Washington On a Budget
Washington DC is the center of all three branches of the federal government including Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court. As the political center of the country, there is no shortage of sights, landmarks and monuments. It is also one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. as it attracts immigrants and diplomats from all over the world. There are 176 foreign embassies located in the city along with the headquarters for many different international organizations, non-profits and professional groups.
SightsAs a tourist, you are likely to spend much of your time around the National Mall. This is the name given to the giant lawn that is surrounded by many monuments and museums. Here you will find the famous Smithsonian Museums as well as the Washington Monument, the reflecting pool and the Lincoln Memorial among many others.
The capital city has no shortage of monuments and memorials, and they seem to add new ones every year. Some of the most famous landmarks are the FDR Memorial (best visited at night), the Vietnam War Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the National Gallery of Art, the Holocaust Museum, the White House, and the US Capital Building. Most of the sights and museums in Washington DC are free. This makes the city a surprisingly budget friendly destination.
While many of the sights you want to see are around the mall area, it's important you venture into some of the neighborhoods around Washington, DC. Each neighborhood has its own feel and character. Make sure you step off the beaten path to see Washington DC as a real city, not just a gathering of monuments.
NeighborhoodsMost tourists spend the majority of their time around the National Mall. You should really explore other neighborhoods though, as the city has a lot to offer. The downtown area is where you'll find the National Mall, the East End, West End, and Waterfront. The North Central area has Dupont Circle, Shaw, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and LeDroit Park. The West has Georgetown and Upper Northwest. East has Capitol Hill, Brookland-Teworth-Takoma and Anacostia.
ActivitiesThere is no shortage of activities and events in the city. There always seems to be a festival going on, particularly during the summer months. Parks worth exploring in the area include Rock Creek Park and Roosevelt Island. Interesting festivals include the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the National Kite Festival, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
The Zoo is part of the Smithsonian, and entry is free (parking a car entails a fee, though). Located near Rock Creek Park and not far from a couple of metro stations, getting here is easy. Plenty of amazing exhibits are on display, including Pandas! For more details, check out fun facts about the Smithsonian National Zoo which includes more information about the Pandas, the location, and other animals.
Food and DiningWashington DC's restaurants are heavily influenced by the international character of the city. There is no shortage of ethnic restaurants around town, most of which are excellent. Popular options include Ethiopian, Filipino and Vietnamese restaurants. Unfortunately, the most interesting restaurants are generally not located near the tourist attractions. The dining options around the National Mall are limited to food stands and museum cafeterias, most of which are way overpriced and low in quality. Plan your day so that you can venture further out to find a local eatery with unique food. Otherwise, you're sure to be disappointed with your dining options and miss a large part of what the city has to offer.
It is possible to find cheap meals in the city. Ethnic restaurants are some of the most affordable options. There are also high end, trendy restaurants where you may bump into lobbyists or politicians. The most expensive restaurants tend to be located in the West End, East End, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown.
TransportationIf you're planning to stay within the District, then walking is very easy. For longer distances, the metro system is excellent and efficient. Most of the city's attractions are concentrated near the National Mall. You can easily take the metro to this area and then walk between museums, monuments and memorials.
In general, Washington, DC has an excellent metro system which stretches into the nearby suburbs. Public transportation is the cheapest, and easiest way to make your way around the area. There are six color coded lines that run underground until you reach the suburbs. The system is very clean (no food allowed) and safe. There are also hundreds of bus routes around town. Buses provide access to most places the metro does not. The system is efficient and affordable.
There is also no shortage of taxis, but do keep in mind that if you cross from DC into Virginia or Maryland, you are likely to pay a lot more for the ride.
Driving in the city is not recommended. Parking is expensive and can be difficult to find. There are plenty of public transit options that make the city accessible to visitors without the hassle of having a car.