What are some good things to do for a vacation in Washington, DC?
March 30, 2013 7:50 PM   Subscribe

How can I best go about having an affordable vacation in Washington, DC over two days?

My girlfriend and I are planning on taking a vacation to Washington, DC this summer (so we can get advance tickets and so on), and we were thinking we'd try a bed and breakfast (we've been looking at bedandbreakfast.com, haven't decided on a place yet) and drive ourselves from NJ. We'll probably stay two nights.

We're hoping to find affordable ways to enjoy the vacation. I'm not comfortable naming a specific spending limit, but we're trying to be cost-conscious about this.

So this question has two parts: What's the most practical location to aim for in the inn (located in DC itself, or in a suburb we drive from)? I'm worried parking would be a costly issue in the city. And, what sights/tours/shops are a good idea to check out within college students' budgets?

We're definitely planning on checking out the Smithsonian museums, and maybe the Holocaust museum.
posted by mccarty.tim to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Unless its simply more convenient for you to drive, there's no real need for a car if you're just staying two days and focusing on the Smithsonian and other Mall area museums/monuments. You could easily spend a full day in one of the museums alone! Amtrak runs to DC all the time and is very affordable, which would eliminate the parking, gas costs and any worry you may have about the security of the vehicle.
posted by blaneyphoto at 8:00 PM on March 30, 2013

No need to worry about parking in the city... take Metro pretty much everywhere. If you end up staying outside of the city, then park in a metro parking lot for the day and ride Metro into/around town.

You can get your SmartTrip cards here.

All the Smithsonian's are free of course, and honestly over a two day trip those can pretty much fill all your time. If you want, plan ahead and get tickets to tour the Capitol - tickets are free and it's a good and quick diversion.

If you're here during the week, hop over off the mall and go just past the White House to Farrugut Square (or just take the Metro, of course!). DC is in the middle of a Food Truck invasion, and you can find plenty of great local food on the cheap. You can also grab lunch underneath the National Gallery of Art, or at the American Indian Museum (which I personally don't care for, but many find unique...).

The double-decker bus tour is kinda cool, but please don't stand up. People die that way. And then there's always the Segway Tour of the National Mall!!!
posted by matty at 8:01 PM on March 30, 2013

You can certainly stay in the suburbs and take the Metro into the city. That is a cheap and low stress way of getting around. Most of the museums are free with notable exceptions of the Spy Museum and the Newseum. With that said there is tons to see just in the free Smithsonian museums so you aren't going to run out of things to do in two days. Really the only thing you need to do is fill some time in the evening around eating since the museums are usually closed by 5 or 6. One thing that can be nice is renting bikes and riding them up and down the National Mall to look at the various statues and memorials.
posted by mmascolino at 8:04 PM on March 30, 2013

Where in NJ are you? Parking in DC can suck, do if you're close enough to take a bus from NYC, I would recommend that. If you go during odd hours, roundtrip bus tickets can be super cheap. Or maybe if you're close to Philly, there are cheap buses from there too? If you're only there for 2 days, then the museums and that whole area should be enough (and all of them are free!). I also really enjoyed walking by all the embassies and seeing the really nice architecture and how different countries had totally different buildings, so if you're all museum'ed out, that can be a nice afternoon walk.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 8:05 PM on March 30, 2013

You might try airbnb for lodging. Friends of ours let their basement apartment that way, though some question the legality. They are near Eastern Market which is a short walk to the Capitol and a longer but doable walk to most of the Smothsonian musems. Like most residential neighborhoods there is free street parking on weekends with parking restrictions during week days for folks without a resident sticker. If you use airbnb and need parking, the homeowner might be willing to get you a temporary parking pass if you need one.

I'd probably plan on limiting driving while you are here. The Metro tends to do track work on weekends which makes it suck even more than normal, so watch for that. You can do well with Capital Bikeshare which is good on weekends but unreliable during weekday rush hours since docks are often full or empty.

But I wouldn't come to DC in the summer if avoidable. The past two summers have been paralytically hot and humid, even more than normal.
posted by exogenous at 8:06 PM on March 30, 2013

Capital BikeShare could also be your friend for getting around town...
posted by matty at 8:07 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, I did have a decent experience taking a bus to DC from Philly in the past, so I'll consider the bus. We're probably leaving from the Trenton area.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:13 PM on March 30, 2013

Seconding the idea of a bike to get around town, particularly on the Mall.
posted by megatherium at 8:15 PM on March 30, 2013

In two days, you wouldn't come close to exhausting all the free monuments and museums in town, so I wouldn't worry too much about budget.
posted by empath at 8:19 PM on March 30, 2013

As someone who lived in DC for a while and stlll goes there for work on a regular basis:

- Definitely check out airbnb.com. You also might be able to get a decent rate on a hotel room this far out.

- Because DC has so many students and interns, there are a lot of good food and drink deals. Lots of bars have good happy hours, and you can check out food truck fiesta to find good (and often cheap) food from trucks. There's also a lot of good, cheap "ethnic" food in DC.

- Definitely the Smithsonian museums, so many and all free! Also, if you'd like to visit the Senate and/or the House, you can call your representative and/or Senator's office to get passes.

- I agree with the others that you should try to take the train or the bus to DC instead of worrying about parking your car, which you won't need in DC.
posted by lunasol at 8:24 PM on March 30, 2013

This question gets asked a lot so you might want to search for previous instances of it. This is where I recommend the National Building Museum and new for 2013 I recommend walking around the Penn Quarter neighborhood, and visiting the National Archives.

Also, bring snacks. A motherfucking salad is $10.50 in the National Museum of American History.
posted by Rob Rockets at 8:25 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe stay in a B&B? This one in Takoma Park (super cute neighborhood on the DC border, convenient to the Red Line) looks nice and has rooms under $100 a night. This one is a little pricier, but it's also right by the zoo. (The zoo is awesome.)

If you come during the week, be sure to catch a free concert at Fort Reno.

If you come on the weekend, go to Eastern Market-- the Sunday flea market is really fun.

See if any good bands are playing at 9:30 or Black Cat while you're here.

The food is really expensive at the museums, but it's usually pretty tasty and you're not paying admission, so I look at it as a way of supporting the museum and getting some decent food as a bonus. There aren't a ton of good places to eat around the Mall, unfortunately, so sometimes it's worth sucking it up and getting that $10 salad.
posted by nonasuch at 8:33 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Would you be open to couch-surfing? That could be a very cheap way to stay right in the city and not have to worry about parking. It's also a good way to actually see residential neighborhoods; the main attractions you're going to want to see on the mall are totally disconnected from DC as a real city that people live in. Memail me if you're interested in this option--my old roommates in DC are couchsurf hosts. (They're in DC proper, about 15-20 minutes from the Smithsonian by metro.)

As far as the mall/Smithsonian attractions go, I'd want to know more about your specific interests before I started throwing out recommendations. The Holocaust Museum is part of the Smithsonian system (and thus free) btw. My personal slightly off the beaten path favorite is the National Museum of American Art/Portrait Gallery. (They share a building, which includes a beautiful enclosed couryard that you can chill out in if it's too hot or rainy. I recommend the courtyard as a resting place even if you don't go to the museum.) My very off-the-beaten-path favorite is the Anacostia Community Museum, but that is a bit of a schlep by public transit.

Food won't be cheap anywhere, but you can do a little better by staying out of the most touristy areas. Find a place to get a pupusa. (The neighborhoods you'll want for this are Columbia Heights or Mount Pleasant). Get Ethiopian food somewhere--any of the places along 9th and U are good. Do not buy food from any of the museum cafeterias or any of the trucks directly on the mall. Seconding Rob Rockets on the snacks very hard.

If you'd like to do neighborhood-wandering as well as museuming, I'd suggest taking a stroll around Eastern Market and Barracks Row. It's best to do this on a Sunday, when there's both a flea market and farmer's market going on, but really any day will do. Lots of good eating in the area as well. Dupont Circle's pretty charming to walk around in too, but it's a bit more upscale. Do not be tempted to do your neighborhood wandering in Georgetown--it's expensive, it's a pain in the ass to get to, and most of the stores are high-end chains you've probably seen before anyway.
posted by ActionPopulated at 8:40 PM on March 30, 2013

a vacation to Washington, DC this summer

The above suggestions are all useful, and I know you're on the East Coast, so you may have some idea, but I just wanted to make sure that you're aware that DC is a hot, damp, unbearably miserable hellhole of a swamp in the summer?
posted by trip and a half at 8:42 PM on March 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's super easy to take Amtrak from Trenton to DC (Amtrak does have sales) or by taking Septa to 30th and a bus from there.

The Holocaust Museum is incredible if very sobering but it is not a part of the Smithsonian system. It's still free but it looks like you'll need timed passes during the summer.

Is there a specific kind of thing that you're interested in, in terms of music or food or museums? The Library of Congress does free movie showings sometimes, as do embassies; the Goethe Institut and Italian cultural folks also do cheap events. There are free music and daance events at the Kennedy Center every day. Many neighborhoods do free movie showings outdoors duringthe summer, from in the suburbs to DC itself. Museum food is always overpriced and you will be stranded in the middle of a wasteland for options so yes, snacks! My favorite overlooked museums are the Freer/Sackler (they often throw awesome events for families/young adults!) and the Navy Museum, but there is such a variation of places and themes that it's hard to say wh would be really awesome for you without more guidance!

Also, I love DC in the summer, but I was born in my beloved hell swamp. It is slightly hotter and more humid than Philly and there's less shade if you're walking on the Mall than you might get in other cities.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:59 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

To be clear: I do actually love the town, too, and lived there for many years, and I'm sorry if my previous comment came off as harsh.

It's just that if I had a choice of seasons to visit, summer would not be at the top of the list.

The advantage, though, is that almost everyone leaves town, so it's not very crowded. And if you can find strategically-located lodgings, just plan your routes to minimize outdoor time. Everything is air-conditioned.
posted by trip and a half at 9:22 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Summer is indeed not the best time to go to DC. It can be miserably hot and humid, it can often be more expensive in the popular tourist areas, and the Mall is packed with tour buses and groups, meaning there can be lines to go through the security at the entrances to popular attractions and the more popular Smithsonian museums.

Try May or June (early June is better than late June), or late September and October also tend to be a lot nicer, weather wise. If you go in the summer bring plenty of sunscreen, wear a hat, and stay hydrated.

If you go in the June 26-30 time range, you can go to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall. (It also runs July 3-7, but that time period is more expensive and there are tons of tourists in town for the 4th of July, and the prices for places to stay will be higher.) The Washington Monument is closed, but you can go up the tower at the Old Post Office and get a nice city view (and it's free and just off the Mall.)

You can get an inexpensive and very tasty lunch or dinner at District Taco DC, 1309 F St. NW, which is not far from the Mall museums. They also have a food truck which ranges around the area, and you can find out where the truck is on twitter. Teaism Penn Quarter is also not far from the Mall and good and fairly reasonable as downtown DC goes. You can also get decent chicken at Nando's Peri-Peri at 819 7th Street NW. You can usually find food trucks at lunch time at Capital Gallery, which is at one of the entrances for the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station not far from the Mall.
posted by gudrun at 10:08 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a hotel called the Morrison Clark where my in-laws have stayed for around $110/night. It's cute and it's in DC near the Mt. Vernon Square metro and close to Metro Center and Chinatown.

Regarding food, food trucks are great and there might even be a few on the Mall this summer. The American Indian museum has good food. Teaism is lovely. If you want a funky restaurant, try Busboys and Poets.
posted by kat518 at 12:54 AM on March 31, 2013

Also, Washingtonian publishes an annual list of cheap eats that you should definitely check out. Two that come to mind are Pete's Pizza and Ben's Chili Bowl, which is a DC landmark.
posted by kat518 at 1:07 AM on March 31, 2013

Biking around is definitely a fun way to see DC, but Capital Bikeshare is for commuters rather than tourists. Bikeandroll (http://bikethesites.com/Bikes/) and BigWheelBikes (http://bigwheelbikes.com/rentals.htm) have better pricing if you want to ride for an extended time. I have not used any, just looked them up for the same purposes.
To visit - go to the FDR memorial. Its on the tidal basin and lovely. The American Indian Museum and the Botanical Gardens are also my favorite. If you do decide to bring a car, go visit Great Falls. There is a park on both sides of the river that you can walk along. The Md side has the walkway out to the island.
posted by florencetnoa at 6:45 AM on March 31, 2013

Here's a link to the Washingtonian Cheap Eats page. (note, I'm fond of Pete's for pizza, but people from NJ should not eat pizza in DC ... spoken as a NJ native).

Also check out Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide , as many of the places are inexpensive.
posted by gudrun at 8:33 AM on March 31, 2013

If you buy the SmartTrip card online, I would recommend just buying the card itself without any value. Then, when you get to DC, use one the vending machines to add value. See Unsuck DC Metro: Problems Adding to SmartTrip Online.
posted by invisible ink at 1:10 PM on March 31, 2013

The MLK Jr Memorial is new and on the tidal basin near a lot of the other memorials. Also, in the summer, D.C. people love to spend Fridays listening to jazz in the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art. You can sneak a bottle of wine in if you're careful. I love the zoo and during the summer it's open until 8 p.m. plus they just opened a new Asia trail.
posted by kat518 at 1:31 PM on March 31, 2013

Get tickets for holocaust museum early, we couldn't gat in.
posted by irish01 at 3:54 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and go to the zoo very early, if you're going that route. The buildings don't open until 10, but the animals are much more active long before that. You can also sometimes catch them being fed (especially fun with the otters) and there are no groups of summer camps milling around. If you're taking Metro, get off at Cleveland Park as Woodley/the Zoo is farther and a stiff walk uphill when going to the front entrance. If you stay in Columbia Heights or Adams Morgan, you will probably be closer to the back entrance, which is a pretty nice walk down hill from 16th St.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:00 AM on April 1, 2013

Just buy your SmarTrip at the station. As of a month or two ago, all of the downtown stations have SmarTrip dispensers in them. No need to bother ordering them online.

The National Building Museum is close to my heart, but sadly no longer free. If you're going to pay for one museum in DC, the Newseum is probably the one to pick. I finally went last month (after several years of living here and refusing to pay for it on principle), and it was great. I haven't been since they moved to their new location (it's pretty far away), but the National Museum of Health and Medicine is one of my favorites in DC.

Eater DC has their own list of cheap eats. Don't eat at the museums -- the Smithsonian cafes are all run by a soulless gigantic conglomerate. If you're hungry by the mall, take a short walk over to Gallery Place. It's touristy as hell, but way cheaper/better than any of the museum cafes.

Don't come here at the peak of summer, for the love of God.
posted by schmod at 12:55 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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