Summer Bucket List: 21 Cheap or Free Adventures with Kids in 2021

Put a visit to the National Zoo on your DC summer bucket list. You can meet DC’s most famous pandemic baby, panda Xiao Chi Ji.

Are you ready for some free summer fun in 2021? The cicadas are shouting it from the treetops all over the DC region: summer is here! And while life is certainly not yet back to “normal,” the pandemic barometer is finally moving in the right direction.

Last summer, DC was still in lockdown, pools were closed, and we wondered if our kids could bring the coronavirus home from the park. Now, we have more knowledge about the virus and a vaccine for adults. As a result, many parks and businesses are resuming operations. There are so many cheap or free summer fun options we can do outside this summer! 

Start planning your summer adventures with this list of 21 fun, socially distant, free or cheap activities to put on your DC summer bucket list! Use #DCMomsSummer21 to share what you have checked off your list. We may end up featuring your family on our DC Area Moms Instagram Feed (with your permission, of course!).

21 free and cheap adventures for your 2021 summer bucket list

  1. Two words: Baby panda. The National Zoo has reopened, and we can finally meet DC’s most popular pandemic baby, Xiao Qi Ji. To get your panda fix, first reserve free entry passes in advance to enter the zoo. On the day of your visit, scan the QR code at panda statues around the zoo to secure free panda passes for the Asia Trail. The passes go quickly, so arrive early!  Zoo members can reserve panda passes in advance online. 
  2. There’s no place like Watkins Regional Park in Maryland for a magical outdoor summer day.  Enjoy a working farm, mini-golf, or a miniature train through the woods. There is also a Wizard of Oz themed playground with giant red shoes for fantastic free summer fun!
  3. Get lost in a field of sunflowers at McKee-Beeshers wildlife management area, a free Maryland park that blooms with fields of gold in mid-July. Note: this is NOT a stroller friendly location!
  4. May the force be with you at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Check out gobs of aviation and space artifacts — including real airplanes and a space shuttle — on display in spacious hangars at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles airport. This summer they even have a Star Wars X-wing starfighter on display while it undergoes conservation. Get a free, timed entry pass to the museum here. Next, prepare for blast off when The National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall reopens on July 30.
  5. Roll through Rock Creek! Take the kids for classic free summer fun on a scooter or bike ride through Rock Creek Parkwhile its major road is still closed to traffic. The National Park Service and DC closed upper Beach Drive to traffic last year, to provide an open space for recreation during the pandemic. Then people enjoyed it so much, some council members want to keep it closed. While they debate it, enjoy this excellent spot for kids to bike, scooter, or skate without fear of cars.
  6. After a year-long hiatus, the water is back on at DC’s Yards Park. Take a dip in the fountains and free wading pool. Then split a sundae at DC’s own Ice Cream Jubilee (301 Water St SE and 1407 T St NW).
  7. Free summer fun is also flowing again at the other splash parks in the region!  Most are open at full capacity this summer. Check out some of our other favorites in our Guide to Spray and Splash Parks Guide.
  8. Make friends with farm animals. DC might be more famous for it’s museums and monuments, but the region also has a wealth of farms and petting zoos. Your kids can get up close and personal with cows, chickens, and farm history at Frying Pan Park in Virginia, or Oxon Hill Farm National Park and the Agricultural History Farm Park in Maryland. All three are free!  For a fee, you can also see exotic animals and feed farm animals at Leesburg Animal Park or Roers Zoofari.

    Tee up for summer fun at Haines Point, DC’s miniature golf course along the Potomac River.
  9. Hit the (miniature) links! Play a round on the oldest continually operating mini-golf in the country at DC’s Hains Point. Read more about this charming DC gem here. (The water jitney is not currently operating.)
  10. Berry-stained hands are the best summer look! Kids can pick their own berries at one of the many family-friendly farms near DC. Check out our U-Pick and Farm Fun guide for some local favorites.
  11. Grab a picnic and watch the planes fly into DCA from Gravelly Point for some unique DC free summer fun. (Warning – it can be loud for babies!) If you have strong cyclists, you can take the bike path there. Parking is free.
  12. Visit one of DC’s hidden gems, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, during its peak summer bloom of water lilies. Admission is FREE! The park hosts a Lotus and Water Lily Festival in July. This year most festival events are virtual. The park will have extended hours for socially-distant visits to view the lilies in bloom.
  13. Enjoy outdoor music again, at an Arlington institution! Arlington’s Lubber Run Amphitheatre has hosted free summer concerts since its inception in 1969. After the park had to cancel last summer’s series, the Lubber Run Summer Concert Series is back again for more free summer fun. They have special family programming on Sunday afternoons.

    Explore the islands (of DC)

  14. In search of that island life… but not yet ready to travel? We’ve got islands right here in DC! Go for a hike and look for birds on Roosevelt Island on the Potomac River. 
  15. Or hike, bike, fish, and bird-watch on the beautiful Kingman & Heritage Islands on the Anacostia for some special free summer fun.
  16. Row, row, row your boat! You can rent a canoe or kayak on the Anacostia or Potomac River and enjoy life on the river in DC.
  17. Docks, boats, sunshine, seafood, and ice cream: dinner plans can feel like summer vacation at the District Wharf. The Wharf hosts free outdoor summer movies every Thursday evening this summer. Before the film you can eat fried seafood on the pier, or play  with your kids on the free, giant, outdoor board games. 
  18. Dive into summer at your local public pool! After the long, hot summer of 2020, it’s a sweet relief that public pools are set to reopen this summer. Some of our favorite DC public pools: Francis Pool (great for kids), Banneker (Olympic-sized adult pool and sizable kids’ pool), and Rosedale Pool (one word: waterslides). All DC Pools are free for residents or require a small fee for non-DC residents. 
  19. Climb the sleeping giant statue and enjoy some free summer fun at outside events at National Harbor! For example, you can spin around with two-for-one tickets on their carousel on National Carousel Day July 25.
  20. Cruise into a drive-in movie. Drive-in movies were the retro hit of 2020, as folks enjoyed the chance to watch movies together from the safe pandemic bubble of their own car.  The Alexandria Drive-In is back this summer at the large parking lot at the Victory Center, with films like E.T. and Shrek.
  21. Or enjoy a drive-in with urban flair at DC’s Drive-In at Union Market. You can buy food and snacks from the market’s vendors and watch films on the building’s facade. Carless viewers can buy a ticket and watch from blankets or chairs. The drive-in operates the first Friday of each month from May to October 2021.