Budget Friendly Travel Tips and Itineraries for Washington, D.C
I have enjoyed living in and around the Washington, D.C. area my entire life. As a budget conscious single mom, I wanted to share some of my favorite free or nearly free itineraries to help you plan your next trip to the Capitol of the United States.
There are hundreds of hotel options in the Metro area. I recommend finding one that includes the following:
1) Convenient to the Metro subway. Make sure your hotel is no more than 1-3 blocks from a subway stop. If you plan to get on/off Metro throughout the day, it’s best to purchase a One Day Pass for about $8 dollars. This permits unlimited stops after 9:30 a.m. on weekdays.
2) Daily parking included. For the most part, you can park your car at the hotel and forget about it for a good portion of your visit. Parking lots in downtown charge up to $20 per day, so using the Metro is advised.
3) Includes breakfast and a fridge/microwave in your room. It’s the city and breakfast can cost you as much as $20 per person. You’ll save tons by having a buffet or continental breakfast included in the price of your hotel room. Dinners at local restaurants are often huge and leftovers can be saved and re-heated for lunches. Bring Tupperware or baggies so that you can pack lunches for picnics.
4) Includes a pool. Washington, D.C. is hot and extremely muggy in the summer. After a day of site seeing, you’ll need to cool off in the pool.
Plan Your Washington, D.C. Daily Itinerary by Region
It really takes several days to fully appreciate our free museums. For variety, combine History with Art each day. The National Museum of Natural History (a favorite with kids) also has IMAX movies on a variety of subjects. These are well worth the $8.75 extra cost for tickets, discounts can apply.
Day One/Do the Right Side: As you face the Capitol building, the museums and art galleries along the right side of the mall offer a great variety. Tour the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, then move down to the National Air and Space museum, then head to the Native American museum. Plan your meals around eating at the Native American museum. Please don’t waste your money on those hamburger meals found in other museums! If you have energy for more, head to the Capitol building where tours (8:30-4:30 Mon-Sat) are free, but tickets are required. Check on-line first for any events that might close the Capitol that day. Or, you can simply appreciate the building from the outside, then take a tour of the Botanic Gardens (open 10 am-5 pm) which is located just past the Native American museum, to the right of the Capitol. If you’re traveling in the winter, this is a great spot to warm up with tropical temperatures keeping the plants healthy and your fingers frost free!
Day Two/Do the Left Side: Leaving the Smithsonian Metro station, you’ll cross the mall and head to the museums on the left side (as you face the Capitol). Tour the recently renovated American History Museum, then head to the perennial favorite, The Natural History Museum (Hope Diamond, dinos, mummys and more), where you should check the daily schedule for IMAX movies. The Butterfly Pavilion is fun for people of all ages and costs an additional $6 per person. Then, it’s time for some Art Appreciation 101 with your visit to the National Gallery of Art and the more modern East Building. The East Building is accessible via an underground path that takes you through one of the best museum stores. I’d recommend getting a bite to eat here-or head over to the Native American restaurant if you need another fix of Lobster roll and wild rice salad!
If you have more time: The National Archives and Supreme Court are both nearby and well worth a visit.
Day Three/Memorials: Head toward the tidal basin to appreciate many of the grand and emotionally moving memorials, including the Vietnam Memorial, World War II Memorial, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. When you are in this area of town, the White House is nearby for photo ops (but tours are only done at special seasons), and the lobby of the historic Willard InterContinental Hotel is worth a look. You can rent a paddle boat at the tidal basin, or simply sit in the shade of a cherry tree and enjoy that picnic lunch you packed today.
Day Four/Zoo-Cathedral-Rock Creek Park:
Take the Red Line of the Metro to the Woodley-Park Zoo, Adams Morgan stop. This is another perfect day to pack a picnic lunch, since backpacks aren’t prohibited at the zoo and inspections won’t be made. Zoo concessions will easily cost you more than $50 dollars for a lunch for four people. The zoo is located at 3001 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20008. Entrance is free, but if you drive a car the parking is $10-$20. Lots fill up very early! Rock Creek Park, park of the National Park system, is also worth a visit if you are in this area. The park’s nature center and planetarium are located at 5200 Glover Road, NW, Washington, DC 20015. Entrance is free and these centers are open 9am-5pm. The park is open during daylight hours. Check the National Park website for more details and a map of the park. The National Cathedral is also nearby, but too far from the Metro stop to walk. Take a cab or drive to 3101 Wisconsin Avenue, NW. You can also take the 96, 97 or X3 bus from the Woodley-Park Zoo Metro station toward McLean Gardens. The gardens of the Cathedral offer a calming respite from your hectic day; tours are available for a fee. The Gargoyle Tour is popular and costs $10 for Adults, $5 for kids.
Day Four/Virginia Air and Space Museum Excursion: Tired of city life? It’s time to venture out to the suburbs. The newer Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center National Air and Space Museum is huge and spectacular! It’s an hour’s drive from D.C. and located near Dulles Airport at 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, VA 20151. Admission is free (it’s one of our national museums), but parking is $15. Sign up for one of the free tours with the knowledgeable docents, offered at 10:30 am and 1 pm. While you’re in Virginia, you should head toward Great Falls National Park. There are 15 miles of hiking trails, fabulous views of the falls, picnicking, and a visitor center. Take I-66 to I-495 north, then take exit 44. Complete directions are on the www.nps.gov website. $5 admission per vehicle.
Day Five: Mount Vernon and Old Town Alexandria
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, home of George and Martha Washington, is one of our favorite day trips each summer. The estate is 16 miles from downtown D.C., so a car is a must. Mapquest directions can be found using: 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Virginia, 22309. Or, www.mountvernon.org can provide more information based on your starting point. Entrance fees are $15 for Adults, $7 for kids 6-11, and free under age 11. Wear comfortable walking shoes so that you can explore acres of property, including the waterfront area, gardens, and woods trails. There are restaurants near the entrance, including a less expensive food court option, however, these are extremely crowded and noisy during the summer. We typically pack a bag of snacks and sandwiches to eat down by the waterfront. Expect this excursion to last 3-4 hours. If you still have energy for more, follow directions to Old Town Alexandria for great shopping and restaurants.
Still have time for more?
Visit the National Arboretum-acres and acres of spectacular gardens. The gardens are a ten minute drive from the Capitol, located at 3501 New York Avenue, NE. Entrance is free. This is truly a gem!