If you’re visiting the United States for the first time, you might skip Washington DC in favor for the big spots like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York. But it’s a surprisingly budget-friendly American destination, as I recently found out on my #Tweet2Toronto journey. I hardly spent any money on my trip, apart from train tickets and meals. Be aware that it is sweltering in the summer months (bring a water bottle to fill up at public fountains!) and snows in the winter, so fall is probably the best, and most scenic, time to visit. For more free and cheap things to do in Washington DC, see the 100 Free (& Almost Free) Things to Do in Washington DC.
Washington DC’s museums are easily its greatest resource. The large majority of them are free and located around the National Mall. While there will be long lines at the Air and Space Museum, the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Spy Museum, this gives you the chance to check out lesser-known museums like the fascinating National Museum of the American Indian, as well as my favorite art museums, the Hirschorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Portrait Gallery and Art Museum.
The biggest name attractions are also free, but it wouldn’t be Washington without some red tape. Tours of the White House are free, but you must submit a request to your Congressman at least 21 days in advance. They are currently cancelled as of March 2013 for an indefinite period. Tours of the US Capitol are also free, but must be booked in advance.
If you’re visiting the memorials, I recommend doing so at night when it’s less crowded and when they’re all lit up. Be sure to stop by the memorials for Iwo Jima, the Korean War, Vietnam Veterans, Lincoln, Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt, World War II and the Washington Monument, which is currently under renovation.
The Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center offers free concerts by well-known musicians.
Pack a picnic or grab a bite from one of the many street vendors to bring to Washington DC’s many parks. I spent a lazy afternoon people watching with a friend in DuPont Circle, reading a book on the National Mall and even more people watching in Lafayette Park, right across from the White House. A good walk is also a free way to get to know the city. I recommend the walk from Ben’s Chili Bowl to DuPont Circle via Embassy Row.
Since I have now arrived to Washington DC by all methods of transport, bus, plane and car, I can tell you that you should not drive in the city with some of the worst traffic in the country. If you must, park and leave your car while you use the Metro or rent a bike. Metro fare is about $3 per ride, so purchase a SmarTrip card or one-day pass for $14. Capital Bikeshare has spots all over the city, much like Bixi in Montreal and DecoBike in Miami, and starts at $7 per day