As the old saying goes, “sometimes the best things in life are free.”
What endears me so much about Washington D.C. is that many of the city’s main attractions cost zero dollars. In two days my boyfriend and I were able to walk to every monument as well as go to the National Gallery without dropping a penny!
And that’s not even all we could have done for free! If we had a few more days to spend in the Capital, we could have gone to many more museums without shelling out cash. How positively London-esque…
Back home in New York it’s very difficult for tourists to save money. Most of the landmarks have an admission fee, and museums either have a high entrance fees or strongly encourage donation upon arrival. You may literally get the stink eye from the docents if you ask for a museum ticket without offering some form of donation.
For budgeting reasons, I can see why Washington D.C. is a very popular trip for families and travelers alike. My boyfriend and I had an easy time finding an affordable hotel room near the White House at the last minute since most government offices and businesses are closed on weekends. Additionally, the subway system was easy to navigate (and clean!), which made getting from point A to point B quick and affordable. And for meals? There are many affordable chain restaurants allowing you to eat inexpensively.
If we had been on a very tight budget, I assume we could have kept our food costs pretty low. However, for a few meals and drinks we decided to pull the yuppie card and mix a little budget consciousness with a little fun splurging.
Friday dinner/drinks: Blackfinn, Downtown
Saturday brunch: Point Chaud Café & Crepes, Downtown
Saturday dinner: Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak, & Stone Crab, Downtown
Saturday bar: McClellan’s Retreat, Dupont Circle
Saturday post-bar carbo-loading: The Diner, Adams Morgan
Sunday breakfast: Cosi/Starbucks, Downtown
Sunday lunch: Potbelly, Chinatown
In order to get from NYC to D.C. we chose to take the slowest and cheapest form of transportation – the Eastern bus. It took about five and a half hours each way, but only cost us $60/person for the round-trip (we bought the tickets the day before we left, so I believe you can save money by purchasing in advance). If we had rented a car, purchased Amtrak tickets, or flown, the cost would have been in the hundreds of dollars per person – a few extra travel hours saved us a lot of mooooo-lah!
Since the city is well lit up and boasts wide roads and sidewalks, once we arrived in Chinatown we decided to walk a mile with our roller duffles to our hotel – the Capital Hilton. Honestly, the weather was really temperate that evening, so it was a fairly pleasant trek. Saving that cab fare was a simple choice.
Once we checked in to our hotel for the weekend, we met two friends out for drinks at a nearby downtown bar. While the drink prices were comparable to NYC, I was shocked at how empty the bar was! We were in the touristy area and we could easily get a booth! My takeaway that night was that if you want to go out in D.C. and really experience the nightlife, you should think about exploring the neighborhoods. And we did JUST THAT the following night.
The next day began our first true foray into the tourist scene – and oh boy were there a lot of us tourists there! My boyfriend and I chose to follow a free TripAdvisor walking tour that we had dug up online, which started at the White House, wrapped us around to the Washington Monument, and then kept us meandering through all of the memorials. We saw the WWII memorial, Vietnam memorial, Lincoln memorial, Korean War memorial, FDR memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and more within a matter of hours. I found it remarkable that you could see all of those iconic landmarks so quickly! D.C. was definitely well-planned out for sightseeing.
If you know anything about D.C. this time of year, you might be itching to know if we saw the cherry blossom trees in bloom. Ever since the Mayor of Tokyo gifted D.C. with dozens of cherry blossom trees in 1912 as a token of our nations’ developing friendship, the cherry blossom trees bloom for a couple weeks every April at the Tidal Basin’s waterfront. The sight is breathtaking, and both locals and tourists flock in droves to see the blooms and attend the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The day before our trip we refreshed the cherry blossom blogs like banshees in hopes the blooms would start to open. Alas, when we walked around the Tidal Basin on Saturday, it was clear that we had come a few days too early.
The “blossom blogs” (as I would like to call them) have explained that this year’s delay was a result of the cold weather that the East Coast experienced this winter. However, the lack of blossoms didn’t stop the D.C.-er’s from beginning the celebration! Near the paddle-boat docks at the Tidal Basin we found the Cherry Blossom Festival in full swing – complete with drummers and funnel cake! It was a true cultural experience, and we sat for a while to watch the families and tourists enjoying the day.
After a long day of touring, we took a short nap/shower break back at our hotel before heading out for the evening. I had managed to nab a reservation through a family friend at one of the newest downtown hotspots (Joe’s), where we enjoyed an incredibly delicious meal with some friends. The vibe was trendy and posh – exactly what you would expect eating walking distance to the White House. After the meal we made our way to Dupont Circle, were we explored the bar scene and ended up at a new place called McClellan’s Retreat next to the Russia House. I giggled when our friends told us that the place has been the embassy of a small African nation only a few months before – that’s so D.C.
After a couple hours and a couple glasses of wine, we decided to make our way to Adam’s Morgan where we went to a place called “The Diner.” Once there, I ordered a slice of pie and a hard cider. I’d say it was a combination that I never would have dreamed up myself, but I was NOT upset about it. My friends ordered similarly and we all chatted happily over sweet drinks and sweet desserts. Finally around 1:30am we called it a night.
Waking up the next morning was tough – but I was motivated. Our bus left at 2 and I REALLY wanted to see the collection at the National Gallery before we left. We hid our Starbucks in our camera bag as we got on the metro (apparently you’re not allowed to eat on the metro in D.C. – must be how it stays so clean!) and made our way to the museum. I’m an art lover, and it did NOT disappoint. Their collection of European classics was extensive, and I’d venture to say I enjoyed the collection more than the Rijksmuseum’s in Amsterdam! (And…as I mentioned before…it was free to get in.)
While the collection is vast, the painting that was the most special for me was Claude Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Sunset – pictured below. My grandmother introduced me to Monet as a child, and he has been my favorite painter ever since. When I studied abroad in London I discovered that Monet had painted a series along the Thames in 1903 and 1904. The series captivated me – my favorite artist had painted my favorite city! The National Gallery contains several pieces from that series, but my heart belongs to the sunset’s reflection in the work below.
Due to tight timing we were only able to be at the National Gallery for a little under two hours before we had to leave to catch our bus home. We grabbed our bags from the hotel (and some sandwiches at Potbelly’s) before making our way to the queue.
While waiting in line for the bus, I want to quickly note that we met another young couple standing behind us. They were from Minsk and were visiting the U.S. for an international law competition in Virginia. The competition had just ended, so they were planning to spend the following few days in NYC before heading back to their law school in Moscow. I mean, that’s so D.C. Where else will you strike up a conversation with law students from Belarus?
But, to be honest, I find the international flair of D.C. to be part of its charm. The city itself is much smaller than New York (D.C. metro area has about 5.8M people). Yet, it still feels large enough to get lost exploring, and also lovable enough to regret when you leave. There is so much left for me to see in D.C., and I’m looking forward to my eventual return.