Balance your vacation budget: tips to splurge & save in DC

Apr 2, 2024

When it comes to vacation destinations, some cities are known to break the bank and others are known solely for being budget-friendly. Washington, D.C. is that unicorn that somehow manages to straddle both options. Thanks to so many free things to do, it’s easy to use those savings to splash out on a luxury hotel stay or an award-winning meal or two. 

With new hotels, museums and restaurants joining the roster of classic favorites, D.C. can be a different experience each time you visit. We’ve paired ways to splurge and save while you explore our capital city.

Hotels

Splurge: When it comes to hotels, splurging is all about the stars, so book five of them. Rosewood Washington, D.C. opened in 2013 along the historic C&O Canal in Georgetown. The hotel has the air of a private home, nestled in a neighborhood full of cobblestone streets, historic row houses and centuries-old grand estates. Choose from rooms, suites and townhouses to indulge yourself for even just one night of your vacation.  

Photo courtesy of Salamander Hotel DC 

With views of the Washington Monument and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial from its location along the Southwest waterfront, Salamander DC opened in September 2022 to great acclaim thanks to its well-known sister property in Middleburg, Virginia. Renovations have been underway in 2023 to improve the hotel’s suites and redesign its signature restaurant. This spring, James Beard award-winning chef Kwame Onwauchi will open Afro-Caribbean restaurant, Dogon, offering new dishes as well as old favorites like his take on oxtail and Jamaican patties. The name refers to the Dogon people of Mali and Burkina Faso, thought to be the ancestors of Benjamin Banneker, the black cartographer who mapped D.C.’s borders in the 1700s using the stars as his guide; naturally, the restaurant’s décor is astronomy-themed.

Westin Washington, DC Downtown

Save: Break out the loyalty points for some newly opened hotels in the area. With its polished stone and trickling water in the lobby, the Westin Washington, DC Downtown sets the tone for a calm experience in the heart of the city. Formerly Renaissance Washington, DC, this 807-room hotel near Mount Vernon Square focuses on health and wellness with its large fitness studio, Peloton suites and locally sourced menus at its restaurant, Root and Vine. Washington Marriott Capitol Hill is part of a mixed-use development in the NoMA neighborhood called NoMaCNTR. Its 235 rooms will sit beside restaurants, retail and entertainment spots.

No matter where you stay, remember that weekends can also be a great time for savings, as well as periods when Congress is not in session. (We’re looking at you, summer months.)  


Dining

Splurge: One thing is for sure in this foodie town: you’re not going to go hungry. But if you’re looking to elevate your palate, there are many high-end restaurants happy to oblige. This past November, the number of Michelin-starred restaurants in D.C. grew by two, with each receiving one star.  

Prepare for a cozy experience at Causa, when you and 19 other patrons dine on a prix-fixe tasting menu focused on the culinary heritage of Peru’s coastal and Andes regions. Think coastal seafood, namesake dish causa (an upscale mashed potatoes dish) as well as bomba rice featuring caviar. Wash it down with chicha morada kombucha, made from purple corn. Plan ahead for this experience though as reservations are only released at noon on the first of the month for the following month.

Causa. Photo courtesy of Rey Lopez

Chandeliers set the tone at Rania, which bills itself as shattering stereotypes of what an Indian restaurant can be. Available Tuesday through Saturday, the 4-course prix-fixe menu fuses traditional Indian dishes with subtle fusion touches. Choices include Gobhi Manchurian tomato (ginger, shishito peppers, radish), Wellfleet oysters (Amritsari hollandaise, moringa podi) and hay aged pork loin (vindaloo, crispy pork belly, charred leek).

Little Sesame

Save: Just like anywhere else, the locals have the lowdown on how not to break the bank. Ask the hotel concierge or reception desk for recommendations or chat with staff at the various places you visit. For tried-and-true local favorites, head to places like Jumbo Slice Pizza, which has five locations in D.C. This cash-only joint is true to its name, serving slices that would give a ruler a run for its money. Despite being granted Bib Gourmand status by Michelin this past November, it will still only cost you $4.50 for a Rio Grande-style breakfast taco at La Tejana.

Grab a spot at a large communal table (perfect for asking where your next stop should be) at The Market Lunch, a comfort food spot known for its crab cakes as well as blueberry-buckwheat pancakes. If freshly-spun hummus is your jam, you might already have their product in your fridge, but you can visit the flagship restaurant for Little Sesame and dine on hummus bowls, pita sandwiches and salads.


Museums

Splurge: With so many free museums in the city, the splurge here is to pay a fee for another worthy one. After a two-year, $69-million renovation, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) reopened this past October. Since its inception in 1987 as a champion for female artists, NMWA has offered exhibitions and collections highlighting more than 5,500 historic and contemporary works by more than 1,000 artists. Current exhibits (both through Oct. 20) include “Hung Liu: Making History,” which pays homage to women and children in China, and “Impressive: Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella,” highlighting 25 prints by the 17th-century French artist. Open Tuesday to Friday, the museum costs $16 per person, though anyone 21 and under can get in for free.   

National Museum of Women in the Arts 

Anyone who loves espionage most likely already has the International Spy Museum on their radar. Here, you’ll go undercover and test your spy skills as you move through the museum’s permanent collection; you’ll even get a code to receive your electronic debrief after midnight on the day of your visit. This March, the museum opened a new exhibit all about 007. “Bond in Motion” features 17 vehicles that were used on-screen. Ticket prices can change daily, so book your tickets in advance to skip the line and save up to 30%. The exhibit is open through April 2025.   

National Portrait Gallery 

Save: When it comes to art museums, Washington, D.C. is home to not one but three free ones. The National Portrait Gallery focuses on icons throughout U.S. history. The gallery holds not just paintings, but also rare daguerreotypes from the 1800s as well as modern-day digital videos. Current exhibits include “Star Power: Photographs from Hollywood’s Golden Age by George Hurrell” (through Jan. 5, 2025) which has more than 20 vintage pics of stars from the 1930s-1940s; a commissioned portrait of Oprah Winfrey and “Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass” (through Nov. 26, 2026), a five-screen moving image installation about the activist’s life.

The National Gallery of Art is home to more than 150,000 paintings, decorative arts, photographs, prints, sculpture and drawings. Most notably, Leonardo da Vinci’s only permanent painting here in America, Ginevra de’ Benci, resides behind glass. Current exhibits include “The Anxious Eye: German Expressionism and Its Legacy” (through May 27) and “Woven Histories: Textiles and Modern Abstraction” (through July 28). The Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery showcase American art and craft from colonial days to present times. Current exhibits include “Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas” (through June 2) and “Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice” (through Sept. 8).


Events

Splurge: While the prestigious Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is known for its elite-friendly gala events, the venue presents more than 2,200 shows and events each year for the masses. This spring, sit back and watch performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington National Opera and touring theatrical acts. While you’re there, grab a pre-show dinner at the Roof Terrace Restaurant (reservations strongly recommended) or go out on the wrap-around rooftop terrace for stellar views of the city.

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Save: While D.C. offers plenty of ways to learn things for free, the city also offers its guests free entertainment. The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage presents free live performances in the Grand Foyer Wednesdays through Saturdays at 6 p.m. and free weekly film screenings in the Justice Forum or outside on the Reach Plaza every Sunday at 3 p.m. Upcoming ticketed events at the Millennium Stage include comedians, singer/songwriters and chamber musicians. Check out the calendar of events, but be fast if something catches your fancy as tickets are first-come, first-served.

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Festivals are also a great way to experience the city’s vibe in a budget-friendly way. Upcoming festivals include the Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle (June 22-23), Smithsonian Folklife Festival (June 26-July 1), hip-hop fest Broccoli City (July 27-28) and DC Jazzfest (Aug. 31-Sept. 1). 


Sightseeing

Splurge: While D.C. is walkable and has a great mass transit system, sometimes you just want to rest your feet. With a Capital Segway tour, you can ride around the city (after a short training session) and cover more ground. You’ll roll past famous landmarks like the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  

Monuments by Moonlight Tour

If you’ve already seen the major monuments by day, gain an awesome new perspective on them with a Monuments by Moonlight Tour, a trolley tour that takes you to some of the city’s most evocatively lit memorials—from Lincoln’s to Martin Luther King Jr.’s—while a knowledgeable guide recounts history along the way. If you buy your tickets online, you can save 5%

D.C. Metro 

Save: Bring comfortable shoes and watch your step count soar as walking in the fresh air is the free option for sightseeing. You can also buy an unlimited 1-day SmarTrip card ($13 per person) to get around the user-friendly Metro system. DC by Foot’s pay-what-you-like guided walking tours covers the city from the awe-inspiring monuments of the National Mall, the ghosts of Georgetown, scandals on Embassy Row, the Arlington Cemetery and more.


Ready to go? Start planning your trip to D.C. with this free visitors guide and map.  

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