How to Do DC on a Budget | HI USA

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Get to Know DC without Breaking the Bank

By Tierney Plumb

Even though DC may not be cheap place to live, it's home to an abundant assortment of free Smithsonian museums, gratis live performances, and outdoor activities ready for visitors to take advantage of. Here's a go-to guide for exploring this cultural hot bed of a city on a budget.

See a concert

Craving live music? Head to Northeast DC's H Street corridor and the Rock & Roll Hotel, where you can catch up-and-coming touring and local acts. One regular performer at the 400-person venue is local DJ Sharkey, who spins some Saturday nights for free and owns nearby fast-casual Asian eatery Pow Wow (an affordable pre-show dinner pick). The same H Street corridor also houses an edgy upstairs music venue dubbed Pie Shop, hosting (almost) nightly punk shows for around $10. Transit tip: take the free DC Streetcar from Union Station to cruise the lively strip. 

Thespian for a day

The Kennedy Center in Washington DC at night

The Kennedy Center's musical and theater productions are always hot (and pricey) tickets. But those wanting a free taste of the famous cultural center can take advantage of daily shows at 6 p.m. on the red carpet-lined grand foyer's Millennium Stage. The year-round schedule packs in a cross-section of performances from roving pianists, bluegrass bands, dance troupes, and more. Across the river in Arlington, Synetic Theater also provides affordable theater fixes, with a fresh schedule of live shows every season. 

Make the most of the outdoors

Potomac River near Washington DC

Stroll around the grounds of the U.S. National Arboretum, 10 minutes from the U.S. Capitol, to discover the world's first museum devoted to tiny tree art, known as bonsai. Another free outdoor option is the Metro-accessible National Zoo, which is home to more than 2,700 animals representing over 390 species. Make the day even more budget-friendly by bringing your own snacks, or fuel up on popcorn, gelato, and barbecue at the zoo’s new on-site food trucks. 

Or get an aquatic workout on the Potomac River by renting one of Key Bridge Boathouse's kayaks ($16/hour) For a multicultural al outdoor experience, visit Columbia Heights' historic Meridian Hill Park for its weekly Drum Circle performance -- a decades-old tradition starring a smorgasbord of drummers, tight rope walkers, hula hoopers, and jugglers every Sunday at 3 p.m.&bsp;

Museum hopping

Smithsonian art Museum

One of DC's top tourist perks is its network of some 20 Smithsonian institutions that are all free to explore. Highlights include the National Portrait Gallery's recently unveiled portraits of the Obamas (commissioned for the gallery's 50th birthday last year), the Hirshhorn Museum's sculpture garden and modern works from artists including everyone from Barbara Kruger to Norman Rockwell, and world-class Asian art at the Sackler Gallery. And the National Gallery of Art's education studio (concourse level) currently offers complimentary drop-in art classes, inviting all ages and abilities to experiment with different materials and techniques. For a timely visit around the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, check out the two-part Air & Space Museum (one near Dulles Airport and another in DC). 

For historic brews

Local DC craft beer

DC's craft beer scene is booming. DC Brau -- DC’s first packaging brewery -- offers complimentary brewery tours on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. (and half-priced pint nights on Fridays). And the Brookland Production House & Tasting Room, open daily, lets patrons BYOF (bring your own food). For beer with a side of history, visit Dupont Circle's Heurich House Museum — the 19th-Century home of historic DC brewer Christian Heurich — for hour-long guided tours on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (a $10 donation is suggested) starting at 11:30 a.m. After your tour, hop on the nearby Red Line to Metro Center and relax back in your room at HI Washington DC hostel, a short 15-minute trip away. 


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