Looking for cheap things to do in Washington DC? Our country’s capital is notoriously expensive (it’s the fourth most expensive rental market in America) but fear not! DC local Katie is telling us about $30 hostels, $11 bottomless mimosa brunches, and free museums and movies!
In 2014. Washington D.C. welcomed 20.2 million visitors to the city! Tourists flocked to museums, took selfie photos in front of the Lincoln Memorial and toured downtown DC on Segways. With many obvious and well-known tourist attractions, I’d like to tell you about some lesser-known but equally cool things to eat, see and do in the Nation’s Capitol.
My name is Katie and I blog sporadically about crafts, cats, food, and adventures over at Katie Lou Who. I’ve lived in DC for just under three and half years and while people keep telling me it’s a transient city I think I’m here to stay. Like many others, I arrived fresh out of grad school, excited to be employed, but definitely on a budget and in need of cheap and free fun. I love, LOVE this city and contrary to popular belief it has much more to offer than just politics (although the politics can be fun too!).
Cheap lodging in Washington DC
Hostels – ~$30
There are two fabulous hostels where you can reserve a bed for just under $30 (which is honestly a STEAL in DC). The Washington International Student Center and Hilltop Hostel both offer shared and private rooms. The Washington International Student Center is more centrally located in a vibrant area for nightlife but both are good options!
With a bit of research, it is possible to find relatively reasonable AirBnb rooms. If you’re traveling with a buddy this can be a great option with both private rooms and full apartments available. This room looks wonderful, is reasonably priced and well-located!
**Side note – lodging prices are very dependant on time of year! Political events cause prices to skyrocket. When planning your trip, consider an off-peak time like early Fall or late Spring.
There are many colleges and universities in the DC area! Several of them rent dorm rooms to visitors in the summer (various restrictions may apply). Trinity Washington University offers the most reasonably priced rooms with range from $35 to $50 / night.
Cheap food in Washington DC
Julia’s Empanadas – $5 per empanada
With Jamaican style, Chilean style, vegetarian and vegan empanadas (to name a few) you really can’t go wrong. Pop in for lunch or a late night snack—both DC locations are open until 4am.
Hanks Oyster Bar – $1.25 per Oyster
From 3-7pm oysters are $1.25 each. I’d wait though and visit after 10pm for the late night discount (oysters are $1.25 again until close). Cheap oysters, a great atmosphere and a fancy cocktail make for a lovely nightcap or date night.
Fox and Hounds – $4 happy hour
To get the most happy hour bang for your buck I recommend Fox and Hounds. Go on a sunny day and sit on the patio – the people-watching can’t be beat! Four dollars will buy you a plastic cup filled three-quarters of the way with liquor accompanied by a pony soda that you mix yourself. Draft beers are $3 as well!
Amsterdam Falafel – $6 per falafel
This list would not be complete without this infamous falafel shop. Order a small (I promise this is big enough), smash your falafel balls and fill the pita to your heart’s content at the self-serve ingredients bar. If you’re with a buddy, splurge for an order of fries to share and do not skimp on the garlic mayo. Open 23 hours per day for your round the clock falafel needs!
Breweries + Booze
In the past few years a handful of small craft breweries and distilleries have popped up around the District. Grab a Capital Bikeshare to cruise around. You’ll find a mix of restaurant/ bar scenes along with more industrial, a garage-door-opens-into-an-alley sort of establishments. Almost all offer a free tour and reasonably priced tasting menus! Atlas Brewery, DC Brau, Right Proper Brewing Company, Blue Jacket (try the Lost Weekend) and Green Hat Gin are all great options!
Shaw’s Tavern – $14 Bottomless Mimosas + brunch
DC loves a good brunch and there is no shortage of delicious (and unique!) options. Argonaut offers a classic and delightful brunch that I find to be the perfect start to a Saturday. The menu isn’t fussy, the mimosa’s are delicious and they have ample patio space. Wanna take it up a notch? Make a reservation for Level One’s Drag Show Brunch! You will not be disappointed.
Cheap activities in Washington DC
Let me preface this with a statement: There are hundreds, like soooooo many, free activities to do in this city. A bit of googling will yield a plethora of ideas and I highly recommend doing so. BYT’s “Free and Almost Free things to do this Week” list is always a great place to start. In the meantime, here are a few things I’d recommend.
Smithsonian Museums + National Mall – Free
The Smithsonian Institution is made up of 19 museums and galleries + the zoo! You can visit them all fo’ free! You could honestly spend your entire visit just seeing Smithsonian museums. They are all fabulous although the National Air and Space Museum is one of my favorite’s! On a warm day it’s lovely to stroll around the Mall checking out the monuments and popping into the museums when you need to cool off.
Jazz in the Garden – Free
On summer Friday evenings head to the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art to listen to jazz, people watch and enjoy a picnic. This is a really popular activity and there’s no better way to kick off the weekend. The event is BYOSnacks and drinks can be purchased from a bar in the garden. Bring blankets or picnic chairs and try to arrive right around 5pm to reserve a spot in the shade.
Kennedy Center, Millennium Stage – Free
At 6pm every single day you can catch a free performance on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. Performances include plays, musical groups, lectures and more. This is a wonderful way to enjoy a show and wander the halls of the Kennedy Center. (You can also take a free tour – they leave about every 10 minutes throughout the day).
Outdoor Activities – Free
Great Falls National Park is located just outside DC in Northern Virginia and offers several great hikes and three spectacular views of the falls. If you don’t have a car Rock Creek Park is a wonderful oasis for outdoor activity and day hikes and is practically hidden in plain site. The park bisects the northwest quadrant of DC and is accessible in several locations. Once you’re on a trail it’s amazing how quickly the city fades away!
Outdoor Movies – Free
During the summer you could see a free outdoor movie almost any night of the week. Screen on the Green shows films on the National Mall, NOMA Summer Screen usually plans a summer lineup of movies based around a certain theme and there are MANY others. Check out this map to find one close to where you’re staying! Food trucks often accompany an outdoor movie and there’s a general understanding of BYOB within reason – keep your booze tucked away and don’t bring glass and you should be ok!
Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Gardens – Free
Are you into hidden gardens and pre-Columbian and Byzantine art? You can find this fascinating little museum housed in a mansion in Georgetown on a plot of land granted by Queen Anne in 1702. Rare books, images, documents and art are all on display. I’d argue it’s worth the trip for the garden itself!
Have you seen and done all of the big sites? I’d be remiss not to tell what what my ideal Saturday looks like:
Start your day with the city’s best iced coffee and a breakfast sandwich at Glen’s Garden Market (I’m partial to the Dupont location). Peruse the bookshelves at Kramer Books and after making a selection wander up to Meridian Hill Park with a blanket for some lounging and people watching. Grab drinks and an early dinner at Bar Charley (ask to sit on the patio) before walking up to the best neighborhood watering hole, The Blaguard.
Post 12am, if you’re looking for a real dive bar experience, head up 18th street to Dan’s Cafe (pronounced Dance Cafe) where the cash-only bar will sell you liquor in squeeze bottles (imagine a squeeze ketchup bottle at a picnic). After this you will undoubtedly need to end your night with the best late-night slice of pizza in the city. Skip everything else and head straight to Duccini’s!
That’s it! My word limit is up! 🙂 Before I leave you I want to note one thing. Washington DC is geographically divided into four distinct quadrants. Each quadrant is home to different neighborhoods with varied cultural histories, foods, attractions and unique qualities.
One of my favorite things about DC is the rich diversity created by the different neighborhoods (though we are not without inequality and socioeconomic divides – much to work on!). Because of where I live and work my suggestions are lightly focused on the Northwest quadrant in the Dupont Circle and Adam’s Morgan neighborhoods.
If you’re one of the many tourists visiting our city this year I hope you enjoy your trip!
Thanks so much, Katie! I’m sure there are lots of DC locals reading this – what would you add to this list?
P.P.S. Did you know I have an entire Pinterest board devoted to budget travel tips? Soooo many good things over there!