Oct 26, 2023

Free outdoor movies in the Washington, DC area this summer

As we edge closer to Memorial Day, D.C.'s many outdoor summer movie series are gearing up for another year of free films under the stars. Honestly, it can be tough to keep track of them all. Schedules are busy — screenings take place almost every night of the week — and some recent films, such as "Top Gun: Maverick," "King Richard" and "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," are playing in multiple parks over the next few months.

We’ve got all the details below. But instead of just recommending films to see, we’re suggesting turning outdoor cinema into the impetus for a fantastic date night, offering tips on pre-movie happy hours, places to pick up a picnic, and where to grab a drink and some conversation afterward.

We expect this list to be updated throughout the summer, as more series kick off or finalize details — as of press time, we’re still waiting for lineups and other details from some of our favorite series, including the Library of Congress, the Wharf and the Georgetown waterfront.

But that shouldn't stop you from grabbing a date and a blanket to spend a warm summer night in front of a big screen.

When: Wednesdays through June 7. Films begin at sundown.

The reel deal: Held on the grassy lawn of Alethia Tanner Park, CiNoMatic is easy to get to, thanks to its prime location along the Metropolitan Branch Trail and an easy (though uphill) walk from the NoMa Metro station. It's a lively, family-friendly scene, with food trucks parked not far from the screen. The Business Improvement District sets up lawn games an hour before the film begins.

Highlights: "Men in Black" (May 24), "The Devil Wears Prada" (June 7). See the full schedule.

Where to meet beforehand: Drop into Lost Generation, one of the most exciting new breweries in the D.C. area, located in a converted Nabisco factory, a short walk (or bike ride) up the MBT. Try the roasty Grave Shift dark lager or crowd-pleasing There Are Always Hops IPA. A food truck is on-site if you need pre-movie snacks. Because Lost Generation closes at 10, it's better to visit before the film.

Where to pick up a picnic: The area directly around Alethia Tanner Park doesn't have many places to eat, let alone grab and go. It's better to graze around the NoMa Metro station: slices of pizza from Andy's or Menomale; Korean rice bowls from SeoulSpice; or chips, hummus and DIY supplies from Harris Teeter.

Where to go afterward: The Eleanor offers mini bowling lanes, video games and other semi-competitive fun, plus a full bar. Or chat over drinks outdoors at the Wunder Garten beer garden, or with a fresh beer and video games at Red Bear Brewing.

Alethia Tanner Park, 227 Harry Thomas Way NE.

When: First and third Fridays of the month, through July 21. Film start times vary, so check the schedule.

The reel deal: Drive-in movies became a trend during the pandemic, but Union Market has been hosting outdoor screenings in its parking lot since 2013. Drivers can reserve a space, ease the seat back and listen to the sound through their FM radio, while the carless masses are free to walk up to Neal Place, the closed street in front of the market, with blankets and camp stools. (Because Neal Place is narrow, early arrival is strongly suggested.)

Highlights: "Clueless" (June 16), "Top Gun: Maverick" (July 7). See the full schedule.

Where to meet beforehand: Right above the screen is Hi-Lawn, a wide-open rooftop with picnic tables and a faux-grass field that's inviting for a picnic. Note that outside food is permitted only if it comes from Union Market downstairs. If you’re looking for something thriftier, Last Call, just a block away, offers happy hour until 7 p.m. with $3 beer and martinis (seriously), $5 wine and $3 half-smokes.

Where to pick up a picnic: The answer is obviously a few steps away at Union Market, where dozens of choices for grazing include gourmet sandwiches from Bar Boheme, falafel and spreads from Yasmine, dumplings from Laoban, and cheese and charcuterie from La Jambe. Bottles of wine and to-go beers are available around the market, and there are frozen cocktails at the Suburbia trailer on Neal Place.

Where to go afterward: Unfortunately, Union Market is shutting down just as most films are beginning, with vendors closed by 9 p.m. Hi-Lawn turns off the lights at 10 p.m. Instead, head to the lively Serenata cocktail bar inside the nearby La Cosecha market, sip award-winning rums at Cotton & Reed's tasting room around the corner from the Drive-In, or play darts and sip beer and seltzer at Crooked Run's taproom.

1309 Fifth St. NE.

When: Thursdays at 7 p.m. ("Date Night") and Sundays at 6 p.m. ("Family Night") through Sept. 28.

The reel deal: One of the most aggressively scheduled outdoor film series in the region, National Harbor's Movies on the Potomac has 37 screenings on the calendar between Thursday and Sept. 24, split between Thursday "Date Night" movies, which begin after 7 p.m., and Sunday's family-friendly fare, which starts at 6. Movies are shown on the giant 18-by-32-foot LED screen in front of the harbor, with the Capital Wheel and Wilson Bridge in the background.

Highlights: From "Wakanda Forever" (June 15) to "Wonder Woman" (July 13) to "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" (Aug. 3), this is a series playing to fans of superhero movies. If your tastes run to all-ages films, the Sunday series specializes in doubleheaders, with back-to-back showings of "Incredibles" and "Incredibles 2" (Aug. 6 and 13) and "Shrek" and "Shrek 2" (Sept. 3 and 10). See the full schedule.

Where to meet beforehand: For a date, the Capital Wheel Ferris wheel sounds kind of cheesy, but spending some quality time in one of those pods together — possibly with romantic sunset views of D.C., Alexandria and the Potomac — can actually be fun. There's a bar called the Flight Deck after you come back to Earth. Our top pick for happy hour is Succotash, chef Ed Lee's Southern-flavored restaurant, where beer, wine and cocktails are in the $5-$6 range until 7 p.m., alongside discounted snacks. (It's worth noting that the restaurant closes at 10 on Thursdays, so you might have to hustle for post-movie drinks.) Close to the screen, there are outdoor areas at McCormick & Schmick's and Redstone American Grill.

Where to pick up a picnic: National Harbor is stocked with fast-casual eateries and restaurants with takeout, including Bombay Street Food (order in advance through the website), Nando's and Mezeh.

Where to go afterward: The Brass Tap is an airy bar with 60 draft beers, including Maryland options, while the dark, cozy Irish Whisper pub offers whiskey and cocktails, plus food until 11 p.m. If you want a livelier option, dueling piano bar Bobby McKey's is open until midnight Thursdays.

150 National Plaza, National Harbor.

When: Tuesdays through June 27, with films beginning about 30 minutes after sunset.

The reel deal: "Adams Morgan Movie Nights is a joke," reads the poster for the long-running series, but it's not a Flavor Flav-inspired diss: This year's lineup consists of comedies, and each screening opens with a stand-up set sponsored by Hotbed, the comedy club located a few blocks north on 18th Street. The setup on the soccer fields at Marie Reed School is one of the best in the area: In addition to spreading blankets on the grass, thousands of viewers pack the terraced bleachers facing the screen.

Highlights: "The Birdcage" (June 6, for Pride week), "Bridesmaids" (June 20). See the full schedule.

Where to meet beforehand: Adams Morgan has no shortage of bars and restaurants, from the rooftop whiskey bar at Jack Rose to the $5 drinks at the Blaguard's happy hour. Check out the sunny rooftop bar at the new Baja Tap, snack on labneh over cocktails at the Green Zone or have a date-night dinner with Afghan flavors at Lapis.

Where to pick up a picnic: In addition to all the restaurants on the strip where you could pick up takeout, the neighborhood Business Improvement District has organized "Brown Bag Movie Meals" packages at some local restaurants, including three tacos and a soda for $15 from Baja Tap, a kitfo sandwich and drink for $15 from Elfegne Ethiopian, and 20 percent off online pickup orders at Shibuya Eatery.

Where to go afterward: Head to Bedrock Billiards for a game of pool or shuffleboard, stop into Roofers Union's street-level Agave Room for an impromptu mezcal tasting (or just a frozen margarita), or head to Madam's Organ for a weekly shot of live rock and blues from the Moran Tripp Band.

Champlain Street and Florida Avenue NW.

When: Fridays from May 26 to Sept. 1. Films begin around 8 p.m.

The reel deal: The "video wall" at the Kennedy Center's Reach expansion faces a large, grassy lawn, where the Extraordinary Cinema series will show summer blockbusters and family films from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, beginning with "Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark." Blankets and chairs are encouraged, and unlike with many indoor events at the Kennedy Center, no tickets are required, though the location may change based on heat warnings or the threat of rain.

Highlights: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (June 2), "Jaws" (July 7). See the full schedule.

Where to meet beforehand: The Kennedy Center is roughly a 10-minute walk from the Foggy Bottom Metro station, and a free shuttle bus offers door-to-door service from the Metro every 15 minutes. Close to the Metro, options include the British-inspired Duke's Grocery and Indian street food and cocktails from Bindaas.

Where to pick up a picnic: Earlier this month, the restaurateurs who ran Victura Park, the Reach's spacious beer garden, announced they wouldn't be returning in 2023; a spokesperson for the Kennedy Center said the arts center is "still working through programming opportunities for this summer." Until a replacement is finalized, you should plan to bring your own refreshments. A Whole Foods is located across the street from the Metro, and it's surrounded by fast-casual eateries, including Beefsteak, Roti and Tatte bakery.

Where to go afterward: Tonic at Quigley's, on George Washington University's campus, is a fine place to stop in for a beer or cocktail on the way back to the Metro. (The closest rooftop bar is the Top of the Gate at the Watergate, but be warned that wines by the glass start at $18, and house cocktails are $25.)

2700 F St. NW.

When: Thursdays from June 1 to July 13. Films begin at sunset, but giveaways and activities begin at 7:30 p.m.

The reel deal: DJ 2-Tone Jones uses his turntables to provide a live soundtrack of hip-hop and funk that complements the action being shown on a large inflatable screen in Franklin Park. Over the years, this series has hopscotched among various locations, including Freedom Plaza and the National Building Museum's lawn, but it now seems to have found a home downtown. The 2022 edition included free snacks and seltzers provided by sponsors, as well as games and family activities before the film began.

Highlights: "The Goonies" (June 15), "Everything Everywhere All at Once" (June 29). See the full schedule.

Where to meet beforehand: The Park at 14th, the upscale lounge across 14th Street from Franklin Park, offers happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. with $5 beer, wine and highballs; $5 small plates, including calamari and jerk wings; $6 sangria; and $8 margaritas. Looking for something low-key? Try the Post Pub, a legendary dive that changed ownership during the pandemic, where many of the burgers are named after Washington Post writers and editors, and happy hour brings $6 beers and $7 mixed drinks from 4 to 6 p.m. And while it's a little more expensive, Immigrant Food Plus in the Planet Word Museum has an aperitivo hour from 3 to 7 p.m. with cocktails from $10 to $14, wines by the glass from $10 to $15, and international beers from $6 to $9, as well as a streatery with tables facing Franklin Park.

Where to pick up a picnic: Cater-cornered from the park is Pow Pow, which specializes in vegetarian Asian dishes — dandan noodles with "plant-based ground pork," or the teriyaki grilled chick’n of the Tokyo Robato. (Order ahead for pickup with the code "canikickit" for a 20 percent discount.) Other nearby options include Bozelli's for pizza and Italian subs, Arepa Zone for Venezuelan cuisine, and Five Guys.

Where to go afterward: Rooftop bars in the vicinity include Wild Days, a cocktail bar with DJ-fueled parties at the Eaton hotel, and Lucha Rosa, a mezcal-focused bar with a retractable roof atop the Moxy hotel.

1332 I St. NW.

When: Thursdays from June 1 through Aug. 31. Movies begin at 7:30 p.m.

The reel deal: Held on the Wharf's Transit Pier — the site of the seasonal ice rink — this popular series shows a mix of recent blockbusters and nostalgic films on a large screen directly over the water. A few rows of Adirondack chairs are available for early arrivals, but bringing low chairs or a blanket is recommended. While food from any Wharf restaurant can be carried in, alcohol must be purchased at Cantina Bambina's dock bar, which specializes in margaritas and cold beer.

Highlights: "Ford v. Ferrari" (June 8), "The Sandlot" (Aug. 10). See the full schedule.

Where to meet beforehand: The nearby Tiki TNT bar and rum distillery is a destination for happy hour mai tais, daiquiris and its signature frozen Rum in Coke, available alongside discounted sliders, dumplings and other snacks from 3 to 6 p.m. Union Stage is better known for its live music, but the taproom's daily happy hour pairs a personal-size portion of its signature thin-crust, Jersey-style tavern pies with a draft beer or can from 5 to 7 p.m.

Where to pick up a picnic: The Wharf has no shortage of portable food, including falafel sandwiches and bowls at Falafel Inc.; Cuban sandwiches and empanadas at Colada Shop; burgers and hot dogs from Shake Shack; and fish and chips from Gordon Ramsey Fish & Chips, which Tom Sietsema reviewed a few months back.

Where to go afterward: If the weather cooperates, the rooftop bar at Cantina Bambina is only a few steps away. The Brighton has a spacious patio, while Kirwan's Irish Pub offers a cozy indoor spot. Pearl Street Warehouse and Union Stage are reliable for live music, and for fancier drinks with a view, consider the rooftop destinations Whiskey Charlie or 12 Stories, though both can have lines to get in.

970 Wharf St. SW.

When: Fridays from June 2 to 23. Activities begin at 5 p.m., and films start after sunset, around 9 p.m.

The reel deal: Rosslyn has been hosting outdoor movies in Gateway Park since the late 2000s, and the series still draws large crowds. It's smart to arrive early to stake out a space — and, conveniently, the park opens at 5 p.m. with food trucks, a beer and wine garden, and pre-movie activities, such as live music or face painting. Films were selected in a March Madness-style bracket — one musical, one comedy, one animated film and one adventure film — though "Jurassic Park," the winner in the last category, had to be replaced by "Jumanji" for rights reasons.

Highlights: "Jumanji" (June 2), "The Parent Trap" (June 23). See the full schedule.

Where to meet beforehand: The best outdoor drinking space happens to be between the Metro and Gateway Park: Continental Beer Garden, a converted parking lot that sports bocce courts, picnic tables and extended all-weather couches, as well as a bar serving sangria, craft beer, sparkling rose and slushees made with hard seltzer. Happy hour, which runs until 7 p.m., means $2 off beer and wine. The festively decorated and Instagramable Peruvian restaurant Inca Social sports a neon sign reading "It's a vibe" among the greenery on its patio, and from 3 to 7 p.m., that vibe is fueled by $5 wine and beer, $6 cocktails, and $6 food specials, including chicharrón and skewered shrimp or beef heart. Happy hour at Sfoglina is the fanciest option in town, with $7 Italian wines by the glass and $12 focaccia topped with nduja and giardiniera.

Where to pick up a picnic: Rosslyn is fast-casual central, home to Nando's, Sweetgreen, &Pizza, Chopt, District Taco, Chipotle and SeoulSpice, to name a few. Local options include the fiery hot chicken sandwiches from Hot Lola's and a variety of blue corn tacos at Taco Rock, where you can sip a happy hour margarita or michelada while waiting for takeout. A few blocks up Wilson Boulevard from the Metro, Safeway has a deli and hot food as well as groceries, and Foxtrot offers upscale snacks and prepared meals and salads.

Where to go afterward: Continental Pool Lounge, which is marking 20 years in business this year, is a retro-inspired spot for competitive couples, with colorful pool tables, shuffleboard, darts, table tennis, video games and board games, and cocktails served at glittering bars. Barley Mac, north of the Metro, features a large whiskey selection, classic cocktails and $15 beer buckets, and a choice of patio or indoor seating.

1300 Langston Blvd., Arlington.

When: The first Friday of the month from June 2 to Sept. 1, beginning at sunset.

The reel deal: Congressional Cemetery's calendar is anything but dead over the summer, with outdoor yoga, 5K races and movies in addition to its usual weekend tours. The theme of this year's monthly series is "Tim Burton's Summer of Surreal," with a quartet of the director's most-loved films. Screenings are outdoors, surrounded by tombstones — one of the most unusual settings in the area. Bring picnic blankets or low stools, as taller chairs are banned. Attendees are welcome to BYOB, though alcohol is for sale, and complimentary popcorn is included. Advance tickets are required. Gates open roughly an hour before sunset — check the website for each movie's times — and admission is a recommended donation of $10.

Highlights: "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (July 7), "Batman" (Aug. 4). See the full schedule.

Where to meet beforehand: The cemetery is less than a 10-minute walk from the Potomac Avenue Metro station, and there are a handful of options right by the Metro: The Roost, the food hall from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes sushi, pizza and burger concepts as well as Shelter, a 50-tap beer bar; Trusty's, a divey neighborhood hangout with a comfortable second-story patio, food prepared on a flat-top grill and a school-bus-themed bar; and Hill East Burger, which specializes in — what else? — smoked burgers, from the owner of Republic Cantina.

Where to pick up a picnic: Four blocks from Congressional Cemetery is Capitol Hill's newest Safeway, which opened in the summer of 2020. It has all the chips, hummus and snacks you need, plus ready-made salads and sandwiches. As a bonus, it includes an extensive wine cellar and cold beer selection. If you’d rather get takeout, the Slice Joint pizza at the Roost and the chicken nuggets or chili from Hill East Burger travel well.

Where to go afterward: Again, the cemetery is somewhat isolated — pick one of the bars mentioned above, though the Roost closes at 10 p.m. Alternately, you’re about a mile (or a one-stop Metro ride) from Barracks Row, where attractions include As You Are, Valor Brewpub and Crazy Aunt Helen's.

1801 E St. SE.