Steven and I are extremely last-minute planners. When I looked into how to visit the White House, I discovered you have to submit a request for a White House tour well in advance.

About 30 days before our arrival in DC, I applied for both the White House tour and the private US Capitol tour through our local congressman’s office. (You can find your Senator or Representative on Congress.gov, then click through to their own website and look for something like “Tour Requests,” usually under their “Services” or “Contact” tabs).

Unfortunately, 30 days’ notice wasn’t enough to get us a tour of the White House, but our congressman did hook us up with a Capitol tour. Both of these DC tours are always free, so ignore anyone who’s trying to sell you one.

When we got to DC and showed up for our Capitol tour, I found out that you actually don’t need reservations at all — you can just walk up to the Capitol Building Visitor Center any time and join one of the regularly-scheduled US Capitol tours.

But I am sooo glad that I planned our Capitol tour ahead of time with our local congressman, because while the walk-up tours had nearly 50 people per group, we were assigned a personal intern to take the two of us anywhere we wanted to go at our own pace!

Photo of the view from our Capitol Building tour
United States Capitol dome, viewed from the inside.

He was constantly making sure we had enough time at each stop for photography, and he even scored us passes to sit in on a live session of the House of Representatives — complete with a Republican railing against electric vehicles and a Democrat rebuffing him.

As for the White House, our experience was pretty terrible. Since we didn’t land a White House tour, we had to settle for a trip to the White House Visitor Center a few blocks away from the famed building. It was kinda lame, so it’s not something I’d suggest if it’s out of the way from your other stops on the National Mall.

The same goes for viewing the White House from the outside. You can barely see anything from behind the big, black fences.

Touring the Library of Congress and the National Archives

I know they sound like they might be pretty similar because, well, libraries contain archives, but the Library of Congress and the National Archives Museum are distinctly different destinations in Washington DC. With that said, neither one takes a ton of time to explore, so don’t plan a whole day around them.

The Library of Congress actually has three locations all named for former presidents: the Thomas Jefferson Building, the John Adams Building, and the James Madison Memorial Building. Only the Jefferson Library of Congress is a museum for visitors — the other buildings are simply research facilities.

We were required to get free “timed entry” tickets to the Library of Congress before entering, but booking far in advance didn’t seem to be necessary. Plenty of passes were available same-day.

Photo of the Jefferson Library of Congress
Lobby of the Library of Congress. They go really hard on ceilings in Washington DC.

The Jefferson Library of Congress building is beautiful, and it’s got some interesting exhibits that rotate through the seasons. But one exhibit that’s always on display is Thomas Jefferson’s personal library with many of his original books.

As for the main library, there’s only one spot that looks down over it. If you want to actually wander through the book stacks yourself, you’ll need to go through a whole approval process, including a statement of what you’re researching.

However, the main library room is open to the public at specific times, so if I was planning this trip again, I’d look at the schedule and have our timed entry coincide with one of those.

The National Archives Museum was a lot cooler than the Library. It’s home to some of our nation’s most important documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights.

While some areas of the Archives Museum were under construction on our visit, the best stuff was fully accessible. There’s a great collection at the David M. Rubenstein Gallery on the main floor called the “Record of “Rights” that walks visitors through the history of Americans fighting for their rights, from independence to suffrage.

The biggest draw to the Archives is the hallowed Rotunda’s Charters of Freedom, where you come face-to-face with the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States, and Bill of Rights. The ornate, vaulted ceilings, larger-than-life paintings depicting the founding fathers, and the huge, bulletproof, environmentally-sealed document casings made me feel a little small. I don’t mean that in a bad way, though. I just mean that it’s a hushed, humbling experience to stand before all of that history.

What made our trip to the National Archives Museum most special was its volunteer storytellers. If you see someone in a “volunteer” vest, make sure you talk to them! We stopped at a demo station where a guy walked us through the signing of the Declaration of Independence — the vibe, the quills used, the reasons they wrote on parchment. He really made that historical moment come alive for us.

Choosing Which Of The 17 Smithsonian Museums to Visit

Of all the free museums in DC, the Smithsonians are truly the best. No Washington DC sightseeing tour is complete without including at least a few of them.

Similar to the National Archives Museum, the Smithsonian museums all have super dedicated volunteers and staff to engage visitors throughout the various exhibits. The only negative about the Smithsonians is that there are so many of them that you can’t possibly visit ‘em all in a short, one-week trip.

There are 17 different Smithsonians in Washington DC, each one focused on a different topic and with varied hours of operation — so you just have to pick which ones match your preferences and schedule best.

We prioritized a handful to fit into our five-day trip to Washington DC. The National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of American History were at the top of our list.

The National Air and Space Museum detailed everything from the first flight of the Wright Brothers all the way to our Space Race with Russia — and even the U.S.S. Enterprise used to film the original Star Trek of the 1960s!

Photo of a Voyager replica at the National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum has tons of exhibits on NASA missions.

Throughout the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, volunteers staged demonstrations of black holes, the vacuum of space, and more. There were interactive displays that guided visitors through the decision-making process for our trip to the moon. And replicas of some of the first airplanes showed the culture of the time, including passengers all dressed up and sections for smoking.

Oddly, there was also an entire wing on other vehicles that seemed connected to “air and space” simply because they had engines and went fast. Those exhibits featured race cars, motorcycles, and the people who made history with them (like Evel Knievel).

I love dinosaurs, so the National Museum of Natural History is an obvious favorite of mine because of the David H. Koch “Hall of Fossils” exhibit that detailed the evolution of animals on planet Earth.

Another big exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is the Janet Annenberg Hooker “Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals.” This is where you’ll also find a real meteor from Mars (that you can touch!) and a display by Harry Winston of the famed, 45-carat Hope Diamond.

I’m gonna be honest here and tell you that you kinda get a bit burned out in the Hall of Geology because there’s just so many rocks. I mean, I couldn’t believe how far this exhibit stretched on…

While we didn’t have a ton of time to properly explore the National Museum of American History, we did get to see one of its most popular exhibits: The Star-Spangled Banner. Yes, the 200-year-old, 30-foot, nearly square flag that inspired our national anthem.

We also tried to get into the National Museum of African American History and Culture while we were in town but were unable to secure tickets in time. Some of the above-mentioned Smithsonian museums required booking free timed-entry tickets on our trip, while others allowed walk-ins. Make sure to check the scheduling requirements before you go.

Another spot we meant to get to was the National Portrait Gallery. It had the longest hours of all the museums in DC, and no ticket requirement, so we kept saving it for the end of the day. But after each full day walking around the National Mall, we were always pretty wiped (and starved). One night, once we had grabbed a bite to eat nearby, we settled for staging our own portrait photoshoot outside the closed gallery and around some of the other monuments.

Photo collage of Lauren around the National Mall

DIY DC Night Tours of the Outdoor Monuments and Memorials

The Washington Monument is visible from nearly everywhere in DC. The 555-foot marble obelisk definitely looks coolest at night — and it’s also literally cooler to visit at night too, especially in the summer.

That said, if you’re wanting to go up to the top (yes, this is a thing you can actually do that I just found out about while writing this blog post after we’ve already left DC), you’ll need to reserve Washington Monument tickets for a time within its operational hours. And yep, you guessed it — they’re free, too.

Even though the elevator, museum, and tower itself has operating hours, you can still walk around the Washington Monument, other nearby memorials, and the National Mall at any time. They’re pretty much all accessible 24/7, but there won’t be staff members or volunteers at night.

Photo of Steven by the Washington Monument

Here’s an easy, three-mile walking loop from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, and back, that hits all the icons: As you cross the National Mall toward Lincoln, visit the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, then, on your way to the Jefferson Memorial, stop by the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the FDR Memorial. In about an hour (plus time for reading the placards and taking pictures), you’ll have completed your very own DC night tour.

There are a few reasons to consider saving all these outdoor Washington DC attractions for the evening…and the most obvious is the weather. Again, if you’re visiting in the summer, which is what we did, going to the memorials at night means less heat and an end to direct sun exposure (a necessary consideration for anyone who, like me, wears sunscreen every day).

Another reason for doing a night tour of Washington DC is that all the memorials look more majestic at night. Each one is intricately lit to bring out the detail in every statue. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial definitely shine brighter at night.

Don’t expect the crowds to thin out that much, though. Washington DC is a busy and popular tourist destination, so you’ll never really have a single spot all to yourself. Going at night helps, but it’s not a silver bullet.

Other Free Washington DC Attractions We Missed

With the short notice on planning our trip, I couldn’t get a Pentagon tour, which requires advance registration. It’s about a 15-minute drive from the Capitol — technically outside the District in Virginia. Since it’s right next to Arlington Cemetery across the Potomac River from all the memorials, it would definitely be worth a visit.

The Supreme Court is also open to the public some days, depending on the court’s schedule. You can just show up anytime during its operating hours, but you’ll want to check the “Today At Court” schedule to ensure you’ll be admitted into the building.

It’s just a self-guided look at the exhibits, but some days, you might be able to catch an argument or a lecture. I totally read their calendar wrong, and we missed the small sliver of visitation time during our stay in Washington.

There Are Some Things You Will Have to Pay For Though

It’s amazing to visit a place with so many free things to do, which is why we always love visiting Washington DC. But not everything is free in the District.

First of all, you gotta eat, right? Well, if you eat in the downtown area around the National Mall, you’ll definitely end up paying more than if you venture out into the nearby suburbs. If there’s a place you really want to try in the District, you can make it more affordable by going for lunch instead of dinner, seeing if you can hack the menu, or simply splitting a meal!

Another unavoidable cost on this trip for us, even with our camper van, was lodging. Normally, we’d park somewhere safe just outside the city and drive in to do the Washington DC attractions, but it was way too hot this summer to sleep comfortably in our van anywhere nearby. We used some extra credit card points to stay at a hotel just 24 minutes from the National Mall.

Since you’ll likely be staying in a hotel while you visit Washington DC, you should consider doing what we did and booking one just outside the District. You’ll pay a lot less (in points or cash) to stay only slightly farther from your destination.

You’ll have to pay to park when you drive into DC, but you’ll get to choose where that parking is. If you stay at a hotel in the District, you’ll likely incur massive hotel fees for parking that may or may not be near the attractions — in addition to the more expensive room rate.

Parking is a pain no matter what you do in DC, but you can lessen that pain by finding a cheap garage during the day and parking almost anywhere along the streets at night. Luckily, you can use a third-party parking service like Way or Parking Whiz to find cheap spots all around town more easily.

Even with these few expenses, Washington is a great destination for frugal travelers thanks to all the free things to do in DC. And because it’s impossible to do everything in one trip, we have a lot to look forward to on future trips to the District!

— Lauren

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