Travel Guide: Seeing Washington, DC On a Budget

Growing up right outside of the nation’s capital was something that I unfortunately took for granted until I moved to Raleigh for college. However, after hearing many of my college friends and classmates share with me how much they wished they could be able to live outside of the nation’s largest cities, I knew how lucky I truly was! Having lived right outside of Washington, DC, I have been very fortunate enough to be able to go into the city just for a day and take in some of the city’s many sights. Since starting college, I have had a few friends come to visit me in my hometown over the years, with multiple trips into Washington, DC. On each of these trips, I have been able to budget accordingly to allow for my friends and I to have an enjoyable experience while not spending a lot of money. Personally, I think that Washington, DC is an extremely affordable city to visit, especially with all that it has to offer. Today, I will be sharing the tips and ways that I use when visiting Washington, DC.

1 – The Smithsonian Museums are FREE

Photo taken at the National Gallery of Art

You heard that right – all of the Smithsonian Institution museums are FREE! Guess what?! There are a total of 11 museums that are a part of the Smithsonian Institution just on the National Mall. That means that there are tons of spectacular things to learn and see at your fingertips at no cost to you. The museums pretty much line up both sides of the National Mall, and they could easily take months just for you to see everything within each of them. Luckily, there will be a museum for everybody to enjoy, as the museums on the National Mall include the National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Portrait Gallery. While spending some time museum hopping, you can also snap a few pictures at the Renwick Gallery with their extraordinary art collections, the Smithsonian Gardens, and the Hirshhorn Sculpture Gardens. If you get tired of museum hopping, then you can always go right outside and enjoy spectacular views of the city’s monuments or head on over to the National Zoo, which is also a part of the Smithsonian Institution and FREE. The Smithsonian Institution’s plethora of museum offerings the don’t even cost a penny to any of its visitors leaves it such a great, budget-friendly asset for Washington, DC. 

Photo taken at the National Zoo

Some of my favorite exhibits & museums include:

  • The Freer Gallery of Art – it primarily showcases Asian art pieces; it’s such a hidden gem!
  • The Wizard of Oz‘s Dorothy’s Red Slippers at the Museum of American History – I think this was from the Movie/Film/Pop Culture Exhibit, and it was such a cool piece of cinematic history to see!
  • National Gallery of Art – they have pretty much all of the famous artists, from Vincent Van Gogh to Claude Monet.
  • The Hope Diamond at the Museum of Natural History – definitely a favorite of mine, along with the many other gemstones on display nearby.
  • National Museum of African American History – I found this museum to be such an incredible place to highlight the extraordinary works of African American advocates over the years. Moreover, this museum places an emphasis on the struggles that African Americans have faced in America for centuries in their ongoing fight for equal rights.
  • The Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum – I went as a kid and LOVED it!! I highly recommend for people of all ages.
  • First Ladies/Presidents Exhibit at the Museum of American History – if you love fashion, then this one is for you! Former First Lady Helen Taft created the First Ladies collection at the Smithsonian to preserve the First Ladies’ inaugural gowns, many of which are still on display.
  • The National Archives – you can see the official copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution!

2 – Be Your Own Guide: See the Monuments Yourself

Photo taken at the top of the Lincoln Memorial steps

Ever log onto a site such as TripAdvisor and search for a guided sightseeing tour?! While a guided sightseeing tour is always convenient when in a new city, I highly recommend seeing the monuments on your own in Washington, DC, especially on a budget. Fortunately, the monuments are within close proximity to one another that they are usually within walking distance. The Washington Monument and United States Capital Building line the National Mall on both sides with each being closer to several of the nation’s monuments. Right by the Washington Monument is the Lincoln Memorial and World War 11 Memorial as well as the Constitution Gardens Pond, which is absolutely gorgeous and makes for a stunning photo opportunity. Meanwhile, the United States Capital Building is right by the Library of Congress and the United States Supreme Court Building. The White House, on the other hand, is a nice walk from the National Mall. Not only will you get to see all of Washington, DC’s iconic monuments for free, but you will also get to explore a lot of the city’s streets and see its timeless, historic charm.  

Photo taken at the Constitution Gardens Pond
Photo taken on the National Mall

3 – Tours of Many Monuments are FREE 

Photo taken in front of the Washington Monument

YES, the Smithsonian Institution is not the only place in Washington, DC that offers sights for free to its visitors. The Washington Monument is also free to guests as well, that is, as long as you line up outside of the ticket office starting at either 7am or 8am to get your tickets the day of. The same also goes for the Library of Congress, the White House, and the United States Capital Building, even though for those you do typically need to get a Congressmen’s approval to visit, through submitting a tour request. If you do choose to tour either the Library of Congress, the White House, and the United States Capital Building or all of them, I would highly suggest looking up your representative and their tour request form and submitting it months in advance to reserve your spot, since tickets are on a first-come first-served basis. I have done the Washington Monument tour, and I highly recommend it, as you get great skyline views of the city, and the monument keeps the number of people in it at a time at a small capacity. That all being said, Washington, DC definitely has a ton of iconic sites that you can see FOR FREE!

4 – Take Metro EVERYWHERE

Photo taken on the National Mall

I cannot stress this one enough!! If you do not know already, the Metro is essentially Washington, DC’s subway transit and bus system. It is also easy to use and navigate once you get the hang of it and a whole lot cheaper than calling an Uber everywhere you go. Additionally, using public transportation is super environmentally-friendly. While taking Metro, you’ll be saving yourself some cash and helping the planet in the long run!

5 – Eat Most Meals at Cafes or Local Joints

Photo taken at Le Pain Quotidien

I most definitely recommend this when in any city! Right along the National Mall, there are several food trucks at various price ranges available to visitors. I would highly recommend taking advantage of these food trucks while spending a day at the Smithsonian/on the National Mall. Besides food trucks, Washington, DC has several budget-friendly cafes and local joints. One of my favorites is Lincoln’s Waffle Shop as well as Cosi and Le Pain Quotidien. Another great restaurant to hit up, although a bit pricey for fast food, is Shake Shack – their burgers are up to par with In-N-Out Burger and are TO DIE FOR GOOD! While you can easily splurge on food in Washington, DC, there are many ways that you can save while still eating just as good if not even better!

6 – Reserve in Advance

Photo taken at a Justin Timberlake concert at Capital One Arena

As previously mentioned with the White House, United States Capital Building, and the Library of Congress, reserving in advance is most definitely the way to go. Washington, DC is a world-renowned tourist destination, so millions of people visit each year and want to see all of the sights that the city has to offer. While many activities are offered for free here in DC, places like the Madame Tussands Was Museum, International Spy Museum, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts come at a minimal cost. Performances at the Kennedy Center or Fords Theatre will cost you some dollar as well. Along with assuring that you have a spot in any activity or tour that you want to do while visiting, you also will probably save a bit of cash as prices are typically lower the earlier that you book. Not only will you be guaranteeing yourself a spot on the must-see activity of your dreams, but you will also probably be saving yourself some cash too. 

7 – Stay in an AirBNB or Budget-Friendly Hotel

Photo taken at the top of the Lincoln Memorial steps

Even though I have a home to stay at when I come to Washington, DC, I do know that there are several places to stay on the budget-friendly side. Whether going with one or many of your crew, AirBNB is a great option to look into, as you and your crew can usually find a nice place to stay and potentially get your own rooms at a steal of the cost for a hotel. If you choose AirBNB, then I would highly recommend only booking through hosts that are SuperHosts, meaning that they have been highly rated for their AirBNB’(s) that you would be staying at. If you prefer not to stay at an AirBNB, then there is always the option of a hotel. When searching for a budget-friendly hotel, you may have to sacrifice location downtown for something potentially on the Metro line in Virginia or Maryland or not near all of the sites in DC. I would try a site like Hotels.com to look for hotels on a budget. Wherever you choose to stay, just ensure that it is a safe place and READ THE REVIEWS!! 

Overall, I have found Washington, DC to be an extremely budget-friendly city to travel to for families and friends alike. One of the biggest assets of this city is the vast amount of things to do that are FREE. While Washington, DC is a city that I am extremely knowledgable on due to it being in my backyard, it does not mean that you cannot use some of these tips in booking a budget-friendly trip to another city. Like Washington, DC, you can pretty much travel to any city on even a tight budget, as long as you are strategic with your research and spending. Once it is safer to travel, the world will be your oyster and maybe a trip to Washington, DC will be seen in your near future.

XOXO – Katie <3

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