The Cheapskate Guide To: Washington DC

Looking for cheap things to do in Washington DC? Look no further! Our country's capital is infamously expensive but this guide will point you towards $30-a-night hostels, $11 bottomless mimosas, and free museums + movies! Read on for the details! #cheaptravel #budgetravel #Washingtondc #usatravel #usaroadtrip #travelusa #ustravel #ustraveldestinations #americatravel #travelamerica #vacationusa #usatripLooking 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.

If this is your first time using Airbnb, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking!

Cheap places to stay in Washington D.C.

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.

The Cheapskate Guide to: Washington D.C. //

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!

The Cheapskate Guide to: Washington D.C //

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!

The Cheapskate Guide to: Washington D.C. //

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).

The Cheapskate Guide to: Washington D.C.

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!

The Cheapskate Guide to: Washington D.C.

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.S. How to live out of a suitcase – glamorously 

P.P.S. Did you know I have an entire Pinterest board devoted to budget travel tips? Soooo many good things over there!

photo credits: madhu nair // jason pier in dc // washington international student center // mr.tindc // elvert barnes // paul riismandle // holley st.germain // daniel lobo // justgrimes // // nicolas raymond // justgrimes // rudi riet //  Casey Horner 

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  1. Sarah M

    The Holocaust Museum isn’t free, but it is 100% worth the time and money. Budget in at least 3-4 hours.

    • Kelsey

      Yes, it is. You have to get a ticket because entry is timed, but it is free.

  2. Eloise

    Great list! If you’re ever in the Foggy Bottom area, the GW deli on G St is cheap and delicious. The serving size of bacon on their breakfast sandwiches cannot be beat.

  3. Shannon

    I can personally confirm the wonderfulness of Jazz in the Garden and Amsterdam Falafalshop. (There’s also a Falafalshop in L’Enfant Plaza, one of the few places you get food near the National Mall.) There’s also a ton of free art museums, including the National Gallery, the Hirschhorn, and the Freer/Sackler/African Art Museum complex. Another national park that a lot of Washingtonians haven’t visited is the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens: It’s far off the beaten path, but totally worth it if you have the time. If you want something nature-based but more convenient, the Botanical Gardens near the Capital are also really neat.

  4. Diana

    This is PERFECT timing! I’m going to DC in two weeks for a conference and have been working on my free time plans. Already pinned this post and will definitely be referencing it a lot.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Great! Have a wonderful trip!

  5. Arina

    Yes, i am agree with this “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”

    there is really cheap for travellerl like me 😀

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