Washington DC is one of the most budget friendly places to travel in the U.S. because there are countless unique and interesting free things to do. Except for food and a place to stay, it is possible to not spend any money on Washington DC attractions.
NATIONAL BONSAI & PENJING MUSEUM AT THE U.S. NATIONAL ARBORETUM
What is penjing?
Penjing is an ancient Chinese art that prunes and shapes miniature trees into artistic renditions of trees and landscapes.
What Is Bonsai?
A Japanese art derived from penjing that realistically replicates trees in miniature form.
The National Arboretum features plants, shrubs, and trees from around the world and is 446 acres with 9.5 miles of winding roads. You’ll need a car to see the all the arboretum, but if you don’t have a car or are short on time, the bonsai museum is near the visitor center and has a beautiful display of penjing and bonsai. The miniature trees are a living history with many over a hundred years old; the oldest tree is nearly 400 years old and survived the Hiroshima bombings.
US Botanic Gardens
The US Botanic Gardens includes several outdoor gardens and a conservatory that offers blooms year-round. The national garden is an experimental landscape growing only Mid-Atlantic plants that are native to region. Head to the conservatory, which is home to plants from around the world; each room takes you through a new climate from the desert to the tropics and a rotating display of rare species.
The Smithsonian Institute was founded in 1846 with the mission to expand knowledge; since its inception, the organization has created research centers in the arts, science, history, and humanities. There are 19 Smithsonian museums and galleries and 11 of them are in the National Mall; all of them are free.
Many of the memorials are in and around the National Mall, but monuments and memorials for historical figures and events are scattered all across the city. The museums close at 4pm, so to maximize your time save memorial searching for the end of the day. Washington DC is a very walkable city so as you walk between attractions, keep your eyes open because you will come across historical sites you weren’t even looking for!
War and Veterans Memorials
World war II
Korean War Veterans
United States Marine Corps
Historical Figures Memorials
Palmer Alley, in the CityCenter DC, is popular for its ever-changing canopy of seasonal décor. There’s always a reason to celebrate, whether it be with Christmas lights during the holiday season, beach balls to commemorate summer, or pink balloons to honor cherry blossom season.
Aimlessly Roam The Streets
Washington DC is a gorgeous city with stunning architecture and spring flowers. Start at the Adams Morgan Neighborhood which is an entertainment district with bars, shops and restaurants, then spend some time marveling at the quaint homes in nearby neighborhoods.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Honor one of the most prolific abolitionist with a guided tour of Frederick Douglass’ historic home. The tour provides a look into Douglass’ life as a former slave and the struggles of freed slaves living in the north.
National Zoo and Conservation Institute
As a wildlife photographer, visiting zoos are always an itinerary highlight. The Smithsonian zoo is dedicated to wildlife conservation, research, and education. There is a wide variety of animals in well maintained habitats, but the most exciting and unique attraction is the cables over the walkway that allows orangutans to walk between habitats.
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery was originally the final resting place for soldiers whose families could not afford a proper burial. Today, it’s a great honor to be buried in Arlington where soldiers from every major American war are laid to rest. When I think of the Arlington National Cemetery, I picture the perfectly arranged rows of the iconic white headstones, but I never realized how scenic the graveyard is. Pictures I’ve seen have not done the cherry blossom trees, rolling hills, and panoramic views justice.
Entrance is free, but I recommend the $15 train that drops off notable sites. The train is a self-guided tour with stops at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame and runs every 30 minutes.
Sample 3-day Itinerary
If you want to maximize a brief stay in Washington DC, then you can pick the highlights at each museum hit up as many as you can. If you want to see all the exhibits, plan on spending half a day or more at each museum. Enjoy this fast-paced itinerary that takes you through the city’s highlights in the most efficient way possible.
*Arrive midday and head straight to the museum you were looking most forward to. For me, that was the National Museum of Natural History.
*Finish the night off with an adult beverage at The Jug and Table
*Have breakfast at the all gluten-free bakery, Rise Bakery
*Begin your day of Museum hopping: See the National Capitol Columns and the National Bonsai Museum at the Smithsonian National Arboretum, National Postal Museum, United States Botanic Garden, National Air and Space Museum, Hirshhorn, National Museum of American History. Don’t forget to eat lunch at food truck and stop at memorials along the way.
*PHEW! Now that the museums are closed, it’s time to hit up the rest of the memorials. The Washington Monument, WWII Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Wall, Albert Einstein Memorial.
*You’ve earned yourself a large dinner and some sake, so head on over to Bul.
*spend the first half of the day at the Smithsonian National Zoo. If you get there early, you won’t need to fight crowds for a glimpse of the animals.
*Spend the afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery.