All eyes have been on Washington, D.C., over the past year, and it’s not just because the historic city happens to be our nation’s capital. From the 57th presidential inauguration to fiscal cliff drama, much of the media attention has focused on the city’s overspending and excess.
What most don’t see is the vibrant mix of neighborhoods and ever-expanding web of restaurants, hotels and cultural attractions that make Washington a budget capital – not just a power broker’s destination. From new extended-stay hotel options to recently unveiled monuments and more than a dozen free museums, Washington, D.C., has more than its fair share of budget-friendly reasons to visit.
While Washington may still, in some ways, live up to its wonky, politically-savvy-yet-fashionably-challenged reputation, the city has spent the past decade and, most notably, its past few years coming into its own, forging a path that quickly puts this East Coast gem on par or ahead of Chicago, Boston or Atlanta for your next vacation destination.
Before we venture into specifics, it’s worth noting that for the true budget seekers, staying just outside the city, but inside the Beltway, is often much more affordable than D.C. proper, and still accessible via Metro and just a 10- to 15-minute ride away from downtown. Neighborhoods like Arlington (Virginia) or Bethesda (Maryland) can be much more reasonably priced. But if a Washington, D.C., address is your priority, consider the following.
Avenue Suites: Part of a small group of boutique properties in the Washington area, this new extended-stay property offers the advantages of apartment-like living in the heart of the city’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Simple and clean lines give the property a timeless appeal, while photographs of Hollywood elite lend a touch of glam. Walkable to Georgetown shopping and dining, and yet still metro-accessible, this property is an ideal choice for those looking to stay more than a night or two.
An extra perk? Generously sized suites (600-650 square feet) have separate bedrooms and living areas, full kitchens and gratis Wi-Fi. They’ll even stock your fridge if you request it! Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the attached A Bar + Kitchen is one of the city’s more popular new spots for happy hour.
Avenuesuites.com 2500 Pennsylvania Ave.
Kimpton Hotels: If you’re going to attempt a budget-friendly trip, choose a hotel with a wide variety of value-added amenities. From complimentary in-room pet visitors in the form of goldfish to “Wine Down Hour” or a morning cold pizza and Bloody Mary bar, Kimpton’s dozen-plus D.C.-area properties are some of the city’s best budget accommodations. This boutique brand offers more than 50 hotels nationwide, but features a strong concentration in Washington, with many offering weekend rates starting at around $100.
These properties are as well-loved by locals as they are by guests, due in part to their affiliated restaurants that make up some of the city’s most popular tables, including Urbana in Dupont Circle’s Hotel Palomar, Poste in the Hotel Monaco D.C. or Jackson 20 in the Monaco Alexandria. Of course, cheeky in-room add-ons like leopard- and zebra-print robes don’t hurt the brand’s lighthearted but upscale rep either.
Eat and Drink
Food Trucks: As in many cities, the food truck boom has hit it big in Washington. Locals spend lunch hour tracking trucks as they stop in popular downtown destinations like Farragut Square and George Washington University and get their fill of lobster rolls from Red Hook Lobster Pound, Cuban sandwiches from celebrity chef Jose Andres’ Pepe truck or enjoy more than 40 types of sauce add-ons to the fusion cuisine at the ever-popular Sauca. Of course, the varieties don’t stop there; trucks offer everything from cupcakes and banh mi to peanut butter and jelly as their specialties.
foodtruckfiesta.com is the easiest way to track where your favorite will stop today.
Union Market: Most D.C. guidebooks advise visitors to take a swing through Capitol Hill’s Eastern Market, a collection of food and flea market-style vendors that gather each weekend to display their wares. We’re not discouraging a visit, but food lovers should now seek out the city’s new market-style experience in the NoMa neighborhood. From oysters to ice cream and artisan olive oil to freshly-baked goods, the market is not only open Wednesday to Sunday, but it also offers an ever-changing array of pop-up artisans.
Charles Steak & Ice: For years, Washingtonians bemoaned the lack of quality delis downtown. That was until the duo behind Taylor Gourmet began a Philadelphia-style sandwich shop on H Street in late 2007. Offering up hoagies galore, this shop quickly became a cult favorite and now has six area locations with more scheduled for early 2013. But their newest venture, Charles Steak & Ice, riffs on another Philadelphia tradition that D.C. sorely lacks – the cheesesteak. Done up in artsy graffiti and reclaimed metal picnic tables, guests line up all day to order subs “wit wiz” or “wit out.” We’d suggest that you don’t miss the sloppy fries.
Steakandice.com 1320 H St. NE
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: The city’s newest monument is the recently-opened tribute to the nation’s most famous civil rights leader, located within walking distance of the presidential monuments.
D.C. by Foot: Learning the ins and outs of any city is usually left to those visiting with a local. But not anymore – from the city’s “Secrets and Scandals” to the inside story of Lincoln’s assassination, these free (tip-based) tours are great ways to learn the city like a local.
The easiest way to get from point A to B in Washington, D.C., is via the Metro rail system. Use Wmata.com for a simple trip planner, calculating distances via foot, bus or Metro.
Just be sure to stand on the right and walk on the left of Metro escalators – it’s the city’s cardinal rule of transportation.
If the weather permits, visitors can also test Capital Bikeshare. Rent by the day or three-day period, simply dropping your bicycle at locations around the metro area when you’re finished. With nearly 2,000 bicycles at your disposal, you’ll always have wheels when you want them. capitalbikeshare.com
If you’re visiting the city for just a day, consider buying a daylong pass ($14), which allows for unlimited access to the system. When spending more than a day riding the rails, opt for a credit card-style “SmarTrip” card, which can be refilled again and again as well as used for parking at metro stations.
[Photo credit: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Edens]