We like to be thrifty, but we’re not opposed to being fancy. In D.C., you don’t have to choose.
Washington, D.C. is full of dichotomies, and not just politically. Its architecture and monuments are both towering and pristine, as well as two-feet-tall and hidden throughout the city. Gritty rock clubs and dives meet gourmet restaurants; buildings are known both for their famous residents like Woodrow Wilson, or for being the filming location of The Exorcist.
The capital can also accommodate travelers looking to spend as well as those looking to be more conservative. We’ve broken down all the ways you can have a ritzy trip or opt for a thrifty equivalent.
What to Do
Save: The Lincoln Theater
The Lincoln Theater in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood has been around since the 1920s. In a previous life, it was a movie house, ballroom, and music venue. Today it hosts events like live podcast recordings and music at reasonable prices. Upcoming shows include tapings of California Sunday’s Pop-Up Magazine and Welcome to Nightvale, as well as performances by Jonathan Richman and They Might Be Giants, all for around $35 per ticket.
Splurge: National Theater or the Merriweather Post Pavilion
The National Theater is D.C.’s answer to Broadway, hosting live events and touring acts. Upcoming events include the Tony-winning musical Bandstand, Swan Lake, the King’s Speech, and the Donna Summer musical, Summer. The historic theater sits on Pennsylvania Avenue. Tickets range from $50 to $100 for most events, depending on seating.
Located in the Washington/Maryland corridor and accessible from D.C. by public transit, the Merriweather Post Pavilion is famous for legendary performances by the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. Not just a place for Dead Heads, the pavilion is set to host indie/grunge goddesses like Alanis Morisette, Liz Phair, and Shirley Manson, as well as pop icons like Halsey.
Where to Eat
Save: Union Market
D.C.’s indoor Union Market next to Gallaudet University is filled with pop-ups and food vendors serving all types of cuisine. If your group can’t agree on where to eat, Union Market has something for everyone, including sushi, pastries, Israeli street food, brunch, and more. Some vendors offer casual counter service, while some food can be taken to go and eaten inside or out.
Splurge: Tail Up Goat
Located in the trendy and historic Adams Morgan neighborhood, Tail Up Goat is a meal well worth the splurge. The changing menu offers shareable plates (organized from small to large) during brunch and dinner. Refined but not overly pretentious, they serve complimentary shrubs as palate cleansers and feature clever flavor combinations in their dishes (think: seared scallops, pine nut mousse, benne-seed). The service is incredibly personable, and you won’t be discouraged from settling in and enjoying a leisurely meal here. The name is one half of the idiom “tail up goat/tail down sheep,” a way to discern the two on a crowded farm.
Where to Drink
Save: Bottle your own gin at Green Hat Gin Distillery
Green Hat Gin was the first distillery to open in D.C. after prohibition, a fact they fully embrace through their branding (the “Man in the Green Hat” was a bootlegger supplying liquor to congressmen on Capitol Hill). Their recently opened gin garden hosts events during summer. Throughout the rest of the year, you can enjoy fresh, seasonal cocktails made from their homemade gin or vermouth, take a free tour of the facilities, and taste their classic and latest concoctions. The distillery also hosts bottling parties where guests bottle and label the gin while drinking (free) cocktails. You even get to take home a souvenir bottle.
Splurge: Absinthe at Mirabelle
Downtown, this upmarket French eatery offers a range of wines and cocktails. A highlight and a true indulgence is their 1 oz. pours of absinthe, served the Parisian way: poured slowly over a sugar cube. Each pour will cost you around $15-$19; though small, it certainly is potent.
Where to Stay
Save: A Room at the Hamilton Hotel
The historic Hamilton Hotel on 14th and K Streets is a central landing pad for your adventures. This 318-room Art Deco building, designed in 1922, has humble guestrooms (though they have plans to renovate), but a striking lobby. During most weekends aside from holidays, prices for guest rooms hover around $150. During the holiday season, the lobby is even more dazzling, with Christmas decorations and free hot chocolate served to guests. Right off the lobby is Society, their miniature bar attracting locals for post-work happy hour, and Via Sophia, a minimalist Italian osteria, suitable for a cold night when you’d rather stay inside.
Splurge: A Specialty Suite
Should you be feeling spendy, the Hamilton’s specialty suites, which have rotating themes, are a good place to empty your pockets. The hotel partnered with HBO’s Veep series on the Selina Meyer Presidential Suite, a replica of the oval office of President Meyer (played on the series by Julia Louis Dreyfus), which will be open until March 2021. Original series props and a copy of A Woman First: A Woman (Meyer’s autobiography) are placed in the room. Take in the views of D.C. from the building’s 12th floor and imagine what it would be like to have a woman president.
Though small, the capital has many more places to explore, both for free and for when you just got paid. Plan your visit with Fodor’s D.C. Guide.