D.C. isn’t exactly known for being one of the cheapest places to travel. As the home of powerful politicians and lobbyists, hotel and restaurant prices in the city are high enough to rival nearby New York City. Of course, this is probably the reason that Washington, D.C. remains the budget traveler’s best kept secret.
With an unmatched selection of free and budget friendly things to do, the nation’s capital is so much more than a city of pricey accommodations and fancy meals. It’s a place filled with tangible evidence of America’s rich history. It’s home to world class museums that honor the past, as well as leading institutions that are shaping the future. Best of all, it’s a place where you can see all of these things for free.
From the breathtaking monuments of the National Mall to the charming cobblestone streets of Georgetown, DC is teeming with countless ways to enjoy yourself without spending a dime. Read our DC budget travel guide below for our top ways to save money in Washington, D.C.
Free and cheap things to do in Washington, D.C.
Take a free walking tour of Washington, D.C.
Why not let the experts show you around? There are several companies that offer free guided walking tours of areas around D.C. DC By Foot, the city’s highest rated walking tour company, offers a variety of free and name-your-own-price tours that have something for everyone.
Guided tours from DC By Foot focus on everything from the traditional National Mall and Capitol Hill tours to tours about specific topics like the Lincoln assasination. And if you’re looking for a great place to visit in October, the Ghosts of the White House and Ghosts of Georgetown tours are especially good around Halloween time. Tips for tour guides are recommended.
Learn about National Mall landmarks from a park ranger
The National Mall is America’s most visited national park and the centerpoint of Washington, D.C. The mall stretches over 2 miles and is home to many of D.C.’s most famous landmarks, monuments, memorials, and museums. While many of the landmarks along the Mall are free to visit on your own, it’s even better to have a park ranger to help make sense of what you’re seeing.
For a full list of tour times and locations, check the NPS calendar of events.
Visit the Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial is one of the most iconic landmarks in Washington, D.C., and maybe in all of America. At 19 feet tall, the Lincoln Memorial has an incredibly powerful, larger than life presence that can only be experienced in person. The memorial is beautiful at any time of day, but is especially mesmerizing at night when the lights come on and the crowds have dispersed.
The Lincoln Memorial is open 24 hours a day.
Enjoy free admission to the Smithsonian Museums
The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest museum, education, and research complex. They offer 17 different world class museums in the DC area, and they’re all completely free to visit. While each of D.C.’s Smithsonian Museums are definitely worth a visit, some of the must see highlights include:
Visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum will bring a solemn and somber tone to your trip, but it’s an impactful and highly worthwhile visit nonetheless.
The museum tells the story of the Holocaust through photographs, videos, artifacts, and interactive exhibits. The museum is completely free to visit and tickets are only needed from March 1 to August 31 to visit the Museum’s permanent exhibition.
Even if you don’t have a ticket, there is plenty to see and do at the museum, such as hearing a Holocaust survivor share their personal experiences at First Person (March to August, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 11 a.m.).
Tickets for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum can be picked up at the museum starting at 9:45 a.m. or can be reserved online for a $1 transaction fee.
Take a stroll around the beautiful Tidal Basin
While the 2 mile stretch around the Tidal Basin is enjoyable anytime of year, it’s especially popular in the spring, when the famous cherry blossom trees have the area bursting with a beautiful pink color.
Even if you aren’t visiting in the spring, you’ll still want to carve out some time to enjoy the Tidal Basin, as it’s home to some of D.C.’s most famous memorials: the Martin Luther King Jr, Memorial, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
Visit the Historic Ford’s Theater
Ford’s Theater is best known as the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. Today, it’s still a functioning theater, as well as a historical site and museum.
In the theater, you’ll learn about the assassination of Lincoln and the effect it had on American history. The connecting museum features exhibits on Lincoln’s presidency, the Civil War, and assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Budget tip for visiting Ford’s Theater: If you’re interested in seeing a show at Ford’s Theater without wrecking your travel budget, you can try to score free tickets by downloading the Today Tix app and entering the mobile ticket lottery. To enter, follow Ford’s Theater’s instructions here.
Take a Tour of the White House
The White House, one of the world’s most important and historic buildings, is completely free to visit. But while a tour of the White House won’t cut into your travel expenses, you will need to budget something else to make it happen: your time.
Booking a tour at the White House is a bit tedious. Requests to visit must be submitted weeks in advance through your member of congress. They can be submitted up to three months in advance and no less than 21 days in advance. It is highly recommended to submit your tour request early, as the limited spaces made available go quickly.
For hours, necessary forms of identification, and other instructions, visit the White House website.
See the rare giant pandas at the National Zoo
Located in D.C.’s Woodley Park neighborhood, The National Zoo is open 364 days a year. The zoo is also operated by the Smithsonian, so it is completely free to visit.
Throughout the sprawling 163 acre zoo, visitors have a chance to see more than 2,700 animals representing more than 390 species including Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers, great apes, and sea lions.
Be sure to keep looking up when strolling through the zoo. You might just see the orangutans swinging along the O Line, a 50-foot-high cable track that allows them to move between their enclosures.
Budget tip for visiting the National Zoo: Though admission is free, the zoo charges a flat $25 parking fee. Save money by taking public transportation, a taxi, or rideshare. For public transportation, take the Metro's Red Line to Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan station or Cleveland Park station.
Where to stay on a budget in Washington, D.C.
Highroad Hostel DC
Even if you’re a veteran backpacker, this modern hostel goes toe-to-toe with any of Europe’s finest hostels. Guests of the Highroad Hostel consistently sing the praises of the friendly staff, clean facilities, and the ultra hip neighborhood of Adams Morgan where it’s located. Highroad Hostel offers budget conscious travelers a free basic breakfast along with coffee and tea.
HI Washington DC Hostel
This affordable spot offers all of the top tier quality that travelers expect from the Hostelling International network. HI Washington DC Hostel is just steps from public transit and many of D.C.’s top downtown attractions. The hostel also offers free breakfast and volunteer led tours.
The River Inn
The River Inn is a small, charming hotel that is perfect for travelers who prefer a more intimate environment. Each suite-style room comes complete with a full kitchenette. This is perfect for budget travelers that are looking to save on food costs. Plus, if you need groceries, there’s a Trader Joe’s conveniently located just down the block.
How to find cheap flights to Washington, D.C.
This year, Dollar Flight Club members have saved between 60-90% on cheap flights to Washington D.C. On average, our members spent $110 on their tickets to D.C. and saved more than $194 per ticket.
Here are a few samples of cheap flight deals to D.C. that Dollar Flight Club members have received recently.
- Providence (PVD) to Washington, D.C. (IAD)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $100.18
- Average Price: $289.70
- Denver (DEN) to Washington, D.C. (IAD)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $96.80
- Average Price: $324.30
- Boston (BOS) to Washington, D.C. (DCA)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $96.20
- Average Price: $271.56
- Cleveland (CLE) to Washington, D.C. (DCA)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $106.20
- Average Price: $287.05
- Pittsburgh (PIT) to Washington, D.C. (DCA)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $152.19
- Average Price: $350.14
Best places to find cheap eats in Washington, D.C.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
If it’s good enough for the former President of the United States, it’s good enough for you. Opened in 1958, Ben’s Chili Bowl is an iconic D.C. institution. Located in the historic and lively U Street neighborhood, this comfort food spot is famous for its signature half smokes and chili cheese fries, both of which can be had for under $7.
Amsterdam falafel shop
Originally popular with hungry night owls on their way home from the bars, this Amsterdam falafal shop now has 3 locations throughout D.C. and they’re all equally delicious. The menu here is simple – highly customizable creations centered around beautifully golden-fried falafel.
Another local chain, D.C.’s own &pizza is perfect for those who love to customize and hate to share. Build your oval-shaped, made to order pizza however you like it. Select your cheese, sauce, and toppings that range from standard pepperoni to spicy chickpeas and vegan sausage, and it’ll be ready before you get down to the register.
Keren Cafe and Restaurant
While you don’t need to look far to find countless options for great East African food in D.C., Keren Cafe and Restaurant still manages to stand out from the crowd. This unassuming Eritrean food spot serves well priced, hearty meals in a welcoming environment. If it’s your first time visiting, locals highly recommend the ful, a delicious fava bean mash, and the Keren special.
Get ready to see more of Washington, D.C. while spending less
A place rich in culture, history, and entertainment, Washington, D.C. is a city that truly has something for everyone and every budget. So whether you’ve always wanted to catch a show at the legendary 9:30 Club or you dream about one day visiting the Supreme Court, sign up now to receive free instant cheap flight alerts and start planning your Washington, D.C. vacation.
BY: ZACH ANDERSON, CONTENT MARKETING & FLIGHT EXPERT
Zach is a digital marketer, copywriter, and flight deal expert at Dollar Flight Club where he helps 1 million people travel more. As a digital nomad, he is deeply passionate about location independence, Thai food, and helping others see the world affordably.