Destination DC (DDC), the official destination marketing organization for Washington, DC, helps visitors craft magical holidays in the nation’s capital. The list of free things to do in DC is quite long, headlined by Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art, the monuments and memorials and annual events and festivals. Some of the most popular activities are detailed below that are sure to cross many bucket lists!
Find fascinating light art installations during Georgetown GLOW
From Dec. 1 – Jan. 6 (5-10 p.m. nightly), you can stroll through DC’s most historic neighborhood and marvel at stunning artworks as part of the only curated exhibition of outdoor public light art installations in the region, Georgetown GLOW. The event has quickly become a holiday tradition in the nation’s capital, gathering work from artists both locally known and internationally celebrated.
Witness the Holiday Boat Parade of Lights from Alexandria to The Wharf
Each year, dozens of holiday-themed and illuminated boats traverse the Potomac River from the waterfront in Alexandria, Va. to The Wharf, DC’s exciting development on the Southwest Waterfront. You can observe free of charge, and there are even holiday festivals on both sides of the river to enjoy beforehand.
Experience America’s story told through stamps at the National Postal Museum
The Smithsonian National Postal Museum serves to honor and celebrate America’s proud postal history. Located next to Union Station in DC’s NoMa neighborhood, the museum houses a vast collection of stamps, postal artifacts and informative exhibits for all ages. Visitors will learn the fascinating evolution of how Americans have used the mail to communicate with each other and the world.
Step into the Smithsonian Castle
The National Mall’s iconic red building features fascinating information on the Smithsonian museums and the man behind them, James Smithson. Once you have marveled at the Victorian arches and dark woodwork, use the 3-D interactive maps of DC’s Smithsonian museums to plan your educational adventure. You can also learn of the history of the castle and visit Smithson’s crypt.
Browse and listen to vinyl
Yes, records cost money, but browsing through them and taking a jaunt through DC’s robust lineup of record stores does not. Stop in Smash! Records and Songbyrd Record Cafe in Adams Morgan.Over on 14th Street, get cozy inside Som Records, which has a listening station that is perfect for checking out its bargain selections.
Animal watch at the National Zoo
A trip to the Smithsonian National Zoo is a must for families visiting DC, and an essential experience while there is a trot down the Asia Trail. You’ll be able to pay a visit to giant pandas Mei Xiang and TianTian, as well as their offspring, BeiBei. Be sure to take a peek at their tiny neighbors, the red pandas, too. Your exploration doesn’t stop there, though: the Zoo features more than 1,500 animals across 300 different species in total.
Visiting the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC
Glimpse the 1903 Wright Flyer, run your hands over moon rock and experience the larger-than-life world of aviation and space travel at the National Air and Space Museum. Since opening on the National Mall in 1976, this hub of all things flight has educated and inspired future generations of pilots and astronauts from around the world.
The National Air and Space Museum boasts the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft, including Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright brothers’ original 1903 flyer, astronaut space suits and a lunar rock sample. Kids will love playing pilot in a mock cockpit in the America by Air exhibit, which also features the nose of a Boeing 747 that visitors can enter.
Visit the Lincoln Memorial
A perennial visitor favorite, the Lincoln Memorial stands at the west end of the National Mall as a neoclassical monument to America’s 16th president. A 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln sits overlooking the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from his permanent seat on America's front yard. Dedicated in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial has been home to many defining moments in American history. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 250,000 attendees.
Say hello to Henry the Elephant at the National Museum of Natural History
The most visited natural history museum in the world, the National Museum of Natural History boasts an incredible rotating collection of 127 million items including dinosaur bones, the Hope Diamond, ancient Egyptian mummies and so much more. In the museum’s rotunda, you can gaze at the immense Henry the Elephant installation, a 14-foot tall African bush elephant that has been there since 1959.
Visiting the Library of Congress in Washington, DC
The largest library in the world makes for a fascinating historical and literary experience in the nation’s capital. The library houses more than 164 million items, from books to photos to recordings to maps to…much, much more. It also serves as a museum, with numerous exhibits inside the incredible Thomas Jefferson Building.