Grab your walking shoes and Metro ticket. Our nation's capital is both fabulously elating and humbling. While nearly everything is free to see, tour and enjoy - even Wi-Fi is abundant and mapped online – some trade-offs are unavoidable. High season kicks off with the National Cherry Blossom Festival in late March and churns right through summer, so when in "America's Rome," live as the Romans do.

  1. Finding Flights Or Trains

    The area has three airport options: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. That gives you a lot to work with when finding the cheapest flight. Kayak's cost averages revealed that Wednesday flights were cheapest. From New York, American Airlines had a round-trip ticket for $131; it departed at 6 a.m., stopped in Charlotte both ways, and returned even earlier, at 5:15 a.m. Shifting to 2 one-way tickets and later departures yielded a JetBlue flight at 11:13 a.m. and a return Delta flight at 10:50, together $159 through Hacker. Traveling from Tampa, Hacker still won, with a convenient JetBlue-American Airlines combo departing 2:30 p.m. each way for $139 total! Flying from Atlanta, Spirit had round-trip evening flights for $137.

    Shifting to the West Coast, we found an LAX-to-Dulles International Frontier round trip for $244 departing at 9:30 a.m. and returning at 5:15 p.m. From Seattle, Delta had 6 a.m. round trips with one stop each way for $224. Shift to the Midwest's Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Sun Country Airlines' evening flights to Dulles International and back were just $140.

    Amtrak also runs its Acela Express train into Washington's Union Station. From New York's Penn Station, we found $50 round-trip redeyes a comparable 3½ hours each way. With weekend discounts and other online promotions, for Northeasterners, the Acela may prove more wallet-friendly and less stressful than driving or flying.

  2. Affordable Lodging

    Finding affordable lodging is challenging; accommodations are expensive just about anywhere in D.C., and the 13%F
    tax doesn't help. For perspective, Washington Marriott Wardman Park, near the National Zoo, had two double beds for $372 a night (nearly $3,000 for the week). The city's underground Metro, however, allows for stays further from town. In Northern Virginia, Inn of Rosslyn had a double for $125 a night while Americana Hotel in Arlington listed a deluxe queen room for $154 a night, breakfast included. Luxury Apartments "in the Heart of Pentagon City Center," also in Arlington, come with a nearby Metro station and let you book a one-bedroom apartment for $200 a night; a kitchen lets you save on breakfasts and supper, leaving just lunch for eating out. If you want to stay nearer downtown, the Courtyard by Marriott in Foggy Bottom had a double room for $259 a night, but no free breakfast and a 14.5% tax.

  3. Food At The National Mall

    If you're a fan of Five Guys' fresh burgers and just-cut fries, the franchise began in DC; the Five Guys near the National Mall is by H and 9th. For far more variety and freshness than you're likely to expect, try "District Taco" near 13th and F for fresh pico de gallo, marinated pork or a vegetarian burrito bowl. Near 11th and E, "White Apron Specialty Sandwiches" lets you build from artisan baguette up, with secret sauces and spreads rounding savory flavors; they're fast, put deals on Yelp and often offer sandwiches after 3 p.m. for $5! For traditional breakfasts or brunches, "Lincoln's Waffle Shop" near 10th and E cooks up favorites like banana pancakes, Western omelets, burgers, and chicken and waffles; it closes at 4:30 PM weekdays and 3:00 PM on weekends. Crepes fans will want to track down "Crepes on the Walk" tucked away next to the Verizon Center near H and 7th, with a kaleidoscope of crepe specialties, fresh Italian gelato and real espresso; order a custom crepe, or share a sweet King Samm and savory House Special for well under $10 each. Using a restaurant credit card to pay can help shave a few dollars off the cost of your dining fun.

  4. Free Memorials

    In the land of memorials, you cannot go wrong spending a day walking only them. While parking areas are inevitably full, the Metro will deliver you to National Mall, where you can begin with the U.S. Capitol or Washington Monument. Walk the National World War II Memorial's oval honoring thousands of Gold Stars. Salute the chiseled names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Visit Lincoln, his wisdom graced by Jules Guérin murals and the Reflecting Pool. Take a moment to understand the hauntingly human figures of the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Don't miss the delicate DC War Memorial before absorbing the everlasting presence of Martin Luther King, Jr., in West Potomac Park. Do not miss the compelling Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, with FDR's convictions reaching beyond time. Swing by George Mason Memorial, tribute to the drafter of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, before paying homage to founding father Thomas Jefferson before the Tidal Basin. If you've energy for it, Arlington National Cemetery is but a Blue Line Metro ride away. By the way, every memorial has amenities, so stay hydrated.

  5. Free Museums

    Our National Mall has nearly a dozen museums, every one a gem and every one free. See the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere at The National Gallery of Art. During the December holidays, the U.S. Botanic Gardens adds tiny trains to its indoor displays. The National Museum of the American Indian "holds the world's largest collection of First Nations materials." The National Air and Space Museum has the Wright brothers' original 1903 flyer, an astronaut suit and a whole other annex at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The National Museum of Natural History wows with everything from butterflies to Egyptian culture and is a favorite. For international modern and contemporary art and sculpture, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is hard to beat. The Smithsonian Castle is actually the Smithsonian Institution Information Center. For art and more art, try the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Freer Gallery and National Museum of African Art. As is most fitting in our nation's capital, be sure to visit the National Museum of American History; "holdings include items from the Pilgrims' 1620 landing in Plymouth Rock to the 2012 election." Media lovers should check out the Newseum, seven levels of exhibits relating to the influence of news media on American culture. Bank of America credit card or debit card holders get in for free on the first full weekend of each month through the Museums on Us® program. This benefit applies to Merrill Lynch® credit or debit card holders as well. Just show your credit card and some ID at the reception.

  6. The John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts

    If you're a patron of the arts, "The Kennedy Center is the nation's busiest performing arts center, hosting approximately 3,000 events each year for audiences numbering more than 2 million." From Tony Award-winning and Broadway theater to the National Washington Opera, National Symphony Orchestra, international ballet troupes or smokin'-chill jazz, it hosts it all. It has Performances for Young Audiences and a Family Theater, but the real treat is that "Every day of the year at 6 p.m., the Kennedy Center hosts a free performance as part of its 'Performing Arts for Everyone' initiative. No tickets are required, though seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis." If you've got the time, it's an experience to remember.

  7. December Holidays

    Winter is often one of the most overlooked times to visit our nation's capital, but the area's winter often doesn't set in until mid-January; even then, the wind is more chilling than actual temps. While memorial fountains and ponds will be dry, all facilities are open and far less crowded than in hot summer months. In fact, starkness enhances many of them. Meanwhile, the holiday season includes the National Christmas Tree and 50-state-tree Pathway of Peace, Old Town's Scottish Walk Weekend and Parade, The Nutcracker, holiday concerts, various miniature train displays, the National Hanukkah Menorah Lighting and more.

  8. Wasting Money?

    While entry to our nation's treasures is free, all paths lead to overpriced gift shops, and if you don't plan lunch in advance, you'll find yourself weighing a $20 salad in a museum cafeteria. If the Potomac tempts, Tidal Basin two-seater paddleboats are $15 per hour (four-seaters are $24) but warm days turn sweltering on the Potomac. Those Spirit cruises start around $100 per person for dinner or $50 for lunch. As for Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria, think upscale - very upscale. Georgetown is traffic-congested, with designer labels screaming from every window and threshold. Old Town is known for its restaurants, but those, too, can consume your last dollar. If you must shop, glittering Tysons Galleria, Tysons Corner Center, Crystal City, Pentagon City's Fashion Centre and all the rest are high-end pricey; locals schlep up to Anne Arundel Mills or down to Potomac Mills instead.

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