Here’s my budget-friendly weekend guide to Washington DC, including the top things to do and where to stay on a budget.
I went into my visit to Washington DC without too many expectations. I mean, except seeing the White House, of course. Now I remember my weekend there as one of wandering down perfectly litter-free streets, speaking to friendly locals, marvelling at architecturally beautiful buildings and paying my respects to fallen heroes. I also happened to not spend a lot of money. Here everything you need to know for your own budget-friendly weekend in Washington DC.
THINGS TO DO IN WASHINGTON DC
VISIT THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTIONS
I am not a huge museum-goer when I travel. However, when I saw that all the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC were free, I knew I was about to get educated. I spent a morning visiting the American History Museum and the Natural History Museum next door, but there are 18 institutions to choose from.
NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
The Natural History Museum was okay, but I think its exhibits and interactivity are aimed more at children. Some of the exhibitions include the African elephant dominating the building, an insight into butterflies, a geology hall of and an insect zoo. My slightly unconventional tip is that if you do visit, check out the gem gift store. The jewellery is beautiful and cheap. I got a necklace and bracelet I wore for the rest of my trip for $5 each.
AMERICAN HISTORY MUSEUM
I actually quite enjoyed my walk through American history, as I knew basically nothing beforehand. There was the Food exhibition, which looked at how Americans have changed their eating habits since 1950. I also saw the Star-Spangled Banner that inspired the national anthem, and got to see the stunning dresses many of the First Ladies have worn over the years. I would definitely recommend a visit when in Washington DC.
SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL ZOO
Um, a free zoo? Please and thank you! I visited the Smithsonian National Zoo with some friends and we had so much fun wandering around. I later discovered it’s the world’s largest museum and research complex.
We are a place where people can marvel at wonderful animals, learn about wildlife and its conservation, and enjoy a beautiful, peaceful experience among our gardens – Smithsonian Zoo website
I was most excited when I saw they looked after three pandas, because I had never seen one before. They did not disappoint me either as we spent too long admiring them sitting and munching on bamboo. To me they looked like a teddy bear I would like to take home and cuddle at night, but I don’t know if the love would be reciprocated. The zoo also houses elephants, armadillos, otters and the always-ugly naked mole-rat. Don’t miss seeing the zoo on your Washington DC weekend!
DO A NATIONAL MALL TOUR
Because I haven’t raved about them enough, I did another Free Tours by Foot in Washington DC. I chose the National Mall Tour. This allowed me to see and learn about the Washington Monument, the White House, the National World War II Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. The guide I had that day was very passionate about Washington DC and tried to cram in as much information as possible into the two-hour tour. Some of nerdy facts I now know:
- George Washington was called Mr America and was the only president not to live in the White House. Unlucky.
- Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd thought he was cursed. Also unlucky.
- Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s I Had a Dream speech happened on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
We had time to view each memorial on the tour, which is always appreciated. When I was viewing the National World War II Memorial, there happened to be quite a few veterans in wheelchairs visiting. Our guide told us about a non-profit organisation called Honor Flight, which brings veterans from across the United States to pay their respects and visit the various memorials along the National Mall built in their honour. What a thoughtful initiative and heart-warming moment to witness.
ENJOY HAPPY HOUR
My friends and I had first discovered the wonder of happy hours in New York. We continued our trend by heading out and attempting to find the best on offer. We discovered Darlington House in Dupont Circle selling $3 beers, which was empty except for one other table inside. When we went to leave after a drink the barman gave us a coupon for a $1 beer when we “returned.” We said we were travelling and leaving tomorrow, so he let us exchange them then. Success!
We then headed to Barracks Row,which is located on 8th Street SE in Capitol Hill. It’s just eight blocks from the US Capitol building. We walked up and down until we settled on The Ugly Mug for dinner. The meals didn’t blow us away, but they were well-priced. So if you’re after a sports bar and burgers, this is your spot. This is another street for Washington DC happy hours too.
WHERE TO STAY IN WASHINGTON DC
The best budget accommodation option – unless you find a couch for free – is Hostelling International. I stayed in a 10-bed female dorm, which sounds large. However, the room was so spacious that I didn’t even meet everyone in the room. There’s good-sized lockers in the dorm plus my favourite: the personal light, outlet and shelf (it’s the small things). The free breakfast spread was expansive and the staff member, John was so friendly. He was walking around saying hello to guests and asking them to say good morning in different languages. He was definitely the most engaged employee I encountered on my trip.
The best reason to stay at this hostel in Washington DC though is its location. It’s less than a 10-minute walk to the metro and a $1 bus ride from Union Station. Oh, and a short stroll from the WHITE HOUSE. I meandered over there on a Saturday afternoon and the city was so quiet I thought I must have been heading in the wrong direction. Then I found it and the hundred of tourists. It was fun standing there and getting excited when I saw the curtains move (seriously, I did).
I didn’t know if it was going to be possible to do America’s capital city on a budget, but it turns out it was pretty easy. Stick with the free attractions, go on a happy hour hunt and check out Hostelling International. Washington DC is a great place to visit in fall for national and international tourists. I left knowing a lot more about the country.
Do you have any other budget ideas for DC to add?
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