How to Do a Day in D.C. for the Price of Lunch
Washington, D.C., has some of the country’s highest rental costs. But it’s also home to dozens of free attractions, making it an easy place to explore on a budget. You can offset your monthly rent expense with inexpensive and even free entertainment. In one day, you can visit world-class museums, see iconic memorials, tour a house of government and see spectacular panoramic views. Here is a suggested itinerary for a one-day, practically free tour of the nation’s capital.
Early morning – Visit the U.S. Capitol Building. Arrive at the Capitol Visitor Center (hours are Monday–Saturday, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.). Take a free guided tour of the U.S. Capitol Building and see the Hall of Columns, the rotunda and the old Supreme Court chambers. Tours passes are required. See the details here.
The Visitor Center is open to visitors without a ticket and has an exhibition gallery, two orientation theaters, a 550-seat cafeteria, two gift shops and restrooms. While on Capitol Hill, you can also stop by the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress to see amazing architecture and learn about other government buildings.
Late Morning and Early Afternoon – Walk to the National Mall and Explore the Smithsonian. There are 12 museums to choose from, so pick one or two that interest you most. The most popular are the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, and the National Air and Space Museum. The new National Museum of African American History and Culture requires advanced timed entry passes. See the details here.
If you’re an art lover, visit the Hirshhorn Museum, the Freer or Sackler Galleries, the Museum of African Art or the National Gallery of Art. The National Museum of the American Indian is also a good place to learn about cultural history. They are all free and can occupy endless hours of exploration.
Afternoon – Take Photos of the White House. Enjoy a view of the White House grounds. Note, guided tours are available, but require advance tickets. See the details here. Stop by the White House Visitor Center at 1450 Pennsylvania Ave. NW from 7:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. and see exhibits on the architecture, furnishings, first families, social events, and relations with the press and world leaders.
Afternoon and Evening – Visit the National Memorials. The monument and memorials are some of D.C.’s most iconic landmarks and are truly spectacular to visit. You can walk the Mall and Tidal Basin on your own and take part in a free guided program by a national park ranger. DC By Foot offers free and entertaining walking tours which including stories and anecdotes about our nations’ forefathers.
Note that the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, Korean War Memorial and the World War II Memorial are located within a short walk of each other. Likewise, the Jefferson Memorial, the FDR Memorial and the Martin Luther King Memorial are located near one another on the Tidal Basin. You can also hop on and off of the DC Circulator Bus for $1 a ride to make your way around the Mall more quickly.
Cheap Places to Eat
Virtually the only thing you’ll need to spend money on during your day tour of D.C. is food. But even lunch can be budget-friendly. The cheapest places to eat near the Mall include the following: The Food Court at Ronald Reagan International Trade Building (1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW), the Food Court at the National Press Building (529 14th St. NW), the Food Court at Union Station (50 Massachusetts Ave. NW) and the Food Court at L’Enfant Plaza 429 L’Enfant Plaza SW.
Food trucks offer a variety of ethnic cuisines and are often parked along 15th St. NW, just east of the White House. There are also plenty of fast casual eateries along many of the streets surrounding the Mall.
After a full day touring one of the country’s most culture-rich cities, check your wallet, and you’ll be astounded to see how little you’ve spent — all the more available for rent!