Washington D.C. on a budget? You can forget about that. However, there might be a way to keep your expenses as low as possible: all things Smithsonian. The Smithsonian museums are all free and most of them are located on both sides of the National Mall. Pretty easy, isn’t it?
My 3 favorites are the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space museum. You can easily spend a day in each of those three.
Other Smithsonian museums are the American Indian Museum, the African American Museum, African Art Museum, American Art Museum, Arts and Industries Building (now closed for renovation), the Renwick Gallery, the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Castle. The Holocaust Museum and the National Zoo are free as well. Did I forget something? Probably. Let’s just say there’s plenty of choice for each one of us.
Of course, there are some other activities to do in the capital of the U.S. It all depends what your interests are. If you’re visiting for a weekend, I would recommend to stick to the highlights and to take a look at the monuments and memorials. Skip the museums. However, if you have plenty of time, why don’t you just go see them all? (see them all at the Mall, get it?! Stupid joke – let’s move on)
What to do?
1. Monuments and memorials
D.C. is all about monuments and memorials. Did I mention that the city is really clean as well? (Capital cities in Europe, take note)
Just so you know – there’s a Vietnam Memorial as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see it since it was really hot that day and we had been walking all the way around the Tidal Basin. I was pretty exhausted and looking for water. (I found some ice cream though, does that count?)
2. Cherry Blossom Festival
March/April is cherry blossom (and busy) season. If you’re lucky, you might get to see some of the blossoms in bloom (I was lucky – for a change). The best place to do this: Tidal Basin. You’ll see that you will find most of the memorials around this giant lake. Also, there are some other activities during this festival such as the Blossom Kite Festival at the Washington Monument and the Cherry Blossom Parade.
3. U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
You’re walking around in D.C. and you see the U.S. Capitol, just like the Washington Monument, and you take a picture – but have you seen it on the inside? You should. It’s beautiful!
4. The White House
You know, that white building you see on TV sometimes? That house (and it happens to be white) where the president lives. Here it is.
5. Arlington Cemetery
The Arlington Cemetery is a huge military cemetery, located across the Potomac River. One of the famous highlights is the gravesite of president John F. Kennedy and family.
6. National Archives
Here you can find the Declaration of Independence. Make sure to visit in the morning, in that way you will be able to avoid waiting in line for 2 hours. Oh, don’t spend half the day trying to read the words. It’s impossible. By the way, you’re not allowed to take pictures.
What to avoid?
- Lunch at the museum
Try to avoid having lunch at one of the museums (seriously, I’ve had enough fries and chicken for the rest of my life). The museum might be free but the food isn’t. It’s really expensive (especially drinks). Don’t forget: it’s usually prohibited to bring your own drink. However, water might be allowed but not everywhere.
I know, it’s the 21st century and traffic is horrible. It’s a worldwide problem but it’s always worse in a big city. Don’t even think of getting a rental car, just don’t. Besides, some of the parking spots will cost you $20/hour. It’s easier to take the bus or the metro and to reload a SmarTrip Card for each trip, unless your card doesn’t work and the money suddenly disappears (it happened to me…twice).
- Depend on Metrorail
The metro in Paris runs very smooth. The metro in D.C. doesn’t. Well, not always (but there’s free Wi-Fi in case you have to wait a while, although there’s a bad connection sometimes – or no connection at all).
- Do everything by foot
OK, I admit it – I did everything by foot but I had lots of time to visit the city. If you have little time, don’t do this. It’s possible to take a sightseeing tour with a “hop on hop off” bus which takes you to all the monuments.