The Local Cheapskate’s Guide to Washington, D.C.: How to Explore the Capital for Less

cheap things to do in DC
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I’ve lived in Washington, D.C. for five years now. I was super poor for four of those years and only mostly poor for the other one. But that hasn’t stopped me from truly enjoying my adopted city.

Washington, D.C. is a wonderful place to experience on a shoestring budget. Here are my top eight tips for living it up on the cheap in our nation’s capital.

1. Get Comfy on the Metro

If you’re spending most of your time in the city, there’s no need to rent a car. The D.C. metro, paired with a good pair of walking shoes, will take you to most corners of the city.

Plan out your route and get an arrival estimate with the official metro trip planner or a handy app (I use this one).

2. Consider a Less Central Hotel

The metro also extends outside of the city and into the suburbs, where hotels are plentiful and more affordable.

Save some money by choosing a hotel or Airbnb near a metro stop. Then, ride the train in each morning with the commuters.

Metro stops appear on Google maps as blue icons around a white “M.” Find the one you’re looking for and then type “hotel” into the search bar to pull up nearby places to stay.

One note of caution: Like any big city, D.C. has some sketchy areas. To get a sense of how safe a neighborhood is, visit the D.C. crime map.

3. Look for Special Events

D.C. is home to a huge array of live events throughout the year, and many of them are free!

A handful of helpful Twitter accounts will help you find free activities while you’re in town. Check out Free in DC, Washington City Paper and Cultural Tourism DC.

While Twitter tends to be good for events happening in the next week or so, check out this calendar to get a sense of what’s going on a few months out.

Big annual (free) events include the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the National Book Festival, the Cherry Blossom Festival, the White House Easter Egg Roll and Passport DC (a citywide event the celebrates cultures from around the world).

4. Stop by Lesser-Known Smithsonians

We all know about the National Gallery and Museum of Natural History, but the Smithsonian Institute includes 15 other museums and galleries in the D.C. area.

Hidden gems include the Renwick Gallery (don’t miss Ghost Clock!) and the National Postal Museum (home to Owney, the now-taxidermied mascot of the railway mail service).

5. Check Out the Millennium Stage

The Kennedy Center hosts a free performance each day at 6 p.m. Millennium Stage performances range from Navy brass bands to interpretive dance troupes to traditional sitar players.

6. Get Outside

One of my favorite things about D.C. is how much greenery is packed into such a densely populated area. In addition to the parks scattered throughout the city, you’ll find biking and walking trails that skirt the river and venture into the surrounding forest.

The C&O Canal and Rock Creek Park are excellent places to start. Roosevelt Island is also worth a visit. On the small island in the middle of the Potomac River, you’ll find trails and monuments to the nature-loving President Roosevelt.

If you like your nature with a side of civilization, check out the Botanical Gardens or the National Arboretum. Both are pretty low-impact in terms of activity, but you’ll still see a wide variety of foliage right in the city.

7. Visit the NPR Headquarters

If you love National Public Radio as much as I do, you’ll get a kick out of touring their headquarters in Washington, D.C. Tickets are free (though you should reserve ahead of time to get a spot), and tours are offered each weekday at 11 a.m.

As an added bonus, you’ll finish your tour around lunchtime. As you walk back to the metro, you’ll run into a fleet of food trucks that show up to feed the office workers in the area. Grab a cheap, local lunch from one of the trucks and then camp out in a nearby park to eat.

8. Sign Up for Some Deals

Of course Groupon and LivingSocial offer deals in Washington, D.C. (LivingSocial is even headquartered here and puts on an eclectic array of live events in the area.)

A local deal site, Specialicious, also offers coupons. Sign up a few weeks before your trip to snag deals on things like paddle boarding in the Potomac, discounts on private museums and vouchers for interesting restaurants.

Your Turn: Have you visited Washington, D.C.? What are your favorite, affordable activities in the city?

Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!

Lyndsee Simpson is a freelance writer and editor in Washington, D.C. This weekend she’s tracking down the champagne truck and pretending to understand modern art at the Hirschorn.