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The President may live here alongside many diplomats and bureaucrats in their fancy motorcades, but that doesn’t mean you need a champagne budget to visit Washington D.C.
The US Capitol is a fantastic destination for any traveler, particularly those on a budget.
We love how easy DC is to get around on foot (yes even in the winter – just pack your UGG boots and a good coat and scarf), and discover the many cheap or free things to do in Washington D.C.
Washington D.C. is growing in popularity for travelers and was recently named as number 1 city in the Lonely Planet Best in Travel for 2015.
It’s time to visit there now.
Free and Cheap Washington D.C. Attractions
- Visit The Library of Congress. First drafts of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and a Gutenberg Bible are all in residence, along with other historical treasures and 33 million books. Hot tip: Classical music concerts are offered free throughout the year
- DC. by foot offer free (or pay what you want) walking tours. They have a wide range of tours available including the signature National Mall tour, Capitol Hill Tour and a U Street Food Tour.
- Smithsonian museums are all FREE, so pop on down to the National Mall and do a Museum crawl. They cover all you need to know about history, art, nature, space, history, nature, art, and more, you’ll never be without something to learn.
- Tour the U.S. Capitol for free! Hour-long tours are conducted from 8:50 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Tours of the U.S. Capitol are free, but tour passes are required. Find out more here. This Washington DC half day tour includes priority access to the Capitol building. No long lines for you!
- Touring The White House is doable if you plan ahead: tickets are available on a limited basis. Overseas visitors must contact their embassy in Washington, and US citizens must approach their member of Congress. Note that requests can be submitted up to six months but no less than 21 days in advance. It’s awesome – see our tour here.
- Visit the monuments at sunrise. Start with the sun behind you at the Grant Memorial (just in front of the U.S. Capitol), and walk (or run) the 2 miles down to the Lincoln Memorial, passing the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial along the way.
- Trek your way down the C&O Canal Towpath, which traces the Potomac from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md. It’s 185 miles and campgrounds along the way. Choose your segments and even cycle it if you wish.
- For an inspiring aerial view of the city, visit the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue. Take the elevator to the top of the 315-foot-tall clock tower to enjoy 360-degree views of downtown DC.
- Walk around Georgetown. This was one of our favourite areas in D.C. We loved wandering the streets to look at the colourful homes and cobblestoned streets. It’s cute and has a historic flavour. There is plenty of shopping here and great places to eat. Be sure to visit Baked & Wired for the best coffee I tasted in D.C. (Aussies note, it’s hard to find good coffee in the States.)
- Visit Freedom Plaza across the street from the Willard InterContinental Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Then head over to the Lincoln Memorial to stand where he delivered it. After that, visit the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Tidal Basin. The memorial features a statue of the famous civil rights leader flanked by a wall featuring inscriptions of some of Dr. King’s most famous quotes.
- The Supreme Court is free. They have free 40-minute lectures in the main hall teaching you about the history of the court and how it works.
- See the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington National Cemetery. While there you can see the grave-sites of the Kennedy family.
- Enjoy a self-guided neighborhood walking tour by downloading maps from culturaltourismdc.org (available for your mobile device). The trails cover historic neighbourhoods (Adams Morgan, U Street and Barracks Row) and themes (Civil War to Civil Rights Downtown Heritage Trail). Signs en route feature stories, historic photos and maps.
- See the Cherry Blossoms. A spectacular photographic natural event if you visit D.C. during the months of March or April. The Tidal Basin has many cherry blossom trees, which were a gift from Japan to the United States. Their blossoming is marked by a celebration that includes concerts and fireworks.
Free & Cheap things to do with Kids in Washington D.C.
Kids will enjoy most of the activities and attractions we’ve listed in this post, but here are a few specific for them.
- The Pilgrim Observation Gallery at the National Cathedral has unobstructed 360-degree views. The Cathedral sits on one of the highest points in Washington. A scavenger hunt helps families find images in stained glass windows, wrought iron animals, tiny carvings and gargoyles.
- National Air and Space Museum is great for kids with a five-story-high IMAX theater screen, planetarium show, Sesame Street characters story times and model planes and rocket ships and many other interactive exhibits.
- National Zoo in Washington D.C. is FREE! Daily programs include animal training, feeding demonstrations, and keeper talks. Guided tours are also available. Tickets are $10 per person. Children under three are free.
- Visit the National Geographic Museum and travel around the world. View engrossing exhibitions that highlight the diversity of international cultures and natural wonders. Adult admission is $8; for kids 5-12, it’s $4
- Tour Honest Abe’s summer home. President Lincoln’s Cottage gives an insight into the home life of a historic figure. Admission is $5 for kids.
Cheap Places to Eat and Drink in D.C.
U Street corridor
- Once known as “Black Broadway,” this neighborhood remains a trove of the capital’s African American history.
- The infamous Ben’s Chili Bowl has inexpensive chili with a bit of history.
- Little Ethiopia came highly recommended by our Facebook community. Pick a restaurant and explore mildly spiced stews served communally on circles of spongy bread. On Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons, Dukem offers a free cultural show: traditional dancing, music and coffee great for groups and families
- The U-Street cafe has coffee starting at $2 and cheap eats.
Other places to eat
- Eat in the student areas! This is where you’ll find cheap food and there are plenty of student areas in D.C. We stayed near Foggy Bottom and found lots of cheap eating places, including our favourite Whole Foods. Georgetown and DuPont Circle are great places to find cheap eats in DC.
- Eat from the Food Trucks! D.C. has many food trucks within the city. Good places to find the food trucks are around C Street, Farragut Square or Franklin Square.
- Barracks Row, on Eighth Street SE, a commercial strip that’s seen a bar-and-restaurant boom in recent years. There are several places on Barracks Row that will quench that thirst – and at fair prices. With $4 specials at Balkan restaurant Ambar, half-priced wine at Trattoria Alberto and Zest, and cheap pizzas and beer at the Ugly Mug.
- Draft beers, even the fancy Belgian ones, are half-price at Brassiere Beck weekdays between 5 and 7 p.m
- Even sushi has a happy hour in DC. Try Café Asia, where Nigiri is $1 a piece and maki rolls are discounted.
- Every Sunday, DuPont Circle hosts FRESHFARM Markets. During peak season, there are more than 30 farmers offering items which include fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish and baked goods. Samples are always available. Market hours are 9 a.m.-1 p.m. April through December and 10 am-1pm. January through March
Sport, Entertainment and Culture
- A favourite event we loved when we lived in Raleigh was the monthly Art Gallery exhibition. It involves appreciating local artists work, as well as free wine, and sometimes cheese. DuPont Circle has one on the first Friday of every month. You get live music with the wine and art!
- Into baseball? Games at Washington Nationals can go for cheap, you just have to do some research to find the deals. Alternatively, Stub Hub is a great resource for finding sporting tickets in Washington D.C. for cheap.
- TICKETPLACE sells half-price advance and day-of tickets for theatre and the performing arts throughout DC. Ticket inventory changes daily and includes shows and performances at the Kennedy Center, Ford’s Theatre, Studio Theatre, Wolf Trap, Strathmore, Woolly Mammoth Theatre and more.
- The National Gallery of Arts sculpture garden hosts open air jazz fests every May to September. Pack a picnic. There’s sangria available for purchase.
- During the summer months, free outdoor movies in Washington D.C. have become popular and are offered at many places around the region.
- The Cultural Alliance offers half-price, day-of-show tickets to the public.
- Check the Smithsonian Institution for a schedule of their cultural offerings during your stay.
- Pay as little as $5 to catch French movies, discussions and wine tastings at the Alliance Française de Washington.
- Head to Meridian Hill Park on Sundays, (weather permitting) between 3 and 9 p.m. to hear the famous drum circle. For more than 40 years it’s been bringing people together from all different backgrounds to hear drum beats and watch African dancing. For a hands-on experience, bring your own drum and join in.
- Dance your way to Café Citron in Dupont Circle. On Wednesday nights, free salsa lessons are offered from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m
- Every evening at 6pm, no matter whether or not you’re attending a ticketed performance, you can grab a live act at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage
Budget Places to Stay in Washington D.C.
- Rates for Washington hotels usually drop in April and August when the Congress is away on recess. You can jag a flash hotel for up to 50% off.
- Low-cost hotels are available on weekends (and less traffic) as the bureaucrats and business people leave the city.
- Stay in North Virginia and take the Metro to D.C.
- Book a Washington Hotel that is in walking distance to the Metro.
- Priceline can get you some great deals.
- HI-Washington DC Hotel is great budget accommodation option
- Don’t forget our fave Airbnb. You can find DC rentals here.
Cheap or Free ways to Get Around
- Metro system – one day pass Reagan National Airport for $6.50 can get you everywhere you need to go. Buy after 9:30am
- 5A bus from Dulles Airport to L’Efant Plaza station for only $7.
- Of course, there’s always Uber (Use code ql3dc for a $10 voucher)
- Spend just $5 per vehicle, or $3 a person if you go on bike, via the C&O Canal Trail to explore nature in Great Falls Park. These 800 acres of beautiful parkland with green space, cascading rapids and waterfalls are located just beyond the Beltway.
- Metro offers one-day passes ($14.50) as well as seven-day passes ($59.25 or $36 depending on travel times and trip costs), which you can purchase
- The DC Circulator offers bus connections between Georgetown, Union Station, the Walter E. Washington Convention Centre, DuPont Circle, the National Mall and several other popular stops for just $1 per ride, or $3 for an all-day pass.
Wow! Isn’t there are a crazy amount of free or cheap things to do in Washington D.C?
A day in Washington D.C. budget breakdown
(Prices in USD)
|Budget Washington hotels||100|
|Metro day pass||14.50|
|Light breakfast and coffee||10|
|Lunch: food trucks||8|
|Happy hour drinks||10|
|Dinner in a casual restaurant||20|
Plan Your Trip to Washington D.C
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Do you have any tips for free things to do in Washington D.C. Share in the comments.