Last updated on September 22nd, 2023 at 08:03 pm
You may think that Washington D.C. is an expensive vacation, but if you plan ahead it can actually be a budget-friendly destination. While lodging can be a bit pricey, you can easily make up the difference by saving on entertainment with a multitude of free and low-cost options.
- National Mall and Monuments
- Take Advantage of Free Museums
- Explore the City’s Green Side
- Cheap Date Night
- Take a Hike
- Splurge at Mount Vernon
- Where We Stay
National Mall and Monuments
Wander the National Mall from end to end–it’s about two miles from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Another great option is taking a stroll around the Tidal Basin. This 1.7-mile tree-lined trail meanders beside three stellar memorials honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and Thomas Jefferson Memorials).
Another great way to see the sights is to ride a bike. The city has really upped the ante when it comes to being a bike-friendly city. Visitors can rent bikes from Capital Bikeshare at 175 pick-up and drop-off stations. You can also get passes (single day or three days) then use their bright red bikes to get around D.C. Check one out, ride to a destination, and check it back in.
Take Advantage of Free Museums
All of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, galleries (most of which are clustered near the National Mall) and the National Zoo are free. That means you can see the American History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Portrait Gallery, and more without dropping a dime. In addition, all the museums offer free docent-led tours, and many have activities for children.
Explore the City’s Green Side
You will not have time to experience all the beautiful nature spots in the D.C. metro area in just one visit. If you know me, you understand just how hard it is to narrow this section down to just a few favorites. I’ll stick to the free ones here.
The garden is a living museum of plants all housed inside a glass conservatory. The exhibits range from plants native to Hawaii and tropical territories to deserts and even orchids. It is right next to the Capital and should not be missed!
The arboretum boasts one of North America’s largest collections of bonsai trees. These small-scale trees are on display at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, just across from the National Herb Garden. The arboretum is also home to former U.S. Capitol Columns and miles of trails, making it a great place for a scenic hike.
The highlight of this museum is the heirloom plants native to America. These herbs and vegetables have layered growing seasons. Little known fact: The garden is inspired by American history – people planted them during the two world wars when food was in short supply.
The park is a huge green space more than twice the size of Central Park that stretches north into Maryland, and is also a great place to explore. The 1,700-acre park is adjacent to the National Zoo and encompasses Fort Stevens, Pierce Mill, and the Francis Scott Key Memorial in Georgetown.
This is a neoclassical-style 12-acre landscaped urban park established in 1912. Designated as a National Historic Landmark, the multi-tiered park has a cascading waterfall in its lower area, with notable statues of Joan of Arc, Dante, and a memorial to President James Buchanan. The upper park is wooded, and for 50-plus years of summer Sundays, groups have gathered here to be part of a drum circle.
Cheap Date Night
The National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden hosts magical—and free—open-air jazz fests every Friday from May to September. Locals know to arrive as early as 3 p.m. to stake out a patch of green on the six-acre lawn, which is dotted with dogwood trees and works by Miró and Calder. Listeners can pack picnics or grab dinner from one of many nearby food trucks or order a glass of homemade sangria from the garden’s Pavilion Café.
Take a Hike
If you want to mix things up and get out of the city (without going too far), there are numerous free hiking spots around the Beltway. A few of my favorites are:
My personal favorite is actually a series of trails: Billy Goat A, B, and C. Billy Goat A is quite a challenge with a 50’ traverse and some rock hopping at the top of cliffs. The B trail gives you a taste of rock scrambling without the fear factor of A’s heights, and C is a nice calm hike with views of the river. Combined with the C&O Canal Towpath, connecting the trails and the parking area, the total distance for completing all three sections is a little over 7 miles.
Tip: You can access this trail for free by parking in the lot across from the Old Anger’s Inn at 10801 MacArthur Blvd, Potomac, MD, but get there early if you’re going on the weekend. Otherwise, there is a fee at the Great Falls Tavern and Visitors Center entrance.
The entrance fee is $10 per car if you don’t have a national parks pass, but it is well worth the view of Great Falls where the Potomac River falls over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through the narrow Mather Gorge. There are 15 miles of hiking trails, but my favorite is the River Trail which follows the Potomac River for about 1.5 miles, along the tops of the cliffs. In some areas, this trail runs right next to the edge of the cliff, offering spectacular views of the Potomac and Mather Gorge. If you look across the river, you can see the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side.
I recommend stopping at the Visitor Center before starting your hike to get a trail map and watch the short video on the history of the Falls. After leaving the Visitor Center, be sure to take the opportunity to stop off at the overlooks on your left as you begin the trail. They provide great views of the Falls and river and provide great photo opportunities. As you enter the forest, follow the green boxes on the trees to follow the trail as it can be ambiguous at times. There are lots of pretty views along the River Trail, so take your time and enjoy them.
Tip: Don’t try to go here after 10:30 on weekends during the summer. The line can be up to 45 minutes.
Hemlock Overlook Regional Park, situated along the banks of Bull Run, has 8 trails dedicated to hiking and horseback riding. The 3.8-mile perimeter circuit follows the banks of Bull Run along the Bull Run/Occoquan Trail passing the ruins of Virginia’s first hydroelectric dam. Hemlocks can still be found on the red and yellow trails for which the park is named. This hike is a small piece of the Bull Run Occoquan Trail from the Manassas Bull Run Park to Fountainhead Regional Park. For more of a challenge, park at Bull Run Regional Park and make the 7-mile trek here, then Uber back.
Tip: The main parking area is directly across from the Paradise Springs Winery, and a great way to relax after your hike is to walk over and enjoy a glass of wine on their large patio. They allow you to take a picnic lunch to enjoy as well.
Splurge at Mount Vernon
If you’ve saved enough money and want to splurge, my pick is Mount Vernon, home of George Washington. Although it is not free, you could spend a whole day there watching films, touring the museum and home, and walking around the 4-acre working farm and numerous gardens. The tombs of George and Martha Washington are also there, along with a memorial marking the burial ground in honor of the slaves who lived and worked at Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon is a living museum with many folks in period costumes. For example, behind the house is a working blacksmith shop where you can see exactly how horseshoes and tools were made during the Washington family’s ownership of the Mount Vernon plantation.
With the $3 military discount on general admission, my total cost on a recent visit was $33. See the breakout below.
$7 Audio Tour (iPhone app)
$11 Narrated Boat Cruise (approx. 45 minutes)
My only complaint about Mount Vernon was that they don’t allow you to bring in a packed lunch. However, you can exit and re-enter, so I recommend packing lunch in a cooler and eating it outside. Their food court had standard fast food for ridiculous prices.
Where We Stay
Our favorite military campground is Fort Belvoir, in Northern, VA only 7 miles from the Metro (Blue Line) which provides easy and traffic-free access to D.C. It has 52 large, full hook-up RV sites, each with a picnic table and fire ring. There is also a row of back-in sites overlooking the Potomac River. There is plenty to do within walking distance of the campground including a small park, dog runs, two fishing piers, and access to Accotink Wildlife Refuge hiking trails. Outdoor Recreation offers additional services including firewood, bait, ice, ice cream, equipment rental, hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, and boating. The base also has a brand-new exchange and commissary complex.
Bull Run Regional Park
Since our kids are in Northern VA, if we can’t get reservations for our entire stay at Belvoir, we like Bull Run, Regional Park. It’s located off Interstate 66 and is only 27 miles from Washington, D.C., and 15 miles from the Metro (Vienna Station). There are also hiking trails and a waterpark in walking distance from the campground.
Don’t forget about Cherry Hill Campground in College Park, Maryland if you’re looking for a stellar camping experience!