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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Budget sightseeing in Washington, D.C. - How not to break the bank

Traveling to Washington, D.C. can typically can get very expensive if you don't watch your spending. However, when visiting the U.S. Capital city, you don't have to necessarily break the bank in order to have a good time. There are many places, activities and events to enjoy in the district that can fit your budget. 

While accommodations may be pricey, you can scale back in spending by carefully planning your sightseeing. There are a number of many terrific things to do in and around Washington, D.C., and much of it won't even cost you a dime, except perhaps a few bucks to ride the Metro. This post offers some ideas of what you can plan to see while you are downtown.


U.S. Capitol Building
Image of the U.S. Capitol Building taken in 2013

In Washington, D.C. you'll find all the famous monuments, Smithsonian Museums and much more. The most this will cost you is the time it takes to walk around and view the breathtaking scenery. Throughout the city you'll see history, both the past and the future in the making.  

The National Mall sits in the heart of the District. The monuments and memorials are one of the first things many tourists have on their lists of things to see and do. Entry to all of the monuments is free, including visiting the top of the Washington Monument. It is advisable to secure tickets early in the day as these have a tendency to go quickly, during the warmer months I've had to get them early in recent years (it's gotten really busy since the monument
reopened after being closed since Aug. 2011 after it was damaged in the earthquake that hit the region).

Nestled within the National Mall, carefully constructed around the reflecting pool, along with the Washington Monument, are the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, FDR Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and the WWII Memorial. A lesser-known monument, the WWI Memorial for D.C. Veterans, also sits within the confines of the Mall.

Jefferson Memorial during Cherry Blossom season
The Tidal Basin area is pretty any time of the year, but particularly beautiful during cherry blossom season. Here you can see the Thomas Jefferson Memorial reflecting in the basin.

One of Washington's most prominent attractions is the amazing architecture of many historical buildings. The U.S. Capitol Building, the hub of U.S. government, offers free tours, and guaranteed passes can be approved in advance. You can get tickets through your Congress person's office or reservations can also be made online, however, these tickets are limited per day. 

The interior of the Capitol is stunning. Once you've finished this tour, you can also take in the Library of Congress which is just a short distance away; LOC has an amazing interior as well. Both tours are free. After this tour, a short distance from the Capitol is the U.S. Botanic Gardens, which also does not charge admission fees.

Inside the Grand Hall of the LOC
Interior of the Library of Congress. This was taken in the Grand Hall

The White House is another can't miss landmark; it is free, but admission to this self-guided tour also requires pre-planning. On occasion, some of the various U.S. Government agencies temporarily suspend or do not offer public tours, but by checking the websites of individual departments of interest can provide more details. If tours are offered, they too would be free.

The White House in Washington DC
White House

2013 presidential inauguration set up at White House
The White House set up for the Jan. 2013 presidential inauguration


The Smithsonian Museums are one of D.C.'s largest tourist attractions. There are 19 museums in downtown Washington, and most of them are located near the Capitol Building. Visitors can enjoy the wealth of information and spectacular exhibits showcased in these museums. Most of the museums are pretty close in proximity to one another. The most popular museums are the Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History. 

However, there are also many other less known, but amazing, museums such as the Freer & Sackler Gallery, National Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of African Art and the National Portrait Gallery. Don't forget the National Zoo is also free, you can visit the pandas (who had a baby in 2013 and again in 2015); the zoo can be easily reached via Metro's Red Line, but there is also parking too (keep in mind this can be tough to get a spot on busy days, I prefer the Metro myself).

Not part of the Smithsonian network, but very popular museum, is Ford's Theatre and the Petersen House (across the street). Tours of these two landmarks are offered at no charge and run by the National Park Service; the agency provides an interesting narrative and history as a part of selected tours. I'd recommend you reserve tickets early, either online or in person, as this tour tends to fill up quickly, especially during busier times of the year (such as spring break, summer). If you do reserve online, there is a small fee, but if you arrive at Ford's Theatre early you can reserve your tour time in person for no cost. 

The National Archives is a popular choice as it can get crowded with long waits, but if you plan it right, you can get in and see one of four surviving originals of the 1297 Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, to name a few.  
National Archives, Washington DC
National Archives building
In addition to the formal tours, another way to explore the nation's capital city is to simply walk through the neighborhoods, such as historic Georgetown and Adams Morgan.

Washington, D.C. is considered to be an expensive city, however, most of the expenses when visiting the region are related to accommodations and food. While it is true there are also expensive tours for other attractions, if you know where to look, sightseeing with self or (some) guided tours in the district area can be free - or at least close to free. 

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