While traveling to any city or going on vacation in general can be quite expensive, I wanted to share a way to visit our nation’s capital without breaking the bank. With DC tourist season in full swing and Fourth of July coming up soon, I wanted to give visitors the local rundown on how to be money smart while still enjoying and exploring the city!
I always joke with friends who visit me that everything we will do in DC is free, but we’ll spend all our money on food. But for this guide I limited myself to ONLY FREE ACTIVITIES and MEALS UNDER $15 (with each meal having one “unlimited splurge option” where you can have bottomless food for a set price that’s above the $15 limit). I also focused on local restaurants for food, as you can go to a McDonald’s or Sweetgreen almost anywhere for the same meal that’s under $15.
I will also continue to update this post as I discover new affordable ways to eat and explore Washington, DC – so definitely check back in the future!
Food Options: $15 OR LESS
I always refer to DC as a “foodie paradise” purely because you have such a diversity of fantastic cuisine in such a small city. There are sections of this city where you’ll find restaurant after restaurant filled with award-winning dishes and run by acclaimed chefs. The international community in DC has definitely left its mark by encouraging a cultivation of variety in all types of food.
That being said, while DC can have restaurants that are as pricey as New York or San Francisco, you definitely don’t need to break the bank to dive into DC’s excellent food scene. Every restaurant I feature on this post allows you to have a full meal for under $15! I have included one “unlimited” option in each category if you want to splurge on a meal but ultimately get the best bang for your buck. These restaurants do go over the $15 range, but you can actually eat everything off the menu for as many rounds as you want, so I wanted to include them.
Breakfast and Brunch:
Busboys & Poets – there’s something for everyone at this DC staple beloved by locals and tourists alike! Whether your vegetarian, halal, kosher, vegan, gluten free, or can eat literally anything, this place is for you. Most brunch options are $12 or less and with seven locations across the DC area, it’s super easy to get to no matter where you’re staying.
The Market Lunch – this Easter Market staple is local’s go-to for classic treats like french toast and sandwiches, all running about $5-8 per dish. I would recommend going for their famous blueberry-buckwheat pancakes topped with real maple syrup!
Commissary – almost all of their delicious breakfast options are $13 or less – they have a variety of hearty dishes to choose from and the ambiance is very lively and fun!
Nerds and Nibblers – a cheap, healthy option! Grab a breakfast sandwich for under $5, an omelet for under $8, a heartier breakfast platter for under $9, or go the healthiest route with a filling quinoa bowl for $8.95.
Bagels, Etc. – this place specializes in bagels (surprise, surprise!) that go for $1.31 each and are approved by New Yorkers as some of the best bagels in DC! If you want something more substantial, almost all of their breakfast sandwiches are under $7.
South Block or Fruitive – save money while still being healthy by grabbing an Acai Bowl or smoothie to-go at these delicious hearty breakfast locations scattered throughout DC. Bowls are typically between $10-12.
Lincoln’s Waffle Shop – for simple diner food, you can grab waffles or pancakes for under $10 or egg sandwiches for under $5.
Sunrise Cafe – a central location featuring simple breakfast foods mixed with Greek cuisine, typically for under $10.
BRUNCH UNLIMITED SPLURGE: Ambar – If you’re looking for a larger brunch as your main meal of the day, for $39 you can get unlimited food and drinks every Saturday and Sunday. The Balkan food is delicious and a great way to try out new cuisine!
Chaia Tacos – the Taco Trio of 3 tacos for $12 is a satisfying lunch or dinner option, and all their tacos are vegetarian and locally, organically sourced!
Well Dressed Burrito – this lunch-only restaurant is a true hole-in-the-wall destination. Located in an alley, they serve massive burritos for about $6.
Little Sesame – Hummus bowls range from $9-11 and are both super filling and healthy!
Bryson’s – simple wraps, sandwiches, and tacos at various affordable price points.
LUNCH UNLIMITED SPLURGE: Ambar – Another steal from this restaurant – their $19.99 express lunch allows you to eat unlimited small plates off their menu from Monday through Friday.
Cher Cher Ethiopian Cuisine – order one of their $14 tasting platters to split between 2 people, which comes to about $7 per person. Trust me, you won’t need to order more than one to share – and you might not even finish that! They’re super generous and delicious!
Falafel, Inc. – $3 falafel pita sandwiches or $4 falafel salad bowls make this one of the most affordable options on the list. I actually go here after my Monday workouts because their food is so filling and the portions are generous despite the low price point.
Ben’s Chili Bowl – a DC staple, you can order the classic Chili Half-Smoke for $5.95.
Sakina Halal Grill – Most dishes at this Pakistani-Indian restaurant are $13 or under. Its central location makes it the perfect destination after a day of exploring the city. Also, it is immigrant-owned and homeless individuals eat for free, so you can indulge in delicious food while supporting a great organization!
Daikaya – the ramen bowls here are about $14 each, but beware the restaurant does not take reservations so you better head to dinner at this downtown hotspot on the early side so you don’t have to wait.
Chaplin’s – another favorite ramen shop for $14 per bowl. Although it’s not as centrally located, they have a ton of delicious ramen options on their menu and do take reservations!
DINNER UNLIMITED SPLURGE: Toro Toro – If you’re looking for a large dinner you can splurge on and get the most bang for your buck, their $39 dinners allow you unlimited access to their menu.
Ted’s Bulletin – Happy Hour Monday through Friday boasts of $3 beers, $5 wines, and $2 off cocktails both at the bar AND for seated dining! (You also can’t miss their incredible boozy milkshakes!)
Atomic Billiards – a dive bar with drink deals every day of the week that usually come out to $3.50-$6 drinks.
Cafe Saint-Ex – This 14th Street staple has happy hour deals that include $5 wines like vinho verde, $5 select cocktails, $2 beers, and lots of snack options!
Colada Shop – One of my favorite spots in DC! This Cuban-themed rooftop garden off 14th Street has all-night happy hour on Thursdays with $6 cocktails and $2 empanadas. Specials run Friday and through the weekend including $10 cocktails, mojitos, and my personal favorite: $35 pitchers of sparkling pineapple sangria.
The Brig – The place for beer aficionados! Head to this Navy Yard beer garden for 23 different brews on tap and 28 additional cans and bottles. Select pints go for $6 or grab a $5 white Sangria during happy hour.
Bar Charley – happy hour cocktails start at $6.50 with great cheap eats.
DC Reynolds – this Petworth location offers buy-one-get-one-free drinks from their entire menu from 5-9pm, Monday through Saturday.
Vinoteca – one of my favorite outdoor patio happy hours! This bar features 15 different wines for $5 glass and $6 sangria. You can also grab lots of delicious bites for cheap and play Bocce!
Wunder Garten – a popular DC hang that’s great for large outdoor gatherings! Their happy hour runs Monday through Thursday from 4-6pm with specials like $5 drafts.
HAPPY HOUR UNLIMITED SPLURGE: Little Coco’s – all-you-can-eat-and-drink for $23 per person. It’s basically a glorified unlimited dinner with better drink deals!
Baked & Wired – the best cupcakes in DC, hands down. These treats are worth the $3-4 dollars due to their substantial size and perfect frosting to cake ratio. Honestly, you can eat half in their delightful coffee shop-bakery-internet cafe lounge and save half for dessert after dinner later that day!
Jeni’s Ice Cream – you can’t beat this 14th street classic. Conveniently located off 14th Street if you need a cool down after walking around viewing the great street art.
I’ve only listed out a few of my favorite cheaper options for restaurants and bars, so be sure to take advantage of DC’s thriving happy hour scene (especially in the warmer, patio-friendly months) and bi-annual Restaurant Weeks in January and August where prices are slashed dramatically for three course meals at some of DC’s top establishments.
More DC Cheap Eats articles found here and here. Also, a more extensive happy hour list can be found here.
What to Do: ALL FREE ACTIVITIES
Thankfully, you can have jam-packed days spent all over this city without spending a dime courtesy of all the free museums and historic landmarks! I’ll break down some of my personal favorite free things to do.
I’ll state the most obvious free thing to do in Washington, DC: Go on a walking tour of the monuments along the Mall! You can download a map guide from the National Park Service website and spend a day strolling among iconic sculptures and buildings!
When it comes to Museums, all the Smithsonians are free and open to the public! To avoid long lines and tourist-crammed galleries, I’d stick with these ones:
- Renwick Gallery
- Hirshorn Museum
- Freer Sackler
- National Portrait Gallery
- US Botanic Garden
- Smithsonian National Zoo (perfect for nice days!)
- Postal Museum
- National Air & Space Museum (can get crowded later in the day so definitely go early)
- Smithsonian Sculpture Garden
For Historic tours, I would recommend checking to see if you can get advance placement tickets to these places even though they are free:
- The White House
- Library of Congress
Even though our Metro system is very affordable and easy to use when navigating the city, DC is also a very walk-able place. I’d recommend spending some time roaming the streets to get a feel for the capital city away from the tourist hubs. Often, you’ll even stumble upon an embassy or historic statue as you wander. Some of my personal favorite spots to stroll are:
- Georgetown (for some of the prettiest pastel row houses)
- Georgetown Waterfront
- The Wharf
- Rock Creek Park
- 14th Street (also located near a bunch of fun bars and restaurants)
- The Yards
- Day Trip: If you wanted to make an excursion out of central DC, I recommend hitting up Old Town Alexandria’s water front (on the Virginia side of the Potomac) in nice weather!
Where to Stay
This is one of the trickier options for me to delve into, as I currently have an apartment in the city and have stayed with family in the area whenever I visited in the past. Of course Airbnbs are typically the most affordable option, but if you’re looking for hotels, here are some great options located in accessible spots:
- The District Hotel (rooms starting at $67/night)
- The Embassy Inn Hotel (starting at $70/night)
- The Moxy Hotel (starting at $87/night)
- Georgetown Suites (starting at $93/night)
- The Fairfax (starting at $112/night)
FOR FREE, the DC Cirulator bus provides transportation to many of DC’s top attractions and can even take you out of the city! Be sure to check out their schedule for an easy way to get around downtown.
Thankfully, the DC Metro is a great resource for traveling around downtown DC. It’s normally about $2-3 per ride. There will be stops close to most landmarks, museums, and restaurant hubs, but be sure to plan things out if you’re heading towards the outskirts of the city. Also, take extra time if you’re using the metro on the weekends as the trains are often running less frequently and there could be construction that causes delayed trains.
Lyft and Uber are also great resources. As long as you’re not ordering a car during rush hour, it’s often cheap to get across the city! If it is rush hour, I’d actually recommend hailing a taxi so you don’t pay for surge prices.
Be sure to check back in the future as I continue to update this blog post with more restaurants and things to do in Washington, DC! In the meantime, I hope this helps you plan out your visit to our nation’s capital or encourages you to spend some time here if it wasn’t on your radar!