Washington, DC on a Budget: World-Class Culture and Transit
Washington, aka The District of Columbia, aka The District or just “DC,” is the capital of the United States of America, and one of its most storied cities.
One of the first things you might notice about DC is it has virtually no skyscrapers. Don’t take this to mean the city is lacking in cosmopolitanism; by some measures, the DC-Baltimore area is the fifth-largest urban area in the country, with over 8 million inhabitants. What the District lacks in verticality it more than makes up for with density and walkability.
While DC can be a very expensive place to live, it’s entirely possible to explore most of the city without shelling out your life savings. Read on to learn how to visit Washington, DC on a budget!
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Where to Stay
There are a variety of options at a variety of price points. For solo travelers, I always recommend hostels, and for a hostel that blends high ratings with low prices, check out Duo Housing and Duo Nomad, which will both run you about $27-33/night for dorm beds. They both include free breakfast. If you’re a fan of capsule hostels then try the U Street Capsule Hostel, which offers extra privacy for $36/night.
If you’re going the Airbnb route, which is great for couples and groups, try some of DC’s best neighborhoods:
- Logan Circle
- Dupont Circle
- Adams Morgan
A great alternative is to stay in nearby Alexandria, VA. Alexandria has a nice, chill, historic vie to it, and has easy access to Downtown via the Yellow Line of the DC Metro.
What to Do
There are those who call the National Mall “America’s Backyard,” and not without good reason. Bookended by the National Capitol Building and the Washington Monument and flanked by several of the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery, this is one of the greatest concentrations of world-class institutions anywhere in the world.
If you’ve read my other city guides, you can tell I love museums. I’m all about nightlife and going out, but I really do love museums and being able to soak in the history and culture of a place.
As far as museums go, it’s pretty hard to beat DC, and that’s all thanks to the Smithsonian Institute.
“The Smithsonian” is actually a series of 14 different museums, 11 of which are clustered around the National Mall. The Natural History Museum, American History Museum, and African American History and Culture Museum stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and you can literally walk to the Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and several others in a matter of minutes. The Mall is directly served by two DC Metro stations and is within a block of four more, so chances are you can get here easily from wherever you’re staying.
The best part? All of these museums are free.
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the entire world and a strikingly beautiful building inside and out.
An immensely ornate structure full of dignity and majesty. Oh and there’s a Darth Vader gargoyle.
Where to Eat
DC has been consistently ranked as one of the best foodie cities in the US for many years now, and quite frankly, to name all the best places would take forever, especially when Thrillist has already done that very thing! Check out their (nearly) exhaustive list here.
When to Go
If I had to pick a single best month, it would have to be April; that’s when the Japanese Cherry Blossoms are in full bloom. That really is a sight to behold if you’ve never seen them. Their white blossoms are too beautiful to describe, and their pedals can shower the walkways like snow on a sunny day. It’s very pretty.
The blooming period only lasts a few days, and it can vary from year to year. In 2019 the Japanese Blossoms achieved peak bloom on April 12th, though you can track 2020’s best days here.
In general, late Spring and Summer are absolutely gorgeous, though you can still expect cold weather and snow flurries up through March.
Washington, D.C. is one of the very few big cities in the United States that you can explore easily without a car. Thanks to its old school urban planning and the DC Metro, there is very little in the District that you can’t get to by train or on foot. Both Dulles Airport and the gorgeous Washington Union Station connect to the DC Metro, so you’re good to go from the moment you hop off your plane or train. Using these public transit resources should keep you from having to hail too many Lyfts, allowing you to enjoy DC on a budget.
What to Avoid
Generally speaking, east of the Anacostia River is where it becomes sketch (or “sheisty,” depending on where you’re from).
Other Notes on Washington, DC
It’s worth mentioning that while DC excels at very many things, it’s not a city I would rank highly for “approachableness.” I suspect that in the downtown areas, locals have a lot of places to be. Or maybe there’s a lot of high-stress federal government jobs. Whatever the reason, good luck stopping a local on the street and asking him or her for directions. I wouldn’t describe them as “rude,” necessarily, but be prepared for a lot of people to walk right by you as if you don’t exist. Oklahoma, this is not. You will, however, have better luck asking your waiter or Lyft driver.
I’ll be updating this post in the coming days, but if there’s anything I missed please feel free to let me know in the comments below!