Washington DC

15 Totally Free Things to Do in DC

A full itinerary, completely free of charge.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Washington DC is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, and for those of us who call the District home, it’s easy to see why. With dozens of world-class museums, murals that transform streets into galleries, and sites brimming with history, DC offers a full agenda-completely free of charge. Whether you want to try a new farmer’s market, explore a new hike, or polish off your roller skating or canoeing skills, here are some of our favourite free things to do in the District.

Flickr/gawnesco
Flickr/gawnesco
Flickr/gawnesco

Hike, bike, or stroll along the C&O Canal

The historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is one of the most accessible nature escapes from the District. Thanks to a multi-year restoration project, the first mile of the canal is an idyllic walk that’s easy to access in Georgetown. Stick to a short stroll there, or grab a bike or lace up your hiking shoes for a longer adventure along the 184.5-mile canal.

Jump on the pickleball craze

Pickleball is working its way up the ladder past kickball and softball as one of America’s favourite games. Jump on the craze and practice your paddling at one of the District’s pickleball courts in Takoma Park, the Palisades, and more. Plus, Washington DC Pickleball invites guests to drop in to beginner sessions to try their hand at the sport before signing up for a $30 annual membership.

Flickr/mcfeelion
Flickr/mcfeelion
Flickr/mcfeelion

Bike the Mount Vernon Trail

DC is incredibly bike-friendly, and luckily that applies to the land immediately outside of the city as well. Start in the city and bike along the Mount Vernon Trail, a scenic route that hugs the water and cuts through the woods. It’s about a 10-mile trip from DC to Mount Vernon, but you can cut the trip slightly short and end at the Old Town Alexandria waterfront-just make sure to factor in time for ice cream before pedalling home.

Explore a sculpture park

While not located in the District proper, Glenstone, an expansive sculpture park in Maryland, is worth the 45-minute drive. Tickets to the park are free (just be sure to reserve several weeks in advance), and the 300-acre space offers stunning art, architecture, and open land. In addition to its indoor gallery spaces, you can spend hours walking on paths that wind through sculptures, meadows, and forests.

Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Flickr/Geoff Livingston

See the monuments at night

When the sun goes down-and the summer humidity somewhat dissipates-head to the National Mall for the rare chance to see the monuments without busloads of tourists. Moonlight will give you a different perspective as you traverse the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial or gaze up at the Washington Monument set aglow with lights.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Museum hop the day away

One of DC’s greatest strengths is its world-class Smithsonian museums that are open to the public free of charge. There is no shortage of options, from the intimate Renwick Gallery, to the sprawling National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonians offer something for everyone. Pro tip: Some of the museums are open late in the evenings, making for an ideal date night.

muralsdc
muralsdc
muralsdc

Explore the city’s murals

Washington is home to hundreds of murals that are becoming as much a part of the city’s landscape as the monuments on the National Mall. Take a self-guided tour of these colourful creations no matter which neighbourhood you happen to be in. MuralsDC, the organization behind 150 of the District’s public artworks, is a great resource for mapping out a route to explore the city’s street art.

Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington

Take in a birds-eye view of the city

Washington looks pretty stunning from up high, and there are few spots within the city that make for phenomenal vantage points. Rooftop bars and restaurants offer epic views for the price of a drink or two, but there’s no more iconic sight than seeing the city from the top of the Washington Monument, which is completely free. Book a ticket ahead of time and ride an elevator all the way to the top of the monument and step out on the 500-foot observation deck.

Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Flickr/Nicolas Raymond

Wander through a garden

DC is home to some of the most beautiful urban gardens in the country, and many of them are open to the public for free. There is nothing like an afternoon spent strolling through, or picnicking, at the expansive 446-acre United States Arboretum or wandering through the Botanic Garden on the edge of the Mall. For something a bit smaller, explore the grounds at Tudor Place or Dumbarton Oaks (free in the winter), both of which are in Georgetown.

Flickr/ehpien
Flickr/ehpien
Flickr/ehpien

Hike the Billy Goat Trail

You can catch one of the District’s most popular hiking trails, the Billy Goat Trail, from the C&O canal. The full trail is 4.7 miles and ranges from easy to strenuous, so hike a section in and back or make the full loop for the variety.

Pay your respect at Arlington National Cemetery

Just across the Potomac from DC, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 veterans. The cemetery is an expanse of 639 hallowed acres and the ANC Explorer allows visitors to locate graves, notable sites, and take self-guided walking tours to spots including the tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as the final resting place of President John F. Kennedy.

Lace up your roller skates

When was the last time you went roller skating? Chances are it’s been too long. So get back into this nostalgic activity at the Anacostia Park roller skating pavilion. You can rent skates for free, just show proof of a government-issued ID, and the skating pavilion is open from 9 to 5 every day.

Help clean up the Anacostia River

We all know there’s a lot of work to be done to keep our waterways clean. Do your part, and have some fun, by participating in the city’s Green Boat initiative. On select weekends, DCers can join a two-hour guided paddle along the Anacostia River to collect trash and monitor the river’s progress.

Eastern Market
Eastern Market
Eastern Market

Stroll your local farmer’s market

DC’s close proximity to the farms of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and beyond mean that the city’s farmers’ markets always have something to offer. Check out the year-round markets like Eastern Market in Capitol Hill and the Sunday market in Dupont Circle or head to seasonal markets like the pop-up in front of the White House that draws vendors like Cucina al Volo and Call Your Mother Deli.

The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress

Play tourist all around the city

It’s easy to forget that all those traditionally touristy activities can be fun for locals too. If you haven’t been on a tour of the White House, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or the Capitol, this is your sign. All are free with advanced reservations. Plus, tucked in the northern quadrant of NW, the Washington National Cathedral is free and open to all. Tour the cathedral’s impressive architecture, 215 stained glass windows, 112 Gothically-inspired gargoyles, and enormous pipe organ. See if you can spot the sculpture of Darth Vader.

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Madeline Weinfield is a Thrillist contributor.

Washington DC

Inside DC's Best Food Halls and Markets

DC's best restaurants, all in one place.

Union Market District
Union Market District
Union Market District

If there’s one location that can satisfy the hungry, the indecisive, and the most adventurous eaters among us, it is undoubtedly the food hall. We’re not talking about the sad, rather beleaguered food courts of suburban malls across the country. Instead, these modern day food meccas play host to a wide range of pop-ups, fast-casual staples, and proper restaurants from local chefs, making a visit to a food hall one of the best ways to eat your way through a city. And thanks to a resurgence in the concept over the last few years, there are several great food halls in DC to visit. Whether you want to dig into a tray of Texas-style brisket with all the fixings or hop from stall to stall sampling dumplings, hand-pulled noodles, and scallion pancakes, you can find it all. So when you’re ready for a proper food hall crawl, here are the best places to go.

Assembly
Assembly
Assembly

Assembly

Rosslyn
This modern food hall makes ordering easy by using scannable QR codes, so you can order from your seat like at a standard restaurant. With 625 seats and eight food and beverage concepts to choose from, you can get lost in the diversity. Check out oysters from Fog Point, the only oyster bar in Rosslyn; traditional pork soup dumplings from Beng Beng Asian Street Food; or crispy crab deviled eggs from Great Lake Diner.

 theblockfoodhall
theblockfoodhall
theblockfoodhall

The Block

Mount Vernon Triangle
With three locations in the DMV area, The Block is supporting Asian-American-owned and -inspired eateries all across the region. The DC outpost offers three main vendors: Pogiboy, a Filipino-American spot by chefs Paolo Dungca and Tom Cunanan; Rose Ave Bakery, which offers options like pandan coconut and ube coconut doughnuts; and the Block Bar. In addition to the permanent venues, the space also hosts pop-ups so check regularly for the latest options.

Eastern Market
Eastern Market
Eastern Market

Eastern Market

Capitol Hill
In the heart of Capitol Hill, Eastern Market has been drawing a crowd for years thanks to its expansive indoor and outdoor space. The landmark space has been in operation since 1873 but after a fire in 2007, the space was fully renovated to its current form. The food hall is largely found inside, where you’ll find communal seating and barstools, and other vendors and a pop-up art market can be found outside. Head over to South Hall for fresh produce, meat, and fish, and definitely don’t miss out on the soft shell sandwiches or the blueberry pancakes from Market Lunch. Plus, on the street around the market, there’s often a series of great food trucks serving up sweet and savoury items alike.

La Cosecha
La Cosecha
La Cosecha

La Cosecha

Union Market District
Located near Union Market, this collection of Latin businesses offers not only some of the best Mexican fare you can find in the city, but also a range of retail goods including apparel, home decor, and more. Food vendors range from casual taco outposts like Las Gemelas to a top-notch cocktail bar Serenata and tasting menu restaurants Mita and El Cielo. Each concept has its own seating area, and there’s some common seating in the middle of the market, too. And when you’re done eating, you can shop til you drop (or need to refuel again).

Ballston Quarter (Arlington, VA)
Ballston Quarter (Arlington, VA)
Ballston Quarter (Arlington, VA)

Quarter Market

Ballston
With 25,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space to explore and more than 20 vendors, you can’t go wrong at this sprawling Arlington food hall. A trip to Quarter Market means you’ll get to dig into DC’s perennial favourites like District Doughnut, Hot Lola’s fried chicken sandwiches, and scoops from Ice Cream Jubilee, but the space also features new concepts from beloved local restaurants like Turu’s from the Timber Pizza team and Roll’d, a sushi spot led by Sushi Taro’s world class chef Nobu Yamazaki.

The Roost DC
The Roost DC
The Roost DC

The Roost

Capitol Hill
This 12,500-square-foot food hall operated by Neighborhood Restaurant Group brings together some of the District’s most beloved eateries. From Shelter Beer Garden, an operation from the ChurchKey team, to Red Apron Butcher and chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s dumplings and other Chinese BBQ fare at Yoyo & Kota, there’s something for everyone. The Roost is also home to one full-service restaurant, Caruso’s Grocery, a buzzy new Italian restaurant.

Captain Cookie and the Milk Man
Captain Cookie and the Milk Man
Captain Cookie and the Milk Man

Tastemakers

Brookland
Formerly the site of a factory, this modern food hall is part-eatery and part-incubator kitchen. Startups of both the food and non-food variety can be found working in this space, and there’s a commercial kitchen available for use (upon reservation and request, of course). Favourite DC eateries like Bullfrog Bagels and Captain Cookie operate out of the food hall portion of the space. Once you’ve decided what you want, take a seat at one of the tables perched atop a barrel.

2Fifty Texas BBQ
2Fifty Texas BBQ
2Fifty Texas BBQ

Union Market

Union Market District
Formerly known as Center Market, this food hall has seen a lot of change over the years. The industrial space once held 700 vendors hawking fish, meat, dairy, and other grocery staples and has since been renovated to play home to some of DC’s favourite purveyors. Nearly 50 vendors make up the businesses in and around the market, including Buffalo and Bergen, Red Apron Butcher, and District Fishwife. Visit on a weekend and prepare to wait in line, but Egyptian food at Fava Pot and smoked meats from barbecue hotspot 2Fifty’s are worth the wait.

Western Market DC
Western Market DC
Western Market DC

Western Market

Foggy Bottom
Since the highly anticipated opening of Western Market in 2021, Western Market has been transforming this college town-esque neighbourhood into a true dining destination. As one of DC’s three original marketplaces (Eastern and Center being the other two), this new food hall has been restored to its former glory with 10 active vendors and more expected to open soon. Options include Italian sandwiches from Capo Deli, fried chicken sandwiches from Roaming Rooster, sushi from Onkei, among others. Plus, the airy space features plenty of seating, largely aligned with individual vendors.

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Elsie Yang is a native Texan with high aspirations of eating her way through the northeast (and beyond). When she’s not exploring the culinary scene in DC, you can find her adjusting the height of her standing desk or otherwise searching for a new project. Follow her on¬†Instagram.

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