The nation’s capital is not the cheapest city. Bars are expensive, hotels are expensive, meals are expensive, and, as any of the hordes of underpaid government interns living on the Hill will tell you, living in general is expensive. There are a few ways to keep costs down on your trip, though.
1. Visit the free National Museums.
This is the most obvious money-saver: most of the major attractions in DC are free. Most of the free ones are along the Mall, stretching from the Capitol to the Potomac. The Capitol rotunda is cool, but try the Library of Congress instead if you want to avoid the crowds — it’s just as pretty and they have books!
All of the Smithsonians are free, but the big ones — the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum and the Natural History Museum — can get crowded. Instead, visit the Museum of the American Indian — they have a great food court that is both affordable and serves native food. The Museum of African American History and Culture is still pretty new (and is universally acclaimed), so it can be tough to get into. A few others are less packed but just as worth visiting: the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is a just a block away from the Mall, and the National Portrait Gallery up by Gallery Place is one of the more surprisingly cool spots in the city — the courtyard inside is a great place for having a cup of coffee and people-watching. The National Archives has the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — any one of those would make it worth visiting. And the best (free) skyline view of the city (since the Washington Monument is closed at the moment) is from the clock tower in the Old Post Office Building.
Not all museums in DC are free — one of the most popular, the Newseum, has a cover charge, as does the International Spy Museum and Madame Tussauds. The rule of thumb is to look for the name Smithsonian or the emblem of the National Park Service — those ones tend to be free.
2. Check out the monuments.
The Monuments are clustered at the western end of the Mall, near the Potomac, and all are free. The Mall is huge, so it’s only genuinely crowded if there’s an event, but try the monuments at night when they’re all lit up and there are at least a few fewer tourists. It’s also worth checking out the smaller, less prominent memorials, like the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, the FDR Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial. The Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial is across the river, so bundle that into a visit to Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
3. Take advantage of free events.
There’s almost always something happening in DC, and the events usually have a political tinge. Big events — inaugurations, major holidays, and mass protests — can be a really cool experience but are a nightmare in terms of crowds. Instead, go for something a little more mellow: the National Gallery of Art holds a Jazz in the Garden event every Friday in the summer, and there’s an outdoor film series that plays movies out in the fresh air in several spots around the city (including the Mall). The Shakespeare Theatre on the Hill regularly shows plays for free.
You can also watch the Congress and Supreme Court while they’re in session. Supreme Court is first-come-first-served, so get there early (there are a lot of law nerds in DC, so you’re not guaranteed a spot), but Congress is usually easy to get into if you plan ahead of time.
4. Skip the rental cars and cabs.
You really don’t need a car in DC, and a cab may not even save you time, due to the many circuitous roundabouts in the city. Instead, opt for public transportation. The subway system is super clean, efficient and hits most of the tourist spots but has some gaps in it, and the bus system is excellent. Download the DC Metro app to figure out what subway or bus to take. Just prepare yourself for some of the steepest, longest escalators in the country.
5. Weather the heat.
DC is basically a swamp in the summertime. August, in particular, is a bit of a muggy nightmare. But the summer means fewer school trips, and fewer tourists in general, so if you want to get better rates on hotels, August is the time to go. Just pack light clothes and don’t plan too many uninterrupted walks. Pro tip: the free museums are air-conditioned.
6. People watch.
There are few better places in the country to people watch. Capitol Hill is one of the best spots for it: sit for long enough and you’ll see someone you vaguely recognize from the news, but better still, go to the Starbucks near the Hill — sit there long enough, and you’ll hear a douchey 20-year-old intern shout “DO YOU KNOW WHO MY BOSS IS?” at a barista. The aforementioned indoor courtyard at the National Portrait Museum is another great spot for people watching, as is the Tidal Basin right by the Jefferson Memorial.
7. Embrace day drinking.
I once heard a tourist, two blocks from the White House, turn to his wife at 4:45 PM and say, “Well, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere!” and then head into a Happy Hour. No one in DC thinks like that or feels the need to justify day drinking; DC is a drinking town. It is like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. There is no bad time to drink here. One of the best ways to see the city is to go on a boozy pub crawl during the day, when you’ll get good brunch deals and cheaper drink specials than if you were to visit the hotspots at their peak in the evening.
For your nights out, pick a neighborhood and wander
If you’re done with monuments and museums, it’s best to pick a neighborhood and stick with it — most areas have a dive bar or two, and getting from place to place adds up. Here are some of the cheaper options in the major neighborhoods.
DuPont Circle is a bit swankier across the board, so skip it if you want to drink cheap — an alternative is to get a pricier cocktail and then stroll up Embassy Row.
H Street has a solid Biergarten with an outdoor patio that’s a great hangout on sunny days, a cool rooftop at RedRocks, and an excellent dive at the Pug that is directly underneath Toki Underground, a tiny ramen shop that is one of the better lesser-known spots in DC.
U Street is one of the best bar streets in the city — get drinks at Irish dive Duffy’s before going to a show at the famous 9:30 Club, or just walk down the street and have a drink in every bar. You will not be sober (or even possibly conscious) by the time you get to the end of the road.
Adams Morgan tends to be a more bro-y college kid area, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth visiting: The Black Squirrel is a great bar with a solid beer selection, and Madam’s Organ is delightful. Dan’s Cafe is the diviest dive that ever dived — you can drink whiskey and cokes out of a ketchup bottle on a sticky counter, but damn, is it cheap. For drunk food, skip jumbo slice and go to Amsterdam Falafel.
Georgetown tends to be too expensive and unnecessarily hard to get to from the rest of the city, but it is a really beautiful neighborhood, even though it is chock-full of college students. Try the Tombs and the Georgetown Piano Bar for more affordable drinks.
Gallery Place/Chinatown is Mall-Adjacent, if not the best party spot in town, but RFD’s has a really extensive beer selection. Rocketbar isn’t crazy cheap, but it has a ton of bar games, so you can drink a bit slower while waiting for your concert at the Verizon Center to start. Gordon Biersch’s beer flights are a really good bang for your buck.
Eastern Market/Navy Yard has nice hangout bars like the Ugly Mug to the south and Tunnicliff’s to the north, but try going a little further down Pennsylvania Ave to Trusty’s — it’s one of the best divey bars in the city.
8. Eat at food trucks.
DC has some incredible fine dining options, but not a ton of cheap fine dining options. The workaround is to hit up food trucks. Food Truck Fiesta tracks where they all are in the city, but you can usually stumble across them in clusters around hub subway stations. Popular clusters are at the Farragut North station, around Metro Center, near Union Station, and around L’Enfant Plaza, all at lunchtime. Another option is to check out Truckeroo. Truckeroo is a monthly food truck festival held at the Bullpen outside the National’s Park in Southwest during the baseball season. You should check to see if your times overlap, but it’s a great way to sample some of the best food trucks all at once — and then go see a Nats game. Specifically, keep an eye out for Red Hook Lobster Pound, PhoWheels, and Korean BBQ Taco Box.