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How to See Washington, D.C., on a Budget

Enjoy free museums and other low-cost attractions in the nation's capital

steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out to Washington Monument


En español | Washington, D.C., ranks as one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in, but it is actually easy to enjoy this town on the cheap.

The greatest expense when you visit is deciding where to stay, of course, and several factors affect the rate — season and location being two key factors. Throughout the year, rates rise and fall like election poll results. Prices skyrocket in the spring, when families are on vacation and the cherry blossoms are blooming, but they drop from late November through February and also in August. Choose humidity over pumpkins, and you may save at least $100 a night. You will pay for proximity to downtown attractions. For the best panoramas, cross the Potomac River; stay in Crystal City, a part of Arlington, Virginia, where rates are about 25 percent less, and you’re only three stops away from D.C. on the Metrorail's Yellow Line.

If you prefer to stay in the capital, choose a place with free breakfast or a kitchenette that's near a Metro station or Circulator bus stop. The $1 bus serves six routes, including the National Mall and Nationals Park, home of the baseball team and ticket specials. If you don’t mind tight quarters, consider the Pod DC Hotel in Chinatown. For more elbow (and hips and knee) room, WhyHotel has created pop-up hotels in new luxury apartment buildings. Rates at both are under $100, depending on the calendar.

Make Day 1 (at least) all about the Mall. It's paved with free museums, and I have whiled away weekends attending talks, walks, yoga classes and, my favorite escape, the film programs at the National Gallery of Art and the Freer and Sackler galleries. At the memorials, the National Park Service leads free excursions by foot, bike and running shoe. The topics touch on presidents, history and political intrigues. DC by Foot also delves in Washington’s past — and scandals — with its pay-what-you-wish outings.

performers at The Kennedy Center

Jati Lindsay/Kennedy Center

Culture lovers might make another day all about the arts. The private Phillips Collection waives the admission fee to its permanent collections on Tuesdays through Fridays. At the Kennedy Center, the magic hour for a free performance is 6 p.m., when dancers, musicians and other creative types command the Millennium Stage. Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks, which never charges for its museum, extends the perk to its gardens over the winter.

And you can eat well but inexpensively each day. Lunch might be at a fast-casual restaurant such as Sweetgreen or Rasa. A few are helmed by top-shelf chefs, including José Andrés’ Beefsteak, where vegetables take center stage, and Spike Mendelsohn’s Good Stuff Eatery. Prices typically hover in the $10 to $15 range — sometimes even less. For dinners, take advantage of the tradition of happy hour. Sidle up to the raw bar for half-off oysters at Old Ebbitt Grill, or celebrate Hora Feliz with $2 tacos and $4 ceviche at Oyamel Cocina Mexicana. Instead of three square meals each day, try grazing from vendors at Eastern Market, Tastemakers or the Freshfarm network of farmers markets. 

Splurge: Arrive at Mount Vernon in nautical style. The $88-for-two cruise with the Potomac Riverboat Company from the D.C. waterfront includes round-trip boat rides on the Potomac and tickets to the Virginia estate of George and Martha Washington.

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