If you’re based on the East Coast of the US or traveling in the area, Washington DC is a weekend destination that you do not want to miss. Between walking through the nation’s monuments, strolling through art museums, paddling down the Potomac from the Georgetown riverfront, or eating your way through the city’s diverse food offerings, there’s something in this place for everyone.
Over the last four years, I’ve introduced countless people to this city, and I’ve fallen in love with this place over and over again. So, I’ve put together this guide to help you plan the perfect weekend trip and experience DC like a local.
All of my guides keep the budget-conscious solo traveler in mind. DC is unique in that the majority of its attractions are free, making it a delightful budget-friendly destination. The price estimates may be different for a couple or a group, depending on your preferred accommodation type.
Let’s get started!
Where to Stay
As you may know, as a solo traveler, I always prefer to stay in hostels – it’s much easier on your budget, and it’s a great way to meet other like-minded people to explore the city with.
The three places in DC I’d recommend are:
- Duo Housing (starting at $19/night) – on the corner of 11th and N Street
- HI Washington DC (starting at $22/night) – on the corner of 11th and K street
- Highroad Hostel (starting at $25/night) – on the corner of 18th Street and Belmont Road
Both Duo Housing and HI Washington DC provide free breakfast, are near a grocery store, and are within walking distance to the National Mall and DC’s main attractions, as well as to U Street, one of DC’s best nightlife districts.
Highroad Hostel is located in Adams Morgan, a vibrant neighborhood with a unique history. You’ll be right in the heart of the city’s nightlife, but a little further from DC’s main attractions – the choice is yours.
What to Do
I could spend weeks wandering around DC and still have more things I want to visit, but here are the highlights that the first-time visitor should not miss:
Day One: National Mall and Smithsonian Museum
Start off your day wandering through some of the Smithsonian museums along the national mall. Take the metro to the National Archives or Smithsonian stop and then walk a few short blocks to all of the museums you could possibly dream of.
- The National Air and Space Museum is home to the largest collection of aviation and space artifacts in the world, where you can see the 1903 Wright Flyer and the Apollo 11 Command Module and learn about the impact of flight and air travel on the development of the United States. (cool, right?)
- At the National Museum of Natural History, you can check out the Hope Diamond and other spectacular gems and minerals, a plethora of insects, and the Hall of Human Origins, where you can see the fossilized evidence of how we got here. Unfortunately, the National Fossil Hall (home of the dinosaurs) is currently under renovation, so you won’t be able to check out the t-rex until 2019.
- The National Museum of American History houses a unique collection of artifacts such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and other items from popular culture, as well as a collection of dresses worn by American first ladies (like my hero Michelle Obama) and several exhibits on American military history.
- The National Gallery of Art is spread across two buildings and is home to more than 140,000 works stretching from the Middle Ages to contemporary art. Be sure to check out their current exhibitions while you’re planning your visit.
- The Hirshhorn Museum, located across the mall from the National Gallery of Art, is home to some unique modern and contemporary art pieces and is also definitely worth a visit. I LOVE weird art, so this is one of my personal favorites.
- In addition to being a beautifully designed building, the National Museum of the American Indian contains an expansive collection of Native American artifacts and media. It is also home to one of the best restaurants in the Smithsonian complex – a little pricey, but definitely delicious and potentially splurge-worthy.
- The Freer and Sackler Galleries are home to an expansive collection of Asian art and are some of the more underrated Smithsonian galleries if you’re looking for a good place to get away from the weekend crowds.
- The National Museum of African American History is the latest addition to the Smithsonian museums. As a result, it is still difficult to get tickets but well worth the visit, so if this is one of your must-sees, be sure to plan ahead!
In addition to this list but slightly further away from the National Mall are the United States Holocaust Museum, the United States Botanic Garden, the Library of Congress, and the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art, if you find yourself with some extra time to wander around or are in need of an indoor activity for a rainy day.
The best thing about the Smithsonian museums is that they’re all free, so you can go in and out as you please. You could easily spend a whole weekend at the museums, but it might be best to pick one or two to save time for everything else DC has to offer.
An additional item to note if you plan to spend the day wandering around the National Mall is that the area is a bit of a food desert, especially on the weekends. Some of the museums have (overpriced) food courts and you can usually find food trucks in the area.
If you’re looking for cheap eats, I would advise that you either pack some food or snacks or plan to walk a decent bit to find something affordable for lunch. They will search your bags at the entrance to every museum, but you should have no problem carrying around snacks and you can always check your bag at one of the museums for a few dollars if you get tired of carrying it.
After you’ve had your fill of museums, take a walk down towards the Washington Monument and the western half of the National Mall. There, you’ll find the World War II Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, and the Lincoln Memorial. If you walk along the northern side of the Mall, you can also take a peek at the White House.
Then, continue on along the Tidal Basin to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial. This walk is particularly beautiful at sunset, so if you’re able to time it that way, your Instagram feed will thank you.
If you’re interested in hearing more about the memorials and the history of DC as you walk around, consider taking a free walking tour, one of my all-time favorite things to do in each new city I visit. Don’t forget to tip your guide afterwards!
Grab a quick dinner near the hostel and get ready for a great night out in DC! The best nightlife and bars can be found in the Adams Morgan (18th Street) area, 14th Street Corridor, U Street, or H Street. If you’re trying to stick to a budget, be sure to avoid places that will have a cover charge at the door!
Beers in a typical DC bar will run around $8 a pop, and cocktails will be higher, so it may be more cost-effective to hit up the liquor store beforehand if you’re looking to party, as long as your hostel allows you to drink on their property.
Start the day off by taking the metro across the Potomac and into Virginia to visit Arlington National Cemetery. This somber site is the final resting place for more than 400,000 military veterans and is home to the gravesites of President John F. Kennedy and countless other important figures in American History. After catching the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, take a walk up to Arlington House, the former residence of Robert E. Lee, which overlooks the cemetery and provides a great viewpoint to take in the Washington DC skyline across the river.
Once you’ve finished exploring Arlington Cemetery, hop back on the metro for one stop over to Rosslyn, and then take a walk across the Key Bridge over into historic Georgetown to find a bite of lunch. M Street is lined with delicious and relatively affordable food options so you’ll have plenty to choose from.
If the weather cooperates, grab your lunch to-go and head down to the Georgetown Waterfront Park for a picnic overlooking the Potomac.
If you still have time remaining in the afternoon after relaxing in Georgetown, be sure to check out the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, where you can visit pandas, otters, elephants, lions, and a variety of other animals (all for free, because that is the beauty of DC).
After you’re done exploring the zoo, grab a bite to eat in nearby Adams Morgan, and congratulate yourself on a successful weekend of adventuring through DC!
I love DC because it is a super affordable weekend destination, and the majority of the attractions are free! Depending on where you’re visiting from, plan to arrive Friday night or Saturday morning to make the most of your weekend trip.
- Two nights in a hostel dorm
- Plan to take the metro to DC’s main attractions – costs vary depending where you begin and end your rides but it’s a great way to explore the city.
- Estimating $25/day for lunch and dinner if you’re planning to eat out, although you can cut this down by hitting up grocery stores and cooking at the hostel.
- Pick up a 6-pack of beers from your neighborhood liquor store to drink before hitting the down on Saturday night.
Total: $110-130 for an unforgettable weekend adventure
*not including transportation to DC, although buses from the East Coast are very affordable and often run deals
I hope you enjoy your weekend adventure in DC – please leave any remaining questions you may have in the comments and I’ll try to answer them as best as I can!
Hanna (Bubu Backpacks)
P.S. – For more photos of life in DC, check out my Instagram at @bubu_backpacks.