Washington, DC can be an expensive city; but it doesn’t have to! The great thing about visiting is that there are so many free and cheap things to do in Washington, DC. I wanted to know if it’s possible to experience the city if you had only $20 in your pocket. And not just once (that’s too easy) but for three consecutive days.
In July, 2019, I took the $20 challenge. Unfortunately, I had to exclude the price of accommodation. There are plenty of hotel choices and areas to stay. Airbnb is an option as well. However, it’s not feasible to expect anything clean and comfortable for such a low price. That said, for this challenge, food, transportation and daily activities all came from a daily $20 budget.
Day 1: Thursday
The day started at Wicked Waffle – a great little breakfast spot downtown. Most folks opt for a waffle sandwich, but that was out of my price range, so I went with a simple Brussels Waffle with syrup instead. The total, with tax, was $5.23. This was also the moment I realized that I couldn’t get drinks with my meal, as they would easily push me over $20. Good thing I carry a water bottle with me!
After breakfast I took the DC Cirulator bus up to the National Zoo. At the time I did the challenge, Circulator was free! However, it’s back to the regular $1 per ride, which is still a bargain. The National Zoo is not the biggest zoo in America but it’s probably the best free zoo in America. Once I was done I took Metro back downtown. That ride cost me $2.00.
For lunch I stopped at my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Well Dressed Burrito. I usually order an “El Gordo” burrito; but today opted for a smaller chicken burrito, which cost $7.15 with tax. Afterward I hopped on another (free at the time) Circulator bus to Georgetown. After exploring some of the Georgetown hidden gems I grabbed a falafel sandwich at Falafel Inc. for $3.30 to save for dinner later.
To close out the day I saw a free movie at the Capitol Riverfront outdoor movie series. There are free movie nights all over the city. The movie series at the Navy Memorial is convenient to many downtown hotels.
Day 1 total: $17.68.
Day 2: Friday
The second day of the challenge started with a long walk from downtown over to Eastern Market in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Washington, DC is a walking city and walking is a great option because it’s always completely free.
Despite the name, Market Lunch actually has excellent breakfast. It’s located right inside the market. I ordered Blue Bucks (blueberry buckwheat pancakes). A short stack was plenty and cost $6.88. If you’re not a pancake person for a similar price you can order The Brick, a delicious and filling breakfast sandwich. Make sure to bring cash as this spot is cash only!
Eastern Market is less than a mile from the Capitol, so after lunch I walked over to the Capitol Visitor Center and hopped on a tour. During the busy times of year, a reservation is highly recommended. On this day, since I was a single person, I got lucky and got right onto a tour. Afterward, I took the tunnel to the Library of Congress, the most beautiful building in the city, in my opinion. After that I walked down the hill and spent a little time exploring at the U.S. Botanic Garden.
Around 2pm I started making my way down Independence Avenue toward the U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarters. USDA has a cafeteria that’s open to the public and every day after 2:30pm they discount buffet items by 30%. I was able to build a nice plate and after the discount and tax cost $6.19. The late afternoon discount is a great hack when you’re looking for cheap things to do in Washington, DC.
After lunch I saw some art at the Hishhorn Museum. It’s a modern art museum and generally less busy than the bigger Smithsonian museums nearby. Afterward I crossed the National Mall and stopped by the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. On Fridays in the summer they do Jazz in the Garden. It’s a fun place to listen to music and kick off the weekend. I could only stay for a little while because then it was time to meet a group for a private tour.
Trip Hacks DC tours are not one of the cheap things to do in Washington, DC (they’re totally worth it though). But for the sake of this challenge I assumed you could see all of the monuments on your own. Self-guiding a tour is completely free. After the tour I rushed over to Roti, a great fast-casual restaurant and got a plate of food just before they closed. I used the LevelUp app and had a $5.00 credit, which meant my dinner only cost $4.68. Check out how you can use this app to get free food credits too.
Day 2 total: $17.75.
Day 3: Saturday
Saturday mornings in DC are surprisingly quiet and peaceful. I woke up and walked over to Bethesda Bagels for breakfast. They are best known for their delicious breakfast sandwiches, but I went with a staple cheap eat: an everything bagel with cream cheese. It was a filling breakfast for only $3.45.
Afterward I decided to walk off the calories and headed to the Old Post Office Tower. This is one of the best views in DC. The Washington Monument gets all the attention but the views down Pennsylvania Avenue from the tower and phenomenon. It’s also great for early birds because they open at 9am, about an hour earlier than most sights. Make sure to use the door behind the building off of 12th Street NW.
Most museums open at 10am which is when I arrived at the National Museum of American History. Museums on the National Mall are huge and you could spend an entire day in a single museum if you were really into it. With limited time it’s best to focus on the exhibits you most want to see.
For lunch I headed to the nearby Protein Bar. They have bowls and wraps that I would call healthy or at least healthy-ish. I ordered the buffalo bowl which had chicken, celery, carrots and blue cheese, on top of quinoa. It was delicious. Protein Bar also uses the LevelUp app so I was able to redeem a credit and only pay $3.84 for lunch.
Two underrated Smithsonian museums in DC are the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. I like these museums because they are fun an entertaining for both history buffs and art lovers. They are also connected by the Kogod Courtyard which is a great place to sit and relax during a busy day of sightseeing. It was where I planned out my evening.
Up to this point I was winning this challenge because I took advantage of all the free activities in DC. On the last day I decided to do something a little crazy. I wanted to go to a Major League Baseball game. I knew I could pull it off because there are $5.00 tickets available at the Washington Nationals box office and because you can bring your own outside food. When it comes to cheap things to do in Washington, DC this one is still kind of a secret.
From the museum I hopped on a Capital Bikeshare bike (the ride cost $2.00) and headed toward the ballpark. Instead of going to a restaurant I stopped at Harris Teeter to pick up some groceries. I walked out with a salad, bag of peanuts and bottle of water. The snacks totaled up to $5.98. I got my ticket and the box office and walked right into the game.
Day 3 total: $20.27.
Building an itinerary from free and cheap things to do in Washington DC
Even though I exceeded $20 on the third day, I would call this challenge a wild success. It took a bit of planning and limited the number of options, but there are so many cheap things to do in Washington DC that it made it possible. Plus, these were three action packed days. If you tried to re-create this itinerary you would be exhausted by the end!