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Outside building of National Portrait Gallery

The Capital of Free Museums

Book your next vacation to the nation’s capital and visit these only-in-the-District museums, free of charge

When planning a vacation, Washington, DC should be at the very top of your list. The nation’s capital offers more than 100 free things to do, but it should come as no surprise that museums are some of the most popular attractions.


We’ve gone into deep detail on four of the city’s most popular museums (including one dedicated to living animals), none of which charge admission.

National Zoo entrance

Smithsonian's National Zoo

In the heart of the nation’s capital lives a portal to wildlife from around the world. Smithsonian’s National Zoo offers a firsthand, family-friendly experience through a 163-acre urban park in the Woodley Park neighborhood teeming with roughly 2,700 animals that represent more than 390 species.


The zoo is also connected to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (a non-public facility located in Front Royal, Va.), a global effort to conserve species and train future conservationists. This focus on preserving endangered animals extends to the zoo, as one-fifth of its exhibited species fall into this category.

Facing the Brink: Conservation Wins at the National Zoo


DC’s zoo story begins back in 1886, with the founding of the National Museum’s Department of Living Animals. By 1889, an act of Congress officially created the zoo, with plans overseen by secretary of the Smithsonian Samuel Langley, conservationist William Temple Hornaday and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

The trio created both a public destination for animal lovers and a refuge for wildlife under attack in North America.


By the 1960s, the zoo had moved from exhibiting a small collection of exotic animal species to becoming a major force for conservation, as its efforts focused more intently on breeding and studying endangered species and providing its inhabitants with professional healthcare. In 1958, the zoo hired its first full-time veterinarian. By 1975, the Conservation and Research Center was founded, which is now known as the aforementioned Smithsonian Conversation Biology Institute.



Visit the National Zoo today  (passes are required) and prepare to be dazzled in this oasis of animal wonders. With 18 distinct areas to explore, make sure to don your best walking shoes. 


Make sure you visit Elephant Trails, where you can observe Asian elephants in a two-acre outdoor space. The Small Mammal House is a veritable variety show of species; golden lion tamarins live here, as do lemurs, meerkats, foxes, ferrets, mongooses and armadillos. The Great Ape House is home to gorillas and orangutans and you might see the latter swinging around on the O Line, a 50-foot-high suspended cable track that extends outside the habitat. The Reptile Discovery Center will have the kids marveling at king cobras, rattlesnakes, tortoises, crocodiles and gila monsters; a Komodo dragon exhibit is also located just behind the building. There’s also lions, tigers, bears, bison...we could keep going. You should just go ahead and start planning your route.


Planet Word

The free museum highlights the incredible power of language through interactive exhibits and word-themed installations. Planet Word is the world’s first voice-activated museum, a technological achievement that aims to inspire a love of literacy through a multicultural lens.


In So Many Words ...


  • Located at 925 13th Street NW in the Franklin School building, one of DC’s first public schools
  • The site of the world’s first wireless voice transmission, conducted by Alexander Graham Bell in 1880
  • A major restoration revitalized the Great Hall, replicating the original frescos and grand staircases



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The state-of-the-art museum immediately stands out for its awe-inspiring interactive capabilities. As a visitor, you bring the building to life by engaging with the written word and spoken language, making for an experience unlike any other in the District. A Word to the wise: While Planet Word does not charge admission, donations are encouraged.


The Speaking Willow Tree, the first permanent installation in DC by trailblazing artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, welcomes guests in hundreds of languages as they pass through its branches. The immersive metal sculpture designed to look like a weeping willow features 364 individual speakers and 3.6 miles of ethernet cable.



The upper floor of Planet Word consists of three exhibits, including First Words, which looks at how we learn our first language. The Spoken World will amaze you with the diversity of languages around the globe through speakers and signers of 31 native tongues. The talking, 22-foot-tall wall Where Do Words Come From? examines the English language and origins of many commonly used words.

The museum’s middle floor is perhaps its most adventurous. You can test out your public speaking skills, use words to transform the color in the room around you, browse a magical library (and secret room) filled with literary secrets, in which certain books you can place on the table "come to life" with digital images. You can also sing an iconic song karaoke-style and step into a humor gallery to determine the funniest member of your crew. On the lower floor, the Words Matter exhibit offers a recording booth that welcomes you to share a story of how words have changed your life. You can also hear stories from others around the globe. I’m Sold! showcases how advertisers use language to influence consumers and asks you to craft your own copy.

Your visit is not complete until you check out Planet Word’s Shared Studios’ Portal, which is equipped with audio-visual technology that allows you to converse and interact with citizens from all over the globe as if you were in the same room. Planet Word and Shared Studios have also collaborated on the DIVERCITIES initiative, which will connect DC locals to moderated conversations with poets, artists, journalists and activists from around the world.

Planet Word has reopened! For more information about tickets, hours and event programming, visit the museum’s website.


National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall with Washington Monument

Alan Karchmer

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

When this landmark museum opened, the nation’s capital added yet another architectural marvel to the National Mall. Designed by the renowned David Adjaye, the exterior is a masterfully crafted, three-tiered bronze-colored screen, with a lattice that pays tribute to the intricate ironwork forged by enslaved African Americans in the southern United States. Before stepping inside, you’re made aware that an astounding and essential history awaits. The museum is home to the African American story, which in many ways is the story of America itself.



Opened on Sept. 24, 2016 after nearly a century’s worth of pushes for such a facility, the museum has become the major hub for Black history in the U.S., with roughly 3,500 artifacts on view.


Back in 1915, Black Union Army veterans gathered in DC for a reunion. These men, who fought to maintain a country that had enslaved them and their ancestors, were still experiencing violent discrimination.

In turn, the veterans formed a committee to build a memorial to African American accomplishments. By 1929, President Herbert Hoover had appointed his own commission charged with building a national memorial, but Congress did not support the project and private fundraising was unsuccessful.


Bureaucratic and legislative debates raged on for decades; the legendary Rep. John Lewis and Rep. Mickey Leland first introduced legislation for a standalone African American history museum under the Smithsonian Institution in 1989, but not until Nov. 19, 2003 did the House of Representatives officially pass the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act, which was then signed into law on Dec. 16. From there, another 13 years passed before the museum officially opened, with siting and design competitions, architectural changes and extensive construction for the four-level museum all playing a factor. However, upon opening its doors, the museum saw incredible interest, with 600,000 people visiting in its first three months, which prompted the necessity of timed passes to enter the immensely popular attraction.



Navigating the entirety of the museum can’t be done in one visit. The breadth of its exhibits is truly astonishing, as the museum paints a vivid picture of 500 years of experience. Give yourself time for solace and contemplation as you make your way through.


In fact, one area of the museum was built specifically for this act: the Contemplative Court. This room is situated so as to welcome you right after encountering the Slavery and Freedom exhibit, a particularly illuminating section that is sure to stir emotions. The exhibit uses first-person accounts and striking historical artifacts. You will trace slavery from 15th century Africa and Europe to the Civil War and Reconstruction in the United States. This vital history emphasizes that American slavery and freedom are deeply intertwined, and that the story of slavery is in fact a shared one that resides at the core of the country’s politics, economics and daily life.


Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom and A Changing America are also revelatory. The former covers the era of segregation and the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, highlighting the struggle that Black Americans faced and conquered in establishing a cultural identity and their own communities. The latter goes from 1968 until the present, covering everything from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to Barack Obama’s two terms as president, journeying from the Black Panthers to #BlackLivesMatter.


The Musical Crossroads exhibit is a captivating capsule of Black music. In sampling and learning about an array of genres, from jazz to soul to hip-hop, you’ll learn how Black musicians brought forth new forms of expression that lit a candle for liberty, justice and change. Sports: Leveling the Playing Field showcases the contributions that African Americans have made both on and off the field in a constant struggle for equality and recognition. From Jackie Robinson to Olympians to NFL superstars, the exhibit casts a wide net.


For more information about visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, including hours, timed passes, exhibits and artifacts, visit the museum’s website. You can also check out our guide to visiting the museum.


National Gallery of Art

DC’s status as a beacon of artistic creativity begins with the National Gallery of Art. Composed of two buildings, a sculpture garden and an ice rink, the campus is a thorough, living document of art across numerous countries and historical eras. Its collection totals roughly 150,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and other forms of media, stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages.


As complete of a collection as you'll find anywhere in the world, the Gallery features a who's who of powerhouse artists: Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Renoir, Cassatt, Picasso, Dalí, Rothko, Pollock, Warhol, O'Keeffe.

West Building

An exploration of the West Building is still as revelatory and moving of a museum experience as exists in the U.S. Thousands of essential works, organized by period and national origin, are arranged in spectacular and comprehensive galleries across two floors of exhibition space. The main floor features European paintings and sculptures that date as far back as the 13th century, as well as seminal American art. On the ground floor, gaze at pieces by essential masters such as Manet, Renoir, Cézanne and Da Vinci, as well as decorative art, prints and drawings. The museum’s expansive gift shop, also located on the ground floor, is well worth a visit, as its offerings allow for an even deeper dive into the fascinating history and evolution of art.

East Building

I.M. Pei’s magical East Building is an even grander spectacle after its overhaul in the 2010s. Two sky-lit tower galleries and two staircases connect all levels of the museum. The rooftop terrace allows for a reflective gaze over Constitution Avenue and offers the striking Hahn/Cock sculpture by Katherine Fritsch, a dazzling blue rooster that stands 15 feet tall. Inside, more than 500 trendsetting works of art await, including pieces by Alexander Calder, Barbara Kruger, Jasper Johns, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko. The sleekly designed wing contrasts the Beaux Arts and Classical architecture throughout DC, representing a voyage into the outer ranges of the artistic spectrum.


Connecting the West and East Buildings is Leo Villareal’s incredible Multiverse installation. More than 41,000 LED nodes light up the 200-foot space, creating abstract configurations that literally light your way as you head from one building to the other via underground concourse. The journey also represents a metaphorical transformation of the museum; you’re either traveling forward or back in time in the Gallery’s collection, depending on which building you’re departing.


The National Gallery of Art regularly features temporary exhibits that highlight distinctive artists in a range of mediums. From Renaissance masters to modern day marvels, you will be able to take in creations that advance and challenge form and structure. Be sure to check out the museum’s current exhibits and installations as you plan a visit.


For more information regarding the National Gallery of Art, visit its website and check out our guide to the museum. We also recommend viewing our photo-centric look at the redesigned East Building.


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