Welcome to another installment of 48 Fun Hours on a Budget, where Shereen Travels Cheap shows you how to have a fun, relaxing mini vacation without cutting into your regular vacation budget. Today I'm sharing a 2-day vacation itinerary for Washington D.C. on a budget.
I have lived in Maryland for nearly five years and have toured D.C. countless times. Before moving to the area, I took a weekend trip to Washington, so I know how hard it can be to fit everything in to just a few days, but it can be done.
The best thing about planning a cheap trip to D.C. is there are countless museums and monuments that are free of admission fees. The most challenging thing about a trip to Washington D.C. isn’t finding something to do, it’s rather finding a way to narrow down your options and fit them into a small window of time. During a two to three day trip, I would normally schedule some down time, but trust me, in D.C. you need to spend both days on foot from site to site. To minimize your exhaustion, start with the outdoor sightseeing first, because that is where you’ll do most of your walking.
Morning Check-In: I suggest you splurge a little on finding a hotel near The National Mall since it’s just for one or two nights. The money you’ll save on cab fare combined with the time you’ll save by being close to the National Mall is worth the splurge. You can expect to pay over a hundred dollars a night, however if you use a bid site like Hotwire or Priceline, you can score a nice room for under $100. I would stick with a chain hotel. If you go for a “charming” inn downtown, you risk compromising on quality and safety.
Transportation: You’ll need to check a metro map to make sure your hotel is either within walking distance of the National Mall or a metro station; some of the stations are very far apart, so you really need to plan accordingly if you want to avoid cab fare. Washington’s metro system is incredibly clean and safe, and the workers are polite and helpful. Most rides from station to station are a few dollars or less. You can purchase a card for $10.00, and it should cover your weekend as long as your hotel is near the National Mall.
Dining: I suggest at least one fine dining experience while you’re in D.C., but I would limit it to one or two at the most. There simply aren’t a ton of restaurants near the National Mall where most of the sightseeing is, so eat breakfast and lunch on the go then take the metro from the Smithsonian station to China Town for dinner and drinks (pictured right). Visit Urban Spoon for detailed reviews and pricing. My personal favorite for an affordable dinner in Chinatown is Vapiano for $10-$15 per entree.
Sightseeing: Most of the outdoor monuments in D.C. are along the National Mall. Also near the National Mall are the Smithsonian museums. You could spend a week in each of those, so save them for day 2. If you love history, start your day with The National Archives building to see the original signed Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and many other important documents from our nation’s history. Admission is FREE.
After the Archives, pick one place that perhaps isn’t right off the Mall, like the Jefferson Memorial, Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the White House. Admission is FREE. Touring inside the White House requires scheduling and approval ahead of time, so skip it if you’re only in town for a few days. However, it’s still worth seeing from the outside.
Lunch: Find a food truck and grab a hot dog for just a few dollars. The price adds up with the drinks. I always pack a bottle of water in my purse to save money.
More Sightseeing: After a quick lunch, you can squeeze in one of the somewhat smaller museums like the National Portrait Gallery. Admission is FREE. If you have children with you, you should without a doubt skip those museums and opt for the Air & Space Museum, which is also free.
Head back towards the Washington Monument and start your walk down the length of the National Mall. Along the path you’ll find the WWII Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, and the Lincoln Memorial. I like to save this part for the end of the day, just before dinner. If you time it just right, you can experience the monuments in the daytime and at night. The memorials take on a whole new look at nighttime that shouldn’t be missed.
|View of The Washington Monument from inside the WWII Memorial.|
|The Lincoln Memorial|
|The WWII Memorial|
The Lincoln Memorial is at the far end of the Mall. You can either walk all the way back up the Mall to experience the WWII Memorial and Washington Monument after the sun goes down, or you can take a cab from the Lincoln Memorial to China Town. Take note that cabs aren’t quite as numerous as they are in Manhattan. Use the app Uber to request a driver to come directly to you. After dinner and drinks in China Town, you can hop back on the Metro and take it back to your hotel.
Sightseeing: I reserve the Smithsonian Museums for one day alone. They are so vast; you could spend the whole day in just one of them. Best of all, they are all free.
Start with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (pictured above). I suggest this for the mere purpose of eating lunch there. The café inside the dinosaur area is yummy, fast and affordable. If you have children, you’ll want to spend most of your time in the Natural History Museum. It’s the one with all the animal exhibits or, as my daughters like to call it, “the Dinosaur Museum”.
Close by is the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where you can see anything from the very flag that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner to Jerry Seinfeld’s white puffy shirt. The exhibits in the American History Museum tend to have long lines, so that can set you back on time.
Shopping: Souvenirs are a must in my opinion. In D.C. you should avoid the souvenir tents lining the sidewalks. The prices aren’t much cheaper than they are in the gifts shops, while the quality is much worse. I usually don’t suggest shopping inside museum gift shops as they are often overpriced. However in Washington D.C., I always tell visitors to shop at the Smithsonian gift shops. If you have children, save your souvenir money for the shops inside the Natural History Museum. You can find the most unique gifts for children there, and there are a lot of smaller items under $10.00. The shops inside the other museums are also well stocked and have both high and low price points.
If you haven’t spent all of day two in the Smithsonian historical museums, cut through the National Sculpture Garden and head into the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art. Admission is FREE. The Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art is incredible, but the Smithsonian is free and contains a large section of modern art. You can get a taste of the Hirsshorn for free by walking through its outdoor sculpture garden on your way to a free museum.
If art isn’t your thing, spend the rest of your day at Arlington National Cemetery and witness the Changing of the Guard Ceremony for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
|Entrance to the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier|
|View of the Air Force Memorial from Arlington|
As you can see, there is no shortage of things to do for free in D.C. For more Washington D.C. travel tips and a D.C. style guide, see my Weekend Style Guide for Sightseeing in DC.
Christina Williams is the owner and editor of The Blog Entourage and writes primarily on entertainment, style and living. She also writes an accessories style blog The Accessorizer. *All photos by Christina Williams.