Planning a trip to Washington, D.C. can intimidate even the most seasoned traveler; after all, the city hosts a seemingly endless array of museums, monuments, and historical sites that one would need a lifetime to ever fully explore. I understand how intimidating that can be. So, below, I’ve compiled eight of my personal favorite budget-friendly attractions in Washington, D.C. – each affordable, accessible, and a little unexpected. Perfect for families and visitors traveling to D.C. at any time in the year, I selected each of these eight sights with the cost-conscious in mind!
1. Ford’s Theatre and the Peterson House
Ford’s Theatre, the performance venue where John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Lincoln, isn’t one of the most popular attractions in Washington, D.C. for reasons I don’t fully understand. More interactive and less curated than, say, the lackluster Archives building (which houses, among other documents, the Declaration of Independence and part of the U.S. Constitution with no commentary on their lack of inclusiveness), Ford’s Theatre and the accompanying Peterson House is the perfect addition to any capital city itinerary. The Peterson House, as visitors will learn, is where Lincoln drew his final breath – and travelers can see the bed one of our most beloved presidents died in with their own eyes. The tour also includes two separate exhibits: the first discusses the Lincoln family, Abe’s rise to political prominence, and the political climate of the 1860’s while the second details President Lincoln’s legacy, especially with regards to race relations in the United States.
Technically free to visit, I do recommend all travelers book a ticket in advance in order to reserve their spot. Doing so costs only three dollars, and all reservations can be made online here. Even though I visited on a weekday in December, my tour group was quite large, so I’m glad I reserved my spot in advance.
2. World War II Memorial
Is the World War II memorial unabashedly nationalistic? Yes. Quotes commemorating the greatness of the United States abound at this memorial; however, when visitors look past the patriotic hoopla, they are forced to confront the utter destruction of the war. Over 400,000 American soldiers died fighting in both Europe and Japan, and the war’s horror ushered in an era in which the phrase “human rights” became part of our global lexicon. The World War II memorial is lovely and thought-provoking – I recommend visiting at dusk or even at night.
3. National Gallery of Art
If you’ve ever traveled to Europe or even New York City, then you’re familiar with how pricey art museums can be. As someone who absolutely loves art, I’m appalled with how inaccessible we make it to the average tourist. Twenty-two dollars to see three Vermeer paintings and a punch of unrelated statues? *Shakes head.* Luckily, D.C.’s premier art museum is completely free to the public – that’s right, FREE. From original Georgia O’Keefe’s to a breathtaking collection of nineteenth century landscape masters, there’s something in this museum for everyone. Learn more about what’s on display here.
4. Great Falls Park
Technically, Great Falls Park isn’t in Washington, D.C. Rather, it’s a twenty-five minute drive from downtown, nestled away in a quiet Virginia suburb. This stunning national park is well-worth the trek, however. Not only is there a stunning waterfall easily accessed via three separate viewing platforms, there are also a plethora of hiking trails and a lovely picnic area for those who want to escape the chaos of the city for a few hours.
5. United States Supreme Court
Did you know you can visit the United States Supreme Court without having to arrange ahead of time? That’s right – unlike Congress or the White House, visitors can stop by the Supreme Court at their leisure, every weekday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Explore comprehensive exhibits detailing the Court’s oft-controversial history, check out artifacts from prominent justices, and even sneak a peek into the famed Chambers. A visit here will remind travelers of the ongoing power of the law; that who we select as president can impact our Court for generations.
6. United States Botanical Garden
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you’ll know I’m a sucker for botanical gardens. From British Columbia to Montreal to Pittsburgh, I always try to add a garden to my travel itinerary. In Washington, D.C., it’s easy to stop by the United States Botanical Garden, conveniently located along the National Mall. Free to enter, the garden is a small but lovely urban oasis in the heart of downtown.
7. National African-American History Museum
Washington D.C.’s newest Smithsonian, the National African-American History Museum, is a must when visiting. Not only does the museum skillfully address the United States’ gruesome history of racism, but it also celebrates our increasingly diverse society with comprehensive exhibits detailing black Americans’ accomplishments in sports, art, cinema, music, activism, journalism, and politics. My favorite exhibit? I would say it’s a tie between the tribute to gymnastics wunderkind Gabby Douglas and the extensive collection of art on the museum’s top floor. I recommend travelers skip the American History Museum (which grossly overlooks the contributions of black and other minority Americans, and reduces our dynamic First Ladies to tea sets and ball gowns) and spend a day soaking in the African-American History Museum instead.
Disclaimer: As a woman, I feel obliged to warn visitors that, as of December 2016, one small part of the entertainment exhibit does handle the sexual abuse and rape accusations against Bill Cosby far too lightly, tastelessly reducing his systemic violence towards women to mere “controversy.” Hopefully, the museum, which is otherwise perfectly poignant and timely, will rethink how it presents Cosby. Gendered violence, especially targeted at minority women, is not taken seriously enough in this country. I personally believe in the value of trigger warnings – after all, we put allergy warnings on our food products – and I always do my best to be upfront and honest about my travel experiences here on this website…and it’s hard to separate my graduate degree in gender studies from what I observe while exploring. Unfortunately, no attraction can be perfect…but this museum is pretty darn close!
8. Udvar-Hazy Space Center
Washington’s extensive and comprehensive collection of Smithsonian museums line the National Mall, and are among the city’s most popular tourist stops. But few know about the Udvar-Hazy Space Center in Chantilly, Virginia (a D.C. suburb near Dulles International Airport), the Smithsonian’s companion museum to the Air and Space Museum in downtown D.C. Since space in Washington, D.C. is limited, the Udvar-Hazy Space Center is composed of two massive hangars filled with commercial and military planes spanning the history of aviation as well as an impressive collection of space artifacts. The highlight? The Discovery space shuttle! Also, visitors can tour Udvar-Hazy’s control tower, which features live feed from neighboring Dulles and offers exceptional views of the international airport. Entrance to the Udvar-Hazy Space Center is free, but each vehicle must pay a small parking fee upon arrival. There is also an IMAX theatre on site! For more information, visit the Udvar-Hazy Space Center’s official website here, or check out my full-length article on the museum here.