Give your wallet a much needed day off with these 18 fun activities in and nearby the District that won’t cost you a single dime. From cupcake tastings and drum circles to theater shows and walking tours, there’s something for every frugal family member.
#1 Smell the roses. There’s more than one reason to love Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral. It’s stocked with beautiful roses, fun exploring pathways, a tiny pond with goldfish and frogs, a shady stone gazebo, and a big open lawn to run around in or spread a picnic blanket on. One insider has been taking her kids here since they were tots and they’re now 7 and 11, respectively. Sold! Massachusetts and Wisconsin Aves., NW (Woodley Park)
#2 Sit front row. Every evening at 6 p.m., the Kennedy Center opens its doors for visitors to check out local, national and international talent for free. There’s opera, jazz, flamenco dance…basically anything you can think of. Make it into a family date night, by using the money you saved on tickets for a pre-show dinner at KC Cafe, the Kennedy Center’s dining spot perfect for kids. 2700 F St., NW (Foggy Bottom)
#3 Stalk the stars. Rock Creek Park is home to the only planetarium operated by the National Park Service, and it’s free. On Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday nights, the image of the night sky is projected onto a large, dome-shaped ceiling. You’ll hear more than one “coooool” coming from the kiddie corner. 5200 Glover Rd., NW (Rock Creek Park)
#4 Satisfy your sweet tooth. If you’re a Facebook user and you love Georgetown Cupcake’s confections, you’re in luck. Each day the bakery posts a “free flavor of the day” on their Facebook page. Recent flavors have included Caramel Hazelnut, Chocolate Cherry and Vanilla Sunshine. Just order it by name and the first 100 visitors get it on the house. 3301 M St., NW (Georgetown)
#5 Catch a flight. Pint-size aviation buffs will love hanging out at Gravelly Point Park, which is conveniently situated just off of the George Washington Parkway. It’s there where they’re able to watch planes take off (right above their heads!) from Reagan National Airport. Pack a picnic or bring popcorn to make plane watching a serious spectator sport. George Washington Pkwy. (Arlington, Va)
#6 Pick a Museum, Any Museum. One of the biggest perks about living in the District is that many of the museums are federal institutions, which means admission is free. This includes the National Gallery of Art, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the Smithsonian’s 17 Washington museums (think: the kid-approved National Air and Space museum). Find one that the whole family will enjoy and go explore.
#7 Surround yourself with social butterflies. Imagine being instantly surrounded by free-flying butterflies and exotic plants in shapes, sizes and colors you rarely see on your city block. That’s what happens when you visit the Butterfly Pavilion at the Museum of Natural History. The pavilion is open daily, but it’s only free on Tuesdays and online reservations are suggested. 1000 Constitution Ave., NW (Smithsonian)
#8 Meet a working artist. Stroll the halls of the Torpedo Factory, a former munitions factory turned art space. Creative kiddos get a sneak peek at any one of the 82 artists with working studios in the Factory. From painting to ceramics and fiber to printmaking, the creative types love to chat with families about their gigs. Bonus: There are elevators and wide hallways, making this ideal for strollers. 105 N. Union St. (Alexandria, Va)
#9 Take the fun outdoors. D.C. is home to a ton of awesome playgrounds and park spaces, but one of the best is General Getty Neighborhood Park in Montgomery County. Kiddo will have fun slipping and sliding on the well-appointed playground equipment. When she needs a break sit and set up a set of chess or checkers at one of the outdoor game tabletops. Tots love to run under the semicircular pergola. Sounds like the perfect place for a playdate! 10000 Woodland Ave. (Wheaton, Md)
#10 Ride in style. The one thing that makes King Street in Old Town Alexandria better for kids (aside from a scoop at Pops) is the trolley system that runs up and down it. From the King Street metro to the waterfront, the vintage-y trolley stops every two blocks for a fun hop on and off experience. Oh, and it’s free! King St. between King St. Metro and Union St. (Alexandria, Va)
#11 Sit front row. On Saturday mornings the National Theater invites kids to check out a free family-friendly performance from the likes of Uncle Devin, The YoJo Show and Magician Brian Curry. Trust us—this is 1,000 times cooler than watching cartoons on the tube. 1321 Pennsylvania Ave., NW (Metro Center)
#12 Take a selfie with The Big Chair. Dubbed as Anacostia’s most recognizable landmark, the Big Chair stands (er, sits) at a magnificent 19.5 feet high. First erected in 1959 as an advertisement for a nearby furniture store, the chair is now a quirky, must-see-in-person landmark. 2101 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., SE (Anacostia)
#13 Walk this way. See the National Mall (or Capitol Hill or U Street) with DC by Foot, a walking tour company that gives free, kid-friendly tours (gratuity recommended) infused with games, fun facts and trivia.
#14 Feel the beat. Head to Meridian Hill Park on Sundays (weather-permitting) between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. to hear the famous drum circle, a fixture in the park since the 1950s that brings music-lovers from all over the DMV together to listen and dance. If your little one has a drum that they’ve been wanting to let loose on, bring it along! 16th and Euclid Sts., NW (Columbia Heights)
#15 Follow the light. The rangers at Jones Point Lighthouse in Jones Point Park offer a cool, one-hour exploration tour for families. Every second Sunday of the month, kids learn about one of the last riverine lighthouses in the country through games and arts and crafts. Jones Point Park (Alexandria, Va)
#16 Become part of the show. Pint size performers will love this gratis show/workshop taught by a group of animated storytellers every first and third Tuesday of the month. The interactive performances, best for kids ages 10 and under, are held at the Mosaic District’s Strawberry Park (unless it’s inclement weather or between October and April,w when the story time is held in Angelika Film Center).
#17 Sit Pretty with Einstein. Located just outside the National Academy of Sciences’ building, this larger-than-life Albert Einstein Memorial makes for a perfect photo-op (and a snack stop).
#18 Explore the National Mall…at night. That’s right! The Mall is great during the day, but there’s something a little magical about bathing in the lights comingfrom the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
What is your favorite free thing to do in D.C. with kids? Tell us in the comments section below.
Photos courtesy of Georgetown Cupcake via Facebook, DC by Foot via Facebook, Cliff via Flickr, R_O_B_O via Flickr, NewVictory via Flickr, Kei Noguchi via Flickr