My Top 5 things to do in Washington DC on a Budget

Over the past months, I’ve had the pleasure of riding an Amtrak train to Washington, DC, to Union Station, transferring to the Metro, and then walking a few pleasant blocks to my son’s apartment at the edge of the Capitol Hill district.

Ostensibly, I was there as a house sitter for his two very well-behaved plants while he was working and traveling. I will say for the record I was an excellent guest and not only did the apartment look great when I left it, there was food in the fridge, and the plants were thriving.

I was using his space and the alone time to buckle down on my writing projects, the main one being a 6-book Post Apocalyptic series* and the other the third in a Sweet, Small Town, 2nd Chance Romance. My very own writer’s retreat, which I loved unabashedly.

I quite enjoy city living, especially when there’s a Trader Joes just a half-mile away, and it’s October when the air is crisp and lots of people have their homes decorated for the season. Yes, there was the one night when some drunk guy was banging on the front entry door and pressing everyone’s buzzer to be let in (for the record no one in any of the six apartments went down to do so), and the helicopters flying so close on another night that the windows rattled, but overall, I like the energy of DC a lot and those types of interludes are part of the deal.

My family and I have been to DC frequently over the years, as the son whose apartment I stayed in went to school at George Washington University. What with the school tours, and the picking up and dropping off over the years and then the graduations, and now that he lives there, we’ve managed to spend weeks at a time in the city, and it remains one of our favorites.

Over the course of the years, we’ve done a lot of the available touristy things, and a lot of walking in the city proper. I’m a huge fan of the Metro system, and once you get the hang of loading and then using a metro card (Pro Tip: know the end station of the line you want to travel on, and you tap your card going down into the Metro, and then again coming out of it), it becomes pretty easy to get around. I don’t recommend having a car in DC, unless you’re able to drive very fast on narrow streets and are okay with the fact that pedestrians have the right of way in lots of areas, and the police are extremely serious about their rights, and you don’t mind searching for a long time for a parking place. My advice: get a less expensive hotel that has free parking a bit outside of the city and take the Metro in.

Part of my writer retreat involved scheduling doing something I hadn’t done before in the afternoons after I got my 3,00+ words in – most of which are free, or nearly free. I had a blast in all of them, and never once on the train, walking, or in the venues themselves did I feel uncomfortable as a woman on my own.

Try some or all of these out the next time you visit. You’ll be glad you did.

5. The obvious is walking the Mall, which has the Washington Monument at one end and the Capitol at the other and is lined by many of the Smithsonian museums, which are all free, and open nearly every day from 10 to 5. There’s a huge variety for every taste. My personal favorite is a tie between the Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, while the rest of my family favors the Air and Space Museum. Ignore the fact that Sackler’s name is on the Asian Art Museum, its fabulous and never crowded, but be prepared to get lost in it as it goes underground and spreads out. This time I tried the quite beautiful American Indian Museum and revisited the Natural History Museum. They’re both great too. You really can’t go wrong with any of them, although the Natural History and Air and Space get pretty jammed on most days.

4. The Zoo. Yes, I know it’s technically one of the Smithsonian’s as well, but it’s not on the Mall. Take the Red Line (here comes a pro tip) to the Cleveland stop and walk downhill to the zoo entrance. It’s a LOT of walking there, and hilly, but you can bring in your own food and there are plenty of benches. They’ve just sent the pandas back to China, but there’s a wonderful herd of elephants and lots of other animals to enjoy. You need timed tickets, but it’s free. When you’re done, walk downhill again and catch the Metro at the Woodley Park station to wherever you need to go. It’s a really great zoo, can get crowded on the weekends. 

3. Capitol Tour (and the Botanical Garden). Free, but you need timed tickets. You go to a short movie first, and then a guide shows your 20-person group around the museum as you wear headsets. It’s pretty cool to be walking through those halls. Nearby are the (also free) botanical gardens which are pretty cool as well, and not very crowded.

2. The Library of Congress. I LOVE THIS PLACE. Pro tip – you can get your very own reader library card and explore the multitude of exhibits that aren’t in the main building. You get them on the first floor to the left as  you go in at the Madison building across the street from the fancier Jefferson building. Just need your driver’s license. It’s like $10 and worth it, because then you get all sorts of access, and the best, least expensive cafeteria in the city is located on top of the Madison building, with views of the city, the Potomac and the Anacostia rivers. If you only have time for a tour, and not going into the reading rooms, get a timed ticket and visit the Jefferson Library, which is the one that has that round reading room from the Nick Cage National Treasure movie. It also has Jefferson’s original library in it, and other great exhibits. Totally worth your time, and if you’re a creator, there is NOTHING LIKE calling up YOUR OWN WORK from the library stacks.

1. The Ford Museum. This one costs $3.50, and you need timed tickets. Don’t bother with the recorded self-tour that’s an extra $8, everything is well laid out and explained in the museum. This is at the theatre where Lincoln was shot, and a bit of a caveat, it’s a little depressing but so very interesting. There’s a really great little museum downstairs, then you go into the theatre itself via a lot of stairs. Pro Tip: ASK THE DOCENTS QUESTIONS. They are an amazing group of people, and your time will be quite enhanced by their stories and knowledge. Then you go across the street and into the house where Lincoln died, and Mary Todd held her vigil. I had wanted to go to this museum for years, and never made the time for it. I hope you go sooner rather than later, as you can see, it’s at the top of this list.

BONUS FREE THING, unless you buy stuff: On Sundays, the Dupont Circle Market is bursting with small farm vendors for fruit and vegetables, and other tasty things. The Eastern Market is also bustling on the weekends, and it’s a blast looking at all the food and art. Eastern Market is heavier on the arts and crafts side of things. Bring your own bag, you’re going to want to buy a few things, and the produce and the one-of-a-kind boutique items really are fantastic.

* Book One of my series, Nowhere To Turn is out now, and Book Two is coming this Friday the 24th of Feb. They’re all coming out by May of 2024. I’m writing book 5 at the moment. Here’s the link to book one, B0CL1DHV4X

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