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My country 'tis of free: cheap and free things to do in Washington, DC, courtesy of our new DC Editor, Kaarin Moore!
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Washington, DC is a fabulously important place to visit, learn about our country's history, and renew your patriotic pride. But it's also a great spot to live or to visit, aside from mandatory school trips or guided bus tours, full of free things to do and enjoy.
If you're looking for a rad road trip, or are planning to be in our Nation's Capital for vacation or business soon, here are a few hints to taking in the Beltway on a budget.
GET THE TIMING RIGHT
Timing is everything in life, and it definitely applies to visiting DC on a dime. The high tourist season is typically mid-March through Labor Day Weekend. Visiting during the off-season will ensure far fewer crowds (you can actually enjoy those museums!) and better hotel rates. Check out Destination DC prior to your trip. Not only are they a one-stop-shop for dealing with everything DC, they often have package deals and discounts on hotels.
SO MANY FREE THINGS, SO LITTLE TIME
One of the most amazing things about DC is that so many things are free. You can go to the National Mall and pop in and out of different museums like the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the Air and Space Museum, and not pay a single penny to enter. The Smithsonian also offers many free events throughout the year (bird walk at the National Zoo, anyone?), so click on the calendar and see if there's a special program going on the day you will be in town.
One free museum not located on the mall is the Smithsonian American Art Museum / National Portrait Gallery in Chinatown. The museum used to be the Patent Office and was once called, "that noblest of Washington buildings," by Walt Whitman. During the reconstruction, many of the design elements of the old building remained, culminating in an amazing artistic expression of architecture and art.
Bonus tip: If you're traveling on business or just need to do a little work, stop by the museum's courtyard. It offers free Wi-Fi so you can finish up all those emails from within the center of a DC landmark.
DO IT IN THE DARK
The best way to tour the monuments isn't during the middle of the day, but after the sun goes down. Get out a map, pick a couple of monuments, and create your own nighttime walking tour. (The Explore function on the Foursquare mobile app or the Trips function on the Gowalla mobile app are both dead simple resources for this.) The lighting at each location is superb, there are fewer crowds, and there is something quite eloquent about sitting on the steps of the Lincoln memorial by moonlight. One location often overlooked by tourists is the FDR Memorial. Its fantastic combination of information and innovative design is even more breathtaking at night.
GETTING AROUND DC ON A DIME
It only takes...oh...30 seconds in DC to realize that the parking situation is pretty nonexistent. If at all possible, do NOT bring your car. Instead, the best way to get around DC is by the Metro System.
A few hints about riding Metro:
Other Transportation Options:
When in doubt, do as the locals do - walk! Walking is one of the major modes of getting around DC. Bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes and be prepared to walk a few blocks to from point A to point B. If you are a bit more glam and like to wear heels, put on a pair of ballet flats and throw your heels into your purse. (That's really acting like a local!)
Don't want to walk or Metro? DC has the largest bike-sharing program in the United States. Just purchase a 24-hour ($5) or 5-day membership ($15) at any Capital Bikeshare kiosk and you'll be issued an unlocking code to access a bike.
TAKE IN THE THEATER
DC actually has a solid theater scene. So, after a day of being out and about why not take in a show? Purchase half-price festival, theater, dance, and symphony tickets from places like the Kennedy Center, Ford's Theater, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Ticketplace.org. You can purchase in person (located in Chinatown), or buy tickets in advance online. Check out this guide to getting the cheap seats from former Shoestring intern (and recent Catholic University grad!) Erica McLaughlin for more tips.
NOSH, GLORIOUS NOSH
Avoid the tourist traps and take advantage of many of the fantastic but less feted restaurants in DC. To get a deal, sign up for the Washington, DC versions of LivingSocial, BuyWithMe, Tippr or Groupon, or use the Peekaboo mobile app once you're on the ground to instantly find deals nearby when hunger strikes. It's a great way to try something new while saving money.
Urbanspoon is also a fantastic way to get the low-down on the best cheap eats in the city including Ben's Chili Bowl, Good Stuff Eatery, Nando's Peri-Peri, Julia's Empanadas, and The Diner. Yelp and Foursquare also feature great tips from locals, including drink & dinner specials!
Finally, DC has quite a few farmer's markets in spots like Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown. Grab something fresh and enjoy fantastic people watching in the middle of DC.
TOTE YOUR STUFF
The DC bag tax is usually a surprise to visitors. If you are going to be in DC for a few days and there is a good chance that you will do any shopping, especially in a grocery or drug store, bring along a reusable tote bag or two. Otherwise, be prepared to pay $0.05 per paper or plastic bag. It might be a pain, but it has also helped clean up our DC waterways.
And, if you are going to hit the shops while you're in DC, be sure to check out Quarter Life, a guide to "the Beltway's best vintage & thrift", as curated by the eco- & budget-fabulous Lisa Rowan, or start reading Speaker of the Blouse, the Washington Post's style & culture column, now written by Shoestring's own Goodwill Hunting goddess, Katherine "KT" Boyle.
Have some other great tips for enjoying DC on a dime? Share them with us, Gumshoes!
Story: Copyright 2011, Shoestring LLC. Photo: Courtesy of Kyle Rush.